NICE, France—When a Paris appellate court ruled last week that Europe’s most charismatic Muslim leader may have to stay in prison for at least a year awaiting trial on rape charges, it was a strange victory for France’s most unlikely feminist.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Henda Ayari, 41, whose Rose McGowan-like accusations of rape and cries for justice on social media set in motion the arrest on Feb. 3 of the man she once put on a pedestal: the Swiss-born Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan.
Now she’s under police protection because of Ramadan’s furious supporters.
Ramadan is the most high-profile figure to be held on charges stemming from France’s #MeToo movement, which sometimes uses the French hashtag #balancetonporc or, “call out your pig.”
“When I knocked on the door, my heart was beating,” Ayari said. “Then he kissed me, and I let him, I'm not ashamed to admit it. Then he literally jumped on me. The fairy tale turned into a nightmare, the Prince Charming into a monster. He slapped me because I resisted. He raped me. I felt in extreme danger. He insulted me: ‘I came for that, I deserved it, I had sought it.’ I had to wear the veil, otherwise I was a prostitute.”
Years ago, Ayari would never have dared call out Ramadan — or any man.
Ayari, the French-born daughter of parents of North African origin, was once such a strict Islamist who she spent 10 years fully veiled and living in virtual seclusion under the absolute authority of her husband before she managed to escape him and take their three children.
Even then, it would have been unthinkable to take down one of the West’s most powerful and influential Muslim figures, one who she said became her mentor—then her seducer, and then her alleged rapist.
Ayari’s journey from submissive housewife to activist/accuser is a surreal metaphor for the dizzying tensions surrounding Muslim identity in France, post-Charlie Hebdo. Her story involves a toxic stew of heated media and political discourse, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and the abrupt rise of the French #MeToo movement.
Ramadan, 55, a married father of four, is a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford (on leave since last fall because of the charges) and is the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was denied bail Thursday, four days after being officially charged with raping Ayari and another woman, a 45-year-old Muslim convert who said he sexually assaulted her in 2009.
The two went public with their allegations last fall. Ayari, who said she felt empowered after reading about rape accusations against Harvey Weinstein and the burgeoning #MeToo movement, named him as her rapist on social media in late October and filed a complaint with police. A woman identified in French media as “Christelle” came forward a week after Ayari, detailing a similar assault in a Lyon hotel room in 2009.
Christelle’s story appeared in a bombshell French Vanity Fair article at the beginning of this month. Brandishing copies of online texts, screenshots and other communication with Ramadan, she recounted an online love affair with him in which he said he was separated and talked her into a “temporary marriage” over Skype. After the virtual “ceremony” took place, Christelle, who uses a crutch after being disabled in a car accident, began packing to move to London to be with him.
According to Vanity Fair, Christelle met him in person for the first time at conference in Lyon on Oct. 9. She said Ramadan promised her a real ceremony at a mosque after the event but first invited her up to his hotel room. She said the door had barely closed when Ramadan attacked.
He kicked her, slapped her face and breasts and punched her on the arm and in the stomach, she said. “The more you scream the more it will excite me and the more I’ll hit you so shut up,” she told VF.
In both cases, the women said Ramadan approached them online and began communicating as advisor and friend. Both also said they were so shocked that such a famous figure was interested in them they asked to see visual proof—via Skype for Ayari—that it was really him.
Just a few days after the first two charges, four other women alleged Ramadan had sexually harassed and had sexual relations with them in the 1980s and 1990s, when they were his teenage pupils while he was teaching in Switzerland.
Ramadan, who has more than 2 million Facebook followers and has appeared regularly on TV in France, denies all the allegations against him, saying they are part of a smear campaign and a conspiracy by his enemies, notably Zionists.
One site that supports him went so far as to call the charges against Ramadan the “second Dreyfus affair” 125 years later, saying this time a Muslim was being framed because of racism rather than a Jew.
