Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mother's Day in France and the Former French Colonies of MENA

*Version originelle en français

Today, the last Sunday of May, is Mother's Day in the francophone world, in France, and its former colonies, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, the Ivory Coast, Haiti, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Senegal, as well as in Monaco.

If Mother's Day in the anglophone world is associated, at least in its modern origins, with the commercialization of sentiment, and sales of gifts and cards, in the francophone world it grew from a natalist project begun in the 19th century, where only mothers of large families were celebrated. Men, whether fathers, priests, or politicians had as their primary concern the promotion of  fertility. However, this celebration  to fight a declining birth rate, didn't become widespread despite concerted efforts, and various changes of date, beginning with the 15th of August, 1919, Assomption Day, and concluding with the 9th of May, the day on which in 1920 the medal for the French family began to be awarded (to the mother of a large family), as "The reward for high maternal merit".

For it was only with the urgent need to repopulate France after the "Great War" of 1914-1918 (and the influenza epidemic of 1919) that  Mother's Day took on a national character. Later, the debacle of the Occupation of  France in 1940, and the establishment of the Vichy Government saw the birth of  Mother's Day as a national institution, both at the level of the obligations of  the public school system, and at  the level of national law.

Mother's Day as presented by Marshall Pétain became the occasion for children to celebrate all mothers of the homeland, instead of only those with a large family, and their progeny. Schools were required to teach  children to recite the following passage:
Your mother has done everything for you, the Marshall asks you to thank her kindly. Invent the most beautiful surprise that you can, the one that will give her the greatest pleasure. Give her flowers that  you have gathered...or a gift that you made specifically for her...Give her as beautiful a picture as you can draw...Try hard in class so as to bring her good marks...Don't argue with your brothers and sisters...Do errands and chores before she asks you to...Smile as you help with the housework...
Learn a lovely recitation...
This new national motto of the French State of Vichy--Work-Family-Homeland--came to replace that of the French Republic: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The official Mother's Day was an integral part of  realizing the second value of this motto, Family. To this end, women's magazines also preached fertility: "The times when a women could be nothing but a doll with makeup have changed. The debacle came, bringing suffering with it, and suffering has taught us to know ourselves" (the magazine, la Mode, June, 1941).

In a true publicity campagn, or outright propaganda, the media of the time were involved in "restoring the French family", and in propagating a certain image of the French mother:
French mothers, Christian mothers, heroic and sweet mothers, oh our sainted mothers! Before, you were forgotten by an uncaring people who didn't dream of paying public hommage to you. The people now give you your recompense. You have filled us with sweetness when we were children: let us, now that it is our turn, spoil you a little with the manifestation of our ardent gratitude. Through the joyous voice of your sons and daughters, it is the whole of France that will thank you". (Abbé Thellier de Poncheville, pamphlet, l’Amour maternel, 1941)

There it is, homeland, religion, and public recognition of  the work of  mothers, now ideal and idealized women.

Although national Mother's Day outlived the Vichy Government, the image of the ideal mother, and even more so that of the ideal woman became much more complicated; and especially so after May 1968, a month of revolt and revolution, including eventually of the concepts of woman, mother, and family. Liberated by societal values, and even more so by the legalization of contraception and abortion, women had more and more choice in becoming mothers or not, whether to continue with a professional life, to take maternity leave, or have the father take a leave, or even not to have children at all.

That said, in the last approximately 20 years, there is a return to a more traditional image of women and mothers, as notes philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, among others, in her most recent book: Le Conflit, la femme et la mère, éditions Flammarion, 2010 [published in English as Conflict, Women and Mothers]. Herself a wife (of politician Robert Badinter), and the mother of 3, who never stopped working either as a philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment, or as an activist for a universalist feminism, like that of Simone de Beauvoir for example, and against a naturalist feminism, that of the fertile woman, the devoted wife, and traditional mother. On this account, the societal role of women is in conflict with the role of mother within the family.

According to Badinter, in this last approximately 20 years there is an involution of feminism, that is, a backwards turn towards the housewife of naturalist feminism, which only complicates further the lives of women, and makes them feel guilty for having their own desires and successes, favouring domination of  women by childbirth, and the tyrannies of quasi-obligatory breast feeding and non-disposable diapers.

