A diverse mixture of women from all over the world fills the waiting room of the Maison des Femmes - a small, picturesque building in the middle of Saint-Denis. Immigrants from more than 100 different countries live in this poor, Parisian suburb, but what truly unites this group of women is their shared struggle; most of them are victims of some form of violence.
Saint-Denis has become well known in the news after the police raid that killed a suspect in the 2015 Paris attacks, as well for its high rate of drug-related crimes, robbery and murder. Widespread cases of violence against women in the neighbourhood, however, do not reach the media as often.
Fourteen percent of the women that give birth in the Delafontaine Hospital in Saint-Denis have been subject to female genital mutilation (FGM). Domestic and sexual violence, forced marriage and "honour" crimes continue to be a major concern, according to the National Observatory of Crimes against Women of Seine-Saint-Denis (PDF).
Since last July, Maison des Femmes, which means the house of women, has been a place where the women of Saint-Denis can turn for help. It was founded by Ghada Hatem-Gantzer, 57, an indefatigable gynaecologist with a Lebanese background. She had come to Paris in 1976 to study medicine, and decided to stay in the country and practise her specialty.
Six years ago, Hatem-Gantzer began working at the Delafontaine Hospital in Saint-Denis, where she encountered so much personal suffering among her female patients that she decided she had to do something.
"When a woman asks for an abortion because she already has four children, her problem is easily solved. But when a woman wants an abortion because she is raped by an abusive husband, who has taken her passport so she can't work and she can't leave, it takes a lot of time to really help her," Hatem-Gantzer says. "When I perform an operation, I earn money. But when I discuss your problems with you for three hours, I don't earn a cent. And, at one point, my boss will say: 'Sorry, but this doesn't amount to anything'."
She helped establish the centre where female victims of violence can get medical and psychological help - from FGM reconstructive surgery, to therapy after sexual abuse, to support for victims of domestic violence. The centre also offers help to women who need contraception or an abortion.
"Saint-Denis is a symbol of migration, poverty and violence. But, what makes the deepest impression on me, are the tragedies in the lives of the women here," says Hatem-Gantzer. "I was 15 years old when the civil war broke out in my country [Lebanon]. I have seen the violence and the refugees. I have seen what it means to have to leave without a suitcase and to feel totally lost.''
An energetic woman with striking blue eyes, Hatem-Ganzter listens carefully to her patients, offering encouragement to those who need it.
She immersed herself in issues surrounding FGM when she first began receiving patients who were survivors of this practice 20 years ago. But working in hospitals in the more affluent parts of Paris, she had seen no more than two victims a year.
"In Saint-Denis, I was suddenly confronted with 10 victims a day," she says. "I saw so many women with such serious personal problems. But in the hospital, among pregnant women, women with breast cancer and women with fertility problems, there was no space for them."
So, she began thinking about creating a separate, accessible centre where these women could feel at home.
Marriage was terrible for me, I just wanted to play with my dolls. But my in-laws were rich, so I had no choice.
Four years ago, she asked an architect friend to help her design the new centre.
"When he heard about the suffering of these women, he did it for free," she says of the design of the building, which is now painted in bright colours. "There were other, more elaborate designs, but I chose this one, because of its inviting charm and warm atmosphere.''
"The hospital provided the building location. I found several NGOs that were willing to help [with funding]. Consequently, I managed to get some funding from the government," Hatem-Gantzer says.
"When I had almost amassed the sum I needed, the hospital said: 'We will start building now, and we'll advance the money that's still lacking'."
The Maison des Femmes is the first centre of its kind in France. It houses a team of about 20 professionals: gynaecologists, nurses, midwives, psychologists, sexologists and family counsellors. Some work full-time in the centre, others also work in the nearby hospital.
The consultation rooms in the Maison des Femmes do not have numbers, but are named after strong women from all over the world: Malala Yousafzai, Gisele Halimi, Frida Kahlo. The conference room, named after Somali FGM-activist Waris Dirie, is adorned with colourful portraits of Oum Kalthoum, Rosa Parks, Aung San Suu Kyi and other famous women.
Stories of suffering
It's a sunny afternoon, and Ildiz Ibrahim, a 33-year-old Roma woman, walks into the waiting room. She has come for an abortion. "I have three children, all of them delivered through C-section, so it's enough [children]," she says.
She is an extroverted woman, with a lively face, who easily strikes up a conversation. She does not need much prompting to tell the story of her life.
She was married off at 12 and became a mother at 14, she says. "Marriage was terrible for me. I just wanted to play with my dolls. But my in-laws were rich, so I had no choice. I ended up as my mother-in-law's slave. I didn't have any freedom. I wasn't even allowed to go outside. I had to clean the house all day long."
