Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Feministes de Paille (Straw Feminists)

This is a guest post by The Other Elizabeth (Elizabeth's are generally the best people, in my humble opinion.)

Tiger Beatdown used a recent protest against sexism in France to muse on feminist ethics. Without communicating with the women involved, Tiger Beatdown constructed and knocked down a straw feminist, a hypothetical creature whose protest was a hollow neocolonialist exercise—and this based on a single slogan, NOUS SOMMES TOUS DES FEMMES DE CHAMBRE (We Are All Chambermaids.) Tiger interprets this as false equivalence leading to erasure, saying that the white protesters are sidestepping the colonialism inherent in Dominique Strauss-Kahn's act of domination over a woman of color's body.

Tiger's point about colonialism, and the domination of colonialized women's bodies, is true. Colonialism in France is as thorny a subject, as deep a trauma, as slavery in the United States, and will require the same multigenerational political and social process for its resolution. Like the US, France has seen wave after wave of immigration—Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Sephardic Jewish, North and sub-Saharan Africans, and Chinese—and experiences xenophobic convulsions in response. And just as in the US, women in France are not a monolith. They have a wide range of experience and are divided by class and race conflicts. But Tiger speaks of the French feminist as a single type.

Feminists in France did exactly what the Toronto Slutwalkers did: respond to an anti-woman emergency. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested, the mask momentarily fell from the faces of many in the elite. Women listened horror-struck as top journalists, intellectuals and political figures shrugged off the crime of which DSK stands accused. Jack Lang, a prominent Socialist and minister of culture under Socialist president Mitterand, decried a “lynchage” (note to Tiger: this is what outrageous appropriation of an oppressive, colonialist phenomenon looks like) and said it's not so serious, “il n'y a pas mort d'homme” (No man died.) Purported intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy wrote as impassioned a defense of DSK as of his teen-raping friend Roman Polanski—and the mainstream media saw fit to pay attention to him. Jean-François Kahn, cofounder of the political magazine Marianne, went further (translation mine): “I'm practically certain there wasn't a violent attempted rape. He just felt up the help, which isn't good, but...” Felt up the help: the phrase he used was un troussage de domestique. That hit a nerve. No one was fooled. “Bonnes à tout faire”, women “good for anything,” were common in bourgeois households up through the 50s and 60s and sometimes her duties included enduring assault from the man of the house and his son. “Troussage de domestique = viol” (rape) tersely commented one reader of L'Express. The phrase appeared in news stories and stickers attached to lampposts alike. The outrage was so palpable he resigned from the magazine he founded and quit journalism altogether.

French women are coming forward to tell their stories. Clementine Autain, feminist and former Communist elected official, revealed on her blog that she had been raped. The newspaper Liberation ran a major cover story on sexism in politics, with testimonies across the spectrum, from the Greens to the right-wing UMP. A female UMP député made a point of not being in the National Assembly when the député seated next to her was present. She would ask him for documents and be answered, “Je te les donne si tu baises avec moi” ( “I'll give them to you if you fuck me.”) Another official, Georges Tron, was just forced to resign after charges of rape and harassment. Rachida Dati, former justice minister, hopes the door won't slam too quickly on this story, because there's much more to tell. And these are powerful, privileged women. There's a sense of before and after DSK here—that somehow shit has got to change.

It's also come to light that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was an equal-opportunity rapist. Social position meant nothing to him if he sensed an opportunity to overpower a woman. A French journalist from a highly privileged background, Tristane Banone, recounted her assault by DSK—the ex-husband of her godmother--on television as far back as 2008. Her own mother, Anne Mansouret, a Socialist elected official, dissuaded her from pressing charges; they went to then leader of the Socialist party, François Hollande (now a leading candidate after DSK's downfall). He listened sympathetically and did nothing. She had depression and professional problems as a result, and DSK's arrest has re-traumatized her: she will not speak to the press or testify. The fact that Banone is not poor, an immigrant, or a woman of color does not make her assault any less life-changing than Diallo's was.

Yet Diallo has exercised a power that the most well-off of DSK's French victims could, or would, not—she pressed charges. The fact that this was even possible is due to the groundwork laid by American feminists a generation ago; New York City's Special Victims Unit, which handled this case, was established in the 70s. This has not gone unnoticed here in France. I attended the rally that Tiger dismissed and spoke with several women. One told me American feminists have done good work (“elles ont fait du bon travail”).

Let us return to the anonymous sign-bearer, a pretty ordinary looking person in a crowd comprising militant lesbians, trans women, leftist parties and male allies, all present to speak out publicly against the sexism and in defense of the victim. When, in the few harried days of organizing, between work, dinner and laundry, was she supposed to resolve France's colonial legacy? The promulgators of Françafrique, the dictator-friendly policy of France towards its former colonies, were all men with names like DeGaulle, Mitterand and Giscard D'Estaing, but it's an anonymous woman bearing a sign who is singled out for scolding. Tiger's attitude towards her isn't dialogue-opening or coalition-building. It's just more of, You're a woman, you're supposed to solve the world's relationship problems, you didn't do that, so you fail.

This isn't zero-sum. Colonized women need freedom, rights and agency. Women need to be able to participate in society without attacks on their person. Degradation, violence and oppression based on sex is always wrong.

Do feminists relish the opportunity to become more self-aware and aware of others, increasing our effectiveness in the world? Yes. Is it easy? No, it's hard. Do we respond to local problems with locally appropriate tactics? Yes. Should we worry about bloggers half a world away while we're busy fighting a wildfire? Probably not.

A rape occurs in France every 15 minutes. We are all chambermaids, indeed.

I will close with another, media-unfriendly sign I saw at the same rally:

"In a Catholic bourgeois milieu
- Beaten by her father as a child
- Raped by a stranger at 16
- Attacked by an aroused voyeur at 19
- Subject to raciste and sexist ostracism by a boss at 45

I said to the bearer “Vous êtes une femme de courage.”
She answered, “C'est mon coming-out.”


“Ophelia”, le comité de soutien à Nafissatou Diallo. Text in French and English equally condemns the sexism, racism and Islamophobia revealed by the reaction to DSK's arrest.

“La Françafrique: 50 années sous le sceau du secret” Documentary on French policy in Africa. The one female name on the DVD cover is Eva Joly, formerly and investigating judge who put the CEO of a major oil company behind bars and now a prominent Green.

Comité de soutien à Nafissatou Diallo - comité de soutien à Nafissatou Diallo
Site officiel de l'écrivain Claude Ribbe

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