Francofeminism: a Postcolonial History

14 February, 2021

Tunisian feminists (painting by  Aula Al Ayoubi ).

Some­times the sav­age plunges into demen­tia
In rage, can crush a human being to pieces
But the whip’s pas­sage brings him back to silence. 

Casey Failed Crea­ture

Mariem Guellouz and Sélima Kebaïli

The month of March cel­e­brates two events: Inter­na­tion­al Wom­en’s Day and Inter­na­tion­al Fran­coph­o­nie Day. Although French is increas­ing­ly lost to Tunisian and Eng­lish dur­ing the events, this month of cel­e­bra­tion is con­ducive to ques­tion­ing the role that this lan­guage has played since Tunisi­a’s inde­pen­dence in wom­en’s mobi­liza­tions. Fem­i­nism and Fran­coph­o­nie cross par­a­digms linked to a colo­nial his­to­ry legit­imized by a civ­i­liz­ing mis­sion. His­tor­i­cal­ly, in Tunisia, the pres­ence of French is asso­ci­at­ed with French col­o­niza­tion, as well as with the eco­nom­ic and diplo­mat­ic process­es between the two coun­tries. Dur­ing col­o­niza­tion and in the after­math of inde­pen­dence, French was used at the meet­ings of fem­i­nist move­ments such as the Nation­al Union of Young Tunisian Girls (1944) and the Zeitoun­ian Girl’s Club (1954), or in pub­lic speech­es by fem­i­nists such as Manoubia Ouer­tani in 1924 at one of the first fem­i­nist con­fer­ences orga­nized by the French Social­ist Par­ty in Tunisia (for a his­to­ry of wom­en’s move­ments in Tunisia in the 20th cen­tu­ry, see the book by Noura Bor­sali Tunisie: le défi égal­i­taire. Écrits fémin­istes, Arabesques, 2011). It is inter­est­ing to note that French is still wide­ly used more than 50 years after the coun­try’s independence.

Aca­d­e­m­ic and jour­nal­is­tic arti­cles writ­ten by fem­i­nists, as well as the pub­lic lan­guage cho­sen by many wom­en’s asso­ci­a­tions, show that French is still a lan­guage of choice for the enun­ci­a­tion of fem­i­nism in Tunisia. How is it that fem­i­nism in African and Arab coun­tries for­mer­ly col­o­nized by France can only be thought of in, and through, this language? 

To over­come these qua­si-roman­tic ques­tions, it is nec­es­sary to dis­tance one­self from any form of lin­guis­tic essen­tial­ism that con­fers on lan­guages attrib­ut­es of sex­ism, obscu­ran­tism, or even moder­ni­ty and free­dom. The com­plex his­to­ry of the French-speak­ing world can­not ignore the ide­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal dimen­sions linked to its exer­cise. This requires a crit­i­cal soci­olin­guis­tic point of view, tak­ing into account the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the speak­ers and the het­ero­gene­ity of their practices. 

The impo­si­tion of the lan­guage is con­sti­tu­tive of accul­tur­a­tion tech­niques pecu­liar to French and British col­o­niza­tion. Today, the French-speak­ing world needs to be under­stood as an ele­ment of post­colo­nial (re)compositions of iden­ti­ty. The post­colo­nial work car­ried out by researchers from the new Arab gen­er­a­tions in France cer­tain­ly high­lights new forms of impe­ri­al­ism in the use of French, but also exchanges and mutu­al sup­port between fem­i­nist activists from the North and the South[1]. Sev­er­al authors [2] show, for exam­ple, that the French lan­guage can be a tool of dom­i­na­tion as well as eman­ci­pa­tion. The French lan­guage is there­fore not a lan­guage issue: it is a prax­is that high­lights eco­nom­ic stakes and inequal­i­ties in access to edu­ca­tion, cul­ture and knowl­edge. In Africa[3] and in some Arab coun­tries, the French-speak­ing world is the the­ater of social dis­tinc­tions; it is a space where class and race rela­tions are played out, between edu­cat­ed and non-edu­cat­ed people.

