Why you should care
Because half the population would prefer to leave the house each day without wondering who is going to mess with them, and how.
What do all French women have in common? That they are effortlessly skinny and chic? Their love of wine, smokes or small dogs? Perhaps. Here’s what’s for sure: One thing all French women share — no drum roll, please — is sexual harassment.
A recent study by France’s High Council for Equality Between Women and Men (HCEfh) finds that:
of French women say they have been sexually harassed while using public transportation.
Sure, if you’re among the roughly 50 percent of the world’s population with a Y chromosome, you’re probably scoffing at the 1 with two zeros next to it. Not to mention that such a claim would involve more than 30 million women. But HCEfh isn’t a league of radical feminists: It’s a government group created in 2013 by President François Hollande to evaluate gender equality in public policy, as well as conduct research and make recommendations to the prime minister. The study is the result of in-depth interviews with 600 women from the Paris region; it defines sexual harassment in the public space as “manifestations of sexism affecting the right to security and limiting women’s freedom of being and movement in the public space.” This includes anything from wolf calls and stalking to groping and rape.
Now, hold the anti-France crap — there’s no need for Freedom Fries 2015. The messing-with of women in public is a global phenomenon. A 2010 study by U.N. Women found that 66 percent of women in New Delhi reported being harassed in public two to five times in a year; a recent study co-conducted by ActionAid Vietnam found that 87 percent of Vietnamese women and girls had been harassed in public at least once. This is such a problem that many countries, including Japan, Brazil, Egypt, Malaysia and India have women-only cars on trains. (One unsuspecting OZY staffer, male, strolled onto one in Japan and was politely but bodily removed by two smartly dressed guards.)
French feminists see this report, as they naturally would, in the context of a deep-rooted national sexism that quietly lurks while activists push against issues like the wage gap, which is currently 15.2 percent. “Yes, we have had some great intellectuals like Simone de Beauvoir, but this … shows France is not the bastion of women’s rights that some make it out to be,” says Héloïse Duché, co-founder of Stop Street Harassment .
Not everyone is putting up their dukes in defense of mom. The study sample represents only about 0.002 percent of French women, and the terms used are debatable. “The results are certainly exaggerated, because for something to legally constitute ‘harassment,’ it needs to be repeated in time — which is rarely the case in public transport,” says French criminal lawyer Flore de Laval, adding that the size of the sample is insufficient and it is irresponsible for a governmental body to use such vague terms.
Following their report, HCEfh has issued some suggestions to rein in what it claims to be ubiquitous harassment. The first: to mimic New York and launch a program designed to curb harassment. Wait for the catchy name: “Stop Sexist Harassment and Sexual Violence on All Lines.” (Oh, France …) The plan includes a nationwide media campaign with posters, stickers and even audio. Transport officers will be trained on how to best react to such incidents and women will be informed about phone numbers they can call for immediate help — HCEfh is even considering printing the number directly on Métro tickets.
But women’s rights activists say that stickers are unlikely to stem a tide of sexist aggression that has gone unchecked for as long as public transportation has been around. “This is not about telling men they are bad,” says Duché. “We simply need to change mentalities. Though that’s the hardest thing to do.”