Feminist or not? Thinking about the possibility of a “decolonial feminism” with James Baldwin and Audre Lorde

Feminist or not? Thinking about the possibility of a “decolonial feminism” with James Baldwin and Audre Lorde

First, my thanks to the Department of Ethnic Studies and Townsend Center for the Humanities for the invitation and especially for their trust in me in the last four years. We have been collaborating for a while now every time I meet with the department’s students and activists it is very stimulating. It is all the more the case given that, here, “race” as a social and political phenomenon does not shock or at least does so much less than in France. I therefore feel much more comfortable exploring and discussing these issues here. I should mention that part of this paper was presented at a conference in Tangier on December 6, 2013. The title of my presentation is borrowed from the organizers of the “Gender in Action” colloquium in Tangier: “Feminist or not?”

I must confess that I do not have a definitive answer to this question: “Should one be feminist or not?” I’m not surprised when indigenous women label themselves as feminists, nor am I shocked when they reject this identity. We live in complex times, and this complexity renders our self-definition more difficult. But in any case, there is a need to clarify and analyze things if we are to fight in a way that takes account of our condition as non-white women living in the West. For the purposes of my analysis, therefore, I will use the concept of “decolonial feminism,” although it does not completely satisfy me. It is nonetheless a compromise between, on the one hand, resistance to feminism as experienced in the “third world” and in the West by non-white populations and, on the other hand, the massive and disturbing reality of multidimensional violence against non-white women—the latter being produced by States and neoliberalism.1 In other words, it is a compromise between institutional racism and sexism; it is a compromise between resistance to feminism in its Western-centered forms2 and its effective penetration into non-white worlds followed by its adoption and appropriation by some indigenous women. In this reflection, I decided to invite Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, and to let myself be inspired by their 1984 debate as published in Essence Magazine.3 This was indeed a fascinating exchange between a black woman and a black man, between two radical anti-racist militants: one a feminist and one probably not seen as a feminist given how “feminism” is understood in the West.

“Decolonial feminism” is thus a concept developed in the context of white, bourgeois, patriarchal and imperialist institutions, society and State. It is also a concept that aims to illuminate the concrete situation of non-white women, considering the state of urgency they face , and taking into account the intersection of class, race and gender relations. I add that I am a member of a political decolonial organization struggling against structural racism and imperialism, and that it is in this context that I discuss the specific issue of women.

If decolonial feminism was to emerge in France, what would its foundations be? I see five main ones.

Re-inscribing feminism as a political phenomenon in space and time; Understanding the historical conditions of its emergence.

