Sisters, do you remember the made-for-TV movie Pierre et Djemila? Him, handsome, in love, considerate. White. Her, beautiful, in love, terrorized by her family. Arab. That film was intended for us, the daughters of immigrants. It spoke to us. It told us how detestable our families were and how desirable French society was. A film that turned us away from our kind, from our fathers, those exploited zoufris who painstakingly kept us alive, and our mothers, wives of immigrants, who painstakingly raised us. The film explained to us, their daughters, that they treated us badly and that we had only one way out: to tear ourselves away from them. In the beginning, I’ll be honest with you, I believed in this old tune which accompanied us everywhere, insinuating itself into every pore, encrusting itself into your skin. You too, perhaps? And then I doubted, and in the end, I didn’t go for it. But I could have, like so many of us did. There’s no doubt that the teenager that I was had already benefitted from the experience of our older sisters who (often) broke their teeth on the mirage of the white prince charming. A spell which cost them almost everything: tearing their families apart, the stigmatization of their mother who was guilty of having “badly raised” them, the shame that reflected on everyone but also the guilt, and the bad reputation … How many of our sisters committed suicide, caught in the cross fire of these two patriarchies? The white patriarchy, conquering and self-assured, and the other, the indigenous patriarchy, dominated and desperate. A spell that proposed to turn all of us into accomplices, auxiliaries to the racist system that would wield the deathblow to this much-hated family from North Africa. All this barely two or three decades after the African independence movements. That old recipe hasn’t aged a day. In fact, didn’t it reach its climax with the blazing success of Ni Putes Ni Soumises? The French elite are unique. Consider their relationship to the sexism of those who are at the top, the sexism of those who are at the bottom, and the sexism of those who are beneath those who are at the bottom. The high-powered France that did not hesitate to publish a photo of Simone de Beauvoir, naked, in the headlines of a major magazine to celebrate the centennial of her birth. Can you image Sartre, naked, on the cover of a serious magazine? Undoubtedly, this must be read as the expression of an altogether French sensibility. Artistic. Aesthetic. Who better than the French elite to see and discern that which, behind feminism, defines “the woman”? A self-satisfied, know-it-all elite, walking five inches above the ground and obstinately indifferent to reality. A reality that is mistreated and despised in favor of a self-satisfaction that has no limits. From our standpoint, the spectacle is edifying. What do we see? First off, the near-total indifference of this elite to white patriarchy, which structures French society and determines the lives of millions of women. And yet, all evidence demonstrates that the condition of French women is deteriorating (rape, domestic violence, wage disparity, exploitation of female bodies for commercial ends …). Next, these elites form tight ranks to irrevocably denounce violence done to women in the suburbs, when the perpetrator is black or Arab. The sexism of guys in these neighborhoods is a barbarism without cause or origin. See, all these white male chauvinists who become feminists when the guy from the suburb appears? There is no word harsh enough to crucify him, no compassion strong enough to sympathize with him. All of the white world has time and time again united with quavering voices against the bad guy from the projects. Last but not least, they demonstrate a near-unanimous class solidarity to support DSK and co.
and come up with the most outrageous extenuating circumstances for them. An elite that becomes one with its male chauvinism: it euphemizes white rape, voluntarily confuses rape and licentiousness, and ignores any kind of compassion vis-à-vis victims when the perpetrator is white and high-ranking. On the other hand, against our brothers, it’s a real corrida: the matadors are let loose.
