“Injustice is physically intolerable to me. All my life can be summed up with that.”
Gisèle Halimi was born as Zeiza Gisèle Élise Taïeb in July 1927 to a poor and conservative Jewish family in Tunisia, then a French possession. Since the birth of a girl was considered bad luck during these times, her parents hid her birth for weeks. Halimi’s parents were devout and attempted to force her to follow traditional religious practices, abandon education while also making her serve her brothers at mealtime. In response, the 10-year-old Halimi went on a hunger strike for more than 8 days. Her dismayed parents gave in and let her continue her education. Halimi described this occasion as her “first feminist victory.”
“I should put myself at the service of the men in my family, serve my brothers at the table, make their beds, the household, the dishes. I found this amazing. Why? In whose name? My uprising was preceded by astonishment “Why was there this difference, where did it come from? There was no justification for this measure, nor did it make any sense.”
She refused an arranged marriage at the age of 16 to a man more than twice her age and moved to France to study law. She married Paul Halimi, and after divorcing him, married Claude Faux, the secretary to Jean-Paul Sartre. She had three sons.
Halimi was not afraid of taking on controversial cases. In 1949 she defended members of the Algerian nationalist movement, FLN and in 1960 she defended Djamila Boupacha, a woman who was accused of setting a bomb during the Algerian war. Boupacha was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death by French court, but later pardoned and freed in 1962 when Algeria became independent. Due to her lack of fear of representing activists for Algerian independence, Halimi received death threats from right-wing paramilitaries.
Halimi also signed the 1971 Manifesto 343, an open letter signed by 343 women who had had illegal abortions. That same year, Halimi also founded the feminist pressure group Choisir la cause de femmes (Choose the women’s cause) in response to the trial of a 17-year-old rape survivor who had an illegal abortion. Halimi defended the victim, making it a political trial in order to appeal over the head of the magistrate, to the public opinion and country. She succeeded and the rape survivor was acquitted. The trial was considered a vital staging point for France’s path towards decriminalisation of abortion and in January 1975 it finally happened. From that point on, Halimi was considered a lawyer for difficult cases. In 1978, when she represented two women who had been raped by three men who denied the crime, Halimi was threatened, insulted and harassed. In the end, the men were sentenced. Again, this ruling paved the way for a law: in 1980, rape was officially declared a crime in France.
From 1981 to 1984 she sat as a socialist deputy in the Assemblée nationale but found the ambient misogyny intolerable. She devoted her later years to writing and between 1988 and 2011 she published 15 books.
Gisèle Halimi died last week on July 28th, 2020 at the age of 93, having blazed a path for the women of France and Europe towards equality. Shortly before her death she gave an interview with one last piece of advice for women: “Stay economically independent to be free. Do not tolerate a single attack on your own dignity. Never give up.”
Written by Lina Piskernik, WAVE Digital & Social Media Coordinator
Photograph: Michel Clement/AFP/Getty Images