The Brittany rain fell hard, soaking darker spots in my sweater and twisting my hair into tendrils that wound around each other in heavy locks.
The air still sat comfortably against my skin at 54º, and the wet was not a big enough deterrent for the human sea that swallowed Rennes’ Charles De Gaulle metro meeting point. The whole city, men, women, and everyone in between had shown up for the feminist march on International Women’s Day.
I found my pink-haired friend, Margot, in the colored crowd, and we filtered through the swarm together. A few minutes passed as we took in the sights and listened to Amy Winehouse sing through four-foot speakers.
The street was flooded with all different types of people, and it felt so good to stand alongside all these voices claiming progress.
I felt at ease among like-minded people and led Margot to meet up with a boy I had spent the past weekend getting to know.
His purple jacket matched the crowd with the same color purple worn by all those supporting the movement, and if only I knew what irony would soon fall from his mouth.
Look at me.
No, not like that.
Not like I am an exception to the rest of the female race
you fail to understand.
I am a representative.
Don’t give me your affection
because you think me cooler
more masculine while remaining femininely pretty
than any girl standing next to me.
I am not any more than her.
I am not different,
I am not special,
not in any new way,
not in a way anyone else isn’t.
Look at me.
No, not at my legs,
not at my breasts,
not at the curve of my spine.
Look at me.
Like I am a brain, and my body is an afterthought,
not the other way around.
Look at me- me
like the only differences between us
are the things I have to say.
Not the shape of my mouth as I say them,
or what you want to do with it.
Look at me- in the eye,
and not just at the color.
Look at the piece of soul that glints through these portals
and let my body dissolve from my name.
A kiss on either cheek and an exchange of “ça va?” smoothed a smile across my face before his declaration that he is “not a feminist” planted a pit in my stomach. I saw the question in Margot’s eyes and felt the same one spread across my face.
What we saw as a joyful celebration and passionate protest for equality was a mob of angry women in his eyes. As he described what he thought of as the stupidity of people’s protest, a practice he believes will elicit no real change or attention, I could no longer swallow my beliefs.
His ignorant statements quickly turned into questions of “don’t you want your man to protect you? To make more money than you? To provide for you? To be stronger than you? Taller than you?” that fell flat on our queer ears.
As he continued burrowing into his hole of conservative ideology, we spoke plainly, expressing our experiences and countering all the misguided expectations he held for our gender.
I felt as if I had been transported thirty years into the past, speaking to a man who thinks he should be praised for accepting the existence of gay and trans people so long as they don’t act out their personhood in front of him. Like he should be celebrated for knowing that no means no.
My heart sank deep into my chest, beating away any affection I held for him a mere hour before.
Here was a man, one I had kissed and held hands with in public, telling me that men and women will never be equal, that protests are stupid and will never work, that no one cares about women’s rights, and that the world will never change. Telling me all this as if all the world’s progress in human rights has happened miraculously, without people shouting and demanding change. Telling me this as we stand amid a feminist march in a country known for its love of protest.
Though disappointed, I felt lucky to live in a time when his statements shocked me. A time where these notions have been primarily preserved in geriatric minds and where I have reached the age of 22 without ever hearing these statements fall from such youthful lips.
And what better way to reaffirm your beliefs than by arguing with a straight man at a feminist march?
The third time I told him to go, he finally did, but not without asking me if I truly believed everything feminists stand for.
Yes. How could I not? It is the 21st century, isn’t it?
Margot and I left him behind, laughing and tracing through the crowd until we reached their friends near the front of the parade.
After feeling decades behind, the chanting protesters brought me back to the present with their demanding signs and painted faces.
We marched on, reading the cleaver phrases in a mix of French and English, and even when they were not cleaver, they were true.
“Je te crois”- I believe you.
“My favorite season is the fall of the patriarchy.”
“Valeurs actielles a la poubelle!” – current values to the trash!
“Mon corps c’est pas Tripadvisor. Tes commentaires tu peux te es garder”- my body is not Tripadvisor. You can keep your comments to yourself.
And the classic “patriarcaca”- I don’t think this one needs a translation.
Margot pointed out a sign next to us, which has since stuck with me. “I should not be called brave for walking home alone.”
Living in Chicago and now in an unknown European city, I am so accustomed to clutching my pepper spray close, gripping my keys between my fingers, and outwardly ignoring the men who follow me down the street yelling, “you are beautiful, drink with me?!?”
Men love to tell women that we should “take it as a compliment” that we are pretty enough to attract attention, that this is just how life works, and wouldn’t we rather be beautiful and stalked than ugly and ignored? But these men will never feel the same fear grip your insides when a tall shadow rounds each corner with you. They will never experience the panic that clutches your heart when the man at the bus stop boards the bus with you and rides until your stop. They will never have to tell someone no over and over again until they acquiesce because you finally lied and said another man has already claimed you.
But it’s a compliment to feel that your body and life could be so quickly taken into the hands of a stranger if you don’t balance your responses between disinterest and politeness. Terrified that if you make eye contact, they will take it as an invitation, and if you don’t, they will grow angry.
But it’s a compliment. Don’t you want to be beautiful? That is the best thing about women, isn’t it? Our beauty?
Though I could only understand ambient bits and pieces of the speeches and chants that embodied the street, I understood enough. That in all countries, women’s rights need to be continuously demanded and fought for with both words and actions. There will always be people arguing in a crowd of protesters that this rally will change nothing, just as there will always be people ready to rise and stand together to make a change.