Separate and Dominate

Issue section: 

In France the left has often defended secularism at the expense of defending Muslims against racism.

Delphy, a feminist, anti-racist and important figure in the French anti-war movement, has been outspoken in her opposition to the headscarf ban and to the use of feminism for racist purposes.

These essays from 2002 to 2006 give a good sense of how arguments about Islam, immigration and citizenship have been framed in France in terms of women’s oppression and notions of secularism and republican universalism.

In the two essays which deal with the use of the liberation of women as a justification for war, Delphy highlights the contradictions of these appeals. She discusses the portrayal of Muslim women as alienated and manipulated and, therefore, incapable of speaking about the headscarf ban or unreliable when they do.

Delphy’s critique uses her concept of the “gender system” and her analysis of a “false universality” that constructs and normalises the interests and experiences of a male, white, heterosexual subject. She describes her approach as materialist but it is one that does not engage history.

Delphy reduces real power and social relations to an abstract symbolic ordering that simultaneously categorises people (black/white; men/women) and places them in hierarchical order.

This means that her analysis often cannot account for the real historical processes that have shaped racism and sexism or how they have taken different forms over time. Nor why capitalism and imperialism have played a role in this.

Her strongest essay is the one where she introduces an historical analysis to look at the relationship between colonisation and the construction of an image of Islam as less civilised; where the treatment of women in Muslim societies is seen as proof of Islam’s inferiority to French society and culture.

The essay “Anti-sexism or anti-racism?” is, although Delphy never uses the term, her attempt to develop an intersectional analysis of oppression.

However, like the white feminism she is deeply critical of, the essay obscures or erases discussion of black and anti-racist struggle in France, whether the centrality of Muslim women and girls in struggles against the war on terror; the protests against curfews during the Algerian War of Independence, the movement of sans papiers or the uprisings by young people in the Parisian banlieues (suburbs) against poverty and discrimination.

Where she discusses French people of North African descent it tends to be as victims of racism.

The collection has been described as “a manifesto”. With these omissions it cannot be.