STEVE INSKEEP, host:
All this week on MORNING EDITION we've been learning about Muslim women and their role in Europe. And today we go to France, Europe's most secular society, so much so that there is no place for religion in mainstream culture. That has not stopped Muslims from entering the mainstream. Despite widespread discrimination, Muslims in France identify closely with French values, and Muslim women have pushed themselves to the forefront of political activism.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Paris.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: When the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, announced the appointment of the first Muslim - a woman, no less - as justice minister, the French media could hardly contain its shock.
Unidentified man: (Speaking French): (Speaking French)
POGGIOLI: Forty-one-year-old Rachida Dati is the 12th child of a Moroccan laborer and an Algerian mother. Here the TV reporter describes Dati as an icon of the values of the secular French republic. Dati is not the only Muslim woman with a senior portfolio. The foreign undersecretary for human rights is Senegal-born Rama Yade, and the undersecretary for urban affairs is Fadela Amara, an activist from the immigrant housing projects.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
POGGIOLI: Amara has come to Epinay Sur Seine, one of the many immigrant ghettoes that encircle Paris. Here poverty, unemployment and youth violence are endemic. The 43-year-old woman known as the ghetto warrior has organized the first town hall meeting in this desolate, graffiti-laced project. She feels right at home. Facing a mostly female audience, Amara lashes out at sexist patriarchal cultures that she says harm young women.
Ms. FADELA AMARA (Junior Minister, France's Urban Affairs): (Speaking French)
POGGIOLI: You have to speak out, she tells them, and denounced violence against women in the ghetto and the growing number of forced marriages. And, Amara warns, you must be more vigilant against Islamist preachers who pollute the heads of our young men with fundamentalism. The daughter of Algerian immigrants, Amara was a teenage political activist.
After a young Muslim girl was burned alive by a Muslim thug who thought she was too independent, Fadela Amara founded a movement with a provocative name: Ni Putes Ni Soumises, Neither Whores Nor Submissives. It put the spotlight on abuse of women in these high-rise ghettoes.
Amara is a firm believer in the secular values of mainstream French society, and she demands that France live up to its ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood for all its citizens. One young woman echoes the challenge.
(Soundbite of song, "Nouveau Francais")
Ms. AMEL BENT (Singer): (Singing in French)
POGIOLLI: "Nouveau Francais" is the latest hit single by 22-year-old Amel Bent. She's the French-born daughter of North African parents and she became famous on the French version of "American Idol." Her tune echoes the national anthem and describes the desire of the new French to be accepted under the same flag.
We don't ask for special recognition, Amel sings. We're neither more nor less a child of France. In fact, rioting ghetto youths don't brandish religious symbols but rather their French ID cards. This desire for inclusion was also expressed by French Muslims surveyed in a major Pew poll in 2006, in which 78 percent said they want to adopt French customs. And the 2004 law banning the headscarf in schools was much more sharply criticized abroad than by French Muslims.
Today the presence of minority women in the cabinet shows young Muslim women it's possible to make a mark in France. But Sihem Habchi, the new president of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, laments the wide gap between aspirations and reality. None of the ministers were elected. There's only one Muslim representative in parliament and no Muslim mayors.
Habchi says discrimination against men and women of foreign origin is widespread.
Ms. SIHEM HABCHI (Ni Putes Ni Soumises): We don't understand why they want to build this wall between us and the rest of society. I can represent all the French. I'm French since a long time, you know, and I can defend the values of progress also.
POGGIOLI: Habchi believes the only outlet for women in the ghettoes is political activism. But some French Muslim women are following another path.
(Soundbite of mosque)
POGGIOLI: At the grand mosque of Paris, the Friday call to prayer is inside the elegant Moorish courtyard. Nadia, a young woman whose head is covered with a tightly folded black headscarf, glides over the smooth marble floor toward the woman's gallery. We asked Nadia if she feels better represented now that there are three minority women in the cabinet.
NADIA: Other Muslim? No. Because here it's very difficult to understand what is a Muslim. It's a real choice of faith to be Muslim, and it's not enough to be just Arabic origin. So it's two things different.
POGGIOLI: Nadia is among a growing number of French Muslim women who are seizing the Koran for themselves.
Here at the grand mosque, five years ago in an unprecedented move courses were introduced to train young Muslim women as spiritual counselors for hospitals and prisons. And today most students in France's Islamic studies institutes are women.
One graduate is Noura Jaballah, mother of five and spokeswoman for the French League of Muslim Women. She wears the Islamic headscarf, but she has no patience with certain traditional interpretations of Islam.
Ms. NOURA JABALLAH (French League of Muslim Women): (Through translator) I don't know how in the world they came up with the claim that women were created to stay home and take care of household chores and cooking. It's absolutely false. Women, like men, have the responsibility to make order reign on Earth.
POGGIOLI: Jaballah is proud of her achievements, and that at home she's the one who leads family prayers.
Dounia Bouzar, a sociologist and Muslim, studies the new female Islamic consciousness, in which, she says, the Muslim woman has discovered her individuality and learned to say I. Bouzar believes that by growing up in a secular society, French Muslim women have shared experiences and blended with the rest of the French population.
Ms. DOUNIA BOUZAR (Sociologist): (Through translator) By working side by side with men, with non-Muslim women, with people who don't believe in God, by being friends with an Elizabeth who might be Buddhist - well, this totally contradicts traditional teaching. No preacher or father can convince you that your close friend Elizabeth is an infidel. This kind of argument just doesn't carry weight anymore.
POGGIOLI: Bouzar says it's not religion but social and economic discrimination that threatened this society's cohesion. France's immigrant suburbs are social, economic ghettoes, she says, not separate Islamic enclaves, such as those that exist in Germany and Britain. This has enabled France's high intermarriage rate between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, a taboo under strict Islamic practice. And, Bouzar believes, it's Muslim women who can become the engine of integration.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Sylvia's reports conclude tomorrow on NPR's WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY. That's where she'll report on how French activists are trying to stop female genital mutilation.
Previous stories in the series are at npr.org.