The body feminine: A summons to appear

By and copyright 2018, 2019 Fatima Khemilat
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Editor / Translator’s Note: With the recent umpteenth resurgence – instigated by a member of a far right political party who excoriated a Muslim parent accompanying a school field trip to a public meeting for wearing a head scarf, entirely legal in France – of the tired national (media) debate over the Muslim veil, instead of jumping into the melee by regurgitating our own tired point of view, we decided it was time to translate a scholarly essay, based on sound scholarly research, which goes beyond this particular polemic to explore larger (and largely unresolved) societal issues relating to the presence of women – and the female body – in the public commons in France which this and other recent debates reflects. A doctor in political sciences from the  Institut d’études  politiques in Aix-en-Provence (CHERPA), Fatima Khemilat is a lecturer at the university Paris-Est Créteil specializing in relations between the Muslim religion and public authorities. Numbered footnotes are the author’s. Lettered footnotes – and any opinions expressed therein —  and bracketed comments, with a couple of exceptions intended to illuminate several references whose meaning might not be apparent to readers outside France, are the translator’s. Because of latent confusion (on the part of the public and the translator, not the author) over the meaning of ‘voile integral’ – literally, veil entire or veil complete – sometimes called the niqab, which generally speaking covers the lower face but not necessarily the eyes, and should not be confounded with either the burka or the hijab (head-scarf) – in certain instances below we’ve kept the original French terminology in order to respect the integrity of the author’s intended meaning. The following essay was originally published in  les Cahiers du Développement Social Urbain,  no. 68, second semester 2018, and is translated and published with the permission of the author. After several attempts to do justice in the translation to the wordplay in the original title without sacrificing its intended meaning, we gave up. That title:  Le corps des femmes : une assignation à (par)être. Like what you’re reading? Please consider making a donation today by designating your payment in dollars or Euros via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask how to donate by check. Don’t read English? Drop us a note and, to the extent that the author permits, we’ll drop you the French original. Today’s translation and publication of this article sponsored by Freespace Dance.

The unequal access of women to public spaces has been the object of a major body of scientific and activist literature. This inequality relies on an anthropologically gendered division of territories and of the functions relegated to them: private spaces with their domestic and reproductive tasks have been allotted to women, and public spaces structured by and for men, who see themselves awarded the tasks considered as the most noble and complex. This sexualized apportioning of jurisdictions is still the rule today because if women now have access to public spaces, it’s an access that is conditional. Women are seen as available objects whose essential purpose is to attract.  Their principle capital, to employ Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology, thus relies on their physical attributes, their desirability. So that masculine domination “constitutes women as symbolic objects in which the being (esse) is a being perceived (percepi) (A), which has the effect of placing them in a state of permanent bodily insecurity or, at best, of symbolic dependence: they exist first and foremost by and for the regard of others, that is to say as welcoming, attractive, and available objects.” (1)

The female body, permanently onstage

This symbolic violence perpetrated on women is incarnated — literally becomes flesh and blood — in their bodies, notably by the injunction to be thin, or what the Moroccan Muslim feminist Fatema Mernissi refers to as “the 36-24-36 harem.” If women residing in conservative countries are circumscribed to living in a physical harem, between four walls, for women in Western societies this containment (B) is their own bodies. It’s as if the body becomes the continuation of the harem, extended as a space of confinement, in the sense that like the harem, it limits their movements and circumscribes their possibilities for emancipation. There is thus a metonymy between the female body and the intimate space. Taking our cue from Naomi Wolf (C) and Pierre Bourdieu in their respective work on masculine domination, these “’body codes’” insidiously paralyze women’s aptitude to enter the corridors of power. The resources of women who do manage to enter into the competition are so dependent on their physical aspects that there’s no question of equal opportunity.”  (2) (C2)

