Writer and editor

France in 1963: 'There was not all this hatred'

Added on by Anealla Safdar.

Paris, France - Women of Muslim background are the most talked-about minority in France.

From conversations about the discrimination towards those who wear the hijab, niqab and burkini, to the sensitive discussions over French females who join hardline groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - an issue raised by centrist presidential candidate and frontrunner Emmanuel Macron in a televised debate on Wednesday with his far-right rival Marine Le Pen - they are rarely far from the headlines.

They are often grouped together as a homogenous entity, and the focus tends to be on younger women. 

Have they always experienced discrimination? And what does the older generation think of today's situation?

Al Jazeera spoke to two women - Djima Bouraima, 77, a retired chartered accountant, and Salika Amara, 67, an author, activist and feminist - about the country they call home, the complexities of immigration, racism, and the forthcoming election.

This is Djima Bouraima's story. (Salika Amara's story can be read here.)

Djima Bouraima's story:

I arrived in France from Benin in 1963 to attend business school. Forty years later, we had a reunion. I didn't recognise anyone, but all of them recognised me. I had been the only black student.

The reunion was during the 2007 presidential election. One of my former classmates had become a senator, and was supporting Francois Bayrou, a centrist candidate. He said: "You have to pray for him. If he wins, he will nominate you as a minister."

When you come to France, you're happy to come here. I was a little star.
When my son was born, if every single person who touched his face, his hair, had given me one franc, I would be a rich person. A black baby. White people were amazed to see a black baby for the first time.

I was very well-integrated. I was well-received by everyone. Back then, I was not praying.

There were two Moroccans at the business school. It was winter, Ramadan, and very cold when I arrived. I was fasting by myself, which was hard. I ate alone at night, and was hiding in the school's corners to pray. When the Moroccans saw me praying, they said I was crazy. "Don't pray here," they said. "In our country we pray because we were poor."

I was 23 and a bit naive. I believed them. I went along with what they were suggesting.

I had been living with a French family. The Moroccans said if I carried on, I was going to die from the hardship. It was something of a relief when they said that. It removed my troubles. I forgot Islam from that point on.

I was drinking, smoking. It was like another life. The only thing I didn't do was eat pork.

I became a chartered accountant. I was doing very well, had no issues. The government back home wanted to appoint me as a minister in Benin. I attended gatherings with former presidents and prime ministers - Giscard d'Estaing and Raymond Barre.

And then a few years later, when I was 42, I started practising Islam. I had had an operation, and started reflecting on my mortality. I had some kind of epiphany and thought about God. Whenever I was screaming in pain, the medical staff came to give me injections, but I thought that the one who is going to save me is God. I made a promise that whenever I left hospital, I would never not pray five times a day.

I was sent to a recovery ward to a room with another woman. I started praying in that room, and the woman told the nurses I was crazy. The nurses said: "It's OK, she's a Muslim."

It wasn't until 2003 that I started wearing the hijab. That's when there was a controversy in France about the veil. I started hearing about it, how women were being targeted, and started wearing it. It raised my interest in finding out more and made me realise I had to wear it, for God. I believed women had to cover.

I was lucky to have passed my exams before practising because I didn't have to go through the struggles of wearing a hijab while needing to get a degree and professional experience.

At work, there was a lot of small discriminations. This was an important one.

The boss gave me an office on the basement floor. All of the other employees were on another floor. Once, a client visited so I went upstairs to the main floor to explain some issues. The boss shouted at me and said: "You're not allowed to come to the main floor. You have no right to speak directly to the clients. You have to go to the basement." He didn't even have a degree. He wanted my expertise, but he didn't want me to be visible.
That's when I realised why I had been put in the basement. I was discriminated [against]. The whole experience made me feel as though I needed to be independent. I left the next day.

I was lucky to have my degree. It enabled me to open my own business.

I'm very active in the community. We have sister groups in my house. Someone died yesterday and I organised some prayers. I've been to Mecca seven times for pilgrimages, and I have financed the trips for seven people including my mother, grandfather and uncle. I built a mosque in my hometown in Benin, and bought a field which I gave to the Muslim community living there. They will build a school there which will have my name. And I have another field which I will donate so a cemetery can be built. I'm also going to provide water and electricity, where there is none.

The last time the far-right was in the second round in 2002, I was like all French people - shocked.

This time around, I received two leaflets in the post - one of Macron and one of Marine [Le Pen]. I thought, "Why do I have to look at this woman?"

With Macron, I make sujud [prostration prayer position]. I am praying for Macron. I fear that Le Pen will win, but at the same time I don't believe that French people are ready to be governed by a woman.

I was in the market, and an Arab told me I have to vote or else I will lose out. It's obvious that the main feeling is the rejection of Le Pen.
I've been in France since [Charles] De Gaulle.

[Francois] Mitterand started like Le Pen, with 2 to 5 percent of the vote, which increased progressively.

In the 1960s, De Gaulle used to laugh at Mitterand. He wasn't doing well. When Mitterand became president, I remembered the days when he was being mocked by De Gaulle.
That's how I see it with the Le Pens as well. They are rising to power. Le Pen started from nothing, and since the beginning, when [Marine Le Pen's father and founder of the Front National Jean-Marie Le Pen] was not doing much, I was always comparing him to how Mitterand got into power. I saw it coming.

The Le Pens are against us, as dual nationals, and we are all scared.

As for the situation in France now, there are social problems. To live you need a minimum - a house, work, money to dress. The state should provide the basic minimum.

And the situation for Muslim women is even harder. Some who wear the veil have to take off their hijabs before going to school [where it is banned]. They can't pray at the office. It's a dramatic situation.

In some ways, I consider it safer now that there is a ban on the niqab. As women don't have to wear it, and they are not targeted.

In Islam they say you have to respect the law of the country. If you can't, you have to leave the country. But everything depends on your own life situation.

In 1963, it was better. There was not all this hatred from French people. French people were more welcoming. They were more helpful. There was more solidarity towards minorities.

Now, we have to beg them to help us. They blame us when things go wrong.

The solution is integration. That's the only way to get protection. If people know you, they are more likely to stand up for your rights. Mixing cultures keeps the peace.

There should also be solidarity among Muslims - they should support each other. People should not become fundamentalists. I know of a woman who was being denied work for wearing the hijab, so someone found her a job.

The situation is now difficult. You have to be strategic. White French people can reject us, but we can't afford to reject them. You have to be clever.

A dirty n****r and a dirty white is not the same. One is much more powerful than the other. All of the differences are there."

Published on Al Jazeera on 5th May, 2017