White feminisms, non-white feminisms: assessing the aftermath of the Tariq Ramadan affair

Houria Bouteldja

I would like to dedicate this talk to the African-American singer, Billie Holiday. I will explain why at the end.

Because what I am talking about is the subject of an ongoing legal case, I wish to make it clear that I am not interested in the basis for this affair, but in its political effects.

In France since the beginning of the 2000s, we have witnessed the emergence of new feminist dynamics that aim to question hegemonic feminism, which as you know is white; “white” in the sense that, for the most part, it defends the interests of white women.

Following the hijab affair, we have seen the emergence of an Islamic feminism that has challenged the idea of the supposed incompatibility of Islam and feminism. Later on, with the appearance of the decolonial movement and of political antiracism, we have seen the arrival of intersectional feminism. There is a whole array of non-white feminisms today, including Islamic feminism and Afro-feminism. It is important to note that these very dynamic movements only represent a minority of women of postcolonial migrant origin because, in reality, the more women are crushed by their condition, the less politically active they are. The same can be said for the decolonial activism that I am a part of. We are but a vocal minority.

I would like to closely analyse the reactions of these different feminist groups to the imprisonment of Tariq Ramadan in order to test them against their politics and their stated objectives. Let me make it clear that non-white feminisms stand between two poles: white feminism, which belongs to what Sadri Khiari has theorized as the ‘white political field’, and the decolonial pole that represents Indigenous power as it is currently emerging and which is based on a political, theoretical and organizational break with the former. The hypothesis which I am going to try and defend here is that the majority of non-white feminisms struggle to keep their promise of effectively articulating gender oppression and oppression on the basis of race and defining a really emancipatory strategy for Indigenous women that resists being coopted by those in power.

Tariq Ramadan is an activist and a world-renowned Muslim intellectual who has been very active in France for twenty years. He is known for being a reformist Muslim thinker. He promotes the idea of adapting Islam for modernity while remaining loyal to the Quran and the prophetic tradition. We are rather sceptical of this approach, given that the decolonial project rejects the paradigm of modernity. Nonetheless, we should recognise the fact that he has been successful – while the French integrationist model is in crisis – in promoting the idea of a citizen Islam whose followers do not have to choose between their Muslim identity and their French citizenship. This challenged the project of pure assimilation (aka whitening).

Last October, he was accused of rape by two women, and then by a third. Since, February 2018, he has been in jail awaiting trial.

This affair has unleashed strong emotions, firstly because if his notoriety as an intellectual but also because these alleged rapes put his religiosity into question in the eyes of the Muslim community. Despite the Me Too campaign being at its peak, other political and media personalities accused of sexual harassment have not been not pursued by the legal system.  These powerful men are still free or awaiting trial despite being accused of similar crimes as Tariq Ramadan. Some even have the support of those in power, while the trial by media of Tariq Ramadan took place well before the legal process, so that he has already been presumed guilty. What has been the feminist reaction?

First, white feminists: I am not going to give a holistic overview of white feminisms and their various approaches. Suffice it to cite Simon de Beauvoir who declared in The Second Sex on the subject of white feminists: ‘Bourgeois as they are, they stand in solidarity with the bourgeois and non-proletarian women; white as they are, they stand with white men and not with black women.’

This quote is extraordinary for more than one reason. First, because it shows de Beauvoir’s extreme lucidity. She deserves out thanks because her words are surprisingly relevant to us today. The ‘Balance ton porc’ (‘Call out your pig’) campaign in France has allowed millions of women to raise their voices against the massive amount of sexual violence that they endure. At the same time, an article published in Le Monde and signed by famous bourgeois women, including the actress Catherine Deneuve, says that women should allow men to ‘hit on them’. In this way, they defended the men in their milieu who have come under attack by the ‘Balance ton porc’ campaign.

What of the supposedly universalist hegemonic feminism that says it defends all women? It mainly supported all the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Balance ton porc’ campaigns. Obviously. It squarely denounced the barefaced impunity of these powerful men. To this point, all is as it should be. But how has hegemonic feminism reacted to the fact that Tariq Ramadan was imprisoned while the other men were not? Let’s be honest and admit that they did not jump on the bandwagon and that they even tacitly refused to be instrumentalised in the service of racism, for which we should be grateful. I believe that, due to the progress made by the decolonial and non-white feminist movements, they have understood that they cannot play with fire. Nevertheless, most of them have not denounced the abusive incarceration of Tariq Ramadan or at the very least campaigned for the other men to be treated in the same manner, which in the end comes down to being complicit with state racism. The only exception I am aware of is a letter, entitled ‘Open letter of support: Tariq Ramadan Case – Calling on Impartial and Equal Justice’. The signatories include Joan Scott and Christine Delphy.

Secondly, non-white (Muslim or intersectional) feminists. There have been two types of reaction: either silence or all-out support for the plaintiffs. Let me point out that all of these feminisms are intersectional in their approach, that is they refuse both the racist instrumentalization of sexism and the sexist instrumentalization of racism. In other words, they seek freedom both from state racism and from the sexism of their communities.

