French performers fight sexism and violence with art

French performers fight sexism and violence with art

A French touring arts festival is raising awareness of violence and discrimination against women as it travels through Normandy. “Spectacles en cavale,” which means “travelling performances” in French, is a feminist arts festival taking place for the whole month of July, with performers, musicians and puppeteers going from village to village by caravan, performing live shows for adults and children. 

“There is a growing interest in feminist issues in France, and when I saw a call from the Ministry of Culture for cultural projects in rural areas, I proposed to do Spectacles en cavale,” says organiser Malou Estenne. 

Estenne is the founder of Transtopie, an events management organisation dedicated to fight against discrimination with art.

“Last year, I decided to put together Ladyfest, a riot grrrl feminist music and arts festival that started in Olympia, Washington, which has since branched out all over the world. I decided to put together one here in Alençon, where I live, and it worked very well.”

Spectacles en cavale offer a variety of performances and workshops to encourage people to exchange ideas on women’s issues and gender: a muppet show celebrates the English palaeontologist Mary Anning, there are games and theatre performances around gender identity and stereotypes, and sound installations with readings of poems by women – to name a few.

During the festival, artists are joined by guest speakers and volunteers assisting with workshops. The reactions so far have been mixed, Estenne says. “Some people love it, others are shocked, saying it’s extreme, particularly our exhibition about women’s bodies in the public space”.

The exhibition, which mixes photography with charcoal drawings by Estenne, depicts women’s bodies and slogans denouncing sexist violence. In one of them, the famous sentence by Simone de Beauvoir “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” is changed to “one is not born, but rather dies a woman.”

The show with most success so far has been a theatrical performance by three actors playing the story of a woman giving birth, and questioning what it means to be a woman. “It’s funny, there is a lot of interaction with the public, and they end it with a folk dance – which is very joyful, people love it.”

Women in the public space

Central to the festival is the topic of women in public spaces. “La rue fait mauvais genre” loosely translates as “the street does not engender confidence,” a play on the word “gender”, and is told by Estenne in front of an audio-visual installation. She wrote the performance based on her own experiences as a young girl living in Paris, describing violence against women and queer individuals in public spaces, and questioning how to reclaim it. 

la rue fait mauvais genre

“When we create inclusive public spaces for women everyone benefits, including children, people with disabilities and older people,” Estenne explains. “There is a trend called “gender mainstreaming” which has been coined by the EU to define the policy of implementing gender awareness at all levels of governance, that has been applied to urban planning in cities like Montreal and Vienna.” 

“When I travelled to Canada, I was surprised to see pedestrian areas in Montreal, convivial spaces where people can gather. There is also this large public space in the heart of the city entirely dedicated to festivals, entertainment and leisure called la Place des Festivals.”

During the festival, Estenne included an “exploratory walk”, a women-only walk around Alençon at night. This is a safe space where women can share their experiences, and discuss safety and security. Drawing inspiration from Canada, Estenne had organised several of these walks in the Norman town previously. 

In France, she tells us, urban public spaces are largely occupied by men. For women, these  are transient, used to get from one place to another, even during the day.  At night no one feels safe, Estenne explains.

“Whether it’s young women who get regularly cat-called and harassed, or older women who are being followed and are scared of being assaulted, no one feels safe in the city, whatever their age.”

During these walks around the city, Estenne conducts radio interviews with women, recording their comments on the public spaces they are in. She later uses these recordings to create interactive maps. Through this work she aims to drive a conversation about inclusivity, and hopefully, create safer public spaces for everyone.

Spectacles en cavale is on until July 31, 2022. Learn more here.

Alia Chebbab

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