This exhibition tells the story of the women of immigration who contributed to the struggle for equal rights in France between 1970 and 1996. Whether they came to France as students, qualified or non-qualified economic immigrants, refugees or as part of family reunification policy, many immigrant women in France faced inequalities and discrimination based upon gender, race and origin. By using original archival documents and by highlighting the relationship between gender and the fight for equal rights, this exhibition shows how the women of immigration have played an essential role in France’s civic, social and cultural life; a role they continue to play to this day.
Immigrant women in the Portuguese-speaking militant press
The Portuguese-speaking militant press published in 1970s France offered a large place to immigrant women. In the early 1970s, the far-left monthly O Salto (1970-1974), whose articles focused on the political situation in Portugal as well as the condition of Portuguese workers in France, included a section entitled « A mulher emigrada » (the emigrant woman). In this section, Portuguese female immigrants were portrayed as victims of double discrimination: the first based on gender and the second based on their socio-economic status as domestic workers (a position occupied by many Portuguese women at the time). In 1977, Coleçao Do Povo dedicated a special issue to immigrant women entitled, « A mulheres falam dos seus problemas » (Women talk of their problems).
Lorette Fonseca (also Laurete Da Fonseca)
Lorette Fonseca and her family left Salazar’s Portugal in the 1960s. After a few years in Algeria, they settled in Massy near Paris in France. Lorette Fonseca and her husband Carlos, who spoke French and were literate, were well-known for helping other immigrants with their administrative paperwork. In the early 1970s, the French government launched a vast campaign to destroy the numerous bidonvilles (shanty towns located on the outskirts of a city) where immigrant workers and their families lived. Among those bidonvilles was that in Massy, where Lorette Fonseca and her family lived. Forced by the French authorities to leave the camp, but with no alternative housing on offer, the immigrant populations who lived in the Massy bidonville (mainly Algerians and Portuguese) protested against their removal and refused to leave their barracks. In order to negotiate a deal with the authorities, they also created a defence committee, which Lorette Fonseca represented as its spokesperson.
As the French authorities threatened to deport her to Portugal for participating in the bidonville protest, local residents and associations created the Lorette Fonseca defence committee in order to combat her deportation. The Lorette Fonseca defence committee mobilised local residents and associations by setting up a permanent office in Saint-Paul’s church in Massy, publishing tracts, posters and bulletins as well as organising public demonstrations and meetings. The fight between Lorette Fonseca and the defence committee on the one side and the French authorities on the other ended in 1981 when the latter eventually cancelled her deportation order. Lorette Fonseca died in France in 2001.
On 25 April 2014, the town of Massy paid homage to Lorette Fonseca by naming an alley in a local park, “Allée Laurete Da Fonseca”, precisely where used to be a large Portuguese bidonville in the 1960s-1970s.As Laurete Fonseca's husband recently said in an interview, this alley named after his wife is a homage “to Lorette, her family and all immigrant women”.
Culture as a field of militant action
In the 1970s and 1980s, numerous groups of immigrant women became involved in militant cultural actions, notably in music and theatre. It was the case of the Berber music band Djurdjura and the militant theatre company Kahina. The latter produced its first play in 1975, “Pour que les larmes de nos mères deviennent une legende” (So Our Mothers’ Tears Become Legend). The play talked about the traditional attitudes within Arab families in France and how women were in effect caught between the burden of tradition and patriarchy on the one hand and the liberal values of French society on the other. By showing the difficulties and struggle Arab immigrant women faced – in particular young women born and/or raised in France – Kahina’s plays denounced what it considered sexist and unjust attitudes within Arab families (e.g. forced or arranged marriage, domestic violence, tense daughter-parents and sister-brother relationship).
Salika Amara has campaigned actively for the rights of immigrants, and immigrant women in particular, since the late 1960s. She created and participated in numerous collectives and associations situated at the crossroads of feminist movements and the struggle for immigrants’ rights such as the militant theatre company Kahina, the three marches for equal rights and against racism (1983, 1984 and 1985), the newspaper Sans Frontière etc.
In this video extract, Salika Amara talks about the theatre plays created and played by Kahina in the 1970s: “Pour que les larmes de nos mères deviennent une légende”( So Our Mothers’ Tears Become Legend) and “La famille Bendjelloul, en France depuis 25 ans” (The Bendjelloul Family, In France For 25 Years).