In Tunisia, the French-speak­ing world rep­re­sents lin­guis­tic mar­kets as much as nation­al and transna­tion­al polit­i­cal strate­gies, artic­u­lat­ed around the ten­sion between a neo-lib­er­al eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy and a desire to build a mod­ern nation-state. After inde­pen­dence, the Bour­guib­ian project sees in Fran­coph­o­nie a nec­es­sary path to enter into “moder­ni­ty”. The lin­guis­tic ide­olo­gies of moder­ni­ty and of the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of the French lan­guage have a par­tic­u­lar his­toric­i­ty linked to the French Rev­o­lu­tion. How­ev­er, their res­o­nance in the post-colo­nial peri­od must be linked to the his­to­ry of North-South cir­cu­la­tion, made up of trade, migra­tion, graft­ing and trans­la­tion[4].

On March 8 last year, an event orga­nized by the French Insti­tute of Tunis — an orga­ni­za­tion that has been omnipresent in the Tunisian asso­cia­tive and cul­tur­al space since the flight of Pres­i­dent Ben Ali — cel­e­brat­ed women over fifty years of age through a fash­ion show where the bod­ies of Tunisian women were con­tem­plat­ed by the atten­tive eye of an elite, includ­ing the French ambas­sador. Although the event was con­ceived as a space for the val­oriza­tion of Tunisian women, it is not with­out reac­ti­vat­ing a mem­o­ry his­tor­i­cal­ly marked by the exhi­bi­tion and exoti­ciza­tion of indige­nous bod­ies. And through a dia­log­i­cal effect, these images are part of a more gen­er­al insti­tu­tion­al process of sub­ju­ga­tion and sym­bol­ic violence. 

The nation­al nar­ra­tive high­light­ing the “Tunisian excep­tion” in wom­en’s rights is based on con­crete legal reforms, such as the pro­hi­bi­tion of repu­di­a­tion and polygamy, the right to abor­tion, divorce, child cus­tody, and the right to vote. How­ev­er, what has been described as “state fem­i­nism” is to be placed with­in a more glob­al polit­i­cal move­ment of selec­tive neolib­er­al mod­ern­iza­tion[5]. For state fem­i­nism is a project of social dis­tinc­tion that is the result of author­i­tar­i­an eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal choic­es. Also, since the 1970s, “state fem­i­nism” has per­me­at­ed fem­i­nist strug­gles with­in mil­i­tant col­lec­tives or asso­ci­a­tions, most often led by Francophiles. 

This is notably the case of the Tunisian Asso­ci­a­tion of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Women (ATFD). Often referred to as main­stream fem­i­nism, it has nev­er­the­less played a cru­cial role in artic­u­lat­ing fem­i­nist the­o­ries with left-wing polit­i­cal strug­gles. Sev­er­al mem­bers, such as Ahlem Bel­hadj, who served as pres­i­dent of the Asso­ci­a­tion, were affil­i­at­ed with Marx­ist and trade union­ist par­ties. ATFD priv­i­leged French in its var­i­ous actions, par­tic­u­lar­ly those relat­ed to the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of inter­na­tion­al human rights treaties. It has car­ried out sev­er­al actions in pop­u­lar cir­cles and in rur­al areas, but always with­in the frame­work of a uni­ver­sal­ist fem­i­nism that is nowa­days con­test­ed. This fem­i­nism, some­times described as “White”, con­ceives of the strug­gle for wom­en’s rights as a mono­lith­ic move­ment against patri­archy. As such, it is opposed to a decolo­nial and “inter­sec­tion­al” fem­i­nism, which takes into account the dif­fer­ent forms of dom­i­na­tion (racial and colo­nial, in par­tic­u­lar[6]) and the spe­cif­ic iden­ti­ties of those who expe­ri­ence it. Although ATFD is not a homoge­nous bloc and encom­pass­es a diver­si­ty of ide­o­log­i­cal approach­es, the Asso­ci­a­tion is nev­er­the­less char­ac­ter­ized by a gen­er­al ten­den­cy to impose “eman­ci­pa­to­ry actions” that do not always take into account the agen­tiv­i­ty of those con­cerned. In July 2019, on the occa­sion of its 30th anniver­sary, the asso­ci­a­tion orga­nized a sum­mer uni­ver­si­ty, to which a per­son­al­i­ty known for his Islam­o­pho­bic posi­tions was invit­ed, pro­vok­ing the dis­ap­proval of a large num­ber of young activists of the inter­sec­tion­al move­ment. In Tunisia, the choice of lan­guage is not a sim­ple lan­guage habit relat­ed to fem­i­nist asso­ci­a­tions. It is to be under­stood through the prism of a his­toric­i­ty of fem­i­nist move­ments that have defined them­selves in the con­ti­nu­ity of a west­ern cor­pus of the sec­ond wave based on a mate­ri­al­ist strug­gle against male domination. 

