"Like the delayed rays of a star": Photographs of Eurasian women “repatriated” to France (1947-2020)
Many of the FOEFI’s wards describe a state of incomprehension when they got their first periods; menstruation was a new phenomenon, from a body they did understand. The nuns maintained a strong taboo against such matters (1), and “did not provide what was necessary”; the girls had to make do with ill-suited garments, which they washed at night in the dark. Here again, it was the older girls who demonstrated what had to be done—showing rather than explaining. Similarly, as their breasts developed, some girls had to repeatedly ask for a bra. This denial of puberty, of feminine development, of the passage from little girl to adolescent was no doubt an overreaction against hypersexualized representations of congaïs during the colonial period (2). This is to say nothing of sex education, which was not commonly taught at any educational institutions at the time (3). Basic information was not provided, and there was no supervision of the girls’ passage through the stages of womanhood. The boarders had to be content with an informal sexual education. Because interactions between the sexes were prevented—flirting, for example, would have been impossible—socialization between girls, in pairs—became more intense. Together, they shared the same tastes, the same representations, the same normalization (4). The young chaplains who led youth club activities often sparked the girls’ first amorous feelings. Their first opportunity to really meet boys was at the vacation colonies where they were sent to work as instructors to keep them busy during the summers. Here, they were told that they were “pretty girls” and realized that others found them attractive.
“Impossible to leave the abbey unscathed”
Although the girls had had different early childhood experiences as a result of their unique family situations, at the abbey they considered themselves to “all be the same.” They feel that they constructed themselves as individuals together, with one another—alongside the sisters, rather than with them, or even in opposition to them or against the grain of their education. In their minds, the education they received did not prepare them for “real life,” outside the abbey walls. True, the FOEFI was there to accompany them, to protect them “from the temptations of life and from themselves” (1), but leaving the abbey was “a great adventure” that they experienced alone. They had been taught discipline, housework, a trade (fig. 48), manners, and austerity. In 1975, the FOEFI admitted that these were “moral qualities that might seem unfashionable in these dissolute times,” but claimed that they made the girls into “well-balanced mothers” (2). Former students feel that, having “had their hands held night and day,” they left the abbey not knowing how to take care of themselves, unable to even set an alarm clock: “at twenty years old, I was an immature ninny.” Never having had any pocket money to spend, they did not know how to buy a bus ticket, how to go grocery shopping, or how society in general operated (fig. 49).
Marie-Dominique L. recalls: “When we left, we had nothing but a small suitcase with a little trousseau. Some people tried to recruit me into prostitution…I know that things ended badly for some of the girls. We were afraid but we had hope, we wanted to leave. It was the same feeling as when we got on the plane: we were torn between two emotions, a mixture of fear and hopefulness.”
Marriage seemed to the girls to be a way out of a cumbersome tutelage, and this happened to align with what the FOEFI as well as the nuns who trained them to become “good wives” wished for them: “marriage is the quintessential sign of integration into the French nation.” The first weddings were celebrated in 1950; in 1972-1973, the FOEFI recorded an average of one wedding per week (including those of boys who had been FOEFI wards). Marriage led to some young women giving up on their studies or work; one discovered the labor movement and feminism through her husband.