STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
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.
U: (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.
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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.
M: (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.
POGGIOLI: 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.
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M: (Singing in French)
POGIOLLI: Habchi says discrimination against men and women of foreign origin is widespread.
M: 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.
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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: 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.
M: (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: 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.
M: (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: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Previous stories in the series are at npr.org.
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