It is not a ques­tion here of oppos­ing the use of lan­guages, all of which are tra­versed by repro­duc­tive mech­a­nisms of pow­er, but of tak­ing an inter­est in the con­di­tions and effects of their use. One can won­der in par­tic­u­lar about the con­se­quences in the fem­i­nist asso­cia­tive field of the impo­si­tion by donors of tem­plates writ­ten in French or in Eng­lish. The mas­tery of these two lan­guages becomes an implic­it con­di­tion to obtain funds from inter­na­tion­al NGOs, exclud­ing from the out­set wom­en’s groups from the work­ing class­es[7]. These tech­ni­cal skills also lead to a “pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion” of wom­en’s asso­ci­a­tions, and have an effect on the auton­o­my and col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty of their mem­bers, espe­cial­ly since the rev­o­lu­tion of 2011, with the increas­ing lib­er­al­iza­tion of civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions. These lan­guage prac­tices par­tic­i­pate in main­tain­ing the poten­tial resources of fem­i­nism in elite spheres and there­fore dis­tance them from more encom­pass­ing issues such as the vio­lence of the repres­sive appa­ra­tus of the state that is exert­ed on all bod­ies, men and women. 

One can also won­der about the effects of the Fran­coph­o­nie in the recep­tion of fem­i­nist speech­es expressed in Ara­bic. We note here the exclu­sion of many fem­i­nists from the Arab world such as Bahithat al-Badiya, Huda Shaarawi, Jami­la Bouhired, Naw­al El Saadawi, Fati­ma Mernissi, Fad­wa Touqan or Nazik al-Malai­ka, and their mil­i­tant, aca­d­e­m­ic or lit­er­ary writ­ings, but also the absence of a host of young women researchers whose work relat­ed to gen­der in Ara­bic is exclud­ed from intel­lec­tu­al and mil­i­tant spaces. 

More gen­er­al­ly, the stan­dard­iza­tion of French as a lan­guage of fem­i­nist expres­sion shows a lack of ques­tion­ing of the repro­duc­tive mech­a­nisms of pow­er with­in the fem­i­nist field itself. All of this is now being chal­lenged by a younger gen­er­a­tion. In the post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary peri­od, new move­ments were cre­at­ed by young activists who were part of an inter­sec­tion­al move­ment. These col­lec­tives are het­ero­ge­neous and it is dif­fi­cult today to assign them a par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty. Some activists are mobi­lized for the rights of queer and LGBTQI+ peo­ple, oth­ers are involved in the fight against sex­u­al harass­ment and refer to fem­i­nist col­lec­tives and flash­mobs such as El vio­lador eres to [8]. These non-insti­tu­tion­al­ized col­lec­tives rely large­ly on social net­works and direct sol­i­dar­i­ty process­es. How­ev­er, the posi­tions of some of them with respect to inter­na­tion­al insti­tu­tions remain ambiva­lent. The recent part­ner­ship between Ass­wat Nis­sa and the French Insti­tute of Tunisia — which offered its walls to a fres­co dur­ing an event around #MeToo — is an exam­ple of the stakes of pow­er and legit­imiza­tion of fem­i­nist move­ments through inter­na­tion­al organizations. 