Women and the antiracist struggle
Women played a central role in the history of the fight against racism in France. Even is racist crimes targeted mainly men, women (mothers, sisters, aunts...) initiated a large number of antiracist collective actions and associations. For example, the Families’ association of victims of racist crimes (Association des familles victimes des crimes racistes et sécuritaires), created in 1983, gathered parents (mothers in particular) whose sons had died as the result of police brutality and/or racist acts. The President of the association was Madame Hachichi, whose son Wahid had been shot in Lyons on 28 October 1982 by a man who claimed Wahid wanted to steal his car. The Families’ association of victims of racist crimes’ objective was to denounce and combat racism in French society as well as in the police and the judicial system. It gathered French people as well as immigrants from North Africa West Africa, the French West Indies, Portugal, Spain...
On 21 March 1984, on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the association organised a large gathering outside the offices of the French Ministry of Justice located in Place Vendôme in Paris. The aim was to meet Robert Badinter, the French Minister of Justice, in order to discuss the leniency with which racist crimes were dealt with in French courts. The Minister did not receive the protesters. A second gathering was organised on 27 October 1984.
The three marches for equality and against racism in 1983, 1984 and 1985 included many female activists, in particular young girls with North African origins (known as “second generation immigrants” or under the colloquial term “beurs”). The latter’s role in the history of the marches was essential as they created, animated and coordinated numerous collectives and associations that took part in those national events that helped redefine the place of immigrants and their children in 1980s France. While some of those young women refused to dissociate the fight for equal rights from that of gender equality, others chose to create associations aimed specifically at promoting women’s rights; for example, the association Nanas beurs (created in 1985), which focused mainly on immigrant women’s rights and the question of citizenship.
Yamina Benchenni has been an active member of numerous Marseilles-based antiracist collectives and associations since the early 1980s. For example, she coordinated the 1983 March for equality and against racism in Marseilles. In this video extract, she explains why in 1980 as a young immigrant woman she decided to become actively engaged in the antiracist struggle in Marseilles.
Alima Boumediene-Thiery was raised in a shantytown in Argenteuil near Paris. After completing advanced law studies in Paris (she has a PhD), she initiated and took part in several movements promoting immigrants’ rights, in particular those of women and young people. In this video extract, she talks about the association Expressions maghrébines au féminin (EMAF) which she co-founded and then directed for many years.
Young female immigrants and intergenerational relations
In the 1970s, and even more so in the early 1980s - after the 9 October 1981 law granted foreign nationals the same rights as French nationals to create associations - young female second generation immigrant activists created numerous collectives and association promoting the rights of immigrants and their children, including women. Among their demands: the struggle against racism, against forced marriages, against forced removals to their parents’ home countries, access to contraception, education and culture etc…This wide spectrum demonstrates these young women’s willingness to participate fully in France’s civic, political, cultural and social life. But as some heads of associations and academics have pointed out, female militancy in some traditional immigrant cultures was not seen favourably and serious tensions existed between girls on the one side and their parents and siblings on the other.
Gaye Petek came to France from Turkey at a very young age. After completing studies in the humanities and theatre in Paris, in the 1970s she worked for the Service social d'aide aux emigrants (Emigrants’ Social Service). From then on, she became very active in defending Turkish immigrant workers’ rights in France. In 1982, she founded the association ELELE, which promoted the social and cultural integration of Turkish immigrants (men and women) and their children. In this video extract, she talks about the mother-daughter relationships and the place of women in the Turkish diaspora in France.
In the 1990s, the women of immigration became objects of research. Numerous studies on the social, economic, cultural and political characteristics specific to female immigration as well as the inequalities immigrant women faced were published by associations, academics and state-backed bodies. Conferences, seminars and exhibitions were organised in France but also in Europe to discuss and reflect upon the experiences and specific issues those women faced.
This exhibition was created by Génériques, the French immigration history NGO based in Paris, France. This exhibition features a collection of documents, some of which come from Génériques’ online portal Odysséo (http://odysseo.generiques.org). Odysséo offers a rich collection of resources on the history of immigration in France (19th-20th centuries), many of which in digital format.
Génériques wishes to thank the associations and the people who have contributed to the creation of this exhibition: Anne-Marie Pavillard, Claudie Lesselier, Salika Amara, Gaye Petek, Yamina Benchenni, Alima Boumediene-Thiery, Marie-Christine Volovitch-Tavares, Francine Noël, Chahala Chafiq, Francisca Guëmes, the Fédération d’associations et centres d’émigrés espagnols en France (FACEEF), the FASTI (Fédération des associations de solidarité avec les travailleur-euse-s immigré-e-s), the BDIC (Bibliothèque de documentation internationale contemporaine) as well as the photographers Joss Dray and Pierre Ciot.
This exhibition was created with the support of the regional council of Île-de-France (Conseil régional d’Île-De-France), the National agency for social cohesion and equal chances (ACSé) and the Ministry for Culture and Communication.
Conception — Louisa Zanoun, Historienne, Responsable du pôle scientifique et culturel à Génériques
Conception — Bruna Lo Biundo, Chargée de mission à Génériques