Under pressure, certain of our men slip on a white mask. They don’t wear it well. It disfigures them for life. Do they question themselves about their violence against us? Yeah, sure. They are ugly because they abdicate their power only to please white people. Because we are subjected to their violence. They abdicate in the face of power. When they court a white woman, they are chivalrous, considerate, romantic. Qualities that are unimaginable within the privacy of our housing projects. I’ve come to prefer big fat machos who own up to it. I’m telling you sisters, we must take drastic action. It’s not good for us when our men reform themselves at the behest of white people. Because in fact, they do not reform themselves. They pretend to. They are actors, playing their roles with more or less talent. If you chase away what is natural, it comes running right back. And we’re the ones to suffer the consequences. As I am swimming in my own contradictions, I’ll admit, I prefer the original to the copy. Because it’s less the reality of masculine domination that poses a problem than its dehumanization. What’s worse is that none of this is new. These black people bearing white masks have illustrious predecessors. It’s funny but feminist pioneers in the Islamic world were … men: Qasim Amine, Mohammed Abduh, Tahar Haddad, Taha Hussein, Mohammed Rachid Rida …
Most female Muslim commentators are pleased with this phenomenon and see in it an exceptional humanism, a God-given philanthropy. This naïveté leaves me speechless. Why would men voluntarily abdicate their privileges? Why on earth would they encourage a struggle that threatens their power over women? In Europe, the first feminists were, quite naturally, women. Why has the Islamic world given birth to such incongruity? It’s no big mystery to me. The elite in these societies were already crushed by the thought of their civilizational “backwardness.” Women’s liberation, when it is extolled by men, can in no way be explained by a pro-women tropism, but more conclusively by the complex of indigeneity, shamed by colonial power and seeking to hoist itself up to the level of the so-called norms of the colonized. These guys exhaust me. Speaking of virility, have you noticed, sisters, the emotion that overtakes a white democrat when a guy from the suburbs declares his homosexuality in front of a camera and mic? To hear a shyster make his coming out: what a joy for the white civilizer, an endpoint for the backward, indigenous people. Because for a khoroto,
to make of one’s sexuality a social and political identity is to enter modernity through the front door. The white man is on the edge of ecstasy. All of these words jostling each other at the threshold of the indigenous person’s still archaic consciousness—which, though it is still archaic, is destined to a Man’s fate—besiege him: “to take responsibility for oneself,” “to be accomplished,” “to realize oneself,” “to tear off one’s chains,” and “to shatter all taboos.” The indigenous person is surrounded but hypnotized. Sometimes, because his people are suffocating, he gives in. Immediately, he is carried to the pinnacle. I’m sick and tired of these worthless heroes. But the white democrat goes into a trance. When he meets that unlikely character, his body shakes all over, he has an irrepressible desire to kiss him, to hold him in his arms and commune with him. Thanks to this unexpected conversion, he has accomplished his civilizing mission. He has just won a miraculous victory against an enemy, who petrifies and taunts him: the great and insolent Islamic virility. The one that is maddening. The one that has male chauvinists drooling. “They veil their wives. They can have four of them. The bastards!” We must stop lying to ourselves. When white people rejoice at an indigenous man’s coming out, it’s both out of homophobia and out of racism. As we all know, “the faggot” is not quite a “man,” thus, the Arab who loses his virile power is not quite a man. And that’s good. It’s really good. And it’s so reassuring. It goes without saying that the message is understood loud and clear on the other side of the highway as well. The virile and homophobic competition that takes place in the opposite camp will come as no surprise, and it will take great pleasure in overplaying sexuality, which is fabricated by the colonial gaze in the devious war between antagonistic and irreducible forces. But aside from this, apparently, within philanthropic circles, they are worried about our lot, us chicks. No kidding!
My sisters, we are entitled to ask ourselves questions, are we not? Why have white women and especially feminists, who have refined knowledge of the patriarchy, let themselves be recruited in this sacred union against guys from the suburbs? Were they bewitched? I will not have the weakness to believe that. The truth is that, caught in a conflict of interest, they privileged racial solidarity. Like Le Pen, they prefer their family to their neighbor … As indigenous people, we have known, since Pierre et Djemila, that there are very few people who want our well-being. We are nothing but foils, instruments of white vanity. This hypocrites’ dance nevertheless has a virtue. It forces us to return to the real, to resituate ourselves. It compels us to remain lucid. We chase away the myths; we dissipate the fog. Let’s look at our parents, let’s look at our brothers, let’s look at the women from our neighborhoods. And let’s observe the white elite. And then, let’s rediscover our mothers, our fathers, and our brothers. Them, enemies? There is no simple answer to this question. I would be lying if I answered with a candid and irrevocable no. But I make the conscious choice to say no because my liberation will not be attained without theirs. Like Assata Shakur, I say: “We can never be free while our men are oppressed.”
