DIGEST June 2022

Decolonializing feminism: what will it take?

In recent years, white-led, feminist organizations in North America have begun to describe themselves as decolonial. I’d like to think of myself that way too – who wouldn’t? But for this to have meaning, I feel I should be clearer about what it means for me as a white, Northern feminist, to seek to be decolonial.

Fortunately, the feminist political scientist and activist Françoise Vergès offers a short (85 pithy pages), provocative primer to this very topic in A Decolonial Feminism, published in French in 2019 and now available in English. Vergès grew up on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, an overseas department and region of France—and not incidentally, one of France’s former slave colonies. She has a long history in both feminist and anti-racist movements in France and in the United States.

Françoise Vergès’s A Decolonial Feminism, now in English translation

Vergès begins by describing the 45-day strike carried out in 2018 by the racialized women who work for the cleaning company Onet at the Gare du Nord railway station in Paris. These invisible, low-wage, overwhelmingly female workers are part of the “billions of women [who] take care of cleaning the world everyday,” at night and during the graveyard shift. No one can work in an office, shop in a store, or board a train that hasn’t been cleaned by these women, usually in precarious working conditions and with toxic products. In France, these workers are mostly women of color from former French colonies. They come from an empire that no longer exists formally, but whose after-effects continue to shape almost every aspect of French society.

Vergès makes it clear that to be decolonial feminists, we have to recognize that our current form of capitalism rests on the exploitation of the labor of these women and other racialized people—what Vergès calls “disposable life” or “humans as waste.” It’s a shocking and provocative description, but as the COVID pandemic aptly demonstrated, it is all too true for women of color working on the frontlines everywhere, whether as nurses or cashiers.

Françoise Vergès

For Vergès, coloniality is the problem that must be overcome. As posited by Colombian anthropologists Escobar and Restrepo, coloniality is the "Western (or should we say Northern?) system of power that survives colonialism and rests on the continued inferiorization of non-Western places, people, knowledge and experiences, together with the exploitation of their resources, physical and human" [my translation]. Coloniality serves to continually assert and reinforce the divide between colony and metropolis traced by Europe in the 16th century—“through the sword, pen, faith, whip, torture, threat, law, text, painting, and later, photography and cinema.”

Vergès is particularly concerned with the persistent coloniality of white, bourgeois French feminism. She notes that, in the 19th century, most French feminists supported the colonial empire as a “lever for releasing colonized women from the shackles of sexism in their societies.” Many mainstream white French feminists continue to adhere to the idea of a French “civilizational feminism” without questioning the organization of society, economics, or culture that colonialism shaped so profoundly. This deep and unquestioning identification of mainstream white feminists with the ideals of the French Republic is all the more puzzling to Vergès since white French women themselves obtained the most basic rights very late (women obtained the right to vote in metropolitan France in 1944), and only after bitter struggles.

Vergès is particularly concerned about the longstanding campaign by the “big sisters” of white French feminism to save racialized women from “obscurantism.” This campaign, now at least 30 years in the making, upholds secularism as central to women’s freedom, and denounces Muslim men and Islam as uniquely harmful to women and girls.

She examines the French feminist obsession with the Muslim veil in this context. Hostility to the veil is not simply an outgrowth of France’s policies of secularism, she notes, but is in fact deeply rooted in colonialism. The veil first arose as a potent issue in the French colony of Algeria beginning in the 1930s, and accelerating during France’s brutal war to repress the Algerian independence movement. The French military administration, determined to break Algerian society, decided to mount a campaign to “unveil” Algerian women.

French propaganda poster produced by the army’s 5th psychological action bureau, urging Muslim women to reveal themselves. circa 1950, French Algeria: "Are you not pretty? Unveil yourself!"

Frantz Fanon, the Martiniquais psychiatrist and writer, described this campaign in his 1959 book, A Dying Colonialism:

This veil, one of the many elements of traditional Algerian dress, becomes the core of a grandiose battle, for which the occupying forces mobilise their most powerful and varied resources… The French administrators of Algeria, tasked by the State with destroying the original character of a people, to proceed at all costs with the destruction of any sign or symbol that might suggest, in any way, shape or form, the existence of a nation, focus maximum efforts on the veil, which they conceive as representative of the status of Algerian women... At an initial stage, this was the pure and simple adoption of the well-known formula: ‘Let’s win over the women, and the rest will follow.’ This enabled the colonial administration to define a precise political doctrine: ‘if we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves, and in the houses where the men keepthem out of sight.’ It is the situation of woman which was accordingly taken as the theme of action. The dominant administration solemnly undertook to defend this woman, pictured as humiliated, sequestered, cloistered. It described the immense possibilities of woman, unfortunately transformed by the Algerian man into an inert, demonetized, indeed dehumanized object. The behavior of the Algerian man was very firmly denounced and described as medieval and barbaric.

It is thus astonishing to Vergès, given the troubling origin of the campaign against the veil, that white French feminists have held on to this paternalistic approach to Muslim women, and continue to focus so much of their attention on what Muslim women wear. The veil hasn’t lost its potency in political debates, quite the opposite. In 2004, the French Parliament passed a law forbidding the veil in schools, while in the summer of 2016, police forces were busy giving fines to women wearing burkinis on beaches in the South of France. During the 2022 Presidential elections, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen proposed banning the veil in all public places. As Vergès points out, this issue has managed to become “the point of convergence” between the left and the right, because the left has refused to recognize and address coloniality."

In Algeria: Put on some clothes, please. In France: Take off your clothes, please."  Liberation or control?

Forcing women to disrobe on French beaches in 2016

That is why Vergès urges decolonial feminism to position itself in total solidarity with feminists from the global South. “To call oneself a decolonial feminist… is to affirm our fidelity to the struggles of the women of the global South who have come before us. It is to recognize their sacrifices, honor their lives in all their complexity, the risks they took, and the difficulties and frustrations they experienced: it is to receive their legacy.” It means lifting up the contributions of women from the global South to achieve justice today and tomorrow. This doesn’t mean we should romanticize the global South, warns Vergès. Feminists from the global South are, of course, perfectly aware of “the gaps between the promises of the struggles for independence and the postcolonial reality,” and are “able to analyze the mechanisms and ideology of masculinist and heteropatriarchal politics” in their own context. Highlighting the particular cruelty and global devastation wrought by colonialism doesnot give a free pass to patriarchs in the global South.

Being a decolonial feminist also requires resistance to the constant efforts by the State, corporations and other activists and movements to pacify feminist movements—to make them more “reasonable” and “acceptable”—or to coopt them into our current economic models. Vergès notes that, since the 1980s, feminists have been urged to speak of women as drivers of economic prosperity, at the very same time the feminization of low-wage and precarious jobs was taking hold.

No, writes Vergès, we cannot “All Be Feminists” because feminism requires a struggle against the racialized capitalism that oppressed the cleaning women of the Gare du Nord. Individual autonomy through employment is, of course, desirable, but collective organization is the only possible approach to justice. A choice and a commitment have to be made. Equality with men should not be the goal (and “equality with which men?” asks Vergès), but the transformation of our world. “For decolonial feminists, the analysis of cleaning and care work in the current configuration of racial capitalism and civilizational feminism is the most urgent task,” writes Vergès.

The victorious strikers of the Gare du Nord

You will be pleased to know that the cleaners of the Gare du Nord won their strike and got what they wanted: to be able to join the union of railway cargo handlers, work all their weekly hours in the same train station, and receive a daily meal voucher of 4 euros. Collective organization truly improves women’s lives.

In decolonial feminist solidarity,