“Liberty Guiding the People”, by Eugène Delacroix, 1830. This image has been often conflated with that of Marianne, an allegorical figure representing the French Republic, who is typically not shown with bare breasts. And she has also been misused recently by a certain French prime minister, who has seized this image to beat up on women who dare to bathe in modest, head-covering swimwear. Aude Lorriaux, writing for the French edition of Slate, takes him to task:
French prime minister Manuel Valls, who was in a meeting at Colomiers on Monday, August 29, made a declaration much discussed on social media and in the press:
“Marianne has bare breasts because she feeds the people, she isn’t veiled because she is free! That’s what the Republic is!”
With these declarations, the prime minister contrasts the freedom of bare-breasted women, represented by Marianne, to the supposed absence of freedom of veiled women, subjected to an authoritarian ideology.
That’s false from a historical point of view, as historian Mathilde Larrère remarked during a much documented tweet-story, wherein she explains that Marianne is an allegory of the Republic, and has nothing to do with women’s freedom. If they chose a woman to represent the Republic, it was to create “a counterweight to masculine representations of kings”. Claiming that Marianne is free because she is bare-breasted, the historian explains, is to forget that the century of Marianne, the 19th, was also the “century of the Civil Code, which reduced women to the status of minors and forbade them the vote”.
But it’s also a form of political instrumentalization, a swindle full of lies. Manuel Valls makes it seem that he is defending the right of women to show their bare breasts, since the 5th Republic has never condemned bare-breasted women for “sexual exhibition” except under his leadership.
This crime, let us recall, punishes women who want to bare their torsos when it’s hot outside, since men are never bothered when their shirts come off. The penal code specifies, as well:
“Sexual exhibition, imposed upon the gaze of others in an area accessible to the public eye, is punishable by a year’s imprisonment, and a 15,000 euro fine.”
The law does not specify what are “sexual” parts, and whether they are different for men and women, but in practice, the courts have never condemned men for exhibiting their torsos. It’s always been women who were guilty. And the local laws, in general, are more explicit.
At Paris beaches, bathing suits are allowed, but the monokini is strictly forbidden, and considered a sexual exhibition. The regulations of Paris swimming pools also clearly forbid bare breasts. The women of the Les Tumultueuses collective, who tried to bathe bare-breasted at the Georges Vallerey pool in 2009 to protest that ban, were able to prove it, since they were forced out of the pool by gendarmes after just one quarter of an hour.
In 1965, a bare-breasted woman playing ping-pong on the beach was prosecuted and sentenced. Years later, there was still no change in judicial prosecutions. But these recent years have been particularly prolific with regard to a sort of return to moral order, principally against Femen militants who demonstrate bare-breasted.
Éloïse Bouton was sentenced in December 2014 under this law to a month in prison with reprieve for having protested in this manner in the church of the Madeleine. A Ukrainian militant, Iana Zhdanova, was sentenced the same year to a 1,500-euro fine. And three other Femen members were prosecuted for the same reason in Lille in 2015, before being let go. The “Hommen”, male militants opposed to marriage who demonstrate bare-chested, have never themselves been bothered.
Maître Marie Dosé, Iana Zhdanova’s lawyer, presented a prioritized constitutional question on the matter before the Paris court of appeal, which will be examined in October 2016. She maintains that the fact of prosecuting bare-torsoed women, and not men, constitutes a breach of equality of men and women in the eyes of the law.
Why, in fact, consider women’s breasts as sexual parts, and not the torsos of men, who often like to be caressed there? This cliché, that breasts are a particularly erogenous zone for women, has been recently swept away by a scientific study, which asked men and women to note on a scale of 1 to 10, the intensity of sexual excitement created by 41 zones of their bodies. The result appears to show no fundamental difference between men and women. The primary erogenous zones are situated in the same places for both sexes: penis and testicles for men, clitoris and vagina for women.
Women have certainly given higher marks than men to other zones, such as “the back, the nape of the neck, the hips, the inner thighs, the mouth and lips, the shoulders, the belly and the wrists”. But just think — the top of the nape got a higher mark than the breasts (7.5 vs. 7.3). Should one thus conclude that women must cover up their napes, and that exposing them to men’s eyes constitutes a sexual exhibition?
If Manuel Valls really thinks that bare breasts are a symbol of the freedom of women, which they don’t have, let’s take him at his word, and demand of him to apply in fact a strict equality between men and women. He doesn’t have to do anything but imitate New York City, which has allowed bare breasts since 1992, in amending the laws about sexual exhibition. And to send, in addition, an instruction to prosecutors that they cease to prosecute bare-breasted women. After all, the five-year term in which he has been exercising his functions is now the one that has been most condemned by women who dared to show their breasts.
Goodness gracious me, what a can of worms this opens up! I’m going to have to stop wearing my hair in ponytails, braids or buns on hot days, as it exposes my very tender, very erogenous nape to the elements…and men’s rapacious eyes! No, better to just leave it all hanging in a frizzy, sweaty cloud. Of course, since my hair is long, thick and curly, it’s going to be hotter than Hades, and prickly and uncomfortable. But if that’s what I must do in order not to be arrested for sexual display, well, so be it — right?
And if the above sounds ludicrous to you, well, consider the implications. Women in burkinis veil themselves (and their napes!) for the same reason, when you get right down to it, as women who don’t dare wear monokinis even though they get the steaming boob-sweats in the dog days, and end up longing for cold weather just to see an end of the torment.
The reason? Male sexual harassment.
Yes, mes ami(e)s, that’s right — the women of France, Muslim and otherwise, are all subject to the same basic sexist undercurrent. Male sexual harassment is, ironically, as much at work when a gendarme forcibly strips a Muslima of Algerian extraction on the beach as when he forces a bare-breasted secular Frenchwoman to put on a bikini top. For if the women’s dress (or lack thereof) is being noticed to such a degree that it can be prosecuted, what is that if not the Male Gaze going into hyperdrive? And what is prosecution of women violating a dress code, if not male sexual harassment sanctioned by the state?
And if it’s okay to arrest women for dressing too modestly, or not modestly enough, let’s start arresting men for walking around shirtless — or conversely, for wearing long Arab-style robes, such as a dishdasha, a djellaba, or a kaftan — in summer, too. After all, male chests are sexy! And male modesty for religious reasons is so oppressive!
Notice how that never happens, in France or anywhere? Aha!
No, Manuel Valls, the women of France are not free. The secular as well as the Muslim women are oppressed by your silly dress codes, which sexualize regions of the body which would not be seen as sexual unless centuries of the Male Gaze had been trained upon them, and centuries of stupidity (reinforced by church and state alike) had made them so. And the solution to the dilemma is not to force anyone to cover up, or to strip, depending on what she is wearing or not wearing. The solution is to lay off and let women wear what they want to wear, however they want to wear it, and start prosecuting real crimes…of which there are sadly no shortage, in France or anywhere.