Too often, feminists of the south (Islamic feminisms included) apprehend the feminist movement as an ahistorical, universal and natural phenomenon. It is also seen as an intrinsic sign of progress. Subjugation is such that, for instance, Muslim feminists do not hesitate to make historical anachronisms to inscribe feminism in the genesis of Islamic history. The entire dignity of Islam is then contained in the ability of such activists to prove that Islam is indeed feminist and that sexism exists instead in the way it is interpreted by the local patriarchy. The only hiatus in this rhetorical construction is that feminism, as a political movement, did not exist at the time of the revelation. To them, feminism nevertheless becomes a yardstick of modernity and makes Islam, a religion that preceded feminism, dependent on it. I should mention here that I am not against this approach, an approach that I can defend when women claim it and when it becomes necessary in the face of increasingly coercive and misogynist powers that do not hesitate to mobilize Quranic legitimacy. At the same time, I believe this approach is problematic for its blind adherence to the paradigm of modernity as well as the idea that gender conflicts are first determined by the nature of Islamic societies and to a lesser extent by global economic and political structures or North-South relations. I will return to these points later. So, societies where the feminist movement is non-existent or marginal are considered as lagging from a civilizational standpoint. Also from this point of view, it is necessary to play catch-up, grafting on external analyses while ignoring the socio-historical or geopolitical realities of the countries involved, ignoring the impact of modernity on gender relations and their transformation, and neglecting the historical conditions for the emergence of feminism that make it a phenomenon specific to Europe and, more widely, to the geopolitical area called the West and which includes Western Europe, the U.S.A., Canada and Australia. If feminism is defined as (a) a political phenomenon that aims to destroy patriarchy and end the structural dominance of the male gender (b) in the context of a State with citizen and legal rights, then yes, feminism is a Western phenomenon. My hypothesis, which I submit to your critique, is that the conditions of emergence of feminism are not random nor the result of a spontaneous feminist consciousness on the part of white women. I think that feminist consciousness can also be analyzed as the product of an already existing political and economic system. Also, we must go back to the structural and historical conditions that allowed for feminism to emerge. So it seems to me that one cannot but situate the premises of the possibility of feminism in a specific geopolitical moment: the moment of capitalist and colonial expansion made possible by the “discovery of America” as well as the moment of the French revolution, itself a condition for the emergence of a law-based State and of the individual as citizen. The French revolution thus becomes a promise: the promise of universal citizenship, full and complete. This promise has obviously not been respected since citizenship was originally reserved for men until, by force of circumstance, it opened up to women. Thanks to the principles of the revolution, women were able to infer that if the individual is a citizen and that a woman is an individual, then a woman is a citizen by right. It is no coincidence that the club of republican and revolutionary women citizens was officially founded May 10, 1793, four years after the revolution, and that this club requested the right to become an army corps at the service of the revolution. This was a way to claim citizenship, oras the women put it: “prove to men that we can play politics as well as them.”4 Feminism as defined above took a long time to develop (it peaked in the 1970s) but was always framed by liberal democracies based on the idea of citizens’ equality and within which white women obtained rights through their own struggle, but also through imperial domination. Let’s not forget that, at the time of the revolution, the slave trade already existed and that France was involved in this trade. It should be noted here that race-related conflicts of interest between the south and the north were not set in stone at that time. People of the north who were not quite “white” could imagine dangerous convergences with colonized people. In France, the French revolution coincided with the Haitian revolution and interacted with it. The “sans-culottes” (radical left-wing partisans of the lower classes who dominated France at the time of the revolution) demonstrated against the “skin aristocracy” to demand the abolition of slavery. But colonial states have always managed to incorporate women and some sections of the proletariat through social or politicalengagement. This is also how the white race was invented. Returning to the question of the conditions of emergence of feminism, we must emphasize two phenomena that shaped nation-States: capitalist and colonial expansion, and the advent of democracies. It is worth recalling here that Europe became the theater of struggles that were resolved through terrible wars, extremely harsh class conflicts as well as negotiations within the borders of colonial nation-States. These struggles strengthened citizen rights thanks to—and mostly at the expense of—colonized people. “The history of the West,” writes Domenico Losurdo, “is faced with a paradox. The sharp line of demarcation between Whites on the one hand, and Blacks and Redskins on the other, promotes the development of equality within the white community.”5 Sadri Khiari adds that: “The principle of a capitalist democracy is individual freedom and political equality. The races negate this principle while, at the same time, they are inseparable from it. Bourgeois modernity, which is established at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is indeed developed at the intersection of two conflicting but complementary movements: (a) the liberation of individuals from the shackles of constitutional hierarchies required to uphold the modern state and the development of Capital; and (b) the imperial expansion which is just as necessary for them.”6 From this first point, let us therefore remember that the promotion of white women took place after the French Revolution and during colonial expansion. We can say the same of the labour movement. These are what I called above, in my subtitle, “the historical conditions of emergence.”

Understanding the conditions of penetration of feminism in Southern societies and in Southern spaces within the Norths.

Audre Lorde responds to James Baldwin who accuses her of condemning black men too much: “I do not blame Black men; what I’m saying is, we have to take a new look at the ways in which we fight our joint oppression because if we don’t, we’re gonna be blowing each other up. We have to begin to redefine the terms of what woman is, what man is, how we relate to each other.” Baldwin replies: “But that demands redefining the terms of the western world.”

