In her book Femmes hors normes, Dr. Barbara Polla takes an altruistic approach to story telling. Sharing incredible stories from incredible women, she sparks self reflection and societal understanding.
“Alone I exist. I exist within and with myself first and foremost. Then in the contours, at times sorrowful and splendid, of this existence; I am of the world and I may contribute and share…” -Barbara Polla
It was a Saturday, one of those rainy Lagos nights that welcomed chance encounters. After starting the evening on a high, well fed from an event that magically ran on time, we wandered the island and finally found ourselves in BarBar. They say the bar is like a mummy, depending on the night it is either dead or alive. On this night it was dead, but welcoming still. We sat in our corner, talking quietly and laughing loudly, devouring yam chips so peppery they burnt our lips, waiting for our cocktails to arrive. Time went by and none arrived, instead we were served popcorn shrimp and chicken from our newly seated neighbour with an easy smile, who attempted to strike a conversation. His first attempt failed with a tired joke, with the second attempt he struck gold. Conversation continued whimsically until he said something I was not sure how to make heads or tales of, “I like feisty women,” after some explanation it became clear that he meant a woman that was unafraid, daring, courageous.
In a society where women’s choices are too often prohibited and prescribed, how can women step out of the one-way streets that have been built for us and create our own? And who are these uncaged women that march on their own roads?
In her most recent book, Femmes hors normes, in English Women Beyond Norms, Barbara Polla takes an altruistic approach to story telling, sharing incredible stories from incredible women she takes us on a profound journey of self reflection and societal understanding.
Opening the floor to courageous women, she allows them to share how they live outside the strict rules society has prescribed for girls and women. She exposes us to the lives of many women, some of who are arctic adventurers, filmmakers daring to challenge age old sexist traditions, proud skateboarders, and mothers looking for a simpler life for their children – free of capitalism’s pressures. She introduces us to her daughter Ada who braved forgoing childbirth and her mother, an artist who forever nourished her work.
Discussing child birth, sex and entrepreneurship (some of the key topics addressed in the book), Polla ventures into delicate yet critical topics that play defining roles in female identity. Should I give birth? Should I enjoy sex? Should I build my own businesses? Of course societal norms have answered many of these existential questions for us, but the argument and dare I say the truth here is that there is no correct answer for the masses. In better understanding ourselves and our desires we choose our own answers, the ones best suited for us. The ones most likely to lead us to happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. Polla calls this, allowing ourselves to answer life’s questions based on our own beliefs regardless of stereotypes or societal norms, autornomie. She argues that in finding autornomie we step onto our own paths to becoming our most fulfilled selves– open to others’ differences while certain and accepting of our own. She puts it plainly in the early pages of the book.
“Autonormie is an individual, discrete, or even invisible attitude: it is above all a question of resisting and removing oneself from the insidious power of the moral, familial, social, religious, economic, media, or other normative influences. It is a question of being oneself… getting closer to oneself with conviction or at least with hope. It is not about being exceptional. To the contrary: autonormie is attainable by each of us, a solution to a harmonious existence, for ourselves and for society.”
Polla encourages us to understand what we truly want and believe beyond what we are told, within the limitations of the law, and then to make decisions and take actions that are aligned with those “norms” that we have set for ourselves. With the aim of attaining mental peace and harmony – regardless of whether they are aligned with society’s “norms”.
As a Nigerian woman, my laws are not always in favour of my sex. In certain regions laws condone female domestic abuse and childhood marriages. So for some of us, achieving harmony through autornomie forces us to push and even challenge the limitations of our laws or traditions. Polla captures this cultural nuance particularly well with her conversations with filmmaker Jocelynce Saab who challenges female circumcision in her home country of Lebanon.
Carefully developed nuances have to be one of the book’s strongest points, every woman is somehow given a voice, as Polla considers culture, class and even biology (we are introduced to transgender skateboarder Hilary Thompson).
We met in the lobby of a small hotel behind Geneva’s central train station- one of those places only inhabited by old people and travellers. She was on her way to Paris, a city she loves like a person, where she feels most at home. As I sit down she smiles and teases me, though I sense we won’t be giggling for too long. As an author, professor, poet and gallery owner, she is a busy woman, playful but stern, fanning a fearless certitude that comes with knowing what you want and believe in.
She orders a Coke, I order a tea and our conversation begins.
On how living outside the box can lead us to be more accepting of others.
When you stay stuck within society’s norms, there is no room for others who are different, because these norms are so tightly defined. What I mean by out of norms is not no norms at all, but to take a step to the side, and follow your own desires and hierarchy. An individual following their own desires is more likely to flourish and more likely to be open to people different from them. People who choose to live outside of society’s norms create a more open society, because when you follow strict norms, you leave no room for those who do not.
On who the book is for.
This is my first book that I really wrote for others. When you write, you first write for your own necessity but here I have written for others and particularly other women. Several women actually told me, journalists and people who know my work, that this was an altruistic book, and I like that.
This is about the philosophy of life, it is actually not so much about being a woman, but a way of life. But I cannot talk about everybody and the whole world I am just Barbara Polla, so I decided to talk about women. The book is based on experiences of other women and philosophical readings and thinkings, as well as elaborating concepts.
On how she chose the women who shared experiences in the book.
The way I chose them was very simple. Some women were obviously out of frame so I asked them if they would like to contribute, and nobody said no. For example, one of the first female professional skateboarders, Hillary Thompson who I have never met. She features in a video by an artist I am working with. It is obvious when you see her that she is a transexual woman and she told me she was. She is beautiful, she is like a bird, she flies when she skates. I had the impression that just by watching her I knew her, so I wrote to her and asked her if she could write for me for the book- about her experience and what it meant. Because in terms of living beyond the norm, when you are born a boy and become a girl you are really getting away from following society’s rules.
