A group in France known as La Barbe “The Beard” is approaching Feminist activism with a mixture of humor and candor. These ladies don fake beards and protest sexism by drawing attention to the pervasive over-representation of men in places where policy and other important decisions are made. I was interested in finding out more about this group and their novel approach on protests so I connected with Clémentine Pirlot to discuss French feminism, street harassment, and where they get those glorious fake beards.
Q: What does La Barbe do?
We denounce the absence of women in power positions, we make visible this absence with our unique scenery. We go to public events where only men are speaking, in every area (from the media to art, etc) and we put on beards and go on stage to congratulate them ironically for keeping women out of power positions. By wearing beards, we create a mirror effect and show them how ridiculous their monopoly and privileges are. We always have a text written for the precise event and call all the men on stage by their first name, usually the list is quite long and it creates a redundant effect, making people realize how many men speak at the event. The beard is the symbol of masculinity, and “La Barbe” also means “enough!” so the double meaning is perfect.
Q: Can you tell me a little about the history of French Feminism and how La Barbe came to exist? I am curious about how past and present feminists are the same and how they’re different.
La Barbe was created 5 years ago, by a few women enraged by the level of sexism of the media during Ségolène Royal’s campaign for presidency. Second wave French feminism really started in the 70′s, and back then, the use of humor and irony was as strong as it is today, for example some women went on the unknown soldier’s grave and put flowers for the unknown soldiers’ wife, who was even less known than him. We are not doing a different feminism, we continue the same fight, we simply have a unique type of action and are using all the tools technology and the internet in particular brought us.
Q: Is there a “type” of feminism that La Barbe follows such as radical feminism, liberal, maternal, etc?
La Barbe is an action group, meaning we do not share a way of seeing and doing feminism, the only thing we have in common is that we are not essentialist, but apart from that we all have different opinions on feminism and feminist issues. We have a very precise goal and it allows women with different conceptions of feminism to come together and unite to fight against male monopoly in all power places.
Q: What events have you been to recently?
We have done 134 actions to this day, the last ones were a conference of the Daily National Press, and a comics festival in Angoulème, you can see everything on our facebook page.
Q: How is La Barbe viewed when out in public, do people laugh or do they get angry?
The reactions are always different. Sometimes the public is very sympathetic and the men on stage are not, sometimes the public is mean and yells at us. Often, a few women thank us for denouncing the sexism in their domain, we even received emails after the actions to tell us we did something great and made them feel less alone. Some people know us, others don’t, but we always hand out our pamphlet summarizing what we stand for and the original text for the particular event so that people know why we are here and how to contact us.
Q: What does La Barbe want to accomplish?
We want to make visible the invisible, denounce the absence of women by putting the spotlight on men, and we point directly at the problem: men discussing the world while excluding half of its population. We want to put back men at the heart of the feminist fight, because they are the ones benefiting from the exclusion of women and thus perpetuating it. Our goals are to make visible the absence of women, make women want to take the power, and to subvert traditional gender roles.
Q: Do you still need feminism? What sorts of issues are women in France facing?
More than ever. It is a harsh time of backlash, even though in the law women have achieved equality, in real life it is far from achieved. Here are some figures that speak better than a speech : men are 73,1% of member of the parliament, 78% of senators, 86% of mayors, 80% of think thanks members, 90% of CAC 40 CEOs (40 biggest companies), 90% of exposed artists, they take up 93% of radio time, the list goes on… there is a huge backlash that we feel right now, for example in the parliament, a minister was whistled at just for wearing a dress, street harrassment is terrible in France, as in many places in the world, and violence against women is also a reality : a woman dies every 3 days in France, killed by an ex or a partner, and 75 000 women are raped each year, most of these rapes are never reported to the police and 98% of rapists are never convicted. You can read this article that is about precisely that question (I’m the woman on the right in the picture).
Q: Where do you get the beards?
We buy furry fabric and cut the beards ourselves and add some elastic to it.
Q: How many people are in La Barbe?
There are many activists, we have La Barbe in Paris, but also several areas of France, and it even spread to Australia. I don’t know exactly the total but in Paris we are about 100 of activists, then we have thousands of twitter and facebook followers, and a network of people giving us tips on where to hit next.