Here, let’s extend Baldwin’s reflection: It is indeed the expansion of capitalism throughout the world that has exported political systems and conflicts that structure the white world between the Left and the Right and between progressives and conservatives, as well as nation-States, languages, lifestyles, dress codes, epistemologies, and structures of thought. There is no reason to think that feminism was an exception. It seems to me that feminism was included in these exported European phenomena. The power of imperialism is such that all the phenomena that structure the Western political, economic and cultural fields imposed themselves in the world more or less successfully: sometimes they are resisted by people, sometimes they penetrate easily, become reality, and inform and shape daily life. But all countries have a specific history and their own economic and political systems that determine and shape gender relations. It should be noted here that prior to the “great encounter” with the West, there were spaces where gender subordination did not exist, and there are even regions of the world where the female gender did not exist.7 There are regions where, on the contrary, there was a local patriarchy that was not Christian-centered and not necessarily heterosexist. In fact, before the great colonial night, there was a great diversity of human relationships that we should not idealize but that is nevertheless worth noting. As Paola Bacchetta recalls: “The colonizers have not only imposed their own notions of gender and sexuality to colonized subjects. The effect of this imposition was to worsen significantly the situation of women and sexual minorities.”8

Looking back after 50 years, we know, thanks to Latin American decolonial intellectuals, that while formal independence has been attained in many countries, the “coloniality of power” has not disappeared. Indeed, young liberated nations have followed in the footsteps of their former masters: they have copied uncritically their political systems, adopted the forms of European nation-States (and, in particular, the French one, whose limits were sorely tested during the two so-called World Wars), and taken up European forms of jurisdiction, democracy, and relationship to citizenship, freedom, and emancipation. The diversity of social forms has thus given way to a progressive homogenization. Diversity has either disappeared or been transformed. Sometimes it has resisted and redesigned itself. This is what has happened in the majority of cases. Feminism as an idea and as a type of struggle thus becomes a reality that we sometimes have to accept (e.g., when women appropriate and redefine it in a secular or Islamic form, or in a form that embraces local cultures), but that we can refuse when women reject it. We must emphasize here that, at the turn of the twentieth century, feminism appears in the Third World during massive anti-colonial protests and the development of great emancipatory utopias (e.g., socialism, nationalism, political Islam), buttressed by a radical critique of imperialism.9 Note also that in Egypt, is the rise of feminism is concomitant with European feminism. One might think that this weakens the argument that feminism has Western origins. However, this ignores both the effect ofcolonial propaganda blaming the East for its purported ontological misogyny (while being utterly patriarchal)and the fact that colonized countries were taking the first steps toward the construction of “democratic” nation-States. In this context, revolutionary or reformist movements were bound to be shaped by, if not reducible to, predefined patterns (e.g., nationalism, Marxism, feminism). But let’s continue: before thinking strictly about feminism or class relations, we must first take into account the political system, the shape of the State, North-South relations and, of course, capitalism and its neoliberal forms. This is what Baldwin suggests when he speaks of the redefinition of the West as a condition to the redefinition of femininity and masculinity. My assumption is that we cannot think about social relations, the family, gender relations or sexuality if we do not think about the nature of the State, or North-South relations or neoliberalism and its metamorphoses. Moreover, we must question the notions of equality, emancipation, freedom and progress. We must even refuse to go along with the liberal model of the individual; an individual without restrictions on his or her freedom to enjoy and be fulfilled, which is a standard of modernity “that echoes the desire to consume, that becomes an engine for the market, and that diverts attention from economic and social injustices resulting from discrimination and structural forms of inequality.”10 We need a global way of thinking that allows for an alternative to a declining Western civilization that has reached its limits. In other words, our rethinking about gender and gender relations cannot happen without a radical rethinking of Western modernity and its civilizational alternative.

Taking into account the overlapping oppressions experienced by women as colonial subjects within imperialist cities or as subjects of the empire in Southern countries.