Also according to Badinter, a preoccupation with ecology, and with a return to nature, subtended by economically difficult times, favours a current within the feminist movement which valorizes the traditional mother: the mother who leaves jobs for men instead of taking the place in the workforce of a "good family man"; the one who has French (Gallic) children, she is devoted to raising.

And there it is, Work-Family-Homeland. An exaggeration perhaps, but one that has taken its place in the imaginary:

Athough the image is over the top, Sarkozy, already on the right, and who seeks the farther right vote--whence his demand for a law against the burka--the man who as Minister of the Interior left "the trash" [mostly Arabs, some Africans] in the French suburbs to burn, the one who gives speeches in Senegal and Algeria celebrating the arrival of French language and culture to improve the former colonies, does not inspire confidence among feminists, nor among the French of non-Gallic origin.

And yet, if the French mother remains protected, in her desire for a professional life or one with a social role, by the values and laws of  Enlightenment and Existentialist  France, by maternity and paternity leaves, by public education beginning in pre-kindergarten at age 3, and by the accepted use of nannies and daycare, what is this woman-mother conflict like for women in the former French colonies?

At the time of Vichy, France retained its empire, decolonization coming later, in the 50's, 60's, and 70's. All the laws of the Vichy Government, applied to the colonies as well, even if their application was less strict in certain cases. Notably, schools were either public ones of the French State, or Catholic ones, both for the French and for the "indigenous peoples".

Despite this influence, and the continuation of a national Mother's Day on the last Sunday of May, this tradition had little penetrance among Arabs and Africans, often Muslims, and in any case, having their own traditions. Recent globalizaton has done more to spread the custom of  cards, cakes, and gifts for Mother's Day than the school obligations from the era before independance.

That said, do North African and African women live the same conflicts as Badinter describes? I would say yes and no. Those who have a French education and university studies, and who envisage a career, whether in their home country or abroad, have the same struggles as others, French or not, who wish to combine a professional and societal life with that of wife and mother. The public school system often only begins at age 6. However, in the private sector daycare is easy to find. There are also often many women in the extended family, who are available for child care, including young grandmothers. Cleaning women, maids (whether minors or not), and nannies are easy to find and are customary in families of the middle and upper classes.

However, the pressure to marry young and to have children right away can be enormous, and much heavier than that in the West. If one has the fortune to have a boy first, one buys time for the second--but not too much. The birth rate among educated women is lower than that of women without a university [or even high school] education, as everywhere, in fact. Still, choosing not to have children at all represents an option even less well regarded than in the West.

On the contrary, being a mother in Africa whether north or south of the Sahara is much more valorized and valorizing. The cultures and societies are much more welcoming of children. There are more of them, and they are more readily accepted in places where in the West people are less welcoming, in airplanes for example. Travelling Air Canada, Air France, or Royal Air Maroc with children is distinct, beginning with the rules and ending with the reception on board, both by the stewards and stewardesses, and by the other passengers.

Nevertheless, wherever they are on Mother's Day, one celebrates all mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and other maternal figures!

Happy Mother's Day!

What do you think of the history of Mother's Day in France and in francophone MENA?
What are your impressions of the assertions of  Badinter?
What are your impression of the challenges of being a mother in the West or in the East?
What have been your experiences of Mother's Day in the countries mentioned?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?

Other posts on Mother’s Day:

The Vernal Equinox (Mother’s Day in most MENA countries, March 21)
Mother’s Day 2010--Some Cross-Cultural Family Observations


Susanne said...

So interesting to read about the origins of Mother's Day in France! I didn't realize it was something valued/"celebrated" more after the War in order to encourage increasing the population, but it makes some sense. Did it work at creating a French Baby Boom like we had in the States? :)

So are you saying there is now another push for French women to be stay-at home mothers and leave their careers? And to leave jobs outside the homes for men? Did I understand that correctly? How is that going over among the French? I admit it's a bit surprising to read nowadays!

Despite my not wanting children myself and being for women making their own choices as far as having lots, few or no children, staying home or not, I don't quite have the same horrible views of traditional roles as you made it out to be here.

"In this last approximately 20 years, there is an involution of feminism, that is, a backwards turn towards the housewife of naturalist feminism, which only complicates further the lives of women, abd makes them feel guilty for having their own desires and successes, favouring domination of women by childbirth, and the tyranies of quasi-obligatory breast feeding and non-disposable diapers."


