Women’s Underwear and the French Sexual Harassment Debate

The French too have had to ask themselves whether their famous traditions of courtship are really different from plain old American abuse by men

Swiss Islamologist Tariq Ramadan taking part in a conference in Bordeaux, France, March 26, 2016.
Mehdi Fedouach / AFP

The deputy mayor of Paris from the Communist Party, Ian Brossat, has been fighting a stubborn battle for years to create public housing in Paris’ wealthier neighborhoods. Historically, apartments for the needy have been built only in the city's east.

This week, Brossat celebrated a victory when a luxury building in the 16th Arrondissement was handed over to the city’s social housing administration. Less than two hours after the announcement, Brossat became a target of harsh attacks by right-wing groups, including the far-right website Riposte Laque (Secular Response). The site posted his address and called on the French to “admonish him for his mistakes,” the main one of which is flooding Paris with Muslim immigrants.

The far right tends to attack gay, or Jewish, elected officials – or those who are the grandchildren of people who betrayed their country. Brossat is all three. He’s the grandson of the convicted spy Marcus Klingberg, and in the words of one tweet against him, “His grandfather betrayed Israel, he is betraying the French Republic.”

Within two days, the attacks on Brossart became so violent that the police provided him with guards and launched an investigation on suspicions of incitement to racism. The police have a lot of such work these days; the Harvey Weinstein affair caused a shock in France too, possibly because less than a day after the #MeToo hashtag appeared in the United States, French journalist Sandra Muller created the controversial French equivalent in a series of tweets: #BalanceTonPorc (Expose Your Pig). 

Muller herself exposed an energy CEO she had interviewed. Two hours later a colleague told about the editor of a current-events show on public radio, and then the floodgates opened. A long list of names appeared, including a television producer, three members of parliament and two film directors.

The French too have had to ask themselves whether their famous traditions of courtship are really different form plain old American sexual harassment. For her part, actress Catherine Deneuve harshly criticized the wave of outings and said she had never faced sexual harassment in the French film industry, which led actress Isabelle Adjani to wonder whether Deneuve was either blind or just stupid.

Tariq Ramadan gets called out

In this very internal dispute within an industry, very few people paid attention to what a French Muslim woman, a former Islamic activist who became nonreligious, Henda Ayari, said. Ayari accused the Islamic theologian and scholar most beloved by the French left, Tariq Ramadan, of a violent attack on her that ended in rape.

Ramadan is the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna. He is a Swiss citizen and the professor of contemporary Islamic studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. He wears impeccably tailored suits and makes a wonderful appearance on television.  

Ramadan says all the right things as far as the new left is concerned: The Muslims are the new Jews, and the religion respects women more than cinema, fashion, television and the other Western holies do. He says the republic must give in a bit on its secularization laws; for example, it should revoke the racist veil-ban law and allow the opening of separate swimming pools for men and women. And maybe it should even consider a women-only subway car, which would solve the problem of sexual harassment that so characterizes the permissive sexual atmosphere on Paris’ streets.

As of now, three women have told the police that Ramadan raped them, and the journalist leading the matter, Caroline Fourest, says his victim number is at least twice that. The details are so shocking and the descriptions of the violence so severe that the affair reached the main headlines Monday. This even happened in the media outlets that promoted Ramadan over the years; the newspaper Liberation and the online journal Mediapart joined in, even if belatedly.

The police had to provide protection for Ramadan’s victims who had identified themselves, and Ayari in particular, whose home address was published on Islamist websites. They called on their readers – as you might guess – “to rebuke her for her betrayal.”

The introspection that accompanies all these developments is still confusing, partly because it concerns the blindness that went on for so long. In Ramadan’s case, how can a culture that created Moliere’s Tartuffe believe, even if just for a moment, that a theologian and preacher could serve as a model for virtue and moderation?

In the case of Riposte Laque, how was it possible to believe that a group fighting Muslim immigration wouldn’t soon fight Jews, communists and gay people? In Deneuve’s case, could one believe that her constant casting in the role of an out-of-touch bourgeois stemmed from her incredible acting talent and not bourgeois obtuseness?

A women's undergarment from around 1770, France.
Musée des Arts Décoratifs

That bow on women’s panties

And in the case of women’s underwear, why does it always have a small bow sewn on?

This last question isn’t so trivial in a city where companies such as clothing and underwear maker Petit Bateau set the tone no less than Louis Vuitton or Christian Dior. A woman raised this question on the French-language version of The Huffington Post, wondering whether at age 80 she would still only find in stores white underpants styled for young girls, always with a lace bow on the front. She said the eternal ribbon wasn’t functional in any way and was a form of forced gender stereotyping, like pink baby clothes.

The French media was pleased to have this very French debate provide a respite from the horrors of the Ramadan case, so the investigative journalists set off on the trail. At first it seemed that the claim was absurd: Historically, men wore underpants while women went naked under many layers of fabric.

The first explanation came quickly. When women’s underpants first appeared in the 19th century, elastic for underwear didn’t exist, so it was necessary to tie them. As a result, the bows and ribbons actually served a purpose. But in the homeland of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, this explanation lasted no more than two days.

Psychoanalyst Ludivine Beillard-Robert, who wrote her doctoral thesis on this very subject, explained that this was gender coercion stemming from the male’s fear of castration. For the male not to see the female sexual organ as  the mirror image of his own amputated organ, something had to be placed there in three-dimensional form. The bow infantilizes the woman – not just the fixation on her as a sex object.

We had to wait another two days for the real explanation to arrive – from spokespeople for the fashion industry. They were forced to admit that this small lace point on the front of the underwear, similar to the ribbon sewn where the shoulder straps attach to the body of a brassiere, are actually functional, though not for the historical reasons.

During mass production in China, the seam at these points is so rough and ugly that it has to be hidden. If only it were possible to hide French society’s other ugly manifestations just as easily.