Feminism, war and racism: an interview with Christine Delphy

BK: Friendship, and emancipatory love, is a central relationship in the women’s liberation movement that you engaged in in the 1970s. Uniting around the affective (of which the…

BK: Friendship, and emancipatory love, is a central relationship in the women’s liberation movement that you engaged in in the 1970s. Uniting around the affective (of which the political is a part) gives us a way to build these emancipatory relations. But what place does conflict hold in your theory and action?

CD: Emancipatory love can be obliterated by patriarchy. The patriarchal order likes to promote a general apprehension that women are in competition. But we are not in competition. We all suffer the same order wherever we may be. In the 1970s, we created a small group of feminists, the Women’s Liberation Movement (MLF), whose ideas we continue to pursue through ‘Nouvelles questions féministes’ [a biannual academic journal of feminism]. We set out together through friendship to engage with and against oppression and change the conditions we suffered.

But let us not forget, that as we, different women, aim for transformation through our struggles, masculinity transforms as well. The patriarchy appears strong at various moments in the emancipatory process.

Take, for example, the headscarf controversy in France in the 2000s. A number of white feminists joined the movement against the headscarf whilst others organized against the conjunction of two oppressions: racism and sexism. But it is from the same basis of oppression, that of the patriarch, that these contrary tendencies emerge.

The white men, the white patriarchy, is always there, holding the dominant role in the whole situation: by attributing violence to the ‘Arabs’ and ‘Blacks’, white men whiten themselves even more and dominate. During the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, there was a general French refusal to consider the possibility of rape, to admit that one of their own could be raping. But the question of rape is rising in force in France, for example, in the Polanski affair or in the Darmanin affair. It is those ‘respectable’ white men, all men, who are called to answer for their violence and domination.

These current actions are also a small step against the growing Islamophobia, cultivated by and reinforcing the culture of the patriarchal order. The feminist movement takes on and transforms the use of force, notably against new adversaries, because men will not let go passively. All talk of a crisis of masculinity is just another antifeminist distraction.

BK: There is indeed a strong feminist opposition to violence(s) committed against women but how about a feminist opposition to the violence of war? Put otherwise, “in the past two centuries if not before – women have been organizing in order to stop wars, but to no avail. Do you believe we could do anything that would have a chance to prevent war, any war?” This is in fact a question from our email exchange, one that you put to me. You invited us to ‘start from the beginning’, to change the ways we think about the ‘problems’, and to rethink questions of war and feminism together.

CD: The question baldly stated is far too complex. I think my question addressed a petition you sent, something for some European women’s opposition to war(s). There, I mainly wanted to address European white women’s contribution to the analysis of and action against war. Is signing a petition going to change something? Our action is indeed rather limited.

But there are also a number of questions emerging on the place war holds in the scheme of things, and which wars matter in the feminist struggle. Above all, we have to ask ourselves what have we achieved? What can we do as French or European women? We need to go back to the history of the feminist movement at the dawn of the twentieth century in England and elsewhere (something difficult to do in one interview­), which was also, though not mainly, anti-war.

War, like feminism, is a question of mentalities, a struggle to change mentalities. Wars lead nowhere else but to victims, civilian victims. This was already at the heart of the antimilitarist opposition to the war of 1914-18. The budget of the military has now reached new levels, whilst all other budgets (education, work) keep dropping. What aim will they serve, the six new nuclear submarines that President Macron wants to build? And the war on Afghanistan?

After 2001, opposition to the war on Afghanistan – before the more widespread opposition of the war on Iraq – seemed central. Agir Contre la Guerre [Act Against War], created at that time to oppose war, was criticized by all – including the Left – when it took up the question of the headscarf and Islamophobia and when it started to engage with France’s pursuit of colonial practices against its former subjects. The face of the war that emerged in France and that crystalized with the headscarf controversy was simply the continuation of old colonial domination that has been reinforced since 2001.

You ask what we did as (French) feminists in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s against war? Frankly, we acted as if it were of no concern to us. Andrée Michel wrote significantly on the subject, on Mitterrand’s war, but war never became central to the movement. Even the war France initiated in 1989 against its own citizens – third or fourth generation immigrants in the name of universalism (French secularism), a pursuit of colonial practices in France – went mostly unopposed. The headscarf controversy, at its heart since 1989, proved however a dramatic turning point for the feminist movement. And ­I found myself very alone at that point – it was in 2004. In other words, the feminist movement is not touched by war so much as by the postcolonial question.

There is a constant renewal of colonialism in the form of neocolonialism(s). Colonialism is not born at a specific date or time and neither is opposition to Muslims. There was a movement against young women wearing a scarf. [French philosopher] Alain Finkielkraut played a part in that. Then it became a movement against any Islamic insignia. And from that time on, this anti-Muslim opposition has been growing to reach the situation we face today, of a law on Islamic separatism!

For the feminist movement, the law banning the wearing of the headscarf by young girls at school in 2004 created a strained situation, especially when there were attempts to prevent us from joining the feminist march. Until then, everyone could join a feminist march. It was at that moment that the opposition was declared: when some women were excluded from the feminist movement, an exclusion lasting for many years.

Very few, non-Muslim, white women supported Muslim women. We had created a group, in fact, one group in Paris and another one in Strasbourg, but there wasn’t any indignation about the perpetuation and duration of colonialism. And it wasn’t a feminist struggle because our antiracist group was too small.

What the headscarf issue unveiled is how ‘normal’ it is to hate Muslims, for feminists too. That hate has led them even to currently support the government’s law on separatism. The Islamophobic discourse does its work, always: [far-Right journalist) Eric Zemmour is on TV every week as is Finkielkraut, and as are those who are part of a racist movement that we have struggled against for decades. As for the few antiracists there are, they all have their distinct individual positions.


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