Secular Europe, especially France, has a love-hate relationship with Ramadan. Polyglot, suave and savvy on TV, he’s been a media darling for apparently advocating a moderate brand of Islam to bridge the gap between Europeans and Muslims. Yet in one televised debate he refused to come out against the stoning of women, and his critics note that he appears to encourage radicalism when preaching in the Arabic language. Suspicions about his agenda and connections run deep in French and Swiss intelligence circles.
Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 Ramadan has been banned from holding debates in public spaces in France and denied airtime. Ramadan was also banned from entering the U.S. under the Bush Administration in 2004 but later allowed in. He is forbidden from entering Saudi Arabia, which regards him and the Muslim Brotherhood founded by his grandfather, as anathema.
Ramadan’s legal team has suggested the two women accusing him colluded to bring him down and his lawyers have shown investigators Facebook conversations from a woman purported to be Ayari apparently making graphic advances toward him in 2014, two years after the alleged rape, Agence France Presse reported.
The stories of both women are complicated. Neither cut off contact with Ramadan after the alleged rapes and both contacted two controversial figures in France to report him: the right-wing, anti-Zionist Alain Sorel, as well as Salim Laibi, a Marseille dental surgeon and politician who opposes Ramadan. Christelle originally said she and Ayari had never met, then amended that to say they saw each other briefly some years back at a conference.
Ayari first caused a sensation in France after the Islamist attack on the Bataclan concert hall in 2015. She posted two photos of herself on Facebook, one in a black Islamic veil and one in which she was bare-headed and wearing a tight jacket and T-shirt, tossing the veil aside. She wrote an impassioned screed against Salafism for steering young French Muslims into violent jihad.
In 2016 she published a book with the title, in translatin, I Chose to Be Free: A Survivor of Salafism in France, about the ordeal of living a subjugated life as a Salafist woman in France. She described the 2012 but did not name Ramadan.
“It’s a trap, especially for women, because they say you have to take the veil, and marry and not study, and they want you just to be a submissive woman,” she wrote.
She now runs a non-profit association called Liberatrices (meaning women who are liberators), helping women who suffered abuse as she did in radical Islamic households.
Ayari said she met and was mentored by Ramadan not long after she left her husband, when she was especially vulnerable. She was looking for a different brand of Islam and had found his work online. She admitted finding him attractive and went willingly when he invited her to his Paris hotel room. She expected to be seduced. Instead, she said, she was raped violently.
Ayari was uncharacteristically silent on Twitter in the days leading up to Ramadan’s trip to court in an ambulance from France’s notorious Fleury-Mérogis prison. Although Ramadan appears robust and capable in his many Facebook videos, he’s reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis and another unidentified illness which his lawyers say make jail dangerous for him.
Ayari, for her part, said she’s been so traumatized by the death threats and insults hurled at her that she is taking a break from social media. She has been under police protection since last fall.
“I’m tired, demoralized to read all the horrors they say about me, it's a very hard fight, too much,” Ayari wrote on Feb. 11. “I’m not Wonder Woman, I’m just a simple woman trying to get along in life and trying to help other women. But this fight is much more difficult than I imagined.”
“Henda has had death threats, her family have received death threats, both online and in real life,” her lawyer Gregoire Leclerc told The Daily Beast. “It’s been a very frightening and difficult experience for her and she doesn’t know when or if it will end.”
Court officials have ordered medical tests to ascertain if Ramadan’s apparent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis will make jail time difficult and have called another hearing for Feb. 22. In France, unlike the U.S., those accused of criminal charges often have to languish for months in prison before going to trial.
Ramadan’s wife, Iman, spoke out Wednesday for the first time since the rape accusations surfaced last fall, saying in a video posted on Facebook that she believed her husband was innocent and is the victim of a “media lynching.” She added that neither she nor any of his other friends and family members have been allowed to contact him.
“There are so many lies at this point that it became unbearable,” his wife said. “I am torn between reading what the press says about him and hiding in my bubble waiting for justice to be served.”