Feminism in action: Rewriting France's colonial past

Françoise Vergès talks to Kathleen B Jones about her life's work interlinking issues of women's oppression with anti-colonial struggles

Kathleen B Jones
24 March 2014
Photo of woman smiling

Françoise VergèsLater this week, a conference will be held at Boston University, to explore the legacy and impact of late 1960s and 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement in the US and beyond. Bringing together activists, scholars, artists, writers, and filmmakers, “A Revolutionary Moment” will “reflect on the movement: its accomplishments in so many domains, its unfinished business, and its relevance to contemporary work that is advancing women.” Conference presenters include many well-known activists—Ti-Grace Atkinson link to her activism, Kathie Sarachild, Ros Baxandall, among others from early movement days—as well as historians, artists, and political theorists.

Drawing lessons from the Civil Rights movement’s emphasis on different groups struggling separately against the roots of their own oppression, by 1969 in the US, Women’s Liberation in itself became the goal of the movement. Yet if there was agreement about the need to end women’s oppression, little consensus existed about either the root causes of oppression, or the best strategies to overcome it.

Socialist feminists insisted the political economy and cultural apparatus of the sex/gender system was the origin of women’s subordination, while lesbian feminists pointed to the system of compulsory heterosexuality. Feminists of colour and third world feminists stressed how racism modified different women’s  experience of oppression. The Combahee River Collective of Black Feminists brought these streams together. As they wrote in their 1977 manifesto, “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.” Theirs was one of the earliest formulations of what is now termed “intersectionality” analysis in feminist theory.

Beyond the United States, in the same period, feminism and women’s movements also emerged. Following the French student and worker revolt of May 1968, the Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes (MLF) erupted in Paris, France. As in the US, the MLF contained a variety of groups and ideological perspectives, including Psych et Po. Françoise Vergès was an early member of this group. But the trajectory of her activism and research in the years cine 1970 moved well beyond the confines of the philosophy of Psych et Po, although drawing strength from its insights.

By a rather circuitous route, Françoise Vergès arrived in San Diego to pursue her studies in feminism and politics at San Diego State University, where I was then teaching. After completing joint degrees in both women’s studies and political science, she attended the University of California at Berkeley, earning a doctorate in Political Science with a study of the political and cultural history of colonialism, gender and slavery in Réunion Island, her native land, which was published in 1999 as Monsters and Revolutionaries by Duke University Press. Since then, she has been a pioneer in the field of post-colonial studies and the politics of métissage, foregrounding the importance of intersectional analysis in feminist and anti-racist struggles. Her most recent work has emphasized the politics of cultural work to the understanding of the political history of colonialism.

For the last three decades, Françoise and I have been friends, collaborating on research and activist interests in women and politics. I spoke to her recently about her about women’s liberation and her more recent research and activist work.

KBJ: You became involved in the WLM in France in the early 1970s. What were the main issues women were raising in those years?

MV: I was raised in Réunion Island—a small island off the African Coast near Madagascar—in a feminist, communist and anti-colonial family. My political education came through books, movies, discussions, encounters. What I mean by political is what I learned early: We live in an interwoven world and must explore this world’s past as one where interactions, material exchanges, and cultural circulations have combined to structure a series of interlocking networks and the dynamic creation of centers and peripheries.

I always saw my parents with a book. We were encouraged to read and ask questions; we followed and discussed world events. My parents took their four children with them everywhere and we had contact with many different social and cultural groups.  Early on, I witnessed what exploitation, patriarchy and poverty do to women (and men). Injustice and inequalities were not to be seen as “normal” but as having been produced by an economic, social, cultural and political system. Réunion Island was a very conformist society but, being among communists, I had learned about equality and could not stand how women were treated. I was particularly angered by the situation of female adolescents.

I left Réunion Island before getting my baccalaureate and went to Algeria. As a little girl, I had admired Algerian women: Zohra Drif, Djamila Bouhired (who became my aunt), Fetma Ouzzegane and others. But when I arrived in Algiers, I noticed that women had been “sent back to the kitchen.” In Algiers, the situation of young women was unbearable: men you did not know could ask you why you were outside. As a woman, you belonged to any of them. But I still loved the country, the artists, the incredible humor of Algerians, their music…I discovered so many things. I always went to the Cinematheque, where I saw the latest “Third World” cinema; it was a space of intense debates and exchanges. Living in Algeria added to my political education. Combined with growing up in Réunion it meant that a Euro-centered view of the world was impossible for me.