I am for women doing whatever they desire to do. I know plenty of women who love being SAH moms while others prefer working outside the house. Whatever works for them is fine. I don't care for people pressuring them to be breeders though. This is the problem I have with some cultures.

Anyway, great post. Very interesting!

Chiara said...

Susanne--thank you for your rich comment.

I do think the natalist policy in France had a positive effect in baby booming, but May 1968 was the beginning of a reversal, and ongoing concerns that birth rates are low, particularly for the Gallic French, and incentives are in place for encouraging the 3rd child: rent rebates, special train fares, tax deductions etc. Having a 3rd child now makes a family "une famille nombreuse" or "a large family". How times have changed!

Thank you for sharing that you are childless by choice. I think it is a very imporant concept that should be accepted as one legitimate option for women and men, for whatever reason.

Yes, you understood correctly that there is a voice within feminism, and larger society to push women to stay home and leave the jobs to men. It is not general, and is similar to reactions here to economic downturns. I have experienced myself that certain male colleagues have made it (passive aggressively) clear that they think I and other women should make babies, and slow down or stop our careers, which would leave diminished opportunities and resources open for them. Ironically this is not what they want for their own daughters.

The "horrible views" of traditional motherhood are Badinter's not mine! Thanks for bring that up! I edited both the French and English versions to make that clear. She favours the word oppression where I used tyranny.

I do think that breast feeding should be less propagandized, and formula less demonized. Bottle feeding is a viable option, and in fact the best one for some, including women who don't want to breast feed, women who can't, or women who shouldn't, eg because they need medication that would pass to the baby and shouldn't stop it, or they are drug addicts, or have a medical illness that makes it more taxing, etc.

I also think cloth diapers may be a good choice for some, but the Green Party usually forgets that they have a high environmental cost too. Disposables are a great invention and more and more biodegradable. Now if parents would be a little more active about toilet training...which has fallen off with the ease of disposables (according to pediatric studies), and leaves some children not adequately trained for a happy, clean, school life and happy tummy.

I agree a traditional mothering role should be a choice too, just not the only choice of mothering style, or of being a mother.

Thanks again for your great comment.

Please add anything you like, and I hope others will chime in on the themes of the post or the comments--especially now that I have clarified Badinter's stance! :)

Susanne said...

"I have experienced myself that certain male colleagues have made it (passive aggressively) clear that they think I and other women should make babies, and slow down or stop our careers, which would leave diminished opportunities and resources open for them. Ironically this is not what they want for their own daughters."

Ugh! That is so frustrating and wrong! I hate attitudes such as this. :-S It's so hypocritical, isn't it? Not wanting it for their own daughters just someone else's daughter. *sigh*

Thanks for further explaining the comment in question. I couldn't tell if those were YOUR thoughts or someone else's as it seemed a bit over-the-top for you. You are usually much more OK with people making their own choices and that seemed very anti-motherhood to me.

Yeah, wow, 3 children is a large family in France now! Ha, ha! I hear Germany has similar problems. Samer has even asked me "why don't white people like to 'bring' children, Susanne?" Always makes me grin for some reason. It's so NOT the Middle Eastern mindset. Thankfully I wasn't bombarded with this in Syria last year though we did meet the police chief in Bab Touma neighborhood and of all people HE was the one wishing we'd be "blessed with a wonderful child such as (his son) Muhammad" and so forth.

Then the funniest is when a Facebook friend from Iraq said he would pray I'd be "blessed" with 5 sons and 5 daughters! Hahahahahahahaha!


OK, enough of the baby talk! Thanks again for an interesting post! :)

Chiara said...

Susanne-thanks for your further comment. I was glad for the opportunity to clarify. I am definitely for people making their own choices.

Generally birthrates in developed countries are low. I had to laugh at Samer's reaction because I have heard others express the same thing. The difference is demographic is very obvious when going from an Arab country to a European one. Where did all the children go? LOL:)

Not bombarded, eh? Hmmmm, probably because no inlaws were involved! LOL :)

5 of each? Oh my, really a case for having them by boy-girl pairs if I ever heard of one! :)

Thanks again for your great comments. I think there are a few posts in there! :)

Susanne said...

I'm glad Samer's reaction made you laugh. :)

"Thanks again for your great comments. I think there are a few posts in there! :)"

Oh, I'd love to read them! I often learn new things from this blog. I'm so glad you have one of your own now. :)


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