It was very interesting because she explained this coming out. When she was a little boy she thought she would grow into a woman because she felt like one and then she realised that it was not going to be that easy. Skating was essential for her, but when she decided to become a woman she abandoned skating, because she thought that now she was ruled by the rules of women. Then she realised what she really wanted was to be herself, a woman and a skateboarder. It is not enough to get out of one frame because very quickly you may be stuck in another, which brings us back to the idea that making and following your own rules is a continuos process. It is a life long discipline to break the rules.
On writing about other cultures.
In this book I took the courage to write about women and cultures I don’t know. To say I don’t know so I won’t talk about this, is a very protective position. I don’t know what it means to live in a country where 95% get circumcised, I do not know what it means to wear the veil, so I don’t talk about it. But something very specific that happened here made me decide to do this. In a school in Geneva a teacher decided to invite an Imam to discuss Islam with the kids, which was a very good idea. But he said something so terrible and it was here in my city. He said that women who wear the veil are like pearls protected in their shells and women who don’t are like coins of two euros that go from hand to hand. When I heard that, I thought this is what he dares to say here so I have to talk about things like wearing the veil and female circumcision.
Although I am very ignorant about these cultures, I listened to someone who knows. In particular I spent quite a lot of time with Jocelyne Saab, a lebanese filmmaker who has been extraordinary at living out of the norm and free of certain rules. She says this thing that is extremely strong about the veil; she says that wearing the veil is like a mental circumcision. She knows what she is talking about, she is sharing with me and I am writing. I think this idea of getting out of the rules that are given, for example in the case of circumcision, by your mothers, your aunts, your grandmothers and taking the courage to step out of the norm and say ‘No I don’t want to follow this’ is relatable to everybody. Say later this book is translated into Arabic or Japanese, it would talk to Japanese women, to anybody.
An excerpt from Jocelyne Saab’s film Dunia.
On what men reading Femmes hors normes can take away.
The book is for women and men. Men also have very strict norms that they have to comply with but there is a difference. To a boy you generally say ‘do this, do that, go there, get success’ the norms are incentive. For women you say ‘don’t do this, don’t do that, be careful, don’t behave like this’ so it is even more important for women than for men to get out of these restrictive norms. I think that men should read it and offer it to their beloved friends, spouses, daughters. I think it is even more interesting for a man to live with a woman out of norm than one who is tightly stuck inside social norms.
On how feminism has evolved.
Things have changed here in Western Europe, but there are many countries in the world today where things are still as they were in the beginning of the last century here. Essentially women here have freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and we owe the women who have battled to get us all these freedoms. Many young women today don’t like feminism because they feel feminism is against men. I love men, I don’t want to battle against men but I want to battle for women. I feel that everything we do here, even small, in favour of freedom, somehow irrigates elsewhere. The way I work is more writing this book and feeling that what I ever do for freedom or talking about Peace & Sex in your magazine and feeling that whenever I increase even by a drop of water the freedom here, somehow it benefits everyone. I am not blind to the fact that here we are in extraordinary privileged situation as women but we should not sleep on that, we need to know that else where its different and that nothing is ever acquired. I love this image of the man who is in the Sahara and he is alone and he takes a handful of sand in his hand and he says now he changed the Sahara. It is about what I feel I can do. I am certainly not a hero, but at least I am aware. By contributing to awareness I throw my handful of sand in the world.
On impacting the next generation.
Something very important I say in the book is that children who always obey are really in danger. Parents and schools should teach children to disobey, holding them by the hand to make sure they do not put themselves too much at risk.
On her daughter Ada and her bravery.
Today there are a number of young women who decide they don’t want children or have difficulty having children, so don’t want to go through all the pain of making them anyway. When a young woman turns 38, 40, 45 and doesn’t have kids, they are criticised by society because they are out of the norm that says women should have children. I had children, this was my rule, and I would have been happy to have even more. Many women follow their rule not to have children and go against society’s rule- women should have children, the rule is there to make the species continue. But when women choose not to follow this rule they have a hard time. And what I am saying is that they should not. They should follow their rule without societal repercussions.
So I wanted my daughter to talk because I don’t have anyone closer and dearer to me than my daughters. So I didn’t even have to say that I support this attitude, it’s obvious because I gave room for her to speak.
On what the feedback has been like.
I wrote the book for others and this was what they felt. One of the first feedbacks I received was from Fidelina Iglesias, a woman out of frame. She is not an example of what we usually think of as exceptional but she takes a step to the side and gets out of what society tells women they have to do. This woman arrived in Switzerland from Columbia and began cleaning, she was in that segment of women from Columbia who come here to clean. At a certain point, she took a step out of that and decided that she wanted to become an entrepreneur and she created her micro business, FA Nettoyange and really went out of the frame she had been put in. Since I talked about her in the book I offered her the book before it even came out. She doesn’t speak or read french perfectly but she read the book on a Saturday night. I gave it to her on a Saturday morning, and on Sunday she called me and said ‘This book is genius every woman on earth should read this because it will help those who don’t dare to dare and gives courage and strength. It is really a book for everybody’.
And today I received a letter from this little boy who somehow bought the book, asking me to write a dedication to his mother who really is out of frame and exceptional. And so I did.
I think that what I meant to do was received, and many women have said thank you in someway, so I am pleased.
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