The Cecile Duflot case has not been the only attack on women in France in recent months. In the spring, the Constitutional Council – the French equivalent to the Supreme Court – annulled the law banning sexual harassment on the grounds that the concept was badly defined. This decision was unanimously criticized, as the Council chose to annul it rather than to suspend it until modification. The consequence of this decision was to leave the country without any legislation banning sexual harassment for almost three months. New legislation was passed in July.
This decision was even more scandalous because it was reconsidered after former minister Gerard Ducray was condemned for sexual harassment in 2010 and he appealed the legitimacy of the law. The Council’s decision lifted his sentence and annulled his condemnation. However, few people know that Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac and Jacques Barrot, respectively President, Prime Minister and Minister in the same government as Ducray, are three of the 12 members of the Constitutional Council. This proximity between the accused and the Council led to suspicion of a conflict of interest decision made at the expense of women rights.
Meanwhile, a Belgian student, Sofie Peeters, revealed in a shocking documentary on how soft forms of sexual harassment are exerted unpunished every day in the country. Filmed with a hidden camera, the documentary, called “Femme de la rue” or “Women of the street”, showed how men openly consider women dressing “sexy” as sluts. For wearing a dress, the filmmaker was insulted on a daily basis. She was also offered sexual relations by complete strangers who were then angered by her refusal. The film sparked a debate in France as this behavior is often associated not only with men but stereotypically with men of Arab origin. Peeters explained that her documentary showed mostly Arab men because she was living in a poor neighborhood, not because of a racist implication.
The debate then linked to another more recurrent debate in the country regarding Muslim women wearing veils. During the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee authorized female athletes from Saudi Arabia to compete wearing the veil. For the French anti-veil supportrers – among whom are both active feminists as well as racists – the decision was the symbol of a new step backwards on women rights. For them, the veil represents the past, the domination of men over women and it must be fought everywhere for the emancipation of women around the world.
These arguments may be true but those activists are forgetting something important. The fact that these women are allowed to compete in the Olympics is a huge sign of progress. It creates a dynamic in the right direction towards freedom. Indeed, there is a desire to be feminine in the Middle East too, as shown by the recent high numbers of lingerie sales in Saudi Arabia. This is often misses to the defenders of women rights. In Europe and America, it is normal to be shocked by minor infringements on women’s rights such as the Duflot case because there is a more developed history of the concept of women’s rights. However it is important to understand that traditional societies need time to evolve. In the long run, they will be forced to change by the dynamics of globalization as no society or government is able to censor the whole liberal content of the World Wide Web.
At the same time, we must remain vigilant and denounce the unacceptable. For example, on August 21, a 12-year-old Christian girl with Down’s syndrome was arrested in Pakistan for blasphemy and might be sentenced to death for burning Koran’s verses. Hopefully, the intervention of the Pakistani President will allow her to release the sentence. These kind of laws, as well as the stoning to death of women in Iran for adultery, are nauseating and must never to be tolerated. However, more generally, our role is to encourage any progress, no matter how small and fight any step backwards.
This article is part of an Opinion series on the state of Women rights. The first part dealt with the machismo of the French political sphere.
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