The first, those who remained silent, are those who did not want to go along with the racist instrumentalization of the case but who were still trapped in their feminist identity. How to defend Ramadan’s presumption of innocence and remain a credible feminist, especially when you are an Indigenous woman suspect of being a ‘communitarian’? How to defend the plaintiffs when the dogs have been let loose on an Indigenous man? Silence was the only way out. Say nothing so as not to lose the trust of Indigenous people on the one hand, and that of feminists on the other and, I should add, of all the other important milieu (the university, the Left, the media). This approach is even more of a feat given that Muslim feminists, for example, spend their entire time having to prove that Islam is not incompatible with feminism. If they were to support Tariq Ramadan’s presumption of innocence they would endanger their entire strategy, which is to make themselves respectable in the eyes of progressive whites. But by taking a stance in favour of the women, they put in danger an entire feminist rhetoric whose aim is to convince the Muslim masses that feminism is not a Western invention, but actually inherent in Islam. These strategies do not really convince anyone… The association Lallab paid the costs for this recently. Its activists regret not having been consulted ‘about the other sexual violence cases that appeared at the outset of the “Balance ton porc” movement.’ ‘As though we were Muslims above being women,’ the Mediapart website reported. Ismahane Chouder, a Muslim and an avowed feminist, recounts a similar experience that, from memory, goes: ‘Despite many years of feminist activism, the media never considered me as such because of my hijab and so it’s surprising that the Ramadan affair suddenly made of me a “great feminist” for obvious reasons.’ The only thing they wanted is to hear me rubbish Tariq Ramadan’s presumption of innocence.’ This sums up those who kept their silence.

The second group, starting from the principal that a patriarchal society always sides with men, gave their unconditional support to the plaintiffs and some even went so far as to reject the burden of proof, proclaiming ‘believe women’, the slogan of many white feminists. As we can see here, feminism is seen as superior to antiracism which in fact goes against the aims of intersectionality.

Opposing both the white and the non-white poles of feminism, there is the decolonial position which I identify with. Our position was as follows: Because the law is racist and sexist, we must firstly treat the affair in a dispassionate manner and analyse it from a dialectical point of view. We know that 80% of allegations of rape are well-founded and that the grand majority of women do not lie when they report a rape. The statistics are undeniable. But we also know that impunity in rape cases essentially benefits powerful men and that, in contrast, the law has no compassion for marginalised men, especially when they are Black or Arab. We also know that racism and the prison system produce ultra-toxic masculinities and that these masculinities, which we could also call ‘non-hegemonic masculinities’, are as damaging for men themselves as they are for women and those around them because they lead to all kinds of pathologies including violence which is most often turned against women and children within the family.

We should re-read Rita Segato who explains that predatory capitalism turns women’s bodies into battlefields. In her view, within a context of general precarity, the position of men is weakened: ‘He cannot achieve, he cannot have, he cannot be.’ But at the same time, he has to prove that he is a man. In this way, men are submitted to a ‘masculinity mandate’ that, in order to exist, obliges them to demonstrate strength and power: physical, intellectual, economic, moral, military, etc. For Indigenous men who live a precarious existence, the masculinity mandate often translates into a mandate of violence which is exactly what Indigenous women observe in their every day.

I take the opportunity at the this point to return to a passage in my book that caused a stir. I related the experience of a Black women from the United States and who explained that she wouldn’t press charges because she couldn’t stand for a Black man to be thrown in jail. My detractors turned my description into prescription which, by the way, says a lot about their deep mediocrity (except in this case maybe it was a signal of their panic?) and that of a certain readership that laps it up. This example, which can be extended to a non-negligible number of non-white women, shows that moralizing standpoints on what is good and what is bad won’t change anything. One thing is clear: taking action against the specific oppression of Indigenous men will lead to dismantling the mechanisms that thwart women’s agency, deepen men’s oppression and we will only make matters worse for women. In contrast to what a certain branch of (white or Indigenous) feminism says, I am firmly on the side of Indigenous women. But it is true that I don’t speak their language, I invent my own.

That is why when the charges against Tariq Ramadan were made public and then he was jailed, I made three statements on my Facebook page.

These rigorous and balanced public statements were fraudulently misinterpreted as benefiting ‘the porcs’ by some in the media and by certain progressive websites in the name of ‘believing women’ above all else.

In fact, faced by this case as decolonial actors, we say the following: In a racist and sexist society and taking into account 1) the personality and unsettling significance of Tariq Ramadan in the struggle against Islamophobia and for Palestine, 2) the nature of his enemies: the French political establishment, 3) the massive reality of sexual abuse, it should be non-negotiable both to respect the word of the plaintiffs, who are the presumed victims, and that of the accused, who is presumed innocent. So, the Tariq Ramadan affair should not be subject to any kind of political or media instrumentalization. In addition, it is untrue to say that the French legal system remains a patriarchal one when the accused is Black or Arab.  It is patriarchal when the white patriarchal order is put under the spotlight but, with Tariq Ramadan, on the contrary, those in power had nothing to fear. As the Fanonian philosopher, Norman Ajari has correctly analysed, the Me Too campaign created a divide among whites, while the Campaign against Tariq Ramadan has tendentially reintroduced unity among them.

