LAVAL, France — “When the rights of some women progress, the rights of others take on a new light and then all of humanity starts to move.”
These words hung in the center of an exhibit entitled Rendons nos droits universels, or Let’s Make Our Rights Universal, which was on display this month in Laval.
It was organized by Femmes Solidaires, a national women’s organization in France, as part of a month of human rights events organized by the many international solidarity associations in Laval.
The exhibit advocated for equal treatment of women around the world and in France, with panels detailing injustices that occur against women in many realms, including political, personal and professional life.
Femmes Solidaires, founded during the French resistance during World War II and specially recognized by the United Nations, aims to inform the public about the injustices and inequalities that women face.
Their goal is to defend “the fundamental values of secularism, diversity, equality for the rights of women, peace and liberty,” according to their annual report.
Michèle Huard, 67, an active member of Femmes Solidaires, expanded on the subject of feminism, and explained her own views on the subject.
“For me, the two most important things are secularism and equality before the law,” she said.
Huard, a retired nurse who has traveled widely, said she has experienced the condition of women in China, Turkey, Northern Africa Canada and elsewhere in Europe.
“I find that in France, even if it’s not perfect, it’s a type of model, even if it’s far from being perfect,” she said.
For her, the key to ameliorating French women’s condition is to have equal legal rights.
She said she believes fundamental differences separate men and women, thus legal equality is the sole playing field on which equality can be achieved.
“The only thing necessary to improve in France is that women have the same rights as men, which is to say, the right to vote, work, etc. After that, everything else is a nuance.”
To elaborate, Huard explained the concept of laïcité.
“It’s the separation of the intimate realm from that of the exterior, in particular for us, the religion. That is part of the intimate realm,” Huard said.
While laïcité can be strictly defined as secularism, the French employ the concept more broadly to distinguish between what they consider appropriate for public versus private life.
“A laïc person can have a religion, but that religion should not interfere with the public realm,” Huard said.
For her, problems arise when religion enters the public sphere.
Huard said religion’s interference with legal rights is what has prohibited women’s rights from advancing, in France and around the world.
“For us, the separation of church and state is what has evolved things for us as women.”
Huard said she vividly remembers participating in the feminist movement in France during the 1970’s, a movement whose roots she attributes to the more secular culture of England and the United States.
Concerning religion, Huard offered the example of Islam in France, which she said poses an imminent threat to equality.
Huard, describing herself as agnostic but from a Catholic tradition, said she believes all religions, especially Judaism, Christianity and Islam, teach that women are in need of male supervision.
“For me, all religions have commanded that women are in need of a guardian,” she said.
For this reason, Huard said she supports the recently-passed French law which bans the Islamic veil in public.
“I believe that Islam is a very strong religion, and Muslims are very religious, even those who do not practice, who call themselves laic. And I believe that if we let this continue, the more moderate Muslims will find themselves dominated by the extremists, and that becomes dangerous,” she said.
Huard said in making this decision, she was torn between a woman’s right to dress how she chooses, and what she sees as the stifling restrictions of religion on women.
At the same time, she insisted that in their private lives, women should be allowed to behave as they choose.
Huard, the mother of three children and wife of a retired postal worker, said taking care of her children or serving coffee to her husband does not belittle her stature as a woman, as long as she has the freedom to choose.
She chose to continue her career while raising her children, and though she supports working mothers, Huard said she understands mothers who put their professional lives on hold for the sake of their family.
“I always have a sense of guilt that I did not devote enough time to my children because of my education and career. I have that in the depths of me,” she said.
Huard said since women and men are created differently, they will always have separate roles.
“A man is not disrupted by his period each month. It’s not the same thing. We are more subject to our hormones,” she said.
At the same time, she said this should not inhibit men and women from having equal, albeit different, rights.
In France, women have the right to at least 14 weeks of maternity leave. In 2002, a law was passed giving men the right to time off when their child is born: 14 days.
Huard said this example is an anomaly, and most other laws favor men.
In the 1950’s, women and men did not have equal rights after a divorce, and as a result, women were often sent to jail for adultery.
Other reforms instituted in the second half of the twentieth century include shared responsibility between husband and wife as head of the household, and more equivalent salaries. Women gained the right to the same educational opportunities, and could have bank accounts and jobs without the consent of their husband.
French women gained the right to vote in 1944, and birth control and abortion was legalized in the 1970’s.
“In France, when you think just about the laws, we say to ourselves, good, we have the right to abortion, to take care of our own bodies, we say to ourselves there have been a enormous advancements. [But] in what is actually going on, it’s not necessarily true,” said Huard.
In addition to the exhibit, Femmes Solidaires participated in a silent march against domestic violence towards women.
At the march of silence, men and women of all ages protested against all types of violence against women.
Jacques Marie, 59, of Laval, said he knows both men and women who choose to ignore the topic of domestic violence.
“It’s useful to show that this exists,” he said, speaking of the march.
“I am concerned, and I am trying to plant my little seed, to try to advance things,” he said.
Claudine Roche, another member of Femmes Solidaires who attended the march, said in order for the condition of women to improve, women need to take an active role in the political arena.
“It’s necessary for women to be present in political organizations and hold political office,” she said, so they can prove their capability in the public sphere.
Julie Geslot, 22, of Laval, was one of the few young women present at the march.
She said she participated because she thinks it is important to unify with others to defend the rights of women around the world.
The goal, she said, is equality between women and men.
“The same rights and the same consideration, no matter our habits, religion or age,” she said.
Huard expressed a similar opinion, but said because of innate biological differences, women’s situation will always be more difficult.
Still, she said laïcité is the key to legal equality, and the only way to give women an equal chance in society is to separate their private lives from what they are capable of in the public sphere.
For this reason, she said, she will continue to work with Femmes Solidaires for the rights of women in France and around the world.
“I always come back to laïcité,” she said, “but maybe that’s just a utopia. But I come back to it because I say to myself, there’s not a reason to stop trying.”