France’s Bearded Feminists

Excerpted from BBC News Magazine, see:

By Lucy Ash, BBC News, July 1, 2012

A group of French feminists has found a new way to fight inequality – with sarcastic humour and fake beards. Only rarely is there a violent response. Colette Coffin unzipped her handbag and pulled out a small piece of artificial fur. “This is my speaking beard,” she explains. “I’ve got a much bushier one but this has a wider hole so I can talk without getting too much fluff in my mouth.” Deftly, she hooks the string loops around her ears and turns to face me. The effect is bizarre. With the little ginger triangle on her chin, the schoolteacher wearing a prim summer dress resembles a wannabe Lenin. Ilana Eloit, a political sciences student in jeans, shows me her beard. It matches her long dark hair perfectly but she complains it is “very itchy”. Glancing around, she stuffs it back into her bag under the table. “We don’t want to give the game away yet,” she says. As dusk falls, I sit at a pavement cafe in an upmarket neighbourhood in Paris with a dozen members of the direct action feminist group, La Barbe ( . . . ) Its members infiltrate high-level, male-dominated meetings. In due course they get to their feet and silently don false beards before one of them reads out an ironic statement congratulating the men on their supremacy. The emphasis on facial hair ridicules antiquated male attitudes ( . . . ) La Barbe has targeted political parties, shareholder meetings of big businesses and other institutions which they see as male-dominated.

Recently the group made global headlines when members crashed the Cannes Film Festival. On the red carpet normally reserved for glamorous stars in designer dresses, five bearded women posed with signs which read “Marvellous!” ”Thank you!” ”Splendid!” and ”Incredible!” They were angry that none of the 22 films selected for the official competition was directed by a woman. On this particular evening, the group had invited me to witness a protest at the headquarters of the French Freemasons, the Grand Orient de France, which was founded in 1733 ( . . . ) For many years, the Grand Orient would not allow its lodges to initiate women, but this changed in 2010. “You see, there was a huge conflict,” says Colette. “It wasn’t easy at all. That proposition was adopted at something like 51% of the lodge, but it was tough and many of them are still fiercely opposed to women” ( . . . ) (M)embers of La Barbe walk into the masons temple on the Rue Cadet, ostensibly to hear a public lecture entitled “What sort of secular morality for what kind of Republic?” After 15 minutes, the first bearded lady gets to her feet. Several more follow suit but the speaker, the director of a religious affairs institute, pretends not to notice. Members of the audience began to whisper and crane their necks. Finally the women climb on to the stage. Colette stands at the lectern and reads out a brief statement praising the masons for their tireless work in excluding women for so many years.With the usual irony she asks how some heretical lodges could be permitted to accept “sisters” after a battle lasting three centuries. Guy Arcizet, the Grand Master of the Lodge, looks uncomfortable but tries to smile and insists that he is all in favour of freedom of expression.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a door opening at the other end of the hall and a security man appears ( . . . ) Having made their point, the women are preparing a dignified departure but then a student supporter begins taking pictures. Suddenly the gloves came off. The young man’s camera is ripped from his hands and the women are jostled and pushed out of the hall by about 10 men ( . . . ) When I asked why so much force is being used, a plainclothes security man seizes me by the shoulder and tries to drag me down the corridor. Then he snatches my mobile phone. Colette emerges from the fracas with broken glasses and a large purple bruise on her shoulder. Other members of the group show me cuts and scratches on their hands and arms. They too had their phones and handbags confiscated.”They had no right to invade our privacy,” says one of the masons ( . . . ) By the time I get downstairs, there are four police cars in the street outside. “Over the past four years we have done nearly 100 actions but this is the first time we’ve had to press charges for assault,” says a badly shaken Colette ( . . . ) The gender wars in France have been exacerbated recently by the Dominique Strauss Kahn scandal which exposed a time-honoured practice in France of hushing-up or shrugging off sexual advances by powerful men.

~ by artpoped on July 8, 2012.

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