Women in the South systematically suffer three types of oppression: gender-, race- and class-related oppression. The interweaving of the three results in women often being crushed by the weight of their condition.11 I will offer an example that has really struck me. When a black interviewer asks a victim of color why she did not report a rape, she answers: “I never filed a complaint because I wanted to protect you. I could not bear to see another black man in jail.”12 I leave you with this example. I could add other examples from a number of Chicana friends in the U.S.A. from whom I learned a lot, including how they organize given the threat of rape within their communities. Between the local male violence and the police pressure mainly targeting men, these women set up monitoring and alarm systems that deter attackers but remain precarious. Importantly though, between them, they agree: never call law enforcement for help. You will understand that this situation is untenable and that there is little leeway for many non-white women. This relates to what Audre Lorde says: “It’s vital that we deal constantly with racism, and with white racism among Black—that we recognize this as a legitimate area of inquiry. We must also examine the ways that we have absorbed sexism and heterosexism. These are the norms in this dragon we have been born into—and we need to examine these distortions with the same kind of openness and dedication that we examine racism.” Audre Lorde is demanding as a woman, and she is right. Our communities cannot do without this introspection. Furthermore, men of color must learn to love women of color and to understand their sacrifice as they understand the need to protect them.13 I said earlier that feminism is a Western political phenomenon. But that does not mean that women in the South have not developed (before, during and after the colonial era) their own strategies and forms of struggle that are adapted to their environmental and material conditions. Thanks to the experience of our historical models—our mothers, grandmothers, big sisters—women of color have always resisted and passed down to us a strong sense of dignity. Stories, poems and songs demonstrate their lucidity about male violence. They do not have to take lessons. I often hear women around me say, “My role model is my mother” or “Our real models are the women from our community.” It is important to consider our wellbeing as women in light of this crucial heritage.

Incorporating the specific oppression of the non-white male gender.

James Baldwin: “A woman does know much more than a man. » Audre Lorde: « And why? For the same reason Black people know what white people are thinking: because we had to do it for our survival.”

Yes, women, given their condition, know more, and that is why they have always been more strategic or sly. In particular, they know very well that it is not just the female gender that is dominated. The non-white male gender is just as dominated, maybe even more in white milieus.

“Do you know what happens to a man when he’s ashamed of himself when he can’t find a job? When his socks stink? When he can’t protect anybody? When he can’t do anything? Do you know what happens to a man when he can’t face his children because he’s ashamed of himself? It’s not like being a woman” says James Baldwin.

The non-white man was and remains the favoured target of colonial racism. His sexuality is bestial, he is a thief, a rapist, and someone who veils women. In Europe, the prisons are full of Blacks and Arabs, racial profiling only affects men, who are the main targets of police. It is in the eyes of women from their own community that non-white men are diminished. And it is these same women they are trying desperately to reconquer, often through violence. In a castrating, patriarchal and racist society ruled by imperialism, to exist is to exist in a manful, virile way. Decolonial feminism cannot afford to disregard this “gender trouble” in indigenous males because their oppression has a direct impact on women. This is a crucial fact. It’s where the statement “the indigenous man is not our main enemy” makes sense.

James Baldwin said, “A Black man has a prick, they hack it off. A Black man is a ****** when he tries to be a model for his children and he tries to protect his women. That is a principal crime in this republic. And every Black man knows it. And every Black woman pays for it. And every Black child.” Audre Lorde says, “Okay, the cops are killing the men and the men are killing the women. I’m talking about rape. I’m talking about murder.”

Indeed, it is women who bear the brunt of the humiliation done to men. Manly castration, the consequence of structural racism, is a form of humiliation that men inflict on their wives, sisters, and daughters. In other words, the more hegemonic thinking associates racialized men to barbarians, the more they will oppress women around them. These are the effects of a white racist patriarchy that exacerbates gender relations in indigenous communities. This is why decolonial feminism must imperatively and radically refuse discourses and practices that stigmatize non-white men and that, in the same movement, claim the innocence of a white patriarchy that is structural in Europe. I sense that Audre Lorde is conscious of this when she says to Baldwin: “It’s vital for me to be able to listen to you, to hear what is it that defines you and for you to listen to me, to hear what is it that defines me—because so long as we are operating in that old pattern, it doesn’t serve anybody, and it certainly hasn’t served us.”

This has political and strategic implications. This means that we need to engage with men and reflect on masculinity as a very lucid James Baldwin invites us to do when he tells Lorde: “there’s certainly no standard of masculinity in this country which anybody can respect. Part of the horror of being a Black American is being trapped into being an imitation of an imitation.”

