Hubertine Auclert, Louise Michel, Hélène Brion, Etta Palm d’Aelders… Do these names mean nothing to you? Yet all these women are emblematic of the fight for rights and equality between men and women and have each in their own way been actors of great social progress. For Lillah Vial, a member of the Avant l’Aube theatre company, the observation is clear: the lack of knowledge of these great feminist figures is symptomatic of the fact that women have been erased from history for many years.
Far from the defeatism that this awareness could cause, the company Avant L’Aube decided to reconstruct this history to make it accessible to secondary school students with their project “On ne naît femme” or “One is not born a woman”. The play, exclusively dedicated to the educational sector, cleverly highlights the evolution of the situation of women throughout history, and continues to question the current issues of gender stereotypes.
“One is not born a woman »
Avant l’Aube is a feminist theatre group originally composed exclusively of women. Their first project, “The Free Age” (“L’Âge libre”), was a reinterpretation of an excerpt from Roland Barthes‘ “A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments”. Feminism, the subject at the heart of the show, became a source of inspiration, exchange and debate among the actors of the troupe.
Lillah Vial, director of the show “On ne naît femme”, had the bold idea of focusing on a young audience to talk about feminism. The play retraces the history of feminism from the French Revolution to the present day. It features many historical figures from Olympe de Gouges to Simone Veil, from Louise Michel to Simone de Beauvoir. These historical scenes are interspersed with more contemporary ones dealing with harassment at school, homophobia, gender stereotypes and gender-based career choices.
As this is an immersive and participatory show, the students are invited to come on stage and take part in the play. About 15 students rehearse with the actors before the performance. “The project is designed to take place over one day and to allow motivated students, including those who do not do theatre, to take part in the show without necessarily learning a text by heart but by giving a committed reading.” Eight students play the part of revolutionary women, others launch into a verbal battle between feminists and anti-feminists… Everyone can participate in their own way.
Putting feminism at the centre of the debate from an early age
In addition to this work of interpretation, there is a deeper ambition: to provide material for debate and raise awareness about feminism among the youngest. Margaux Saintilan, a French teacher at the REP+ Gisèle Halimi secondary school in Aubervilliers, decided to collaborate with the Compagnie Avant l’Aube last January to tackle the theme of “Difference”, which is part of the school curriculum for the sixth grade. Highly aware of the issue of gender equality and feminism, she chose “On ne naît femme” as the ideal educational project to help better understand gender inequalities. “Gender stereotypes are still alive and well even in 2021, and this is reflected in the students’ daily interactions with each other and with the school staff. The aim of the project is to take a step back, to put into perspective the evolution of the place of women and to reflect on the current issues around this subject within the school and more widely in society.”
And they managed to do just that. At the end of the play, the scenes mentioned above give way to a debate of ideas. The debate varies of course according to the age of the audience, but most often the issues of gender stereotyping, harassment or gender-based violence, sexuality, and the latest feminist movements such as #MeToo, or #BalanceTonPorc are discussed.
Margaux witnessed the involvement of her students, who willingly took part in the theatrical game and discussions. “Addressing such serious subjects through the prism of theatre has made it possible to free speech and create a new space for expression, which is somewhat different from the usual school setting. The experience was very positive.”
Lillah Vial, after several performances in different colleges, notes the importance of the contemporary scenes in the play, which are the ones that speak most to the youth, as these are very much part of their daily lives. The historical part notably addresses the Bobigny trial, which is often the subject of strong reactions. “The play has always been very well received, although there have also been strong reactions, scenes that provoke laughter or indignation. The debates can be very different depending on the audience, but what is reassuring is that students are increasingly aware of feminism.”
Are schools the new place to raise awareness?
A new feminist awareness coming from secondary school? What is certain is that the new generation is more aware of all current issues and more informed. Social networks have a lot to do with this evolution. Influencers and Youtubers are the new references, and the subjects of sexuality and gender stereotypes are widely discussed and linked to current events.
There is also a real commitment from teachers who insist on these issues and make an effort to integrate women into their school curriculum.
In terms of education policy, in France, the state is slowly implementing new measures in favour of equality at school. Since the start of the 2018 school year, the focus has been on the ongoing training of educational staff. Secondary schools and high schools are encouraged to designate an equality referent responsible for setting up awareness-raising operations within the school. The latter are invited to create educational content as part of specific awareness days, such as on March 8th for International Women’s Rights Day and on November 25th, the day dedicated to the elimination of violence against women.
Other avenues of reflection are proposed for transmitting a culture of equality. They involve the collaboration and direct intervention of non-profit or institutional partners with students. For Lillah Vial, it is essential that these issues be addressed in as many ways as possible: “Using the theatre allowed us to shift the position of our students, who are both spectators and actors in the project. The intervention of a third person, in addition to the teacher, encouraged testimonies, questions and doubts”.
The Avant l’Aube Company will not stop there. After tackling gender stereotypes, Lillah is currently working on a play for primary schools on ecological issues. In schools, the debate has only just begun.
Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 France License.