When someone travels alone abroad, you run into the cultural norms of the country that you find yourself in. As a woman travelling abroad alone, one of those norms is the level and manner of sexual harassment that you face. Sexual harassment isn’t some bizarre foreign custom, it happens all the time in Scotland, but when you are culturally accustomed to its manifestation you tend to observe it less, and also have pre-developed methods of dealing with it. When abroad the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – shifts in what is considered “acceptable” harrassment make it both more obvious and more difficult to deal with.
In Greece, harassment tends to be more overt. Cars will slow down beside you at the side of the road and shout out to you, men will approach you in the street and when talking to a man in a cafe, touching of your arm, your shoulder or your leg is seen as quite acceptable, regardless of whether you are comfortable with such. In France, the harassment is more subtle: men will stare, ask for your number, approach you, hog your time and attention and ignore your demands to be left alone. As with many other places, men take up disproportionate amounts of public space, crowding out women and invading their privacy and autonomy. Street harassment is one thing, but sexual harassment in the workplace is even more serious. Where women’s means of survival and income are polluted by harassment, this impacts on their ability to function in the workplace. It is therefore horrific that earlier this month France repealed the law on workplace sexual harassment
Rage du Nuit last night was an attempt to take back some of that public space. In the tradition of SlutWalk and Reclaim the Night, it marched along the streets of Paris demanding women’s autonomy and liberation. The march assembled in the south west of the southwest of the city, with homemade placards, banners and a good number of megaphones. There was no predetermined route, other than it seemed a vague northward direction, so at each junction the march concatenated while we determined which way we would go next. A few were designated to stop the traffic to allow the march to pass, while others on megaphones made it certain that Paris would know that there were angry women on the streets, as we chanted slogans and rounded on those who seeked to mock. Passing the police station we managed to pick up a plan clothes police escort, which was entirely unwelcome. The march was explicitly feminist only, with a solid Black and LGBT contingent, men however were not welcome on the march, so it was disappointing that the police instructed a male officer to accompany the march and another to follow behind in an unmarked police car, although I think their frustration was as great as our own as they spent the best part of three hours trying to obtain a named contact for liaison and being ignored.
Mostly march was good natured, with people leaning out of the classic Parisian balconies to cheer us on, and coming out of cafes to watch us pass, however as we went down Rue Oberkampf the mood changed. Nearing closing time, intoxicated men came out of bars to shout and hassle the march. Several started jostling the women on the edge, pushing them and mocking. I was told that such men were called “Kiki” – men who believe they are god’s gift and street harass women. After a semi-violent confrontation, where a man who had attempted to assault one of the marchers was surrounded and and left in no uncertain terms that his behaviour was unacceptable, another man tried to drive straight through the march, endangering the safety of a number of women. Finding his car surrounded by several hundred angry feminists he believed his best move was to get out of the car to remonstrate in person. He may not have been the brightest pea in the pod but finally changed his mind, after a little gentle persuasion. Seeing his opportunity for escape he jumped in the car and quickly exited followed by a few parting gifts tossed towards him by the assembled crowd. The harassment of the march and of individual women on it continued all the way down the street, with a number of men walking beside the march – mocking, shouting abuse and mooning. One has to ask what are they so afraid of.
France is of course the homeland of Dominique Strauss Khan, the rapist who used to head up the IMF. The accumulated rape accusations against him now stand at eighteen, not including the additional allegations of sexual harassment and still the allegations keep coming, and where George Tron, a junior minister also resigned last year over allegations of sexual harassment. It would appear that sexual harassment is ingrained and normalised within French political culture with even a suggestion that Hollande – France’s new Prime Minister, knew about DSK’s abusive tendancies
It was therefore quite shocking on the march when I mentioned the DSK case that several of the women were skeptical of the allegations – suggesting that in particular the latest allegations were an attempt by Sarkozy to undermine the socialist campaign, questioning whether Diallo could have been put up to discredit DSK and even suggesting that the latest allegations: the gang-rape of prostitutes by a number of men including DSK could be a method of attempting to undermine moves towards sexual liberation. If there are questions being raised about the veracity and integrity of Diallo within what appears to be a strong and vibrant feminist movement in France, what the hell is the rest of France like?!
It is simply inconceivable that an immigrant Black female worker with much to lose and little to gain from randomly alleging sexual assault against a powerful and wealthy man, with diplomatic protection would make up such a story. It is ridiculous to think that a global conspiracy to bring down DSK would choose as problematic a femme fatale as Diabio. It is stupid to think that a police force so well known for covering up and obscuring incidents of rape would choose to arrest a high profile offender like DSK on the basis of flimsy evidence.
Of course all public events attract those with a range of conciousnesses, and in a society where sexual harassment is so normalised that men believe they can mock, assault and demean women demanding with impunity on the streets and where there is no legal protection of women faced with sexual harassment in the workplace during a period of austerity, where people’s fears over their job security are likely to see them silenced over workplace sexual abuse.
It is only through the individual courage of Diallo and the support and solidarity given to her by her union that France is not governed by a serial rapist within a legal context where the modern form of droit de seigneur may become the modus operandi of the workplace. As was chanted on the march last night (more poetically in French than in my mangled English translation), to break the silence around violence is to practice self defense.
Other Paris dispatches from Second Council House of Virgo