Women are, so to speak, eclipsed by their bodies, which thus transformed into objects are availed of like objects. They’re thus reduced to the materiality of their being, or rather appearance, by recurrent reminders in public spaces, as much immaterial as material.  In its immaterial, or if you prefer virtual, dimensions, the public space refers to the public stage: the media, social networks, Internet, advertising. The female body is over-represented in these domains, reduced to the status of an object to be exhibited, at one’s disposition and up for sale. This hyper-sexualization is never synonymous with power, whereas the representation of the male body in advertising, its eroticization, is associated with the ideal of power, of strength, and of virility. In material public spaces (streets, thoroughfares, other spaces open to the public) women see themselves reminded of their rank as objects by blatant harassment, or what’s known as the “male gaze.” (3) Thus it is that men, by a sort of magic social spell, not only see themselves as authorized — and self-authorized —  to judge, gage, and scrutinize women’s bodies but also to share with them the verdicts of their judgments. The whistles, hoots, and other “flirting techniques” are even presented as flattering, because the objective is attained: Please men, no matter which men, no matter what the price. Women’s bodies are thus not only seen as inherently sexual and therefore desirable (passive) but never desiring (active.)

Public spaces, conditional presence

The hyper-sexualization of the female body has two possible consequences when it comes to spatial segregation. In societies where sexuality is forbidden in certain enclosed spaces, notably for religious reasons, women (objects of temptation) are sent home or directed to female-only spaces: hammam, landry-room, “female-only” sections in places of worship, etcetera. They are allowed to access public spaces under certain conditions: that they demarcate the spatial barrier by covering / dissimulating their hair / bodies, being accompanied by a man, or being accompanied by other women. Women thus don’t occupy the public space, they simply traverse it, in transit. Cafés, restaurants, streets, cybercafés are thus seen as inherently masculine spaces of socialization. On the other hand, in secular societies where sexuality is presented as a depoliticized and/or pacified object, when in reality it never is (cf. the interdiction for women to expose their nude torsos in public, which does not apply to men), women can access public space to a limited degree.

The spatial segregation also takes on the form of a temporal dimension. In a certain sense there are two types of public spaces: the diurnal public space and the nocturnal public space. If it’s more and more admissible that women have access to the former, the latter on the other hand remains by and large a masculine space. It’s as if there’s a curfew which applies to “respectable” women, that is to say those not suspected of being “loose” floozies. After a certain hour, the streets are essentially populated by men, and breaking the tacit curfew subjects women to familiar penalties: street harassment and rape. These last operate as vague sanctions, indicating that the public space is, and remains, above all a space belonging to men.

The injunctions are therefore at the least paradoxical. Women are at the same time expected to be desirable, attractive (make-up, high-heels, tight outfits and other aesthetic accessories which restrict their mobility) and yet not overly so, otherwise they risk being labeled with the stigma of “whore.” The [French] misdemeanor of passive solicitation put in place by the law of March 18, 2003 re-enforces the gender differentiation of the temporal and territorial occupation of public space. The simple fact of a woman finding herself in certain neighborhoods reputed as sectors of prostitution, of being there at an hour considered late, of being dressed in a certain way or, worse, having a few condoms in her purse, is sufficient to constitute the misdemeanor of passive solicitation. It’s the judicial materialization of the temporal and spatial segregation imposed on women.

Women, summoned to limit themselves to a ‘type of feminine purity’

In the same manner, at the other end of the spectrum of feminine stigmas one finds women who wear the partial or full veil. The female body being an object of desire, attempting to dissimulate it and, by so doing, essentially withdraw it from the matrimonial and/or sexual market of the dominant population constitutes an offense now punished by the law in France (Law of October 11, 2010 on non-dissimulation of the visage in public spaces). In secularized countries, the figure of the “respectable woman” or as anthropologists might put it “the symbol of pure femininity” is thus circumscribed between these two extremities by, respectively, the figures of the foil and the scarecrow, of the prostitute and the veiled woman. The two are for that matter seen as having legally limited access to the public space. Respectable women must thus take part in the matrimonial and sexual marketplace, without trying to extract themselves from it by wearing a voile integral or charging for access to it, which might suggest that they control their desire and their sexuality, a privilege reserved for men. [Emphasis added by translator.]  Pure femininity is thus a femininity which simultaneously demonstrates a certain probity and reserve while still remaining accessible.

