Thursday, August 20, 2009

Of creepy men and mosquitoes

I am suffering from acute moving angst. I'm supposed to start my new job in the UK in ten days, and as of now I maybe have an apartment (they're having trouble getting a reference from my French landlord - well duh), I maybe have a moving company, I have an idea of when I want to fly out, but I am very worried that my work visa won't be ready in time. The visa folks have my passport, too, so no chance that I could go to UK, set up house and come back to France to pick it up. Nope. Sorry.

I'm also dreading going back to the visa processing centre to pick it up, since it's in a scummy suburban neighbourhood and I felt really uncomfortable going there before and taking abuse from the men who hang around the bus station. And this, dear readers, is one of my two major frustrations of France in the summer: creepy men. (I promise I will deal with the summery joys of Paris in a later post. Right now I'm cranky).

Creepy men were one of the reasons I was so unhappy when I first moved here. It's a seasonal issue: once the clocks change in October I can go about my business unharassed. But in the summer months I get catcalls, nasty comments, and vulgar gestures nearly every time I leave the house. It's humiliating and it makes me angry, and it touches on a much broader, very sensitive issue. Most of these men are not 'francais de souche,' or French in ethnic origin: they, or their parents or grandparents, are from the former French colonies in North Africa. As a colonial historian I understand all too well the issues facing this community: the way they fueled the economic growth of post-war France, but feel they reaped none of the benefits; the discrimination they face in hiring; the traumatic memories of the Algerian war; the way suburbs were poorly constructed and badly maintained, leading to ghettoisation. I'm also horrified by the language and arguments of the anti-immigration extreme right in France.

A few years ago French law was clarified to state that the 1905 law on secularisation (laicite) means that religious symbols should be banned in public institutions, like schools. This means, for example, that a teacher should not be wearing a crucifix. But the main reason it was controversial was that it also means that women and girls cannot wear the hijab, or Muslim veil.

Before moving to France I felt quite uncomfortable with this law. I felt that it was a violation of religious freedom, an unwarranted (racist?) attack on the Muslim community, a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11, and an infantilizing and neocolonial move: you, Muslim women, are oppressed and do not know it - you need our help to progress. We know what's best for you.

Living in a Parisian suburb has changed my feelings about this law, in ways that I'm not fully at ease with. Last summer I saw one of the nasty creeps who had made a vulgar comment in the morning, strolling around with his veiled wife later in the afternoon. I'll never truly understand the complex reasons why some women choose to wear a hijab, but I knew there was a problem when my first instinct in responding to the harassment was to change the way I dress. Maybe I was showing too much skin - maybe I was provocative? Ridiculous, MCM replied. It's summer. You should be able to show your arms without being harassed. We debated whether these men were trying to embarrass or intimidate me into covering up - acting as morality police - or whether they were getting off on Western women while expecting their own to cover up. Either way, it sickens me.

I feel extremely uncomfortable with some of the conclusions you could draw from this. But I do believe strongly in gender equality, and I've come to the conclusion that you don't have equality when women are expected to cover all their skin and face harassment when they don't. What I still don't know is how to deal with the issue when I'm faced with it on the street.

The other serious frustration in summertime in Paris is much more straightforward. Mosquitoes, biting, buzzing and waking me up in the night. Honestly, French people: screens! In the windows! How can you not have screens? Dr Mmm, who is visiting Paris, commiserates with me - she also has that mosquito delicacy, pale Irish skin, and gets enormous welts from the bites. It's awful and if anyone else tells me to just get a citronella candle, I'll lose it.

Summertime rant over. Thank you.


  1. Hmmm...that's a lot to think about. I never had that problem, but I wasn't there in the hottest part of the summer, and mostly traveling during the rest of the summer.

    I know that some Muslim women choose to wear hajib for different reasons, so it hasn't bothered me. In fact, there's a woman in my class here in the States who wears a headdress and floor-length skirt every day. She seems quite intelligent and happy; more than me, perhaps! Not that there aren't women out there who wish for the freedom to choose their own clothing; I just wouldn't automatically assume that every veiled woman is being oppressed.

    As for the catcalls, I felt different about it in France than in the US. It seemed to be more of an expected, non-threatening communication; French men too seemed more vocal about their appreciation, and women didn't seem to take it as a first step toward assault. Which is the way most American women take it, I think. At least, I do.

    On the other hand, it's been over 10 years since I was in Paris, and the world has changed a great deal since then. Especially in the way that Islam and the West interact/intersect/ I guess the above is just a collection of my reflections, for whatever it's worth.

  2. Oh, I absolutely recognise that many women freely choose to veil themselves and I don't assume that they are oppressed - plus, it's a bit absurd to assume I somehow know better than a complete stranger whether she is oppressed or not!

    I think what I've been experiencing is not men trying to flirt with me, but men trying to intimidate me and enjoying making me uncomfortable. And I think it's something that you probably don't experience as much in the more touristed areas of Paris, but more in the outer arrondissements and suburbs.

    (May I also say that your reflections are always worth a lot, Flartus!)

  3. Flartus, I don't know if women read this kind of thing as a first step towards assault, but I have encountered some of what AP is talking about, and given the rate of gang-rapes in the banlieue it may well be on the same spectrum.
    I agree too that there's a distinction between the "hey baby" from a construction site, and the intimidatory sexual harassment.
    I understand the complexity of the oppression issue: what if a woman chooses to wear a hijab?
    But at the same time, creating a space for an attitude that a woman who isn't veiled is an acceptable target for harassment or worse, should not be acceptable in a liberal society.

  4. Just checking in...hope things are going okay with the move & all!!


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