I arrived in Paris in the heyday of human and social sciences: Bourdieu, Foucault, Lacan, psychoanalysis and antiracist, anti-imperialist and women’s movements were prominent. A very exciting time. I lived in a “commune” of activists. But I was very critical of the machismo of the Left and began going to meetings of feminist groups. We spoke a lot about sexuality, oppression, discriminations, freedom of choice and the right to abortion, which was only obtained in France in 1975. I went to demonstrations, handed out leaflets in markets, discussed issues with women factory workers. Eventually, I joined a group—Psychoanalysis and Politics (Psych et Po) link —because I thought that it was important to connect the psychological with the political. To me, the unconscious was at work and it was important to understand how feelings of envy, jealousy, anger existed and influenced our actions, and not think of neurosis only as a “bourgeois” disease. But I was also from the “South” and interested in anti-imperialist, anti-racist struggles. I knew that men, their bodies, could also be the targets of violence, that we shared with them a common struggle. 

KBJ: What would you consider the key achievements?

FV: Bringing back the women’s situation in the public debate. We benefited from a highly politicized context but the women’s movement remained quite “Franco-centered.” I mean, we organized demonstrations to support women fighting against Franco dictatorship in Spain (abortion was a crime), petitions with women in Egypt, Salvador, USSR, but, in France, no real effort was made to speak with migrant women or tackle the race question. 

KBJ: How did the women’s movement change in the following decades? In France? Globally?

FV: In France, we had what Gramsci called a new form of “cultural hegemony.” Social movements from the 1970s were marginalized in the 1980s, associated with “terrorism,” accused of naiveté towards Third World movements of decolonization, which had been followed by dictatorships. Revolution was no longer the goal, especially after 1989, reform was the new horizon. Feminism became a bad word.  And let’s not forget the incredible movement of counter-insurgency seeking to roll back victories earned by social movements in terms of racial equality, women’s equality, workers’ rights, migrants’ rights, minorities’ rights… Reagan, Thatcher, and their peers were quite successful at disseminating a new vocabulary (the individual vs. society) and the European Left was unable to propose new things. French feminists were often silent in the 1990s-2000s.

New issues emerged. Women and religion for instance, and new feminisms, such as Muslim feminism. In France, there are new feminist groups. Some look at the question of Islamophobia and racism and do a critical reading of abstract humanism.

KBJ: What are the most important issues limiting women's equality today? In France? Globally?

FV: Conservatism and liberal individualism. Conservatism with the invention of tradition and culturalism pushed to its extreme. And individualism urges people to buy into the rhetoric of individual freedom, the Ayn Rand idea of the individual for whom society is the enemy.

There is also the growing gap between Human and Social sciences and the Natural and Life sciences, where incredible discoveries are made. In technologies as well. What does feminism have to say about increased surveillance? About biotechnology, neurobiology (and its use for making us consume even more)? These issues have not entered the public debate as women’s issues did in the 1970s.

And there are new forms of colonization. Who are the victims today of new forms of human trafficking, servitude, spoliation, dispossession; how do these mechanisms of power impact women?

In France today, there is almost no transmission of the history of feminism and women are partly responsible for it. The French movement experienced tensions, conflicts, contradictions along the lines of sexuality and class. But there has been no large debate to understand why and how. Some books here and there  but otherwise a legend about Irigaray, Cixous, Fouque and practically nothing about the women who made the movement.  

KBJ: Tell mes about your more recent work on slavery and French colonial history? How does this link to your earlier work?

FV: My latest work about slavery and French colonial history is absolutely linked to my earlier work: history from below, voices of the “anonymous,” of those who are fabricated as voiceless, disposable. And for me, colonial slavery is so connected with European modernity, the birth of the consumer, ideas about femininity, masculinity, the construction of an asymmetrical North/South axis, environmental history, geopolitics. We cannot understand our contemporary world without taking into account these colonial centuries. It was the first organization on a global scale of a mobile, precarious, racialized and sexualized workforce. It linked accumulation of wealth with the capacity to move a workforce around, with precarious and fragile lives. It distanced the consumer from the producer (Europe and the US became addicted to sugar, tobacco, coffee and people wanted these products cheap and easy to get, regardless of their conditions of production). Fighting slavery required a great and prolonged effort, first from the enslaved who paid a very high price and then from abolitionists worldwide. Adhesion to slavery was never total, there were always voices, even marginalized ones, to protest and people to act. My work aims to revive the politics of solidarity across differences.

