In the late 1930s, when she was just 10 years old, Gisèle Halimi went on hunger strike. She did not see why she should serve her brothers at meal times, as was then customary in Sephardic Jewish families like hers. After she had fasted for eight days, Halimi’s parents relented and agreed that she would be treated just like her male siblings. That night she wrote in her diary: “I have gained my first bit of freedom.”
Decades later, Halimi, who died this week at the age of 93, described the episode as her “first feminist victory” — an early portent of the case that would cement her reputation as one of France’s leading campaigning lawyers.
In 1972, a 17-year-old from the Paris suburbs named Marie-Claire Chevalier was charged, along with her mother Michèle and three other women, under a 1920 law that prohibited abortion. Marie-Claire had become pregnant after being raped by a classmate the previous autumn, and Michèle and her friends had scrambled to raise the money to pay for an illegal termination. Halimi, who the year before founded a pressure group called Choisir la cause des femmes (Choose the women’s cause) with the philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir, agreed to represent the Chevaliers in court.
When she participated in what became known as the “Bobigny trial”, Halimi already enjoyed some notoriety as one of the signatories of the “Manifesto of the 343”. This open letter written by de Beauvoir and published in April 1971 saw hundreds of well-known women — including the actors Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau and the writers Marguerite Duras and Françoise Sagan — admit to having had abortions. Such were the sexual mores of the day that they were dubbed the “343 sluts” by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
In cases like Marie-Claire’s, it was usual for the defence lawyer to acknowledge the “offence” but to plead mitigating circumstances. Halimi, however, followed a different course. “I chose,” she told Le Monde last year, “to make it a political trial, and to appeal, over the head of the magistrate, to public opinion and the country.” The strategy was a success and Marie-Claire was acquitted, while her mother was given a symbolic fine of 500 francs, which she never paid.
The public impact of the Bobigny trial was considerable, and it came to be regarded as a vital staging post on the way to the decriminalisation of abortion in France, which finally happened in January 1975.
Zeiza Gisèle Elise Taïeb (she later took the surname Halimi from her first husband, Paul) was born in La Goulette, Tunisia, then a French possession, in 1927. Her mother was the daughter of a rabbi and her father a legal clerk. They expected little of her, save that she find a suitable man to marry. She did well at school but reported her academic achievements to “general indifference” at home. “My mother thought I was abnormal,” she said.
When Halimi was 15, her parents tried to marry her off to a man more than twice her age. She refused, to the consternation of her mother, who exclaimed, “But he has three cars!” Thanks to a scholarship she was able to stay on at school. She passed the baccalauréat at 17 and the following year moved to Paris to study law.
Halimi was called to the Tunisian bar in 1949, and it was in the country of her birth that she had her first brushes with authority, defending trade unionists. She moved back to Paris in 1956, where she made a name for herself representing activists involved in the struggle for Algerian independence. This earned her death threats from the rightwing paramilitaries of the Organisation Armée Secrète.
After divorcing Paul Halimi, whom she had married in 1956, Halimi remarried in 1961. She regarded her second husband, Claude Faux, who had been personal secretary to Jean-Paul Sartre, and Sartre as the only male feminists she had ever known.
In 1965, she helped to found the Mouvement démocratique féminin, which sought to build support among women for François Mitterrand’s unsuccessful presidential campaign that year
Years later, after Mitterrand was eventually elected president in 1981, Halimi sat as a socialist deputy in the National Assembly. But she found the ambient misogyny of the French parliament intolerable. After a brief stint as France’s ambassador to Unesco, she devoted her later years to writing.
Between 1988 and 2011, she published 10 books, including Fritna, a memoir of her mother. “Everything I am, everything I have done,” Halimi wrote there, “is, perhaps, due to the fact that my mother did not love me.”
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