Portrait of Danièle Hervieu-Léger

Gender-based and sexual violence: what are the goals of the commission?

On 17 February, Sciences Po's Acting President Bénédicte Durand announced the creation of a commission focusing on the fight against gender-based and sexual violence in our institution. The commission consists of twenty members, including representatives of the student, faculty and employee communities. It will submit its conclusions in early May, after two months of work. Its President, sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger, explains its mission and objectives. 

What are the objectives and the scope of the commission on the fight against gender-based and sexual violence? 

Danièle Hervieu-Léger: It is a dual approach. First, we have an immediate and concrete objective: to make proposals to strengthen the means already invested within Sciences Po in the fight against gender-based and sexual violence. I am talking about both the means and procedures that are offered to victims to rebuild their lives, and the awareness-raising and educating actions necessary to create a culture of dignity and respect within the institution, which will reduce the occurrence of such violence. I understand this term to mean all forms of violence: misdemeanor and criminal offenses as well as more pervasive or surreptitious forms. The commission will make concrete proposals: we will go beyond statements. But we also want to open a wider focus: the idea is to go deeper into the analysis of relational contexts that can lead to toxic situations. 

Do you have examples of these toxic situations? 

Danièle Hervieu-Léger: We are going to work on power relations that are conducive to the emergence of situations of domination. They can appear in different forms in a university context, in all communities. There can be situations of violence between students linked to risky social contexts, to festive events which are a part of student life. Violence can also appear in unequal power relationships that can develop between a doctoral student and her director, a department head and administrative staff, etc. We do not exclude any possible situation. 

How will you involve the different communities, and in particular the student community, which is very active on these issues? 

Danièle Hervieu-Léger: We are aware of the expectations of the student community: they are represented within the commission by their elected union representatives. But we will also hear from all the associations that have taken up the issue, in Paris and on the regional campuses. These hearings will give all the communities concerned the opportunity to make their voices heard: not only the students, but also the staff, who are eager to benefit from training and awareness-raising.

Will you be examining the systems set up in other universities, particularly abroad? 

Danièle Hervieu-Léger: The commission's work includes taking into account the experiences and good practices implemented in other institutions, in France and internationally. Comparison is an important tool for the work of the commission: researcher Maxime Forest will present a study on international experiences to inform us on ways of dealing with these topics. Other hearings are planned on this subject.

As a sociologist of religions, and particularly of Catholicism, you have worked on the problems of sexual violence within the Church: how will this experience and this research help you in your work?

Danièle Hervieu-Léger: Indeed, in my research fields - in Catholicism but not only - I have been confronted with questions of sexual violence and pedocriminality in the religious sphere. I have retained a fundamental point, which concerns all institutions - secular or religious: sexist and sexual violence always emerges in situations of domination and control, which must be analysed in order to understand and prevent this violence. 

You were president of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) from 2004 to 2009. Have you ever had to work on these issues, which nowadays span across the entire field of higher education? 

Danièle Hervieu-Léger: At the time, the topic of gender-based and sexual violence was less present. The focus was on gender equality, and I initiated a mission at EHESS to identify gender bias in the recruitment and promotion of academics. EHESS and Sciences Po are two very different institutions, but both produce knowledge in the social sciences. Their mission is to develop critical knowledge, capable of contributing - in their own way - to the transformation of our world. There are collective expectations on certain subjects and social sciences must provide the tools for understanding these expectations. The topic of gender relations is one of these crucial questions. It questions the different configurations of domination, both hierarchical, physical and symbolic, which organize the relations between men and women.

Is it the role of a university to accompany this transformation of society?

Danièle Hervieu-Léger: Yes, this is perfectly the role of a university of social sciences: it must contribute to forging the critical tools that will enable us to advance the collective understanding of these situations and their evolution. Moreover, every educational institution today has a crucial mission, which is to educate new generations in a culture other than the normalisation and the silencing of gender-based and sexual violence. If I agreed to come out of my retirement to chair this commission, it is because the stakes are very high for an institution like Sciences Po, but also for society.

Interview by Sciences Po editorial team.

About Danièle Hervieu-Léger

Sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger is a graduate of Sciences Po and of the faculty of Law (Paris-Assas). She holds a doctorate in sociology from EHESS and in literature and humanities from the University Paris-Descartes. She began her career at the Sociology of Religion Group of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), as research fellow and then as Director from 1974 to 1992. Professor (Director of Studies) emeritus of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), she directed the Centre d'études interdisciplinaires des faits religieux from 1993 to 2004, before becoming its President from 2004 to 2009.

A specialist in the sociology of religion, Danièle Hervieu-Léger has devoted most of her research to the sociological description and theoretical interpretation of religious modernity in Christianity. Among her works: Le temps des moines ; clôture et hospitalité (PUF, 2017) - Le pèlerin et le converti : la religion en mouvement (Flammarion, 2001).

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