“Don’t liberate us, we’ll take care of it”

by Rym Khadhraoui
Angela Davis raises her fist in a Black Power salute after being introduced by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in Dallas, Texas, Aug. 17, 1972. Ms. Davis was the guest speaker at the 15th annual convention banquet; she spoke on revolutionary changes which included abolishing the prison system. (AP Photo/Charles Bennett)

“Make a feminist planet. Women haters get banished. Covered up or not don’t ever take us for granted”, Mona Haydar a Syrian-American from Flint and her music video “Hijabi” went viral this month- coinciding with the first celebration of Muslim Women Day in the U.S. While the video is claiming for Women’s personal choices and diversity, she declared that of course she had “conservative Muslims and Islamophobes” coming at her after this video. Women in the racial justice movement have been stuck between the conservatives of their own communities on one hand who are reluctant to acknowledge the specific harm based on gender, and on the other hand the perpetuators of systemic racism using Women as an alibi to justify their oppressive norms.

Be it African-American men portrayed as sexual predators, or Arab Men described as savages oppressing women, gender injustice is also a tool of systemic racism.
Women in the movement for racial justice went through several phases. They started by being left out, as at time only the racial issues mattered in the movement. They then managed to impose feminism ideas from the inside, with the rise especially of Black Feminism. Outside of their movements, women of colors also had to fight “white feminism” clichés and the risk of being used as an alibi for racist purpose. Finally, they became the front line of the battle for racial justice.

Black Lives Matter was founded by three women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. The leading faces of the “new anti-racism” in France are two women named Sihame Assbague and Fania Noël. The Women’s March of January 21, 2017 tried to encompass different minorities and communities around the battle for gender justice in the U.S., while in France the collective March of Women for Dignity – supported by Angela Davis – led two major protests against police brutality and racism in 2015 and 2017. In the U.S., the campaign #SayHerName aims to get the attention on black women victims of police violence, while in France sisters of the victims are on the forefront of the legal fight for their lost brothers. All of these are demonstrations of the major role taken by women in that struggle.

As discussed in a radio piece on French national radio, Afro-descendant, black or North African women are getting together on Facebook and Twitter to question the majoritarian feminism and to reinvent a struggle that looks like it. The twitter account @LifeOfaFoC (Life of Feminist of Color) is a clear example. Every week a different Feminist of Color – French and English speaking – takes over the account and as the bio states, it tells the daily life of a feminist woman of color. From an Asian American to a French-Congolese, this account is here to bring feminism and racial justice together by sharing experiences.

As for the Black Feminism, in France it was necessary to create structures by and for women of color. Talking about the sexism of Black and Arab men in a racially biased environment can often be used to justify that men from those communities are therefore more sexist than white men. It is a dilemma for feminists of colors. Afro-feminism is a key result of this struggle. The movie maker and comedian Amandine Gay defines it as “a way of solving the loyalty conflict and to say that we do not have to choose between our different identities.”

The Afro-feminist collective Mwasi during the March for Dignity and Against Racism, in Paris on October 31, 2015. Sign: “Racism, sexism and capitalism walk hand in hand” (Rym Khadhraoui)

A crucial reason of the need to have feminist movements incorporating a racial analysis is embodied in the continuing debate around the hijab in France. A self-claimed French Muslim feminist explained that she started being a feminist when as a consequence of the 2004 law banning the hijab in schools she was asked to remove her hijab, forcing her to choose between faith and education. She describes it as her “first revolt as a Woman, a feminist and a Muslim.” The scholar and activist Hanane Karimi defines the law of 2004 as a scission within the French feminists, between the ones who see underlying islamophobia and racism behind targeting women who wear hijabs, and the others.

While the concept of intersectionality is now starting to be widely known in the U.S. in France the discussion is framed as “universalist” feminism versus post-colonial feminism- or the unity of feminism versus the necessity to recognize the differences. The leading scholar Maboula Soumahoro demonstrates that the main difference between both countries is in the history of communities. In the U.S. the Black community is sustainable and an integral part of the country since the 17th century. When in France, if feminists of colors acted in the 70s it was in a moment of migration, the dichotomy between citizens and foreigners was ruling the debate. What we see with the rise of the Afro-feminism today is from another time in the French history, when the women of colors are French and self-identified as such. They bring the issue of citizenship on the table and talk about France from inside, not from outside like the previous generations. The argument against a feminism aware of the racial dynamics is usually “look what is happening in Africa and in Arab countries”, even though the black and Muslim feminists are French and advocate for their rights as citizens.

In both societies, women of colors are now more than ever at the forefront of the movement for racial justice and the goal is less of taking a role of leader as we would remember men in those movements; but to defend clarity and inclusion by bringing a systemic analysis.
As Audre Lorde said: “It’s possible to take that as a personal metaphor and then multiply it to a people, a race, a sex, a time. If we can keep this thing going long enough, if we can survive and teach what we know, we’ll make it.”