Consequently, despite a marked hostility, we have insisted on remaining true to what we have theorized as the basic principles – the spine – of a decolonial, materialist feminism. Our starting position is that feminism is a political phenomenon born in a ‘West’ which was under construction, part of the dialectical moment of the formation of European nation-states and the conquering of the world by colonialism. So, feminism appears to us to be a major political event within modernity whose prime objective is to resolve the contradictions between white men and women, all citizens of imperialist democracies and complicit with their elites in the exploitation of the South countries. White women, oppressed by their local patriarchy, nonetheless benefit from North-South relations and they were integrated into the Nation on the basis of being white.

To understand decolonial feminism I would like to share five important orientations:

  1. Domenico Losurdo: ‘The history of the West is faced with a paradox. The clear line of demarcation between whites on the one hand and Blacks and “Redskins” on the other, benefits the development of equal relations within the white community.’
  2. Sadri Khiari: ‘The principle of capitalist democracy is individual freedom and political equality. The races are the negation of this. They are also indissociable from it. Bourgeois modernity, becoming established between the 18th and the 19th centuries, develops via the crossing of two contradictory but complementary movements, the freeing of individuals from the straitjacket of indispensable statutory hierarchies to the affirmation of the modern state and the spread of capitalism, as well as the expansion of imperialism which is necessary for both.’
  3. Simone de Beauvoir: ‘‘Bourgeois as they are, they stand in solidarity with the bourgeois and non-proletarian women; white as they are, they stand with white men and not with black women.’
  4. Chester Himes: ‘As I am not considered a man in the factories, I should at least be one in bed. Everything I can’t be in the factories I will be in bed.’
  5. James Baldwin on the violence of Black men towards women and on the necessity of their transformation: ‘It will require redefining the terms of the West.’

These points form a sort of plumb-line that begins with the birth of capitalist-imperialist democracies and the emergence of the idea of equality (a concept that should be challenged by decolonial thought), and the consequences it has for relations between white men and women, between whites and Indigenous people and between Indigenous men and women.

I would like to conclude by reflecting on what I call the reign of sacred political ideas. Activism often gives birth to ideas that we are often not allowed to question. So imagine when these ideas have been produced by white progressives! Feminism is not left out of this picture and one of the sacred ideas it has produced is ‘My body is my own’. There is a lot to say about this highly liberal, and almost dogmatic, idea. Another example: during the Me Too campaign, women’s words were taken as gospel. Most feminists considered a woman’s word to be sacred and that she should never be seen as suspect. When women declare they have been raped, we need to believe them.

This position is indeed justified in most cases. As I said before, 80% of reports of rape are well founded which supports feminist claims.

But, there is a but. I find the way in which we treat this question in a racist context damaging, even among those who claim to link different forms of oppression to each other. I find this theoretical weakness of applying equivalent positions to white and non-white contexts damaging.

Let’s take the example of the lynching of Black people during segregation in the United States. Are we aware that many Black men were lynched after being denounced by a white woman? It was often sufficient for a white woman to declare that a certain man had looked at her lustily to unleash white men’s rage, leading to him being found hanging from a tree. The famous song by Billie Holdiay, ‘Strange Fruit’ delicately and poetically immortalizes the memory of these men, who were the victims of another, crueler, implacable and superior patriarchy.

The parallels with today are striking: the word of women who speak out against members of the dominant patriarchy is immediately disqualified. When they denounce the Indigenous patriarchy they are lauded, whether they be white or non-white women.

So, decolonial feminism is an equalizing feminism. And, above all it is the only one that really articulates. Because, as Malik Tahar-Chaouch makes clear, ‘the decolonial approach enables us to think about the concrete conditions for common struggles within the world system, made in the image of colonial modernity, against the abstract and paradoxical symmetries of the progressive dogma of the White Left.’

I will end with another snapshot of colonial history. You all are aware of the story of American Wasp immigrants who, in order to tame native tribes and to get them to prove their loyalty, made them deliver one of their own people’s scalps. A handful of them did it. A sizeable number of them, who refused to betray their people, remained silent. Another sizeable number (probably the majority) defended the accused by decrying the conspiracy and destroying the credibility of the presumed victims.

Decolonial feminism has taken the riskiest route: refusing both to deliver the scalp of an Indigenous man to white power and attempting to protect the word of the majority of women (of all ‘races’) who do not lie and who effectively become the collateral damage of the racist instrumentalisation of the Ramadan affair because it sustains the much more powerful, more embedded and more definitive patriarchal system: that of white power.

Taking all this into account, we call for the liberation and fair trial of Tariq Ramadan.