CFP Black Feminisms in a French (Post-)Imperial Context? Histories, Experiences, Theories

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Call for Papers

Black Feminisms In a French (Post-)Imperial Context?

Histories, Experiences, Theories

March 3-5, 2020

Campus Condorcet, outside of Paris, France


The Paradoxical Reception of Intersectionality

Since the early 2000s, a paradox has shaped gender Studies, feminist Studies, and research on feminist movements in France. On the one hand, despite a series of essentially media-driven controversies, the notion of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989) has become impossible to ignore, in fact nearly becoming a “buzz word” at the risk of eroding its original critical power (Moujoud, Aït Ben Lamdani, 2012; Bilge, 2015; Collins, 2016). On the other hand, political grass-roots campaigns against the French law of 2004 have crystallized profound divisions at the heart of feminist movements and beyond in the arena of “women’s causes” (Béréni, 2012). That law prohibits wearing religious symbols in public schools and therefore legalizes, in the name of secularism and the emancipation of women, the exclusion of Muslim schoolgirls wearing the headscarf (Guénif-Souilamas, 2003; Nordmann, 2004; Benelli et al., 2006; Dot-Pouillard, 2007; Karimi, 2018).  This theoretical and political context has contributed to the dilution of intersectionality’s critical complexity, both in the areas of scholarly research and activist movements, with as one result sometimes competing receptions and uses of the term. Perhaps most surprising, evidence-based scholarly research in France has not yet reflected upon the implicit Eurocentrism, and thus epistemic nationalism, that still underpins research on the history of women and the sociology of feminisms while using intersectionality as part of its framework. Many act as though the rights of women and women’s causes are contained within the boundaries of a hexagonal nation-state. Yet France’s historical reality is that of a European power that for centuries was also a colonial empire, and even today conserves ambiguous political and cultural ties with its former colonies.


If French feminist research and women’s, gender and sexuality studies have greatly contributed to breaking with androcentric historical narratives by unveiling women’s agency in history, far less work has studied the shifting boundaries between gender, colonial status and national belonging (Hugon, 2004; Lalami, 2008; Georg, 1997; Curiel, 1999; Bouilly, Rillon, 2016; Barthélémy et al., 2001; Moujoud, Falquet, 2013). This research has, too often without acknowledging it, elevated a “white European woman,” whether from the elite or popular classes, as the female subject of history (Delphy, 2010; Hamrouni, Maillé, 2015). Even scholarly research that espouses intersectionality often persists in obscuring the specific historicity in which women from the former French colonies – whose social identity was shaped by race relations within their respective societies – formed themselves into political subjects. Moreover, an increasing fascination with African American feminist theories has shaped French and francophone feminist epistemologies.  As a result, the variety and richness of feminist epistemologies from the Global South has been overlooked (Mohanty et al., 1991; Mohanty, Alexander, 1997), and Black United-Statesian feminism (Falquet, 2006; Dorlin, 2008) is often upheld as a paragon of black feminisms even outside of the United States.


Is the Subject of Black Feminism United-Statesian?


As we know, in countries where the assertion of national identity is often built primarily in opposition to the cultural imposition caused by the colonial relationship, the very signifier of “feminism,” identified as a Western construct, continues to provoke heated debates, if not outright rejection. Yet in the Antilles, Senegal, Cameroun or the Indian Ocean, colonized women have organized and mobilized to contest colonial domination and its racial and gendered mechanisms. Simultaneously, they have opposed forms of patriarchy specific to their societies, and quite often reinforced by the colonial situation (Germain, Larcher, 2018). “Women’s movements” have initiated locally-inflected emancipatory projects that upset gender hierarchies and norms often without explicitly invoking feminism, instead using activism, including putting pen to paper. These social justice movements that choose not to gather under the umbrella of feminism force us to broaden our examination of how to study feminism. Moreover, long before the term and socio-legal definition of intersectionality even existed, in France itself – a national space at the intersection of métropoles and colonies, but outside the limits of the colonial relationship – women from the colonies forcefully contested the multiple forms of social domination with which they were grappling (Boittin, 2010; Couti, 2015 ; Touré Thiam, 2018). Such was the case, in early 1930s interwar Paris, of Paulette Nardal, a Martinican intellectual at the heart of the emergence of the political and literary movements of Negritude. Drawing on her lived experience of racial and patriarchal relationships, then tied to the colonial situation, she explains in a heartfelt appeal in her article entitled “Awakening of Race Consciousness,” that black women in Paris awakened to their “race consciousness” because of their relative isolation in the métropole and a need for “racial solidarity” among women. For Nardal, Caribbean women, well before their male compatriots, “became interested in the history of their race and their respective countries” (348). Prior to contemporary demands by activists from the Afrofeminist collectives Mwasi or Sawtche, she explains that “deliberate scorn” toward Afrodescendants “incited them to seek reasons for social and cultural pride in their African past.” (344). Nardal emphasizes the complexity of black women’s experiences and their activism, as well as what she considered the consubstantial ties between racism, historical and cultural contexts, social condition and sexism. Like her sister Jane, also in Paris at the time, Paulette grows interested in African women – such as the mothers of Ethiopians at war with Mussolini or Senegalese women under French colonial rule – and in African American women in the United States in order to better understand the ties between her experiences and those of other black women. Thus, very early, the Nardal sisters were not only aware of the importance of formulating a female experience of colonization, but also of the bonds that they could establish with other Afrodescendant women in spaces prone to racially justified violence. They serve as but one example of the utility of situating black feminisms in a simultaneously transatlantic and transnational space in order to grasp these feminisms’ specificities, including in relation to United-Statesian theories and practices. After all, the Nardal sisters themselves made the connection, as much with their United-Statesian sisters as with African and Caribbean women, inviting us to ask essential questions about how to go about producing the history of black or Afrodescendant feminisms in spaces indissociable from (post)colonial temporalities.


