The trouble with the female universalists

I am a feminist. I can’t say when it started. I think I’ve always had this conviction in me. As long as I can remember, I feel I’ve always been conscious of the existence of sexism, and what’s more it always seemed to me to be more prevalent than racism in my environment.

However in 2003, when the debate erupted in France over whether Muslim pupils had the right or not to wear the hijab in school, I was stunned to see it was mainly Women* who favoured a ban. Women* claiming to be feminists rallied together to deprive young girls of the right to attend a public school simply because of their religion. Women*.

The evidence was there before my eyes, that you can be a feminist and explicitly promote the negation of other women’s rights. Because with the same beliefs, Muslim boys had access to normal schooling.

Without realising it, I discovered intersectionality. I understood that not all Muslims are in the same boat, that the fact of being a visibly Muslim Woman* could expose you to specific treatment.

Some feminists think there is only one path towards emancipation—the western path. And that feminists have a duty to “liberate” Muslim Women* who wear a headscarf, which is viewed as a form of oppression regardless of the context it is worn in. As if these Women* could not have a will of their own. As if this headscarf was the sole marker of gender in our societies.

So in the years that follow demonstrations for women’s rights, some feminist groups prevent veiled Women*— who were no doubt outraged—from marching by their side. They expel them manu militari from processions, thus taking away their right to express themselves since their clothing does not suit their paternalist feminist doxa. Yet “my body belongs to me” said the feminists in the 1970s…

These feminists, who call themselves “universalists” while the majority of them are white, refuse to see that they are just defending a particularism, that of the mainstream.

I understood this when I first discovered the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw. I use words to describe a deeply held belief: Women* are located at the intersection of multiple oppressions. Invisibilised Women*. Women* subject to the injunctions of mainstream Women*. Women* whose specific circumstances are only rarely taken into consideration. Women* of whom I am one, as a Black Woman*.

Some years later, in 2009, I distinctly remember a “call to action for women’s rights”—at the initiative of the Collectif national pour les droits des femmes and Femmes solidaires— calling for a demonstration on 17 October. Apart from the unfortunate choice of date, obviously ignorant of an historic event dear to children of immigrants, the commemoration of the death of hundreds of Algerian men and Women* killed by the French police (17 October 1961), the text referred to the “danger of seeing the struggle for gender equality become sidelined in favour of the struggle against discrimination and for diversity.”

One thing was immediately clear to me: a statement like that could only come from a group of Women* who were uniformly white. Otherwise it is impossible not to know that you can be affected both by the inequalities and violence inherent in sexism, and by racism. Personally it would be impossible for me to complain about stepping up the fight against racism, or to feel that the struggle for women’s rights must take precedence over all other struggles. It seemed evident to me that intersectionality, which implies simultaneously taking all of these battles into account, should permeate the French feminist movement. Because of their rather monochromatic composition, French feminist movements tend to voice their demands while completely ignoring the views of Women*who are non-white, non-French, poor, disabled, trans or lesbian.

These movements therefore tend to ignore a section of the population.

Sexism co-exists with other forms of exclusion, such as racism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, classism and many others. If you are a feminist, how can you not take account of the fact that the interaction of two, three or four forms of exclusion produces new effects?

You often hear feminists explain that Women* are not a “minority” since they make up more than half of the population, unlike true “minorities” (ethnic, religious, etc.). This assertion lies behind the idea that Women* should be given priority treatment relative to groups who are numerically less significant. That would be fair if these groups were distinct and separate. Yet there are Women* who are nonwhite, homosexual, disabled or poor. Should they have to distinguish the aspects of their identity that are to receive priority treatment, and give secondary importance to that which reflects a minority preoccupation? No, never. And I thank Kimberlé Crenshaw for having put words to these denied thoughts.