Liberté, égalité, sororité: the sounds of sorority

For International Women’s day, the modern sounds of the Princess of Pop juxtapose the Place de la République’s tall bronze statue of Marianne.

Liberté, égalité, Sororité

The sounds of sorority 

“Debout les femmes” – stand up!

Place de la République, Paris, International Women’s Day 2023

This year, International Women’s Day coincided with France’s ongoing general strikes against raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. Welcoming us to our first protest in Paris, the recognisable tune of Britney Spears emerged from a turntable setup on the back of a rented ute. The modern sounds of the Princess of Pop seem to juxtapose the Place de la République’s tall bronze statue of Marianne, the symbolic figure of the French Revolution. Standing strong, she holds an olive branch high in one hand, and rests her other hand on a tablet titled “the rights of man.” At two, the atmosphere shifts as an eerie hymn plays on speakers placed underneath Marianne. Intrigued, we approach  her and are beckoned by older French feminists to hold onto the cords tied to her in solidarity and join them in singing. Referring to a print-out of the lyrics, we are soon chanting “Debout les Femmes” (Women Standing Up). Unfamiliar with the song, I started tentatively but was encouraged by the fire within the women around me and the striking lyrics:

“Asservies, humiliées, les femmes.    Achetées, vendues, violées”.

“Enslaved, humiliated, women.      Bought, sold, raped.”

The psalm was quite old-school, with a melancholy melody and a refrain referring to women as “slaves” who must break out of their chains — slightly unnerving from the mouths of white women. Later research unearthed that “Debout les Femmes” was the hymn of the MLF (Mouvement de Libération des Femmes – Women’s Liberation Movement) from France’s major protests in May 1968. My initial hesitation was affirmed by reading about the afro-feminist critique of the song’s slavery motif.

The scale of the May 68 and these 2023 nation-wide protests are quite comparable: both with protests for women’s rights nestled inside the larger fight for workers’ rights. Whilst impressive, such repetition of history would be slightly disheartening if not for the fighting spirit of the French. As the women’s march began, the air was flooded with a cacophony of drums, whistles, and beeping horns. As union vehicles arrived with floats to block off the road, the pop music resurfaced, beginning with KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police” — an almost comical addition to the shocking sight of French protestors at work in the middle of the road.

Taking to the streets, we were swarmed by a sea of ‘pancartes’ and placards calling for protection of abortion access, prevention of sexual assault, and tearing down the patriarchy. Amongst them, a number of signs mentioned equality for “52% of humanity,” equal salaries, sorority. Others depicted the Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, as a crow — playing into the tired trope of women as witches. Some simply presented the word “feminism”. When coupled with popular and vaguely women-related songs such as “Treasure” by Bruno Mars or “Buy Myself Flowers” by Miley Cyrus, the protest’s radical spirit wavered. While these well-known songs and ambiguous signs made them broadly applicable, uniting all the generations of women present, I found myself wondering what we were specifically fighting for. The protest certainly drew in a crowd, with its sounds recorded by news channels and heard from blocks away. However, was it just making noise for the sake of it? I was pessimistically reminded of vague and broad liberal feminist movements.

In fact, the one aspect of the day that didn’t produce a sound was a silent woman wearing a gas mask, holding a peace sign in the air. As she stood under Marianne in a powerful pose reminiscent of the statue’s, some women joined in whilst others continued singing the MLF’s “Debout les Femmes” hymn. Whilst only this woman stood for the rights of Iranian women, I felt that this is where our ‘sorority’ should be turned towards – to marginalised women beyond our own communities. Rather than simply demanding “equal” treatment in the streets and workplaces for Western countries, there is a bigger fight to be fought in solidarity with women globally. Of course, solidarity and sorority are the key, but without recognising our different treatment and plights in the global system of patriarchy, we cease to make much progress.

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