No, my body does not belong to me. I know today that my place is among my own people. More than an instinct, it is a political approach. But before becoming conscious knowledge, this return was accomplished through a collective will for survival and resistance. My consciousness comes from this. Our collective self reacted by creating its own immune system. What becomes of Djemila—what becomes of us—when the time of romance has passed and Pierre dumps her for other horizons? What becomes of her financial autonomy? What becomes of the indigenous woman, isolated and vulnerable in a hostile society that discriminates against her, exoticizes her, and instrumentalizes her? Will she find a refuge among her own people after her “treason”? Sometimes, yes, and sometimes, it will be difficult. Whatever happens, she will have been disgraced. Why then take this risk? This is the question we must answer, especially those of us coming from the lower classes. In other words, most of us. A friend was telling me: “I have never been a feminist. I never even thought about it. For me, feminism is like chocolate.” Isn’t that right! Reproaching us for not being feminists is like reproaching a poor person for not eating caviar. For, what leeway do we have between the white patriarchy and “our own,” indigenous and dominated patriarchy? How should we act when the latter’s survival strategy consists in exposing his pecs, making a display of his virility? This is the equation that the collective self has had to resolve. An I that has easily achieved the difficult compromise between integrity, the safety of the group, and the liberation of the individual. A compromise between indigenous men and women, which some African sisters have called “nego-feminism.” In this struggle, we have not been passive. We have played our part, making do as best we could. Some of us distanced themselves from white men, some drew closer to them, not without imposing their own conditions, others demanded a conversion to Islam, others wore the hijab. All this for a number of reasons, which range from the search for spirituality to political resistance, by way of a strong self-awareness and awareness of one’s dignity. After all, we are not merely bodies available for white male consumption. And we refuse to allow our bodies to be exploited by the society of the spectacle. At the same time, we are rebuilding ties to ourselves. We belong to the “community” and we ensure it of our loyalty. Is it a paradox to undergo a collective benediction? A knife in the back of women’s struggle? No. This is the precondition for a concrete emancipation, because it’s either that or the perpetual divide, the “no-man’s land” of the beurette or the disembodied black girl. From now on, this margin of freedom we negotiated will allow us to have a bit more control over our lives. It’s significant and better than nothing. Within this framework, the “chocolate” dimension of feminism finds its fullest expression: the indigenous man is not our main enemy. The radical critique of indigenous patriarchy is a luxury. If a responsible form of feminism were ever to see the light of day, it would have to take the sinuous and craggy routes of a paradoxical movement, which will necessarily have to pass through a communitarian allegiance. At least, so long as racism exists.
Sisters, let’s begin with an act of liberation. A simple thought. That of allowing ourselves to ask this question: Must we necessarily subscribe to feminism? And why is this question, in and of itself, already an intolerable transgression? If so, does a new feminism need to be invented? For my part, I prefer to remain prudent and examine the matter more closely. We live in a complicated time, and this complexity makes our self-definition more difficult. Be that as it may, there is a need to clarify and to analyze in order to lead struggles that are adapted to our condition as nonwhite women of the East. For the purposes of our cause, I’m willing to use the concept of “decolonial feminism.” Though it does not entirely satisfy me, it’s a compromise between a certain resistance to feminism at home and throughout the Third World, and the massive, disturbing reality of the multidimensional violence that is inflicted on us, a violence that is produced by states and by neoliberalism.
Let’s consider this compromise as an agreement between the resistance to feminism, to its Western-centric forms,
and its successful penetration into nonwhite worlds, its adoption and subsequent reappropriation by some of us. It’s a real mess. Let’s start by clearing a path.
Is feminism universal and a-temporal, a necessary passage to aspire to liberation, dignity, and well-being? I don’t think so. As is the case with all social phenomena, feminism is situated in space and time. One has only to determine its conditions of emergence. First, I must confess, I have a reproach to make against us: too often, feminists from the South see the feminist movement through Chimène’s eyes. From the outset then, it’s accepted as a superior phenomenon. This subjugation is such that Muslim feminists, for instance, do not hesitate to inscribe feminism within the genesis of Islamic history. All of Islam’s dignity is thereby contained in the capacity of these militant women to prove that Islam’s writings are feminist but its interpretations by the local patriarchy have been sexist. Muslim feminists are condemned to demonstrate this, and remain prisoners to the terms of a debate imposed by others. They sin through their blind adherence to the paradigm of modernity, through the idea that gender conflicts today are first and foremost determined by the nature of Islamic societies, rather than by global economic and political structures and North/South relationships. In this way, societies in which the feminist movement is nonexistent or marginal are seen as bearing a civilizational backwardness. One would have to make up this delay and operate grafts in different space/times, by ignoring the sociohistorical or even geopolitical realities of the countries in question, the impact of modernity in gender relations and their transformation, as well as the historical condition of the emergence of feminism, which have made feminism into a specifically European phenomenon, a phenomenon that emerges out of the geopolitical space called the West.
