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Charles Platiau / Reuters

In France, boys will be boys

An experiment in promoting gender equality at schools was thrown out after thousands pulled their kids from class

The French government has decided to throw out a contested pilot program that introduced gender theory in 275 schools for children ages 3 to 11, with the aim of promoting the challenging of gender norms and eliminating sexist stereotyping.

In June the state gave in to pressure from massive protests organized by a mix of conservative religious groups and right-wing hard-liners. France had planned to roll out the curriculum to the rest of the country in September.

“We won’t give up on the idea,” a statement from the Education Ministry said, according to French newspaper Le Monde. “But we’re preparing to reconsider the terms by focusing on the training of teachers, respecting their academic freedom.”

French Education Minister Benoit Hamon said that he wants to include a revised version of the program in the 2016 national curriculum and that 75 percent of teachers have said they will adhere to the principles of the curriculum, according to the newspaper. But education union leader Laurent Escure said he was “sick and tired” of the absence of “clarity” from the government.

One class in the curriculum, called l’ABCD de l’Egalité (ABCs of Equality), included re-enacting the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, with girls playing the part of wolf and boys playing the heroine. The program warned against “privileging speed, brusque movements of boys and fluidness, softness of girls” when commenting on the performance of the students.

The hold on the program came as a victory for protest leader Farida Belghoul, who urged parents in January to pull their kids from school for one day each month in a campaign called Journée de Retrait de l’Ecole (JRE, or Day of Educational Retreat), believing that the program would teach boys to be like girls and vice versa. It also reportedly spread rumors that children would receive training in masturbation, but that claim was discounted by French media. During her campaign, Le Monde reported absenteeism of 50 percent in some schools in Paris and Strasbourg. Thousands signed a petition to abolish the program.

Gender theory, Belghoul said, has the ultimate aim of denying the differences between men and women, calling it an ideology that destroyed “the heterosexual model of the family,” according to Le Monde

To reach her objective, she rallied the French right-wing movement Manif pour Tous (Protest for All), which flooded the streets of Paris in February in an action against gay marriage and forged an unlikely alliance between the country’s conservative Muslim and Catholic communities.

JRE announced that the government had already canceled class visits of LGBT rights advocates.

Defenders of the plan said the classes merely introduce students to the idea that, although biological differences between the sexes exist, many gender roles are socially constructed and not defined by birth. 

The curriculum included a series of 50 directives in the fields of literature, the arts, sports and language aimed at promoting “equality and respect between girls and boys.”

For example, French 19th century canonic literature, “indispensable to the construction of today’s culture,” was subjected to feminist analysis. In the texts, “Beauty allows a woman to be affable and charming. She has a passive role in making [male] heroes feel valued,” the directive reads.

“She is in a position of waiting to be married, live happily and have lots of children — the only enviable and legitimate position in literary codes.”

Another brochure instructed teachers to pay attention to gender roles in sports. It encouraged instructors to pair students from different sexes and avoid situations in which groups of girls and boys choose to team up with friends of the same gender. The roles of referee or offense positions in soccer — generally considered more aggressive or authoritative — should be bestowed on girls and boys alike, it suggested.

“It suffices to observe a sports class or listen to children to state that they internalize such stereotypes very early,” according to the directive.

“Competing, soccer — that’s not for girls,” the document reported girls as saying. “We are less sporty than boys anyway.”

Boys said, “Girls don’t form teams” and “They suck with a ball.” 

Many of the gender teachings find their roots in the work of prominent U.S. gender theorist Judith Butler, a professor of critical theory at the University of California at Berkeley. Some in France cast the experimental program as a U.S. import. But Butler’s work was heavily influenced by the ideas of French thinker Michel Foucault — a point that seemed lost on the French, Robert Zaretsky, a professor of modern French history at the University of Houston, wrote in the Boston Globe.

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