Historical Figures

Gisèle Halimi, human rights lawyer

(Warning:torture, sexual violence)

Lawyer and Franco-Tunisian feminist activist, Gisèle Halimi (1927 – 2020) is an important figure in the fight for women's rights, particularly through the Bobigny trial and the Aix-en-Provence trial.

A specific character

Daughter of Fortunée Metoudi, Sephardic, and Edouard Taïeb, Berber, Zeiza Taïeb was born on July 27, 1927 near Tunis; she grew up within the French protectorate of Tunisia. His parents, who were hoping for a boy, will react differently to his birth; Zeiza will thus testify later that her mother did not love her and favored her brothers, while her father loved her dearly. This maternal lack of love and this parental disappointment will be fundamental in the feminism of the little girl; as his childhood in a French colony will nourish his commitment to decolonization.

From an early age, Zeiza demonstrated her opposition to inequalities and differences in treatment between her brothers and herself, particularly in the area of ​​household chores. She thus rises against the fact of having to serve at the table the male members of the family. Particularly determined, she goes so far as to go on hunger strike several times:to have the right to read, at ten years old, and to no longer have to make her brother's bed, at thirteen years old. She wins. In the field of studies, Zeiza proves to be brilliant. And she intends to carry them through:at the age of fifteen, she refuses an arranged marriage to continue her studies in mainland France.

In the midst of the colonial period, Zeiza studied law and philosophy at the current Panthéon-Sorbonne University and trained at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, while working to pay for her studies. Despite the sexism, racism and anti-Semitism she faced as a woman of Berber and Sephardic descent, she graduated as a lawyer in 1948, at the age of 21. The following year, Zeiza married Paul Halimi, with whom she had two sons; she takes the name under which she will be known, Gisèle Halimi. A name that she will keep after her divorce, and after her remarriage in 1961.

The lawyer for the separatists

Gisèle began her career in Tunis, where she took care of small businesses and notably defended Tunisian separatists. She herself is committed to decolonization, of Tunisia but also of its neighbors and in particular Algeria. A lawyer at the trial of El Ali, she witnessed the repression and the use of torture in Algeria; his work earned him death threats. From Paris where she settled in 1956, just before the independence of Tunisia, Gisèle continued to rise up against the latter and to defend the separatists and the National Liberation Front (FLN). In 1956, she was the lawyer for ten activists convicted on the basis of extorted confessions.

In 1960, Gisèle became the lawyer for Djamila Boupacha, an Algerian independence activist accused of planting a bomb, imprisoned clandestinely for a month, raped and tortured. To defend her, she filed a complaint against the senior commander of the armed forces in Algeria and against the Minister of the Armed Forces, and worked to demonstrate that the confessions of the young activist, obtained under torture, were not valid. With the help of Simone de Beauvoir, who writes a column in Le Monde, Gisèle publicizes the affair to bring out the truth. A defense committee for Djamila Boupacha, chaired by Simone de Beauvoir, was created, including in particular Germaine Tillion, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Aimé Césaire. The activist was sentenced to death in June 1961, then amnestied in 1962 as part of the Évian agreements.

The fight for women's rights

Feminist in childhood, Gisèle Halimi remains so in her adult life and in her career. Involved in feminist movements, she is committed to the decriminalization of abortion and against violence against women. In 1971, she was one of the signatories of the manifesto of the 343 women who declared having had an abortion, at a time when abortion was illegal in France. It also undertakes to ensure the defense of the signatories of the manifesto in the event of indictment.

Gisèle's commitment is also evident through two trials in particular, two painful cases with significant repercussions. Thus the Bobigny trial in 1972:Gisèle defends a sixteen-year-old girl, Marie-Claire, who had an abortion after being raped, as well as her entourage who helped her. The lawyer is embarking on this case with the objective not only of defending the victim and her relatives, but also of bringing to the fore the fight for the decriminalization of abortion. Marie-Claire is released, her mother condemned but exempted from sorrow. The Bobigny trial will be an important step towards the Veil law decriminalizing abortion in 1974.

Also important is the Aix-en-Provence trial in 1978. Gisèle is one of three lawyers representing a couple of two young Belgian lesbians, victims of gang rape and torture by three men. The case is brought before the assizes. Publicized, the trial is in turn transformed into a political platform against sexual violence, despite disagreements between Gisèle and feminist circles on the methods of action. The debates are stormy and violent and victims and lawyers are taken to task both inside and outside the court; Gisèle will be slapped. But the three rapists are finally sentenced to six and four years in prison. The trial will in turn contribute to the adoption of a law strengthening the repression of rape.

Politician and writer

Along with her feminist commitments, Gisèle Halimi is gradually getting involved in politics. From 1965, she participated in the Women's Democratic Movement, and supported the candidacy of François Mitterrand in the presidential elections of 1965. In 1978, with her association Choisir, she presented one hundred women in the legislative elections; an attempt that ended in failure.
In 1981, Gisèle again supported the candidacy of François Mitterrand, who this time was elected president. For the legislative elections, she seeks to stand as a candidate under the label of the Socialist Party; she was elected deputy in Isère, despite the reluctance of local activists. The same year, Gisèle was rapporteur for a bill aimed at abolishing a discriminatory distinction in the age of sexual majority between heterosexual and homosexual relationships – with sexual majority set at 21 for the latter. During her political life, she also committed herself to parity and to better access for women to political office.

Gisèle resigned from her post as a Member of Parliament in 1984. A time in charge of a mission to the Minister of External Relations, she also held positions with UNESCO and the UN, in particular those of Ambassador of France to the UNESCO and rapporteur for equality between men and women in politics for the UN. In 1995, she contributed to the creation and then worked within the Observatory of parity between women and men, but the work carried out within this organization did not meet with an echo.

Following her political commitments, Gisèle resumed her life as a lawyer and decided to devote herself to another passion:writing. She thus publishes fifteen books, including works devoted to her most emblematic cases but also a text dedicated to her mother and a work devoted to Kahena, a Berber warrior of the 7th century.

For her multiple commitments and her career as a lawyer, Gisèle Halimi has received numerous awards; she was notably made a knight, officer and then Commander of the Legion of Honor in 2012. In 2009, she was made Commander of the National Order of Merit.

Gisèle Halimi died in July 2020, at the age of 93.