Should women escaping religious or cultural oppression in their own countries be offered asylum the way political dissidents are?
That's the issue that's come up with a teenage Moroccan girl who fled to Europe but was forced back to her home country.
In August 2005, 14-year-old Najlae Lhimer left Morocco for France to escape an arranged marriage imposed by her father. Four-and-a-half years later, she finds herself back in Morocco – hiding from her family and desperately trying to find a way back to her friends and high school in France.
Najlae was deported to Casablanca on Feb. 20, one day after she went to the French police near Orléans, doctor's certificate in hand, to file a complaint against her brother, who she said had been beating her for the past year and a half.
Instead she found herself detained for being in France illegally, and she was put on the first available flight to Casablanca.
"I feel like I'm in a foreign country," she said during an interview in a Rabat hotel on Saturday. "I have only one dream today and that is to return to France and continue my studies."
Najlae is one of dozens of immigrant teenagers in France who recently have been deported under tougher immigration rules. French law guarantees an education for all minors, regardless of their or their parents' immigration status, but once they turn 18, many kids find themselves in a legal limbo.
"Since the beginning of this year, we have seen a dramatic peak in deportations. We haven't quite understood why," said Xavier Gosset, a French teacher in Rabat who is part of the Réseau Education sans Frontières (or RESF, Education Without Borders Network), which has taken Najlae under its wing since she arrived in Casablanca.
Najlae's case, said Gosset, is symbolic because of the specific circumstances of her arrival in France. She came on a six-month tourist visa to escape an arranged marriage – a common practice in Morocco.
"If Najlae is not allowed to return to France, I will find it very difficult as a teacher to keep defending French republican values in my classroom," Gosset said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is known for his tough stance on immigration. During his 2007 election campaign, he promised to be make it tougher for immigrants to bring their families to France, and he set ambitious goals for deporting illegal immigrants.
But Sarkozy also famously said, "France will always be on the side of the woman who is forced to take a husband against her will. I want France to offer protection to every martyred woman anywhere in the world by giving her the possibility to obtain French citizenship."
On Tuesday, socialist member of parliament Danielle Bousquet demanded a moratorium (article in French) on the deportation of battered women, ahead of a parliamentary debate on Thursday about a bill also proposed by Bousquet, which would give battered women protection against deportation.
Authorities in France have defended the deportation order (article in French), saying it was done by the book.
Back in Morocco, Najlae now lives in constant dread of being confronted by her father. "I talk to my mother on the phone, but I won't tell my family where I am," she said.
"My father says I should just come back home, get married and forget about my studies. I want to beat him, but I also know that I won't be able to say no in his presence. All I want is to go back to France."
A demonstration in support of Najlae has been planned in Paris on March 8 to coincide with International Women's Day.
-- Gert Van Langendonck in Rabat, Morocco