Colonial slavery is finally about anti-Black racism, which has even contaminated progressive thinking. But anti-racism in France is not much about political economy. Despite protest, it remains in the realm of moralism: “racism is bad.” There is a generation who claims to be “pragmatic” and to accept society as it is. Their objective is to hold governments to their words: apply your laws! And to create institutions to monitor implementation, collect data, pressure governments to act. This is important work. But when I hear that what we need to understand is that we are “all human beings” with no difference, I reply: We are all human beings but with many differences!

Otherwise, French society needs to enter its own process of decolonization. I really do not see how the French will be able to understand how the long history of colonization (slavery and post-slavery) contributed to the making of their culture, society, arts, and to the idea of what is “France” and what is to be “French” without looking at all this. France is the only European power with still so many territories around the world, in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean and South America. Yet, its cartography is mutilated, everything meaningful seems to happen in the “hexagon” at the center of this map.

There is also a personal aspect to my interest. There were slaves in Réunion Island, two hundred years in its short history (Réunion had no native population and was colonized by the French in 1665). Mountains bear the names of Malagasy maroons whereas all cities on the coast bear names of Catholic saints. The reasons for this were never explained in school. It was a silenced history.

At home, I was early on alerted to silence, marginalization, revisionist history that served the narrative of linear progress under French guidance. Looking at how to write the history of Réunion, a small island in the Indian Ocean, a French colony which, since 1946, became a French department and, in the 1980s, a European region, it became clear to me that a compartmentalized approach to French and European colonialism (slavery, colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonial) would impoverish our understanding of what had happened in this place. Réunion history would not make sense if studied only in the island’s relation with France. Rather, it had to be studied in relation to developments in the Indian Ocean world and beyond, with the complex flows of people, goods, plants, ideas, languages and beliefs from the many sources of European imperialisms and transcolonial movements of solidarity combining to shape this history.

Writing history from Réunion (not only as a tangible place but also as an archive of slavery, colonialism, accidents of history) meant looking at South-South, East-West, East-South exchanges and encounters, processes of créolization, routes of solidarity across national borders and ethnic groups, circulation of tastes, images, objects, music, textiles, vernacular medical knowledge, ideas about servitude, freedom, faith, and emancipation. Writing from Réunion led to a “triple consciousness”—local (the island), regional (the Indian Ocean) and global (Europe and the world).  

KBJ: Any final comments about women's struggles today?

FV: Women around the world continue to do extraordinary work. I read a lot about grassroots work. I was just reading about women lawyers who travel through Pakistan to teach women what their rights are. They help women fight against domestic violence, to sue for divorce, to obtain their rights in the workplace. Women of First Nations in Canada fighting to stop the silence about the murder of so many women young women of First Nation considered expandable by the police. Women in India, in Poland, in Spain, in Brazil, everywhere, are doing fantastic work against the counter offensive of patriarchy and against capital and its new forms of exploitation.

In December of last year the President of the French Senate awarded Françoise Vergès the Legion of Honor in recognition of the length and breadth of her scholarly and activist work. Despite this accolade, the innovative work Françoise Vergès and her team had undertaken in the project to create a Museum to commemorate the cultural legacy of the “métis”, multicultural population of Réunion—Maison des civilisations et de l'unité réunionnaise (MCUR)—has not been realized. The local authorities blocked continued funding, the result, in part, of the continued assimilationist project of French nationalism combined with the persistent vilification of Françoise’s lineage. Some argued the project should be tabled because of other more pressing needs in this region where poverty is extensive. But this flies in the face of the political significance of cultural interventions, of the necessity of “bread and roses.” As Françoise Vergès herself put it: “A film, an exhibition, a novel can affect society in ways that opens up new questions about the past and the present.”

It will be interesting to see whether the “intersectionality” of issues and strategies Françoise Vergès has outlined in her scholarship and activism are reflected in the discussions at the 'A Revolutionary Moment' conference about Women’s Liberation in Boston this week.







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