When she was 19, she ran off without saying a word.
"I went to Spain, where my cousin worked as a cleaning woman. For 13 years, I worked in Spain as a cleaning woman and a waitress. I met my current husband and, together with him, I came to France because there were no possibilities for us any more in Spain. But we still haven't found work."
"The Roma women are a separate group here," explains Monique Veneri, a family counsellor at the centre. "They often live under deplorable circumstances, in illegal camps in the neighbourhood that are regularly cleared by the authorities.
"Take a woman like Ildiz. She's so clever, she speaks Spanish fluently, she has taught herself French quite well, but society doesn't offer her any chances. I think it's so sad," she adds.
Later that day, as she is giving a group of politicians a tour of the house, Ghada Hatem-Gantzer is approached by a girl with a black headscarf who is visibly nervous. She says her name is Yasmina. She's 21 and from Tunisia. Three years ago she migrated to France with her family and now lives in a suburb of Paris.
"I need a proof of my virginity," she says with a soft, compelling voice. "My brother has threatened to kill me because I had a boyfriend. He has already attacked me with a knife. I hope he will leave me alone when I can show him a virginity certificate."
"We will help you,'' Hatem-Gantzer tells her. "Don't worry."
I bled and bled for as long as a month. I am still hurting, every day.
'FGM has destroyed my life'
Meanwhile, Haoua, 34, from the Ivory Coast, quietly walks into the waiting room. She wears a long green dress and her eyes look sad under her woollen hat.
"My parents didn't have me circumcised, but they did marry me off to a man who didn't love me and who abused me daily. Nine years ago, after my daughter was born, my in-laws said I was dirty because I wasn't circumcised," she recounts with a hoarse voice.
"They grabbed a hold of me and an old woman cut my vagina with a knife. It hurt terribly. I bled and bled for as long as a month. I am still hurting, every day."
Not long after that her husband died, she explains, and her in-laws wanted to marry her off to a 67-year-old man who already had two wives.
"They wanted to take my daughter from me to circumcise her. My brother-in-law threatened to do something bad to me if I didn't cooperate. That's when I decided to flee. I left my daughter in the care of a friend and escaped to France. I am safe from my in-laws here, but I have no friends, no family and no money," Haoua tells.
She says she sleeps in night buses. For food, Haoua scours containers where supermarkets dump expired food. "The worst thing is that I haven't seen my daughter for two years," she says, tears welling in her eyes.
"The people who work here told me to apply for asylum," she says. "And they are also going to see if something can be done against the pain."
"The tragedies of the African women are perhaps the worst," says Hatem-Gantzer.
"They come to France because they think everything is for free here. They think they will be given an apartment. But once they are here, they find out the paradise doesn't exist. They end up on the streets; they are worse off than in Africa, but they are so ashamed they don't dare to return home."
Sisterhood and support
Upstairs, a support group for victims of FGM has started in the Waris Dirie conference room, led by midwife Mathilde Delespine. Among the women is the Malian singer Inna Modja, a celebrity in France who openly speaks out against FGM. Hatem-Gantzer is also present, and she listens intently to what the women have to say.
A woman from Guinea is the first to speak. "FGM has destroyed my life," she says. "It has caused a fistula - an opening between my vagina and rectum. The smell was so terrible that I had to always stay at home. A normal life was not possible for me."
She recounts how people in Guinea told her that she had been bewitched or that she had Aids.
"Only when I came here did I learn what was really the matter with me. I had an operation and started a new life, but I am deeply traumatised. I am so angry about what has been done to me." Rage flickers in her dark eyes.
The woman next to her shares her story of her wedding night. Due to FGM, her vagina had to be cut open with a knife.
Singer Inna Modja tells the women about the reconstructive operation she underwent: "It gave me back my self-confidence. I am a complete woman now. I have begun to regain feeling in my vagina. I didn't have that before."
She looks at the other women in the group and continues: "Why should we women have to suffer from traditions? To me, FGM is a symbol of a society that says to women: 'There's no space for you.' We, women, have the right to reclaim our dignity."
Hatem-Gantzer's telephone rings. She apologises and hurries out of the room. A homeless Syrian refugee woman has been brought into the hospital. She is only 26 weeks pregnant, but contractions have started.
Downstairs, Yasmina from Tunisia puts the certificate she asked for in her bag. The family counsellor of the Maison des Femmes has also convinced her to press charges against her brother. A police officer will accompany her to the police station.
"My brother always tries to force me to do what he wants," she says "Whenever I go outside or come home later than he thinks I should, he beats me. And he is strong. But I have the right to a life of my own."
As she leaves the Maison des Femmes, the nervous look in Yasmina's eyes gives way to signs of relief.
Source: Al Jazeera News