I was sitting on the Paris metro last week when some guy of about 30 plopped himself down next to the teenage girl across from me and began to ask, “Where are you going? What stop are you getting off at?,” as he touched her shoulder and touched her arm. She didn’t look at him, but kept answering. She’d been trained to be polite after all.
When she glanced over I told her, “You don’t have to respond.” And the guy turned from the girl to me and asked, “Are you her mother? Is she your mother?”
And the girl and I looked at each other and said, “Yes,” in unison.
He pawed her one last time and left at the next stop. I hope his dick falls off, though another creep will appear. The girl told me that she is harassed all the time on the metro. That’s what women exist for. Our opened mouths are only allowed to laugh at your jokes. In advertisements our lips are permanently parted so you can imagine your cock in there. Yeah, every woman is dying for it. Except for senile old ladies like me who might act irrationally, forget what we’re doing, and bite it off.
Afterwards, I had this insane desire to laugh. Like mother like daughter, I let men do the same things to me at her age, worse even, wanting to please. I had no stock response that would deflect attention without making a scene that might humiliate or enrage them, and then whatever happened would be all my fault. Even if nothing did, I’d still be that humorless, screaming harridan that even other women hate, afraid I’ll make them look bad.
About the same time, a large group of female ex-ministers of both the right and left denounced pervasive sexual harassment within the French political class. They seemed less angry than relieved to finally speak up. I remember how happy I was the first time I was on the street with a bunch of dykes and, transformed from object into actor, finally began to express myself on this bigger stage, claim space with my body if nothing else.
Lately, though, I think street activism is only radical for women. There’s nothing new about seeing men there. My mother never even ate in a restaurant at a table for one, never went alone to the movies, or even saw a woman preacher in the pulpit. Decades later, the idea of a woman in the White House still seems ridiculous.
The woman owner of a big-time French soccer club is told to go back in the kitchen. In November, ISIS terrorists blamed women for forcing them to pick up automatic rifles, strap on suicide vests, and attack Paris bars and cafés. Because what could be more of an affront to God than seeing women relaxing in public, polluting nearby men? Not long ago, we went back to the nearby Comptoir Voltaire, which had finally reopened after the attacks. I ordered a glass of cold white wine. The woman next to us drank coffee and turned her face to the sun. We spoke French, and English, and Arabic, all genders together. We thumbed our noses at God. Or just men, maybe.
Last week, three Femen interrupted an appearance by the Muslim Brotherhood’s golden heir, Tariq Ramadan, who likes to tell credulous Westerners about his peaceful version of “political Islamism” and his love for democracy, but has a side game encouraging young men (and women) to build a world in which women are legislated into our place. The French, Algerian, and Moroccan Femen not only bared their breasts to expose painted slogans, they also tried to cover up Ramadan’s face with the black abaya that allowed them to piously sit in the first row before storming the stage. Ramadan didn’t like it at all.
A double discourse works just as well for the pope, who seems positively gay-friendly and progressive when he visits the US but in Italy mobilizes his forces against LGBT activists, so effectively watering down a recent civil union bill my queer Italian friends didn’t bother to celebrate when it passed. Worldwide, the Catholic Church works against access to contraceptives and abortion, torturing poor women with enforced pregnancies and even jail if they dare interrupt a pregnancy. Recently in El Salvador, a women sentenced to 40 years in prison for a presumed abortion — she said it was a miscarriage — was released after five years in jail.
In Peru, another Catholic country, women also went topless last week, to protest new penalties for abortion and denounce the candidacy of Keiko Fujimori, whose father is the former president. Alberto Fujimori is in jail for corruption and a couple of small massacres. Between 1996 and 2000, he was also responsible for the sterilization of as many as 300,000 poor indigenous women, the majority against their will.
The cops last week tear-gassed the protesters, of course, these dozen terrifying women. That image for me says it all. Enormous armed men. A cloud of tear gas erasing vulnerable women with a few words scrawled across their bare chests.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.
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