Contesting Frenchness : The Revival of Afrofeminism in France
The 2018 Cannes Film Festival was hit by the Times Up and #MeToo campaign as 82 women (the dismal number of awards given to women throughout the history of the Cannes festival) came together on the red carpet to denounce gender inequality. The festival closed with Asia Argento’s emotive speech condemning Harvey Weinstein. Without doubt this was a momentous protest that brought more attention to the #MeToo movement which continues to build up momentum as we keep talking about it. And we should never stop talking about it.
But I couldn’t help but notice the lack of diversity in the women at Cannes. It’s an issue which black women in France often bemoan; there are no diverse representations of women in French media. With protest in the air, sixteen Black actresses led by Aïssa Maïga seized the moment to stage a separate protest denouncing racism and sexism in French cinema. But why is this such a big issue? And why was this protest hardly talked about in international media?
This is a perfect example of black Afro-feminism in France and the lack of positive attention it receives. French Afro-feminist movements were initiated in the 1970s, inspired by Black American feminism. After a twenty year hiatus, Afro-feminism has experienced a recent rebirth as black women in France continue to fight for more representation in an egalitarian society that ignores their existence.
Why Does France Need Afro-Feminism?
To understand the latest surge in Afro-feminist activism in France, you have to get to grips with France’s colonial history which encouraged the erasure of African political, economic, social and religious systems in order to present black people as inferior. From human zoos to frankly racist travel journals, black women were presented as alien and subordinately different to the hegemonic white French society. French identity essentially revolved around whiteness and its perceived superiority.
So you would think that black movements in the early twentieth century would address the marginalisation and discrimination faced by black women? Wrong. The Nardal sisters serve as an apt example of the erasure of black women from black French history. Despite holding literary salons that enabled the creation of the 1930s Negritude movement Paulette and Jean Nardal are often omitted from the history books. Meanwhile feminist movements continued to dismiss the intersecting oppressions and experiences faced by black women. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex relates the subjugation of women to the oppression of black people, failing to recognise the oppressions (and existence) of black women.
In this context, the afro-feminist collective Coordination des Femmes Noires (The Black Women’s Collective) was formed in 1976 by West African diaspora women and five years later Mouvement Pour La Défense Des Droits De La Femme Noire (MODEFEN, Movement for Defending the Rights of Black Women) was created to tackle issues pertinent to black women in France. However, the dawning of the French ‘riots decade’ put an end to these afro-feminist movements in the 1990s, as black French w omen came together with black men and turned their attention to fight for racial justice, against police brutality and institutional racism.
Flash forward some twenty years later and Afro-feminism is experiencing a major rebirth in France with movements that perceive racism and sexism as the product of a political system based on centuries of oppression.
Here’s how black women in France are mobilising through afro-feminism to challenge social injustice:
A media diversity questionnaire in 2016 revealed that only 33% out of 1000 French participants believed that black people were positively represented on television. Likewise, a report on diversity in audio-visual representations found that only 6% of all on-screen representations in France were black. These studies fail to acknowledge the intersect of gender and race making it difficult to judge how many of these representations are black women. However, anecdotal accounts from black women reveal that most on-screen representations of black people are occupied by black men.
Black women in France are now mobilising to transform their representations in French media. In 2016 Kaytie Nielsen and Niang Mame-Fatou produced a documentary Mariannes Noires which looks at the conception of French national identity and its erasure of black women. Meanwhile, adopting a similar style, in 2017 Amandine Gay released the documentary Ouvrir La Voix (Speak Up!) which follows a range of Francophone black women with different immigrant and native French backgrounds to show what it means to be black and a woman in France. Through documentary, afro-feminists are reclaiming an audio-visual space and taking ownership of their identities, creating a collective identity for black women in France.
France is a Republic which bases its policies on egalitarianism and assimilation, and strictly disregards gender, race, disability and sexual preferences. The nation is an apt example of a ‘colour-blind’ society, denying the existence of racial difference to the extent that the official census doesn’t include race. Essentially, the government uses the clichéd ‘I don’t see race’ argument to deny any forms of discrimination or marginalisation based on race and gender. But the lived experiences of black women are very different from this portrait of a society that doesn’t see race. Black women in France often find that they are denied their nationality, often being asked ‘but where are you really/originally from?’
An aspect of afro-feminist movements in France centers around resementization and creating new associations with blackness. Through Afro-feminism, black women are showing that being French doesn’t have to be synonymous with being white. France needs to accept its colonial and migratory history and acknowledge that a large fraction of its population is black. Afro-feminist movements are doing just that – demonstrating that black women are an integral part of French society and culture.
Occupying Physical Spaces
Black women continue to be denied a voice in the public milieu. For example, the appointment of Rokhaya Diallo, a prominent afro-feminist activist, in president Macron’s Digital Commission was shrouded in controversy after a right-wing MP labelled her as a decolonial feminist, a divisive figure, and as too contemptuous of France to serve the Republic. Of course, Macron took the side of the right wing MP, after all, old white men deserve to have their voices prioritised. Diallo was removed from the commission. What’s more worrying is the discrimination that black women face in healthcare institutions. A study carried out between 2009 and 2010 in 4 healthcare centres in the Île-de-France region revealed disparities in health care given to black patients compared to white French patients. These institutions continue to be complicit in the oppression of black women in France.
However, black women are taking to the streets to challenge the idea that they don’t belong in public spaces in France. Through collectives such as the MWASI Collective, afro-feminists mobilise using protest to draw attention to their causes. The Collective hosted France’s first afro-feminist festival, Nyanspo, which (of course) came with controversy as French media and political figures labelled the ‘black-women only’ safe spaces as a form of anti-white racism. This just goes to show that France still has a long way to go to accept afro-feminist movements and the need for public spaces and the media to represent black women, who are a fundamental part of French society.
Afro-feminist movements aim to validate the black women’s identity in France by reclaiming and accentuating their presence in digital, physical and ideological spaces. And they’re only just getting (re)-started.
Article by Chanju Mwanza