In France, long regarded by foreigners as a country that is comfortable with bodies and sexuality, a debate about dress codes has revealed a deeper reality. Women’s bodies are still policed and sexualized — a trend that comes as no surprise to minority, and particularly Muslim, women in the country.
Last month, the hashtag #lundi14septembre (Monday, Sept. 14) spread on social media to protest strict dress codes and sexist comments targeting female students. Some young women complained about being humiliated by members of teaching staffs; one parent shared the story of a math teacher who told a teenager wearing a tank top that her “neckline was too conspicuous” and called her outfit “vulgar.”
The Sept. 14 movement, which was meant to confront these views, invited students in middle and high schools to attend classes on that day in “skirts, necklines and crop tops,” or in any outfit that would be labeled “provocative” or “obscene” according to schools’ internal regulations.
In response, French Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer announced a peculiar clothing standard for female high school students, calling on them to dress “in a republican style.” He said that everything should “be all right” for girls as long as they “dress normally” — whatever that means. He later made his thoughts more explicit: “You don’t go to school as you would to the beach or a nightclub.”
Blanquer was mocked and criticized for his comments. People reminded him that Marianne, the fictitious woman who symbolizes the French Republic, is often represented with a bare breast. And Marlène Schiappa and Elisabeth Moreno, two female ministers in the government, supported the movement, saying that “everybody is free to dress the way they want.”
But some took Blanquer’s recommendations seriously. Renowned conservative philosopher Alain Finkielkraut commented, “Some teachers say that it distracts boys,” adding disturbingly: “When I see a girl with a crop top in the street, I am distracted.”
This attitude sexualizes women’s bodies and leads to harassment. Labeling an outfit as “provocative” implies that it is the reason for the violence faced by women, taking blame away from the true culprit. It is a manifestation of the rape culture that allows sexual predators to walk away from their responsibilities.
The consequence is that some women are unfairly requested to remove themselves from public spaces. We have already seen this happen: Recently, the Musée d’Orsay, which is one of the most prestigious attractions in Paris, denied entry to a woman because she was wearing a low-cut dress.
That event echoed a larger context in which women’s clothing choices are constantly policed and shamed.
A few weeks ago, as a female student leader who happens to be Muslim was taking part in a hearing at the National Assembly, a member of Parliament walked out theatrically, saying that she could not “accept that a person appears in a hijab before a parliamentary inquiry committee.” She later wrote on Twitter that the Muslim covering was in conflict with her “feminist” beliefs. Others in attendance also left the room.
How can a woman invoke feminism to decide what women can wear and which spaces they can inhabit? For decades, France has debated the bodies of Muslim girls and women — even banning niqabs and burqas in the streets and hijabs in high schools. In the name of feminism, to patronizingly “emancipate” women from themselves, or in the name of an erroneous and restrictive interpretation of “laïcité” (French secularism), the fact that some Muslim women have chosen to cover themselves has long been met with resistance.
Since at least 1989, the recurring debate on headscarves has generated much consternation in the public sphere — and created room to make the control of women’s bodies acceptable. When a society normalizes discussing how some girls should dress, it opens a door to restrict the freedom for all girls.
Weighing in on what other women should wear is now so deeply rooted in the French psyche that recently a news magazine commissioned a controversial poll on the subject. The list of questions included: “Would you like public high schools to ban the following outfits: no bra, a low neckline, a crop top, tank top with appearing straps?” Ominously, a majority of survey respondents expressed strong opposition to the freedom of female students to wear what they want in high school.
In an incredible role reversal, girls are now made responsible for the way their bodies are scrutinized — and are forced to realize that their young bodies are already sexualized. Boys and men do not face the same questions. For young people, choice of clothing is a common and important way to assert individuality. Whether it is a case of Muslim women wearing hijabs or high school students wearing crop tops, adults and society at large are projecting their own fears onto those who are in the process of discovering their bodies and sexualities.
At a point in life when they are learning to assert themselves, girls should be protected and empowered — not made to feel guilty for their choices.
Rokhaya Diallo is a French journalist, writer and filmmaker.