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French high-school students mobilise against rules on ‘indecent’ dress

High-school students across France wore short shorts and crop tops to class on Monday in protest against schools’ “sexist” dress codes.

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In the wake of the global #MeToo movement, and its French equivalent #BalanceTonPorc (or #DenounceYourPig), a growing chorus of voices have spoken out against sexual discrimination and harassment in schools across France.

In recent days, students have rallied using the hashtag #lundi14septembre (#MondaySeptember14). Launched on TikTok before spreading to Instagram and Twitter, it called on high-school students to wear “indecent” clothing on Monday in protest against restrictive dress codes and inappropriate comments about their appearance.

Since schools opened earlier this month, a number of girls have publicly complained of being disciplined for wearing crop tops or shorts to class. Their clothing, which has been described by some as “indecent”, is prohibited at a number of establishments, where some students have even been turned away for violating clothing requirements.

Outrage over their stories have inspired at least two other hastags on social media, #BalanceTonBahut (#DenounceYourSchool) and #BalanceTonProf (#DenounceYourTeacher). High-school students have used them to share their experiences of sexual harassment and agression at school, as well as to condemn what they view as administrative inaction in the face of the systemic “shaming” of young girls.

Going after ‘the wrong target’

The movement first gained momentum last Thursday, after a student from the southwestern town of Dax took offence at a sign that had been hung outside her local Borda high school with the words “appropriate attire required” printed above images of a crop-top and mini-skirt crossed out in red.

The student (who preferred to remain anonymous) quickly created an Instagram account under the handle borda_révolte – in reference to the name of her school – to protest against what she felt was its discriminatory dress code. Less than four days later, the account had nearly 2,000 followers, many of them other young girls with similar stories.

By Monday morning, French social media was inundated with photos of students wearing short shorts, mini skirts and crop tops in response to #lundi14septembre’s call to action. A number of women’s rights organisations embraced the student movement, including Osez le féminisme! (Risk Feminism!).

“We support young women who point out girls’ clothing isn’t the problem,” the group’s spokeswoman Céline Piques told FRANCE 24. “We hope that senior academic advisers don’t go after the wrong target, and shift their aim towards disciplining boys.”

Piques went on to explain that despite numerous accounts of sexual harassment or even assault targeting girls in middle- and high-school hallways, perpetrators are rarely held accountable for their actions.

“We have to push the initiative to ‘shift shame’ further, and demand that school staff raise student awareness of sexual harassment and agression, so that certain boys’ unacceptable behaviour stops,” she said.

Piques added that as spokeswoman for Osez le féminisme!, she has visited a number of schools where she has observed what she described as a latent “rape culture” among some of the male students, who, for example, would dare each other to touch a girl’s bottom in the stairway for fun.

“When I labelled this behaviour as sexual aggression, that’s when I started hearing remarks like, ‘Well, at the same time, she shouldn’t dress like that!’” said Piques.

Piques’s words were echoed by the collective #NousToutes (#AllOfUsWomen), which also voiced its support of the #lundi14septembre movement.

“Our clothing isn’t the problem. The problem is harassment, agression, rape. Support all who refuse shaming women,” the group said on Sunday.

Sexualisation and shaming

The #lundi14septembre movement also caught the attention of France’s junior minister of citizenship, Marlène Schiappa, who applauded its participants.

“Today, Monday, September 14, young girls across France spontaneously decided to wear skirts, low-cut shirts, crop tops and makeup to affirm their rights in the face of judgement and sexist acts. As a mother, I support them out of sisterhood [and] admiration,” she tweeted on Monday.

In 2018, Schiappa, who was then secretary of gender equality, was behind a joint initiative with Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer that required schools to hire “equality counsellors” specialised in raising awareness of gender discrimination.

Yet, according to Piques, not enough has changed since then. “The rules should be the same for boys and girls. If boys are still allowed to come to high school in shorts, then it’s wrong to ban girls from wearing skirts that are the same length as shorts. It’s a question of equality,” she said.

Piques argued that high-school dress codes often exclusively apply to girls, and not out of “respect”.

“It’s not a question of ‘respect’, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about ‘indecence’,” she said. “The real question is an outfit’s ‘decency’, and the fact that it is being sexualised. A girl who wears short shorts or a mini skirt is perceived as sexualised, and therefore to blame for any sexual violence she may experience because of her clothing. But the restrictions don’t apply to boys. Decency only applies to girls and that is the problem.”

As a result, many girls who shared their stories online reported feeling shamed by their schools.

“In middle school, I wore jumpshorts with tights and my senior academic adviser told me, ‘Be careful, you’re going to attract attention from the wrong kind of boy,’ so I was sent home,” recounted one Twitter user, who identified herself only as Leila.

“It’s totally backwards,” Piques said. “These norms only apply to girls’ bodies, because society is sexist, and sexist or sexual violence is committed by boys.”

One way to resolve the issue, according to Piques, is by getting rid of dress codes and punishing sexist behaviour instead, “so that girls can finally come to school wearing a skirt, but above all come wearing a skirt in peace… And we haven’t won that battle yet.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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