Gender equality has been at the forefront of French political debate in recent months, with a series of legislative proposals that reflect a uniquely French approach to both gender and equality. My musing back in March on gender equality in France was intended to feature the excellent exhibits for International Women’s Day in the nearby village of Peymeinade. One exhibit had a historical perspective of 100 years of the feminist struggle dating back to 1918, while the other exhibit was a delightful mixture of paintings specifically prepared by three local artists for this particular International Women’s Day in Peymeinade. At a reception for this exhibit, Leila Zarif, the lead artist and her artistic daughter and grand-daughter explained their choice of featuring remarkable women whose impact went well beyond feminism per se – Rosa Parks, Simone Weil, Frida Kahlo and others. The event also included remarks from the mayor about being true to yourself, specifically triggering an appreciation for the “gendered-ness”, as it were, of the French approach to gender equality. Since then, I have been reflecting on my own fixation on the interplay between modesty and provocation that reflects my Anglo-American perspective.
As I observed in my March commentary, my own involvement in the women’s movement in the US was oriented to promoting the androgynous merging of male and female identity as a path to gender equality. Equality comes from mainstreaming the human-ness of all – such as encouraging the sharing of professional skills in the workplace and domestic chores at home – and distinguishing male and female roles only where there were physical differences – as in child-bearing and breastfeeding. This also means that it does not help to endorse the cultural or legal pressures to cover women up in such a debilitating way as to set them apart from men, but neither does it help to endorse the right to a provocative and sexually explicit exposure of a female body – especially when in neither case does this apply to the male attire.
What does this mean for the French approach to what I call “gendered-ness”? In the first instance of opposing gender-based modesty with all of its religious implications, it is clearly not part of the French political culture. The legislative actions taken in 2004 to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols like a Moslem headscarf or a (large) Christian cross or a Jewish skullcap in the public schools of France and in 2011 to prohibit facial masks of any sort in public streets or on public transport are consistent with what has been my personal view of what is needed to promote gender equality. This is so even if the policies were not primarily motivated by that objective but rather by the separation of religion from state or by national security concerns. I have always felt that women in veils or headscarves are fundamentally rejecting their human rights as equals to men in society, whether they do it voluntarily or by cultural edict. It is, after all, from cultures that have not respected equal rights for men and women that have actually imposed gender inequality to the detriment of women that the current practices of coverings of women’s head and face and body have emerged.
My recent schizophrenia on this score, however, is based on three contrasting experiences. First, it is common in Geneva, where I lived and worked for several years, to see Arab women (never alone) fully covered and wearing the niqab with only a slit open for the eyes. Some of their attire is truly haute couture, suggesting that they are from wealthy Arab families on summer holiday in Geneva, but it is nonetheless shocking. I have not been to Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries that impose this covering up, but I have lived in countries like India and Pakistan where I have seen many women in purdah. It, too, is disturbing. It has been tempting to try to catch the eyes of a woman walking by fully covered and quietly mouth the question “Why?”, but I have chosen instead to simply look the other way. The emotion has been a sadness about the state of things.
On the other hand, I have witnessed the wearing of the hijab in numerous settings – the typical Moslem head covering on a neatly attired London shop clerk or encircling an elaborately made-up face of a Turkish teenager wearing tight jeans and stiletto heels on the streets of Istanbul. Should I be disturbed by these examples? We are about to see a hijab-attired Barbie doll or a hijab-attired beauty on a London fashion magazine cover. It seems, then, that the hijab is being adopted as a cultural statement as well as a religious one but not necessarily as a symbol of inequality. And finally, there are the French municipalities that have banned the “burkini” on their Riviera beaches for being provocatively Moslem. Oh dear.
In the contrasting instance, of sexually provocative attire in public, I have mixed feelings but do end up by endorsing the right to dress as one chooses – with reservations. Showing one’s knees, for example. I was castigated once some years ago when I was presenting a lecture on my fellowship experiences in Pakistan. I described how I always wore suits with long sleeves to make sure my arms were always covered. This was a lecture in the States, but there was an astute woman in the audience who asked if the suit I was wearing, with the hemline of the skirt well above my knees was an example of my attire in Pakistan! Oops! Somehow, this had not been an issue while travelling about in Pakistan, even though the Pakistani women we met and mingled with during my fellowship experience were consistently attired in the traditional “shalwar kameez”, a long tunic top over loose fitting pants. Both arms AND legs were fully covered, while the accompanying dupatta (a long matching scarf) was usually draped in a flowing manner across the shoulders (and rarely, in those days, covering the head except in mosques). That was, of course, many decades ago! Things are probably quite different now, even in Pakistan.
It wasn’t until years later, when I was preparing to tour a village near Kwanza in Tanzania that my English ex-pat hostess gently but firmly objected to the skirt I was wearing with the hemline well above the knees. She graciously explained to me that Tanzanian women wear skirts with the hemline well below the knees. Aha! I had not noticed, once again! This time, the bared arms were not important, but the bared knees were! So I accommodated my host’s request and changed to long jeans. Throughout my stay in Tanzania, I became acutely aware of the fact that women wore skirts or dresses with hemlines well below the knees. I was very personally reminded that there are certain cultural differences in attire that bear respecting.
Of course, returning to a Western cultural environment from these visits to countries like Pakistan or Tanzania has always been a shock. It isn’t only that the rules on attire are different but rather that it is so wide open to “anything goes”. I myself do resort to skirts above the knee and sleeveless tops and a hat instead of a headscarf. I do find the more provocative attire that is tolerated for women, though, is not replicated with similarly provocative attire for men. So it is not a movement towards androgyny. And the emphasis on a gendered view of being true to oneself does seem to imply that these differences can be a part of a drive to gender equality. After all, the French legislative proposals include mandating equal pay by 2022 for all business with 50 or more employees, increasing the proportion of women studying STEM to 40 percent by 2020 and targeted mentoring for women in the digital economy. The package also includes a prohibition on street harassment – including obscene comments and gestures, catcalling and even whistling – in public places and on public transport, with on–the-spot fines from €90 to €750.
Does this mean a mellowing of the personal drive towards androgyny? Perhaps so. I did for many years wear only pant-suits in professional settings and thrilled in the domestic sharing of household chores at home. But the distinguishing between male and female roles is far greater in real life than it is in theory. Some of this may be attributable to the remnants of stereotypical roleplaying in the past – carpentry is not my forte nor is electronic technology. But that has changed in my offspring – my son is not a carpenter while both son and daughters are highly computer-literate. So changes are positive. But respecting cultural differences can also be justified, such that the gendered-ness of gender equality is a lot more nuanced than a simple yes or no to this or that. And finally, there is the matter of protecting privacy in the “face” of artificial intelligence and the growing technological capability of facial recognition. This is definitely a topic for yet another musing!