Sisters, let’s be methodical and ask ourselves the right questions. Do white women really have an instinctive, feminist consciousness? What are the historical conditions that have enabled feminism? It’s impossible not to relocate the basis of the possibility of feminism within a specific geopolitical moment: that of capitalist and colonial expansion, made possible by the “discovery of America” and by another foundational moment: the French Revolution, itself a condition of the emergence of the rule of law and of the individual citizen. The French Revolution became a promise—the promise of the recognition of complete and total universal citizenship—which was obviously not kept, since this citizenship was at first reserved to men. It later became a possible horizon for women because, from then on, thanks to the principles of the revolution, they would be able to solve the equation: if the individual is a citizen, and woman is an individual, then woman is a citizen in full right … Feminism would take a long time to develop (it reached its apogee in the 1970s) but would always be contained within the framework of liberal democracies, founded on the idea of the equality of citizens, and in which white women obtained rights, because of their own struggle, of course, but also thanks to imperial domination.
“The History of the West,” writes Domenico Losurdo, “faces a paradox … The neat line distinguishing white people on the one hand, from black people and Native Americans, on the other, favors the development of relationships of equality within the white community.”
Interesting, no? Let’s not forget that at the time of the revolution, the black slave trade already existed and France was a stakeholder in this commerce. The “racial” conflicts of interest between the North and the South weren’t fixed then. The peoples of the North who were not yet completely “white” could conceive of dangerous convergences with the colonized. The French Revolution coincides with the Haitian Revolution and interacts with it. The sans-culottes protested to demand the abolition of slavery against the “aristocracy of the epidermis.” But the colonial states, in the process of being established, have always skillfully known how to integrate certain layers of the proletariat and of women throughout their social or political wings. This is also how the white race was invented. What I mean, sisters, is that European societies were horribly unjust toward women (several thousand “witches” were immolated there), but also that women, thanks to capitalist and colonial expansion, largely improved their condition on the backs of the colonized. So, let’s stop dumbly admiring a world that birthed political phenomena only to resolve its own contradictions, be they justified or not, but which had nothing to do with an avant-garde enlightening of the world. Isn’t this what James Baldwin and Audre Lorde invite us to do?
To Baldwin, who reproaches Lorde for overloading black men, the African-American feminist replies:
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.”
“But that demands redefining the terms of the western world.” Sisters, may I propose that we extend Baldwin’s remark? The expansion of capitalism across the world exported political systems and conflicts that structure the white world into left and right, progressives and conservatives, nation-states, languages, modes of life, dress codes, epistemologies, structures of thought … There is no reason to believe that feminism escaped this. For me, feminism is indeed one of those exported European phenomena. The power of imperialism is such that all the phenomena that structure the Western political, economic, and cultural field impose themselves across the world more or less contentedly: sometimes they come up against the resistance of the people, sometimes they penetrate, slide in like butter. They become reality. They inform and shape the everyday. However, all these countries have specific histories, and they especially have specific economic and political systems that determine and shape, among other things, the relations between men and women. You might already know this, but before the “great encounter” with the West, there were places where relations of gender domination did not exist; there were even regions of the world in which the female gender did not exist. There are regions where, on the contrary, there was a specifically local patriarchy, which is to say, not Christian-centric and not necessarily heterosexist. In fact, before the great colonial night, there was an extreme diversity of human relations that I do not want to romanticize, but that we cannot ignore. As Paola Bacchetta reminds us: “The colonizers did not only impose their own notions of gender and sexuality onto colonized subjects: the effect of this imposition has been to worsen the situation of women … and sexual minorities.”
With fifty years of hindsight, and thanks to Latin American decolonizing intellectuals in particular, we know that while formal independence movements have indeed taken place, the “colonialism of power” has not disappeared. Indeed, the young liberated nations have walked in the footsteps of their old masters, copied their political systems without any critical distance, adopted the forms of European nation-states, the French in particular, whose limits were painfully felt during the two so-called “world” wars, the forms of jurisdiction, of democracy, of relation to citizenship, to freedom, to emancipation … The diversity of social forms thus gave way to a progressive homogenization. Diversity either disappeared or transformed itself. Often it resisted and reconstructed itself. This is what has happened in most cases. Feminism, as an idea, but also as a form of struggle, therefore sometimes becomes a reality that we must accept when women take hold of it and redefine it, whether it is secular, Islamic, or articulated through the local cultures, but that we should refuse, if women reject it.
This is what Baldwin suggests when he bases the redefinition of femininity and masculinity on a reconsideration of the West. He’s completely right. We cannot rethink social relations, the family, gender relations, or sexuality without rethinking the nature of the state, North/South relations, neoliberalism, and its metamorphoses. Moreover, we must question the notions of equality, emancipation, freedom, and progress, and even refuse to conform to the liberal model of the individual.