The July 18 video-taped attack on Marie Laguerre served as the occasion to elevate to the forefront of the public agenda “the battle against sexual and sexist violence,” from which resulted the adaptation of the Law of August 3, 2018 (D). The penalization of street harassment nonetheless was not unanimously applauded by feminist organizations and figures. The latter reproached the discriminatory nature of such a measure, which to a certain extent targets racialized men of modest origins. In effect, reading between the lines, the figure of the “Arab garcon” evoked by Nacira Guénif-Souilamas and Éric Macé (E) is considered to be the real target of the measure, while for their part the dominant white males continue to exercise sexist and sexual violence in the halls of power: in the artistic, political, military, and major business domains, etcetera. The economic and racial dimensions are therefore articulated both as relates to the people committing the acts of violence and those subjected to them.

Of the female body relegated to somewhere else or the altérisation of sexism

In the case of femininities labeled as impure, things are even more flagrant. Historically prostitution districts are situated close to centers of masculine sociability and mobility: train stations, ports, downtowns.  From this fact, these districts and the neighborhoods around them, reputed for being “bad neighborhoods,” are prey to depreciated real estate values. The prostitutes, often represented as being foreigners, are thus progressively turned out to the perimeters of the cities, the suburbs (F), peripheral towns and woods. In the same manner, out of fear that the erecting of a mosque will send real estate values plummeting, certain cities exercise their right of pre-emption or simply refuse to deliver construction permits to push Muslim places of worship out of the cities. Besides this, the law forbidding wearing the niqab [which, as distinct from the hijab or headscarf, covers the lower part of the face though not necessarily the eyes] in public spaces allows for two exceptions: private spaces and mosques. For this reason, and to avoid the public disturbances that the interpellation and legal fining of a woman wearing such a veil might engender, police officers demonstrate a certain indulgence vis-à-vis women [spotted wearing the voile integral] next to mosques which themselves are situated in the suburbs. This is one of the reasons that women who wear the niqab, as with prostitutes, are essentially more visible in the suburbs.

The presence outside of cities of these women regarded (in the eyes of the patriarchy, be it religious or neo-liberal) as inherently submissive participates in the symbolic assignment of sexism to “the lost territories of the Republique” (to employ Emmanuel Brenner’s terminology). In this manner, sexism is framed as coming from an elsewhere (un ailleurs), as symbolic (foreign cultures) as it is territorial, in a spatial, temporal, and civilizational  metonymy: present/city center/European-ness [versus] past/suburb/foreign cultures. This symbolic and territorial circumscription of sexism to the other side of the tracks also enables its embodiment in the figure of the “Arab youth.” This demarcation and this altérisation of masculine domination shrewdly enables remaining silent on and invisibilizing the sexual violence perpetrated on women in the hearts of cities, amongst more privileged social categories. It also more or less enables the defining and unifying of an “us” in a strategy of civilizational differentiation in which the barometer is “the condition of women,” or what the sociologist Eric Fassin qualifies as “sexual democracy.” Certain controversies have thus come to reactivate the idea of an imbrication straddling territorial, gender, racialized, and economic dimensions. In other words, understanding the modalities of the occupation of the public commons by women necessitates realizing a genuine geography of intersectionality, in which women voilées intégra­lement  and prostitutes define, whether we like it or not, the obligatory boundaries.

1. Pierre Bourdieu, “La Domination masculine,” éditions du Seuil, 1998.
2. F. Mernissa, “Le Harem et l’Occident,” éditions Albin Michel, 2001.
3. In English in the original text.

A. Translator’s note (TN): “Esse est percipi” (To be is to be perceived.) – Berkeley

B. TN: In English and italicized in the original text.

C. See Naomi Wolf, “The Beauty Myth.” 1990, Chatto & Windus.
C2. Several years ago the Parliamentarian and president of the French Green party  Cecile Duflot was riddled by several of her male peers for the skirt she was wearing while delivering an address.

D. TN: On July 18, 2018 in Paris – as reported by the Parisian newspaper on July 29, 2018 – a 22-year-old woman named Marie Laguerre was assaulted (before witnesses and as recorded on video-tape) by a man after she refused to accept obscene remarks she said had been proffered at her. The incident – and a years-long campaign against sexual harassment on the streets of Paris and public transit – prompted the passage by the French legislature of the law of August 3, 2018, which sets out penalties for several forms of sexual aggression and harassment.