Thus decolonial feminism must aim to destroy the imitation of the imitation and this will necessarily be delicate work. Indeed, we will have to guess which part of the male indigenous virility is resisting white domination, how to channel it, how to neutralize sexist violence and re-orient it towards a common emancipatory project. One is not born an indigenous man, one becomes one.

Rethinking international solidarity; Promoting South-South alliances.

I think that before thinking about solidarity between the North and the South, the priority should be to think about South-South solidarity and dialogue. It is urgent to re-create a brotherhood or sisterhood of the wretched of the earth, and to reintegrate their struggles in anticolonial and anti-imperialist history—in other words, to revive the tri-continental spirit. Why? While it is true that conflicts of interest, fractures and divisions are numerous (e.g., national, ethnic, religious, gender, color), there is a common condition among a majority of people from the South. They are subjected to violence on two fronts: (a) the military, political, economic and cultural violence of the West; and (b) the authoritarian and dictatorial violence of their own rulers. The convergence of struggles between Malian, Moroccan and Guatemalan women is more consistent than the (more artificial) one between women of the South and European women. In fact, I do not think that there is a universal female condition because the interests that unite white men and white women are much more powerful than those that can unite white women and women of the South. Consider this: for the first time in world history, the minority of Western women (dominated by patriarchy in their respective societies) have an economic, political and symbolic capital ten times larger than the majority of men on the planet.14 This unacknowledged but undeniable fact undermines the idea of a universal sisterhood based on gender oppression. To think that there may be a pure solidarity between women in the South and women in the North merely because they are women and victims of patriarchy, to think that this solidarity may happen without conflicts of interest, is to believe that there may be a convergence of interest between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

That being said, I do not think that we should refuse solidarity between the North and the South. Instead, it must be developed. But, here, I would like to nuance my statement. There is a North of color and there is a white anti-imperialist North. And each of these groups has its own mission. The dependence of people of the South is often such that solidarity is negotiated on the basis of conditions imposed by progressives from the West. Non-whites in the West, who generally have a stronger and more “authentic” Third World sensitivity (due to their status as historical victims of colonialism), can become influential forces to: (a) advance anti-imperialism in white milieus; and (b) force white anti-imperialists to not render their support conditional on Southern people’s adherence to their “values” or agendas. This means that one must fight imperialism for what it is, and stop requiring victims to provide a certificate of good anti-capitalist, feminist, Marxist, secular, and progressive conduct.

This could begin, as suggested by the stimulating Silvia Federici,15 by a radical critique of the new international division of labour (NIDL) whose anti-feminist character is well-proven. This NIDL incorporates women of the so-called Third World into the global economy to exploit their labour for the benefit of the North: this means the substitution of a local patriarchy by a neoliberal patriarchy, extreme impoverishment, the revival of new forms of slavery, international trafficking of babies, and mass expansion of housework, prostitution and the sex industry. That being said, we, the non-whites of the North, are privileged. Our objective interests diverge from those of the people of the South. We must be aware of this and not substitute ourselves for their struggles. If I had to sum up the situation, I would advocate three complementary approaches: people of the South who are under imperialist domination must establish their own agenda, stop looking to the North, and favour South-South alliances. Non-whites in the North must be allied primarily with non-whites in the North. It is urgent to accelerate the development of decolonial resistance forces in the North. The latter should have two goals: to fight against white societies’ structural racism, and to fight imperialism within their respective States by creating synergies across Europe, Australia and the U.S.A. We must now consider major international gatherings of non-white people within the West. Finally, anti-racist and anti-imperialist whites must, like non-whites, fight their country’s imperialist and neoliberal policies, help decolonize their own organizations, and refuse to dictate others how to best fight. This approach could be likened to an international division of activist labour to both contain the devastating effects of the crisis of capitalism (which is also a crisis of civilization) and participate in the transition to a more human(e) model.

Let me conclude with a quote from Baldwin. I want to make it mine as I see in it a powerful spirituality and, at the same time, a liberating potential: “I think the Black sense of male and female is much more sophisticated than the western idea.”

Berkeley, April 15, 2014

Translated from french by Geneviève Rail.

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