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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

French women love liberty

Returning to France on professional work,friends and business associates suddenly bombarded me with questions on how outrageously dangerous India has become for women

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Published: April 7, 2013 12:54:32 am

Returning to France on professional work,friends and business associates suddenly bombarded me with questions on how outrageously dangerous India has become for women. I’ve always heard them say India is a country they’d love to visit,but now that’s radically changed. Since last December’s fatal gangrape of a 23-year-old girl in a Delhi bus,and several sexual assaults on women including the March 15 gangrape of a Swiss woman on a cycling holiday in Madhya Pradesh,the French Embassy in India has warned women to take “extra caution” when visiting India. Many French tour operators are issuing travel advisory alerts; one has refused to book women travelling alone or in pairs. India’s image of spiritual serenity is clearly fading out. Industry body ASSOCHAM surveyed 1,200 tour operators from different Indian cities and found 72 per cent had cancellations from Western women visitors in this busy winter season.

Irrespective of their fear,does it mean all is well “back home” for Western women? Let’s take a look at my adopted country,France,and her deeply rooted patriarchal culture.

Vanessa,the 27-year-old daughter of my friend,said French women want to study,earn well,travel the world,get established as professionals or entrepreneurs,and buy an apartment,all by the age of 30. A higher proportion of women than men (28 per cent as against 25 per cent according to Eurostat) have higher education qualifications. Independence is their aim; marriage is on stand-by. Career is Vanessa’s top priority. When her boyfriend’s dominant attitude and lifestyle got in the way,she asked him to leave.

But not ready to accept emotional blackmail or pity,women who are bringing up children alone or with a boyfriend are facing a stressful life. Children tend to be very demanding on the mother’s time,time which she has very little of as she handles a full-time professional job too. When she tries to discipline them,they accuse and blame her for the divorce. The father pampers the child during his periodic visits that were agreed upon during the divorce. Actually the children resent a stepfather,considering him an outsider who’s stolen their mother’s affection. So the woman has to take the entire brunt of being the central villain between the children and her second or third husband or boyfriend. It can become a nerve-racking situation,quite cynical and tense.

Women’s rights,gender equality and combating gender-based violence have been actively promoted and defended by the French government as key human rights priorities. France has been the instigator and implementer of several UN resolutions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and ‘Women,Peace and Security’. In January 2013,Malala Yousafzai,the young Pakistani human rights campaigner seeking girls’ right to education,was awarded the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom.

Yet,till the first week of February 2013,women were legally forbidden from wearing pants in the French capital since 1799. This law,which came after the 1789 French Revolution when women renegades wore long trousers,read: “Any woman who wants to dress as a man must come to police headquarters to get permission.” In the 19th century,France amended the law to accommodate horseback riding and bicycles,saying “pantalons” would be allowed only if women were “holding the handlebars of a bicycle or the reins of a horse.” Although not enforced in the 20th and 21st centuries,the French government finally,after decades of outcry from feminist lobby groups,revoked the 214-year-old law that had banned Parisian women from wearing pants.

In fact,in a bid to end a form of discrimination that’s demeaning to women,the term “mademoiselle (Miss)” was officially struck out from French government documents last year. Even “maiden name” and “married name” were removed so that women were not forced to reveal their marital status. Instead,the honorific “madame” is used for all women,equivalent to “monsieur (Mr)” for men.

Yet,as per a World Economic Forum gender equality chart,French women rank low in political empowerment,earn 26 per cent less than men but spend double the time on domestic tasks. Among European women,they have the most babies,the government encourages them to do so,but they consume anti-depressants the most. France spends 1.5 per cent of GDP to provide among the best facilities for childcare,education and health to help reconcile family and working life. French women get 16 weeks of paid maternity leave,parental education leave,and are guaranteed the right to return to their jobs,after a period of time they themselves choose.

France has legalised abortion since 1975 (see how it happened at this link and declared the state will reimburse 100 per cent the cost of abortions from April 1,2013. Also,15 to 18-year-old girls are offered access to free and anonymous birth control.

French philosophers and writers like Simone de Beauvoir and Helene Cixous have influenced the acceptance of feminism in developed countries,yet French patriarchy makes sexism an attitude that men live by. French women are traditionally demure and poised,never coarse and vulgar,yet in contemporary society they hunger for liberty. French men hold the door for women to pass through and pour the wine at dinner. This finesse is cultural,but it forments male chauvinistic behaviour. In spite of having 50 per cent women ministers in President Francois Hollande’s government,French society is still pro-men. As summed up by Elsa Dorlin,associate professor at the Sorbonne,“In civil society,there is a hugely anti-feminist mentality.”

Shombit is an international consultant to top management on differentiating business strategy with execution excellence (

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