E. TN: Nacira Guénif-Souilamas is a French anthropologist and sociologist specializing in questions of gender and ethnicity, immigration and integration, and racial, cultural, and social stereotypes. Eric Macé’s work in sociology focuses on power rapports, notably in the cultural and media spheres and as relates to gender and ethnicity.

F. TN: The French term ‘banlieu’ doesn’t necessarily describe the same population, social, living, and economic conditions as found in the American equivalent suggested by the most obvious translation, ‘suburbs,’ at least in the Parisian context. While both are on the outskirts of a large city and there are certainly some well-to-do ‘banlieus’ outside of Paris, in general the banlieus are more ‘cosmopolite’ than their U.S. counterparts, home to numerous ‘cités’ or public housing projects, and economically modest to poor, with youth unemployment in some banlieus as high as 40 percent in recent years. According to some commentators – often from the Right but also including some leading feminists nominally considered on the Left – some of the cafés and bars in some of the neighborhoods of some of the banlieus are ‘no-fly’ zones for women. (My analysis here as throughout in these translator’s notes doesn’t necessarily reflect the author’s point of view.) My own – strictly anecdotal – evidence belies this reading: Living in the immediate Paris suburb of the prè-St.-Gervais earlier this year (down the street from a store-front mosque; I recognized it as a mosque by the pairs of shoes carefully deposited on the sidewalk outside on Fridays), if I remarked that the clients of the bar-café across the street were mostly men in their 20s to late 50s, many probably residents of the nearby Rabelais public housing project, I also observed that the occasional female client who entered for her morning coffee (or late-morning ‘petite blanc’) was welcome. And the male clients who lingered on the sidewalk were regularly subjected to (what sounded to my non-Arab speaking ears like) good-natured haranguing from the hijab (headscarf)-wearing babushka who lived upstairs.

 

Translated excerpts from Lola Lafon’s ‘Mercy, Mary, Patty’

Lola Lafon ©Lynn S. K.Lola Lafon. Photography copyright Lynne S.K. .

Excerpts from “Mercy, Mary, Patty” by Lola Lafon
Original text copyright 2017 Actes Sud
Translation by and copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

“It’s impossible to stand by neutrally on the sidelines without anger in this world where everything is rigged, where the only thing that is not divided is money and where the only thing that is spread around is the heart.”

–Paul Nizan, “The Conspiracy” (1928), cited on the frontispiece of “Mercy, Mary, Patty”

You write the disappearing teenaged girls. You write these missing persons who cut the umbilical cord to search out new horizons and embrace them indiscriminately, elusive, their minds shutting out adults. You ask why we feel this brutal need to convince them to “just be reasonable.” You write the rage of these young women who, at night, from the bedrooms where they’re still surrounded by their stuffed animals, dream up victorious escapes, then climb aboard ramshackle buses , trains, and strangers’ cars, shunning the road for the rubble.

“Mercy, Mary, Patty,” your book published in 1977 in the U.S., is dedicated to them and has just been re-issued, augmented with a preface by you and a brief publisher’s note. It’s not yet been translated in France. It concludes with acknowledgments as well as your biography, from your degrees in American Literature, History, and Sociology through the teaching positions you’ve held: the University of Chicago in 1973, the College of the Dunes, France, in 1974-75, assistant professor at the University of Bologna in 1982 and, finally, professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Articles appearing in the academic journals over the past few months tout the importance of your work, magazines question what they dub your ‘rehabilitation.’ The New Yorker consecrates two columns to you: “A controversial theory: Neveva Gene and the capsized teenage girls, from Mercy Short in 1690 to Patricia Hearst in 1974.” To read more on our sister site the Maison de Traduction, please click here. PBI’s translation of Lola Lafon’s”Mercy, Mary, Patty” is looking for an English-language publisher. Got any ideas? E-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Paul is also looking for a sous-location ou échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail)  en région Parisienne. Le contacter à artsvoyager@gmail.com .