Oct 22nd, 2019, 12:45 PM

Long Walks to Smash the Patriarchy

By Jill Campbell
Feminists of Paris Co-Founders Cécile and Julie High-Five
Feminists of Paris Co-Founders Cécile and Julie High-Five One Another. Image credit: Feminists of Paris
A School Project Turned Feminist Enterprise

Cécile and Julie are Masters' Students at Sciences Po, who had to create a commercially available product or service in just 12 weeks. What started off as a conversation about Cécile and Julie's story ended up in a full-blown discussion about different definitions of feminism, and why a definition is such a vital component to the movement's overall success.

Both students hold undergraduate degrees in Gender Studies from Universities in the UK, and put their minds together to create a project rooted in their shared passion for feminist activism. In March 2018, the Street Art & Feminism Tour was born: a walking tour through the Butte-Aux-Cailles Neighborhood of Paris under the direction of Cécile and Julie, who facilitate the group's engagement with a wide variety of street art tantamount to the modern feminist movement. 

From the start, Cécile and Julie set out to make their tours as interactive and possible. Clients are encouraged to share their own opinions and experiences, so as to create a dynamic discourse on parts of both tour guide and tourist. The operation was a smashing success, and soon enough, Cécile and Julie couldn't juggle the increasing demand for tours all on their own. Today, Feminists of Paris employs 7 working professionals, offers 3 walking tours in different areas of the city, and has walked with individuals of 34 nationalities and counting.

Walking tour in action. Image credit: Feminists of Paris

The Feminists of Paris website, in addition to providing practical information about their tours, is itself a platform for discourse on the multifaceted Feminist movement. One can find historical information like an overview of the 4 distinct waves of Feminism, as well as editorial pieces that tackle subjects like justice for the Muslim community amidst the exclusionary framework of Western Feminism. 

After Cécile shared with me the story of Feminists of Paris, and  quickly turned into something far more  to demystify feminism. This is important because the concept is often obscured by its heavy emotional charge and questionable representation in media. "In France, feminism is really misunderstood. People have really bad ideas about what feminism is about. Usually, people will think that all types of feminism are radical feminism, in the sense that many would associate the word feminism with the FEMEN movement, because of the similarity of the words."

FEMEN is a radical feminist group based in Paris. They recently carried out a violent protest against the lack of governmental action against the gender-based hate crime of femicide, dressing up as zombies emerging from the tombs. This group is known to regularly hold anarchistic demonstrations, and often does so bare-chested. That's right, the "bra-burning feminists" we speak of in the States are not without a French counterpart.

FEMEN demonstration in Paris. Image credit: Flickr/Aron Aron

As media bombards us with extreme cases, Cecile notes that an association is crafted in public opinion equating feminism to radicalism. This effectively stigmatizes the feminist movement in the eyes of the population's majority, most of whom have not developed an understanding of what the movement really is. 

This is not to say that Cecile discounts the contribution of these groups. "What FEMEN does is extremely important, because these actions get peoples' attention. But our goal is not a radical action. We only want to get more people to talk and think about feminism in a simple, accessible, and fun way. For us, feminism is still very elitist, in the sense that media will talk about it, but they won't necessarily define what it is about. When you ask a wide audience, 'who identifies as a feminist?' you'll get maybe 6 or 7 hands rising up, mostly women. And if you ask people, 'do you believe in gender equality?' maybe 80% of the room will raise their hands. The struggle for gender equality is the definition of feminism, so what we have is a misunderstanding about what the movement is about." This gross misunderstanding is the basis of Cecile and Julie's desire to create an organization that demystifies feminism for everyone, which ultimately furthers the movement by getting more people involved in the conversation. 

Upon hearing Cecile's definition of feminism, I recalled a hallmark Liberal Arts College moment I experienced several years ago at my previous university. My ethics class was exploring whether or not this very  "equality of sexes" definition is a fair representation of the movement, given its evolution beyond first and second wave feminism and new roots in issues like intersectionality and institutionalized oppression. (see: Flavia Dzodan's short essay published in 2011 entitled "MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!")

The room settled into the opinion that the "equality of sexes" definition, which the Feminists of Paris also use to define feminism on their website, is incorrect, given its failure to touch on these complexities that define the contemporary movement. However, my position was that while it is incomplete, this definition should not be totally discounted. I argued that a definition composed of digestible language seems likely to get people talking about it than a definition riddled with so many complex concepts and words that it is more or less reserved to the select few who have the privilege of attending an institution of higher education. I got absolutely roasted and was even told that my privilege was to blame for my utter lack of reason.

I never would have thought that I would continue this conversation, especially not with the French co-founder of a booming feminist enterprise. What is even more surprising? Cecile agrees with me. 

Cécile leads the Street Art & Feminism Tour; the tour that launched Feminists of Paris. Image credit: Feminists of Paris

Neither Cécile nor I think the "equality" definition is sufficient; just that it is a valid introduction. "It's a definition that we give at the beginning of our tours, and then we go on to define ourselves as intersectional feminists, We start with simple definitions, but then we get to build on this during our tours in our group discussions. We are definitely conscious that feminism is not just equality between genders, but it's a fight against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual preferences, etc. But it's not our stance to begin this way when people are still conflating feminism with radicalism."  

It is elitist to assume that everyone automatically has a comprehensive understanding of feminism in 2019. And those that dedicate themselves to a feminist cause, a successful one at that, bear the responsibility of providing a casual and accessible space to learn about feminism, where everyone is welcome to join the conversation. This is the very foundation of the interactive organization that Cécile and Julie created. 

If only Cécile had a seat in my old ethics class. She, no doubt, could have gotten the point across far more eloquently than I.