I don’t know how to read or write. A year ago, I decided to become a prostitute. My parents found out, they let me do it. I don’t see them very often. Anyway, my father only insults me whenever I see him.
I’d like to work, but I don’t know anything and I don’t want to be a waitress– what can I do without any training?
I don’t ever want to go back to a home, I’ve suffered too much.
Does writing history have to be more than simply acknowledging that something terrible happened to someone? It’s 1974. Samia* is a 16-year old Algerian girl living in Paris. She’s been sharing a tiny studio flat with a female friend in the 15th arrondissement, right on the edge of the city, and has been surviving by soliciting sex work on the streets of Western Paris.
Her parents live in Toulouse. She doesn’t have their address and her lifestyle means they no longer want any further contact. She’s the oldest of six siblings, two brothers and three sisters. Her father is 60, considerably older than her 32-year old mother, and fought for France in the Indochinese war. He started frequently beating Samia at 8 years old while her mother just stayed quiet.
The family moved to Toulouse from Algiers six years ago, and Samia started “hanging around in the streets” and “messing about” when she was 10. She was arrested twice for theft, and with parental consent was sentenced to a year in the Bon-Pasteur home in Lyon. The girls here were split into two groups, “delinquent” and “pre-delinquent”, and forbidden from communicating to avoid the older girls contaminating the younger prédélinquantes. Here she was supposed to learn to read and write, but instead Samia was forced to cut small boxes for stockings all day. Some girls worked in the laundry – “very hard work with big machines and tanks that were constantly giving off huge clouds of steam” – as the home profited from taking in washing from local Lyonnaise businesses, like the Magdalene laundries in Ireland. The girls were supposed to earn a few cents from their work, but many were deeply indebted to the home from the commonplace fines for misbehaviour. The most serious incidents were punished with solitary confinement and tales abounded of girls who never returned. Everyone was obsessed with the idea of escape and German shepherd dogs roamed the grounds outside the house during the night.
Samia left a year later (she describes it as ‘running away’) and moved to Paris. She assumed a new identity, calling herself Samia Amara, pretending to be 7 years older and over 21, the age of majority in France at the time. She was apprehended by the police three times in August 1974, at which point her true age was uncovered, and she was sent to a Centre d’Accueil near Saint-Lazare for “assistance and protection.”
Samia is described by her female social worker as “a charming young girl, polite and likeable. She seems much older than 16 years old… she’s not scared of any punitive measures she could suffer… She’s enthusiastic about everything suggested to her, but she acts how she wants.” Her case worker hopes Samia will be able to learn to read and write.
She’s forced to stay in this shelter three times during the first two weeks of September, apparently for her own protection. During her stay Samia is attacked by the guards. The head guard throws her to the ground. The other pins her down, grabbing and twisting her arms and shoulders as his colleague kicks her in the head and the stomach.
Samia tells a local judge at the Tribunal pour Enfants des Paris about her assault. Her female social worker is away on annual leave, and so the Directeur de l’Hygiène et de Sécurité Publique at the Police Prefecture takes charge. His response is heart-breaking but predictable. He denies any possibility of mistreatment on three counts. Firstly, that there is no record of any incident or complaint being made (and here the logic baffles me, since he is denying this in response to her making a complaint). Secondly, that the “prostituée” failed to show a doctor the marks this would have left, and thirdly that Samia didn’t cite any witnesses and apparently the girls are never separated from each other (despite the unlikelihood of underage girls detained in police custody feeling able to act as official witnesses of police violence). The guards are not questioned and face no consequences. A month after the assault, she’s apprehended again. Samia becomes aggressive and desperate, refusing to go into a home, “but then accepts her fate”.
It is unsurprising that Parisian police, responsible for the 17th October 1961 massacre of hundreds of supporters of Algerian independence, would less than 15 years later deny assaulting an underage North African girl engaged in sex work. It is the sharp contrast between Samia’s emotionally evocative account of the brutal attack and the crystal-clear insight into mechanisms of victim blaming that is most disturbing. The director at the Police Prefecture dismisses her instantly. After the initial physical assault, his refusal to believe her testimony acts as an epistemic attack. Her case file evidences tactics of denial, used repeatedly to silence accusations of violence against people of colour and violence against women in general. Blaming survivors for not coming forward sooner, considering personal accounts insufficient evidence to prompt further investigation, and protecting the reputations of fellow police officers persist as familiar strategies 50 years later. Valentin Gendrot, an undercover journalist who recently published his account of working as a police officer in the North of Paris, describes a Parisian police culture where statements can be falsified to protect colleagues and where he was “complicit in the beating up of a young migrant” but officers escaped consequences since “what happened in the van, stays in the van.”
Samia’s account highlights the importance of an intersectional approach to addressing police brutality and violence against women that recognises that women of colour (particularly trans women) engaged in sex work are disproportionately more at risk. Police violence against sex workers is shockingly common. A 2003 survey found that over a quarter of street sex workers in New York questioned had experienced it and one woman described how three undercover officers had jumped out of a van to kick her, resulting in her hospitalisation but no repercussions for her attackers.
I found Samia’s case file in the Préfecture de Police archives in Paris. Her horrible experience happened 50 years ago and these documents were never meant for my eyes, but I find myself angry at something that happened decades ago and that I can do nothing about. Carolyn Steedan reminds us that ‘facts do not sit in archives and record offices waiting to be uncovered; historical facts are made in the narrative of historians.’ I’m well aware that my anger towards the police who attacked Samia is compounded with anger towards the police who murdered George Floyd and who attack peaceful protestors on both sides of the Atlantic. The cahier de doléances has been growing for years and Samia’s story is part of the palimpsest it’s written on, alongside names like Breonna Taylor, Stephen Lawrence and Cédric Chouviat.
There has been little mention of sex workers in criticisms of police brutality over the past few months, most likely due to prudishness around sex work and the profession’s varying legality. Any production of knowledge (historical or otherwise) of sex work, or even sex and race that neglects to engage with the prevalence of experiences of police violence against sex workers and women of colour risks eclipsing these voices and flattening the narrative. Overlooking the accounts of people like Samia risks perpetuating the same epistemic violence that began with the Police prefecture’s dismissal of her attack.
Samia accepted returning to police custody and the system of social ‘care’ imposed upon her. Having no other choice, she accepted a fate where people like her were likely to suffer at the hands of the police without consequences for their attackers. If we want to strive to dismantle the system that causes this violence, we need to begin by acknowledging the accounts of those who have suffered it. Listening to stories like Samia, allowing their experiences to become more than an overlooked footnote, is perhaps how historians can attempt to provide the historical justice that has been denied for so long.
*Samia’s name has been changed.
Thanks to Simon Nowicki (http://simonnowicki.blogspot.com) for granting permission for use of the ‘gendarmes in Paris’ image.
Catherine Phipps is a DPhil student in History at the University of Oxford. Her thesis examines sex and sexuality in French Morocco in the early twentieth century. She focuses on interracial relationships between European women and Moroccan men, prostitution, and queer identities. She is the co-founder of the seminar series ‘The History of the Gendered Body’ and you can follow her on twitter at @katyaphipps