Tunisian lawyer, anti-colonial activist, feminist, MP in the French National Assembly, always committed to gender equality and to defending women and the right to receive an abortion, before the Veil Law of 1975: Gisèle Halimi’s life was always dedicated to militancy and activism in favor of women’s rights.
Gisèle was born in 1927 in La Goulette, Tunisia, to a Jewish mother and a Berber father who originally named her Zeiza Gisèle Élise Taïeb. Halimi’s family was a very traditional and patriarchal one. Her father wished for a second son, and when Gisèle was born, he was so ashamed of her gender that he announced her birth only two weeks later. But young Gisèle always fought against her supposed condition of “weak” female child, and her childhood experiences indeed constituted the root of her feminist struggle for equality. When she was only 13, she went on a hunger strike against the preferential treatment given to her older brother in the household; moreover, she refused to be married off at a young age to a much older, wealthier man. She wanted to study, but most of her family’s income was dedicated to her older brother’s schooling, so Gisèle applied for a scholarship and earned the highest grades. Thanks to that, she was able to attend the French lycée in Tunis, which eventually opened the door to a university education in France.
She went to Paris to study law, where she personally experienced racism towards colonized people and gender discrimination. She started working as a lawyer in Paris in 1956, on the same year that Tunisia gained its independence from France. The outbreak of the Algerian War provided her with the perfect occasion to mobilize her skills as a barrister and a human rights advocate: she openly denounced the abuses of the French military and police and defended the rights of Algerian nationalists. Together with the French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, Halimi wrote a book telling the story of Djamila Boubacha, a Muslim woman member of the Algerian National Liberation Front, who was captured, imprisoned and subjected to horrible tortures by the French military.
Gisèle Halimi is mostly known for her feminist side, and for her legal battles in favor of women’s reproductive rights in France. In 1971, she was among the signatories of the famous Manifesto of 343, a petition signed by 343 French women, actresses, writers and intellectuals, who had the courage to publicly admit they had an abortion. This was a major act of disobedience, since abortion was then illegal in France, and all the signatories were potentially exposing themselves to criminal prosecution. Halimi and Beauvoir subsequently founded the feminist movement Choisir (“To choose”), whose aim was to allow access to birth control and to push for the decriminalization of abortion.
In 1972, the struggle for reproductive rights culminated in a trial that occurred in the French city of Bobigny. A 16-year old girl, Marie-Claire Chevalier, had clandestinely undergone abortion after she had been raped and was therefore charged under the French law of 1920. Gisèle Halimi accepted to defend the girl and the women who had supported her through the process of acquiring an abortion. All together, they decided to turn the case into a political trial, denouncing the injustice of the 1920 abortion law. The Bobigny trial sparked a major national debate surrounding women’s reproductive rights; this eventually led to the adoption of the Veil Law of 1975, overturning the older legislation on abortion. A few years later, another famous trial, where she defended two young women raped by three men, led to a new law qualifying rape as a criminal offense punishable by 15 years in prison.
Gisèle was elected to the French National Assembly as an independent Socialist from 1981 to 1984; later, she became ambassador to UNESCO and served as Special Advisor of the French Delegation to the UN General Assembly. She has since then embraced many other causes: in 1999, she voiced her opposition to the war in Serbia by signing a petition called “Europeans want peace”, she founded the anti-globalist association “ATTAC”, and campaigned for Palestinian rights. However, her main focus has always been women’s rights, to which she has dedicated most of her books.
By Valentina Canepa, WAVE Intern
Akyeampong E.K., Gates H.L., (eds.) Dictionary of African Biography, Volume 3: HAILU – LYAUT, Oxford University Press, 2012.