An Interview with France Meyer

France Meyer is an academic at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS). She was raised in Morocco, and speaks French (her mother tongue), Moroccan dialect, Modern Standard Arabic (which she teaches at the ANU), English and some Spanish.

When I asked France about any advice she has for women in academia, she immediately responded with: “Stand your ground and know your subject area.”

Although she spoke French at home and went to a school that didn’t require her to speak Arabic, she decided to learn the language at just 10 years of age and attributes much of her passion for the language to her family’s cook, a man she described as “a second father.” Her best friend’s father, a Moroccan translator and interpreter, also inspired her career in languages and a beautiful photo of him adorns her office wall.

At 17, France studied law for a year before deciding it wasn’t for her, choosing instead to study Arabic at Aix-en-Provence University in France where she lived for five years. She then went to Egypt for two years to complete her Masters degree, after which she spent another two years in Syria’s capital, Damascus, where she furthered her studies through a scholarship at the Institut Français du Proche-Orient. Since then she has had a variety of jobs but has also worked as a freelance literary translator for the past 30 years, which she continues at ANU as her field of research. She moved to Canberra to be with her partner 30 years ago and has two daughters, one of which also studies at ANU.

France only started university teaching five years ago, originally just looking for a part-time job as she wanted to continue translating. The advertised position, however, was full-time. But after being interviewed and offered the position, France accepted it on the basis that her translations would be the research component of her role. Thankfully, her brilliance was obvious to Amin Saikal, Head of the CAIS, and her appointment was confirmed in 2011.

Elegant and eloquent, France acknowledges there are many definitions of a feminist but says she “probably” identifies as one. She is a strong supporter of the White Ribbon Foundation and notes that while she believes in equality, she also likes the differences between the genders and that it’s okay to acknowledge those. A very insightful observation by France was the very early segregation we impose in schools, separating boys and girls instead of normalising relations – an issue she says is particularly predominant in Australia.

When I asked France about any advice she has for women in academia, she immediately responded with: “Stand your ground and know your subject area.” She talks emphatically about the importance of knowing yourself, making sure you are strong within yourself and believing in yourself. Although anyone could take this advice, she notes that women more often accept things that are said to them, instead of standing up for themselves. She tells her own daughters to try and search within themselves for what’s important; to not copy others or try to fit in, but instead, to embrace who they are.

As I was getting ready to depart and exchanged anecdotes with France, she burst out laughing at one particular sexist encounter I describe. She acknowledged what happened was awful, but that in the end being able to laugh at the absurdity is so important.

If you happen to do first year Arabic at the ANU at any point, get excited – France is an amazing teacher but also a lovely, strong woman who inspires learning.