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Freedom from France’s Marianne

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The recent statement that France’s ruling party hopes to ban headscarves from all work places and schools, including when worn by the mothers of pupils (scarves being already banned since 2004) is just the latest attempt to unite France’s divided electorate in the face of a tired political class, lacking in imaginative ideas to address France’s very real problems. The announcement that former President Jacques Chirac is actually backing the Socialist candidate in France’s upcoming elections, rather than Sarkozy whom he technically shares a political affinity with, corroborates the fact France’s political scene is a very muddled place, where Muslim bashing, which plays to Far-Right tendencies, has replaced substantive political discussion. But what the focus on burkas and scarves and the length of some women’s dresses, also highlights is a continuing struggle by a minority of French women to broaden the nation’s distinctly narrow notion of femininity and feminine worth.

Each nation’s relationship to the “burka debate” seems to reflect to some degree a country specific take on gender roles and notions of femininity. In France, where it is taken as a given that a man has the “right” to view a woman’s body, where the naked female form routinely serves to advertise everything from yoghurt to perfume, and where not going topless on the beach is considered prudish, the idea that a woman might actually want to shield her body from such a gaze represents an affront to the “right” which has for so long been that of the country’s men – to see women, all of a woman. Naturally…(!)

People who usually like to proclaim that French women are just “naturally so slim” omit to note the reality of strong social pressure to conform to rigid, popular (and notably slim) notions of female worth – as represented by the country’s “icons” – be they actresses, (turned rabid far-right activists), like Brigitte Bardot, who at the height of her fame was known far more for her sex-appeal than her acting talent (the weight of her physique having been sufficient to carry her through the production of an album, despite her notable lack of singing ability…), politicians, like Rachida Dati, more famed for her alleged affairs with high profile figures and risqué outfits, than any single policy she might have helped devise, or news anchors, such as Mélissa Theuriau, known more for her looks than her journalistic abilities. In any society, ‘visible’ women, in other words those given a public platform – are manifestations of the cultural understanding of femininity and of female success. And there is no missing the overarching theme here.

The predominant message is that your looks are the primary vehicle for your success and may, in many cases, override any significant absence of talent. In a recent article in which she praised France’s attitude to older actresses compared to the UK and the USA, Kristen Scott-Thomas also discussed the fact she was asked to bare all in her latest film (something she seemed *really* enthused about “Obviously I haven’t done scenes like that for a very, very, very long time and I don’t think I’ll be doing them again anytime soon!”), suggesting the French have an appreciation of beauty which extends beyond 25. Or, another way to look at it, would be to say that women must continue to espouse an overtly sexual self-image, in order to have continued appeal past 25…

The implications of a cultural conception of femininity which places so much emphasis on sex appeal is that women who choose not to define themselves in accordance with that framework are derided, denigrated, and when they are already politically disenfranchised, socially and politically excluded. Indeed, Rachida Dati, who famously got the words “fellatio” and “inflation” mixed up in a radio interview, was the first female politician of North African origin to hold a top French government post. And mixing sex into the political equation may not have been the faux-pas many assumed it might be. After all, it hasn’t dented her public profile (dare I say it enhanced it…).

Since the demotion of the woman Sarkozy once heralded as France’s symbol of change, to the European court, female French politicians of North African descent are conspicuously absent. What this symbolically and possibly quite figuratively translates as, is wealthy, white men in power dictating to poorer, disenfranchised, non-white women, what the very definition of civility is ( a colonial ring there anyone!?). In the matter of what constitutes a ‘civilised’ woman, that equates to dictating to them when, and how much of their bodies, they should be making public. Was it really a surprise to anyone that the maid at the center of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn controversy has been identified as a Guinean immigrant, in other words an ‘uncivilised’ woman to whom sexual civility ought to be dictated – nay, imposed… (thankfully, what passes in France doesn’t always pass in America!). And supreme irony of ironies, the DSK case came to light the same week that a French court decided to deny a French woman’s husband citizenship on the basis of his “degrading attitude” towards women…

Civility when it comes to women’s issues, equates to dictating the acceptable boundaries of femininity and in this case, criminalising those who don’t wish to live up to the modern Marianne – who incidentally, the Association of French Mayors (AMF) named Brigitte Bardot as the first symbolic representation of – the current Marianne being the model Laeticia Casta…

The reality of the increasingly stringent laws being passed to prevent Muslim women from adhering to their religious convictions, is pervasive discrimination. Kenza Drider who has become the mouth piece for women who wear the face veil in France, states that prior to the President’s decision to take a public stance against the “burka”, she hadn’t experienced any discrimination because of it. In March this year, a school in the Paris suburbs threatened Muslim girls (and ONLY Muslim girls) with exclusion, for the shocking misdemeanour of wearing “long dresses”.

In many ways, these women are the reluctant pioneers of a feminist struggle to expand notions of femininity and move beyond the straight jacket of a Chanel attired, sexually alluring model or actress (or a politician that must look like one). And yet, in their struggle to define their own notion of femininity and escape the dominant one, they have received very little support from other women, or feminist organisations, whose uneasy relationship with what many view as a symbol of patriarchy, impedes their ability to listen to the women’s voices.

Kenza, who wears the veil for “spiritual reasons”, states: “This law incites people to violence against women who have made the choice to wear this garment.” Kenza claims she is insulted and subjected daily to tirades from fellow citizens who regard the public discourse and law, as a legitimation of their prejudice. “I won’t stay at home or take off the veil” she says, echoing what are in effect the two choices being afforded to a woman who wishes to remain true to her convictions. Speculating on what will happen when she does in effect, refuse to sit at the back of the bus, she responds: “I’ll be happy to take the fine in order to launch an appeal at the European court. This law is discriminatory, unconstitutional and turns people away from our real problems – how can you turn to a small group of French women and say, this is France’s problem.”

Despite the popularity of seminal books like the Beauty Myth (Naomi Wolf) and Female Chauvinist Pigs (Ariel Levy) in feminist circles, the question remains of just how many feminists will stand with Kenza and her compatriots, supporting their choice to challenge dominant norms of femininity and symbolically arguing for a recognition of women on terms which premise their value not on their looks, their weight, or their fashion, but on their value as human beings.


Written by Myriam Francois

June 14, 2011 at 22:27