Sisters, we need a global thinking that conceives of an alternative to Western civilization, which is in decline and has reached its limits. In other words, thinking about gender and the types of relations between men and women cannot be done without a radical calling-into-question of modernity and a reflection on its civilizational alternative. It is not by targeting symptoms of masculine violence against us that we will transform our reality, but by attacking structures. In this struggle, our mobilization as nonwhite women will be decisive. But you will say, this is all well and good, and yet in the meantime, we are suffocating.
To the question “why didn’t you press charges?,” the black rape victim answers the interviewer, who is himself black: “I never pressed charges because I wanted to protect you. I couldn’t bear to see another black man in jail.”
This is what provokes Audre Lorde’s rage:
It’s vital that we deal constantly with racism, and with white racism among black people—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.
Our communities cannot do without this introspection. Men must learn to respect us and understand our sacrifice, just as we understand the necessity of protecting them.
This debate amongst ourselves is a priority. Will we see to it?
James Baldwin continues: “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, we know much more, and it is for this reason that we are more strategic … or sly, as others would say. We especially know that our men are just as oppressed as us in different ways.
“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. And he continues: “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 principle crime in this republic. And every Black man knows it. And every Black woman pays for it. And every Black child.”
In Europe, prisons are brimming with black people and Arabs. Racial profiling almost only concerns men, who are the police’s main target. It is in our eyes that they are diminished. And yet they try desperately to reconquer us, often through violence. In a society that is castrating, patriarchal, and racist (or subjected to imperialism), to live is to live with virility. “The cops are killing the men and the men are killing the women. I’m talking about rape. I’m talking about murder,” says Audre Lorde. A decolonial feminism must take into account this masculine, indigenous “gender trouble” because the oppression of men reflects directly on us. Yes, we are subjected with full force to the humiliation that is done to them. Male castration, a consequence of racism, is a humiliation for which men make us pay a steep price. In other words, the more hegemonic thought tells us that our men are barbaric, the more frustrated they become, and the more they will oppress us. The effects of white, racist patriarchy exacerbate gender relations in the indigenous milieu. This is why a decolonial feminism must have as its imperative to radically refuse the discourses and practices that stigmatize our brothers and that, in the same move, exonerate white patriarchy. I think I can see that Lorde is conscious of this when she tells Baldwin: “It’s vital for me to be able to listen to you, to hear what it is that defined you and for you to listen to me, to hear what it is 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. It means that we must engage with men in a conversation on masculinity, as the very lucid Baldwin invites us to do when he tells Lorde: “There’s certainly not [a] 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.”
The trap of imitation. Isn’t this one of the many dimensions of the jihadist, Daesh phenomenon, that acts like a counterrevolutionary force? Isn’t it into this trap that its promoters and fighters fall pray? The trap of grotesque imitation? The colonial West thought it had decimated the virile power of our men. Instead, the West proliferated it in its own image. Today, this power explodes in our faces, not without the active complicity of certain of our younger sisters, who were programmed to become beurettes but responded to the call of “jihad” with a resounding: yes! When their brothers go off to save their lost honor, they follow them, go with them, reinvent a mythological family model wherein the roles are naturalized but reassuring: men make war, women make children. The men are heroes and the women, loyal Penelopes who accept the downfall of a progressivism that was never shared, a falsely universal but truly white progressivism, which continues to try to domesticate them and hide their future from them: “No, our men aren’t fags!” they tell us. We’ve come full circle.
In the face of this need for security, it will not suffice to implore or oppose great principles. If we had to have a mission, it would be to destroy imitation. This is a goldsmith’s job. We will have to guess which part, in the testosterone-laden virility of the indigenous male, resists white domination. Then we will channel it, neutralize its violence against us, and orient it toward a project of common liberation. This fundamentally white masculinity will require something to offset it that is at least as gratifying. That is called respect. It’s not complicated, but it’s costly.
“I think the Black sense of male and female is much more sophisticated that the western idea.”
Dear sisters, what do you think of this quote from brother Baldwin? I find it enigmatic because it seems misleading, given that our lived experiences contradict this affirmation. But I feel that it contains a knowledge that is hidden in our depths. It is full of a powerful potential, and even of a promise. I want to believe in it, but they will be quick to accuse me of giving in to an indigenous patriarchy. But after all, I don’t care, because I’m decided on optimism and the triumph of revolutionary love.
This piece is an excerpt from Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love by Houria Bouteldja, translated by Rachel Valinsky, and with a foreward by Cornel West, forthcoming from Semiotext(e) in November 2017.