Very few field stud­ies have been car­ried out on this sub­ject, how­ev­er, ini­tial obser­va­tions made dur­ing actions with­in these groups allow us to con­sid­er them as new forms of fem­i­nist protest and reflec­tion, car­ried by a young gen­er­a­tion of urban women, most of whom are edu­cat­ed. A the­o­ret­i­cal inter­est in decolo­nial fem­i­nism appears in the var­i­ous dis­cus­sions with these col­lec­tives, even if it does not always trans­late into modes of action. Their names, Chaml, Chouf, Fal­gat­na,[9] sound like a pos­si­ble break with an estab­lished polit­i­cal order and lan­guage habits. The new lan­guage habits could presage process­es of post­colo­nial eman­ci­pa­tion announc­ing an Arab and Tunisian fem­i­nism anchored in the strug­gles against all forms of eco­nom­ic and insti­tu­tion­al repression. 


[1] One can notably men­tion the col­lec­tive works of Abir Kré­fa and Sarah Bar­rières 2019, “Genre et révo­lu­tion” and Zahra Ali, 2011, “Fémin­isme islamiques” by Zahra Ali), or the the­sis of Hanane Kari­mi “Assig­na­tion to rad­i­cal oth­er­ness and paths to eman­ci­pa­tion: study of the agency of French Mus­lim women”, defend­ed in 2019 in Strasbourg.

[2] Harchi, Kaoutar, I have only one lan­guage and it is not mine. Writ­ers to the test. 2016, Paris. Fayard.

[3] Canut, Cécile. “Down with the Fran­coph­o­nie!” “De la mis­sion civil­isatrice du français en Afrique à sa mise en dis­cours post­colo­niale,” Langue française, vol. 167, no. 3, 2010, pp. 141–158.

[4] Dakhlia, Joce­lyne. “Mémoire des langues”, La pen­sée de midi, vol. 3, no. 3, 2000, pp. 40–44.

[5] D. Mah­foudh, A. Mah­foudh, “Mobil­i­sa­tions des femmes et mou­ve­ment fémin­iste en Tunisie,” Nou­velles Ques­tions Fémin­istes, 2014/2 (Vol. 33), pp. 14–33. DOI: 10.3917/nqf.332.0014.

[6] On this sub­ject see Ben­touha­mi-Moli­no, Hourya. Race, Cul­tures, Iden­ti­ties. A fem­i­nist and post­colo­nial approach. Press­es Uni­ver­si­taires de France, 2015.

[7] On this sub­ject, see the work of Hela Yous­fi on social move­ments and her arti­cle “Utopi­an sov­er­eign­ty for Arab coun­tries? Monde Diplo­ma­tique, Feb­ru­ary 12, 2019 

[8] El vio­lador eres to, “The rapist is you”, Chilean fem­i­nist collective.

[9] Chaml, ‘inclu­sion’, Chouf, “look”, Fal­gat­na, “we’re fed up”, Ena zeda, “me too”.

mariem gellouz round 150 pix.jpg

Mariem Guel­louz is a lec­tur­er in soci­olin­guis­tics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Paris, performer/dancer and direc­tor of the Journées choré­graphiques de Carthage in Tunis. Her work focus­es on lan­guage prac­tices (fem­i­nist discourses/hate speech­es) and aes­thet­ics relat­ed to Arab coun­tries, more specif­i­cal­ly to Tunisia. She works on the con­struc­tion of the body of Arab and Mus­lim per­form­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly the body of women artists in nation­al­ist, colo­nial and post­colo­nial dis­cours­es. She is also active in fem­i­nist and LGBTQI strug­gles in Tunisia. 

selima keibali round150pix.jpg

Séli­ma Kebaïli is a doc­tor in soci­ol­o­gy and a researcher at the Cen­ter for Gen­der Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lau­sanne. She has pub­lished sev­er­al arti­cles in sci­en­tif­ic jour­nals on social mobi­liza­tion and fem­i­nism in the Arab world. She has also taught cours­es at EHESS on gen­der and inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty and has par­tic­i­pat­ed in and orga­nized sev­er­al con­fer­ences on these themes and oth­ers in the fields of polit­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy and soci­ol­o­gy of law. 


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