Much later, in the margins of the Women’s Movement of the 1970s, Caribbean and African women took part in the unvarnished critique of their condition as black women in France. Thus, hungry for equality between women and men, the Guadeloupean midwife of Indian descent, Jacqueline Manicom, describes in Mon examen de blanc (1972) the private devastation caused by racist stigmatization and socio-sexual relationships woven into the social domination of Paris over her native Guadeloupe. In 1978, The Coordination of Black Women published a 38-page pamphlet that it defined as “a collective piece of work that represents a means of shattering the isolation of black women wherever they may be” (3). Its principal aim, it explained, is to break black women out of “a social and political ghetto” (3). And the militants do not mince words. At the end of this text that denounces the sexist and oppressive effects of colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism, they write in capital letters: “We will not let ourselves be massacred, sent away, locked up, assimilated, welfared, bartered, ethnologized, anthropologized, exoticized, exploited: We are going to forge our history differently” (36). Forty years later, in a same raging aspiration for autonomy, the members of Mwasi write in their manifesto Afrofem (2018) that they refuse “to be saved by anyone at all.” These cries dispersed across history fracture a narrative of feminism that, centered around the experience of white women, invisibilizes the struggles led in France and in the (post)colonies by black women, challenging the idea that black feminism is specifically United-Statesian, and instead considering black feminisms in light of circulations, importations and translations.


Objectives of the Colloquium


The present colloquium shall therefore examine this hegemonic narrative of black feminism by the yardstick of the feminisms/ women’s movements that were active in the French (post)colonies. Retracing the history of these struggles invites participants to rethink how racism and sexism operate in a (post)colonial context, but also to question the gendered and racialized tensions that, according to social and political dynamics distinct from those at work in the United States, have long underpinned the egalitarian horizon of the republican myth.


For all that, the attention given here to the effects of colonial power on the social and political identities of (formerly) colonized women must not mask the extreme diversity of the specific conditions in which these women forged, and continue to forge, appropriate tools to combat the complex and heterogenous forms of social domination in their societies. Therefore, we will explore the epistemologies and practical knowledge that black feminist and women’s movements from territories formerly colonized by France (Americas, Indian Ocean and Africa) have produced and still produce autonomously. Finally, in the wake of reflections opened by the Senegalese sociologist Fatou Sow (2009) and other francophone feminist academics, the colloquium will also focus – through the lens of sociopolitical realities distinct from the colonial situation – on undervalued knowledge and epistemologies whose expression and circulation are caught in a vise between the persistence of the old colonial relationship and the hegemony of scientific, scholarly research in the English language. In order to take seriously the problem of the translatability and applicability to francophone realities of concepts forged in an anglophone context (Baril, 2017), we welcome contributions leading to the analysis of linguistic flow, the praxis of political alliances, but also the power relationships between the continental (post)colonial space and other spaces (francophone in particular, but also lusophone, hispanophone, or dutchophone) where the relationship with the colonial past continues to configure feminist and women’s struggles.


Suggested approaches/themes for papers:

1.   Can one speak of feminism before the word or without the word? What are the epistemological stakes of writing the history of black feminisms (African/Afrodescendant) in the French (post)colonial context?

2.   Women’s movements and the disregarding or refusal of feminism

3.   Black feminisms and activism (grass-roots mobilization, forms of collective action, social paths of feminists…)

4.   Emancipation and private space

5.  Black feminisms and institutions (State, political parties, labor unions, NGOs, associations)

6.   Black feminist schools of thought and creations of heterogenous fields of knowledge (orality, arts and letters, blogs...)

7.   Queer identities and black feminisms

8.   The circulation of black feminisms: Can we speak of women’s movements and/ or transnational feminists? What power relationships traverse them? How do these circulations influence feminists’ discourses, especially with respect to how they self-identify themselves (African, Antillean, Black, African, African American, Afrodescendant, Afroascendant, diasporic, etc.)?


Paper proposals of 250-300 words, in French or English and anchored in evidence-based research in the social sciences and humanities, should be sent to us by 30 September 2019 at this email address:


Organizing Committee:

Jennifer A. Boittin (The Pennsylvania State University), Jacqueline Couti (Rice University) , Lucia Direnberger (CNRS-CMH), Silyane Larcher (CNRS-IRIS), Rose Ndengue (CEDREF – Université Paris 7 Diderot), Myriam Paris (CESSP – Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne)

Scientific Committee:

Flora Amabiamina (Université de Douala), Pascale Barthélémy (LAHRA, ENS de Lyon), Jennifer A. Boittin (The Pennsylvania State University), Jacqueline Couti (Rice University), Anny Curtius (The University of Iowa), Lucia Direnberger (CNRS-CMH), Emmanuel Bruno Jean-François (The Pennsylvania State University), Anne Hugon (IMAF, Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne), Annette Joseph-Gabriel (University of Michigan), Silyane Larcher (CNRS-IRIS), Robin Mitchell (California State University Channel Islands), Rose Ndengue (CEDREF – Université Paris 7 Diderot), Mame-Fatou Niang (Carnegie Mellon University), Olivette Otele (BATH SPA University), Myriam Paris (CESSP – Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne), Clara Palmiste (DPLSH - Université des Antilles), Jean-Paul Rocci (UPEM LAAS), Fatou Sow (CNRS, Université Cheikh Anta Diop), Tyler Stovall (University of California Santa Cruz).