Gisèle Halimi, trailblazing French lawyer who fought for women’s rights, dies aged 93

Gisèle Halimi, a Tunisian-born French lawyer, author and feminist who devoted her life to defending women's rights and was instrumental in winning the decriminalisation of abortion in France, died Tuesday aged 93.

Gisèle Halimi at a Nov. 14, 2003 hearing on secularism in Paris.
Gisèle Halimi at a Nov. 14, 2003 hearing on secularism in Paris. © Jack Guez, AFP

Halimi died peacefully a day after her 93rd birthday, one of her three sons, Emmanuel Faux, told AFP. "She fought to reach 93," he added.

Born into a modest family in Tunis on July 27, 1927, Halimi embarked on a legal career before moving to France, where she made her name by defending activists from the Algerian nationalist movement, the National Liberation Front (FLN).

Landmark abortion case 

But she earned national fame as a campaigning lawyer, notably in a 1972 trial where she defended a minor who was on trial for having an abortion after a rape. 

She ensured not only that the young woman, Marie-Claire Chevalier, was acquitted but helped swing public opinion behind the realisation that such trials had no place in a rapidly modernising France.

Along with French writer Jean-Paul Sartre and feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, she had already founded in 1971 the association "Choose" to battle for the right to abortion.

She become one of the most prominent of 343 women who in 1971 also signed an open letter saying that they had had abortions.

The Chevalier case helped spur the momentum that enabled Halimi and other activists, including the iconic women's rights lawmaker Simone Veil, to win the decriminalisation of abortion in 1975.

Political and literary careers

In 1981, Halimi was elected to the French National Assembly as a Socialist Party candidate although she distanced herself from the party after her election.

In addition to her legal and political careers, Halimi was also a renowned feminist author. Her oeuvre included "Djamila Boupacha" (1962), a biography of an Algerian FLN activist who was brutally tortured and raped under French custody.

A mother of three boys, including Serge Halimi, editorial director of the French monthly, Le Monde diplomatique, Halimi said she would have liked to have a daughter to "test" her feminist commitment. "I would have liked to know if, by raising her, I would be conforming exactly to what I had claimed, both for myself and for all women," she told Le Monde in 2011.

She remained true to her ideals to the end, asking in a September 2019 interview with French daily, Le Monde, why "injustices imposed on women do not spark a general revolt."

"Injustice is physically intolerable to me," she said on another occasion. "All my life can be summed up with that."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)      

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