Feminism, war and racism: an interview with Christine Delphy


By Barbara Karatsioli, Open Democracy, 7, April 2021

Christine Delphy is a French sociologist and a central figure in French and international feminism since the 1970s. She was central in unveiling the structural importance of the family in women’s oppression and more recently the mechanisms behind the war on terror, extending and reinforcing that very oppression. Her work includes Close to Home: a materialist analysis of women’s oppression, Separate and dominate: feminism and racism after the War on Terror.

Barbara Karatsioli met with Delphy to talk about the two strands of her activist life, feminism and gender equality in France, and a feminist response to issues of war and peace. Here, French colonialism and the treatment of Islam become central categories in Delphy’s thought-provoking critique.

Barbara Karatsioli (BK): There’s an anecdote about a woman who found a magic lantern. Granted one wish, she asked the genie for gender equality, an unattainable wish according to the genie who asked her to choose again. She asked for the end of war (in Palestine) and peace, and this forced the genie to go back to the first wish, saying gender equality was a more plausible one to grant! In this interview, I would like to engage with you on these two issues: feminism and gender equality on the one hand and war and peace on the other. The approach to both requires taking a radical, centuries-long road.

But let’s take the first road leading to your practice and theory of feminism. The fundamental precept in your feminism is that women are materially oppressed, and that this oppression is not an aspect of capitalist production but a distinct one. What does fighting for gender equality mean, and what place does parity have, if any, in this struggle?

Christine Delphy (CD): I’m not really keen on parity, that is, numerical equality between men and women in institutions. In the last century, there were incremental signs of evolution in the oppression of women, and currently we see this again with artists’ denunciation of violence towards women in France and internationally, or with protests against the nomination of Gérald Darmanin as French minister of interior.

But the issue is not just inequality. Take, for example, a game of cards: some join the game knowing how to play better than others, which means there is a basic inequality. If we look at the former French colonies, current overseas territories, we hear that the French administration takes violence against women seriously. There are however no common measures in the French territories, in New Caledonia or Mayotte. One thing is sure however: women’s submission is expected. Put this in a perspective with Metropolitan France and we observe, not equality, but overall, different degrees of domination.

Having the same number of women as men in an institution or public administration is not equality. Power is relative, and the slightest inequality will always favor men: they employ their power to distribute rights to seemingly liberate women, only to separate women out so that they may dominate them. President Macron is one example, and women in Mali so rightly pointed that out.

Patriarchal domination and exploitation of women is not concomitant with capitalist exploitation but precedes it, differs from it and it is exercised by the family itself, i.e., when a woman got married in the 19th century, she became the slave of the man she married: she had no economic independence.

How can we organize ourselves in such a way as to ensure that the situation of women changes? The first problem is to understand that situation. Manifestoes like Feminism for the 99% [by Cinzia Arruzza, Nancy Fraser and Tithi Bhattacharya] speak for women. But to speak of Black or Jewish women (for example), we need to understand the violence that the different groups suffer; not to speak for them but speak from the position we each are in.

I am not trying to support a ‘local’ or ‘national’ way. The type of discrimination suffered in France, in the USA, in Afghanistan, is universal; patriarchy is universal. Gender inequality remains strong, gender being a system of hierarchy of men over women. The difference is one of ways and degrees of oppression; i.e., not to contradict men is one degree of oppression, to let men beat us up is another. A significant change will take centuries of transformation. The norms are a social construct: it is not men but the masculine that we construct, and bring up children differently, so that they recognize themselves as such. This is the social structure that we ingest from birth.

It is not men but the masculine that we construct, and bring up children differently, so that they recognize themselves as such

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.

What the headscarf issue unveiled is how ‘normal’ it is to hate Muslims, for feminists too

The decapitation of [French schoolteacher] Samuel Paty in October 2020 aggravated Islamophobia to the point of wanting to find ways to send Muslims to prison preemptively. Neocolonialism has been affirmed with an ever-growing hatred, with newspaper publications organized in such a way as to emphasise an Islamist threat. It is no wonder that they rejoice when massacres happen; it allows them to justify their idea that people who practice Islam, but who are perfectly French as well – let’s not forget that – are not part of France, of the ‘Others’. It allows them to say that the enemy, the external enemy, is already here.

At the start of 2016, right after the violence at Bataclan, I joined Ni Guerres, Ni Etat de Guerres (NGNEG) [No to wars, No to the state of war]. But even in an anti-war movement, the idea of non-intervention is hard to establish, as was shown by the first schisms in an already small group of the leftover claims of exception for intervention in some wars, even though the idea of non-intervention was at the basis of the group’s ideology. Then there were oppositions to alliances, the pro-US only or the pro-Russia. However, this opened up space where discussions of war could be initiated for a brief time: specifically, discussions of the wars waged by France.

But it is impossible to struggle against war, if in an anti-war movement there are always people who think that there are good and bad wars, qualifying some wars as defensive. And then, there were the email aggressions aimed at Ludivine Bantigny, who was at the heart of the group, and at Houria Bouteldja’s presence and active participation in the group. Bantigny was attacked for defending the possibility of Bouteldja being there and being anti-war. And Bouteldja was and is treated, now more than ever, as the incarnation of evil. They do not want to take seriously a woman who is also Muslim – regardless of whether she is a believer or not. The anti-war group wasn’t spared by the sexist and racist attitudes in its midst. It took a firm position against them.

The French have never stopped being neocolonial. At the very moment of the march for equality organized in 1983 by young people of North African migrant background – who were never granted equality or treated as real citizens – it became clear that they would never acquire equality. And this well before, the Assises of the indigènes movement in 2005, overtly declaring awareness of their status in French society. What happened in 2015 was an amplification of the French belief that France is the most advanced country on earth, confirmed by the attacks, mainly by the assertion of the French as victims, but without ever assuming France’s own responsibility, its own part in what happened.

Since the attacks at the Bataclan, the government has moved farther right – it is now a government of the far Right, defending itself against an enemy that it is incapable of naming, and the law on Islamist separatism is seen as a way to control all protest, all opposition. This is a serious attack on France itself. The word Islamophobia has become a mantra. Darmanin and Macron inscribe it in law. They suppress the ordinary rights of an entire Muslim or North-African section of the population that makes up France. That is the danger.

The fact that other European countries do not share this position is important. But at the same time, in France, there is no response to the attacks by the ministers of this government, including the most recent one by Frédérique Vidal, minister of higher education, research and innovation, with her desire to launch an investigation into so-called “Islamo-Leftism” in universities. NGNEG signed the petition against the banning of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) in October when the law on ‘Islamist separatism’ took aim against various associations; it also participated in a protest against the law in February and continues since.

But protest against what the government does, against the law on separatism, against Islamophobia remains finite. When the Bataclan attacks took place, they were seen as acts of terrorists; they were not imputed to all Muslims, though the state of emergency addressed Muslims first and foremost as a suspect population. Current positions of the government on Islamophobia and the separatist law, however, take up the discourse of Marie Le Pen. The government’s anti-Muslim attitude is a bid to attract the far-right electors. It reiterates and reinforces the principles of the same neocolonial tendency.

We never really saw a feminist movement against war, but then again, which war (s)? Colonial wars, supremacist wars have been around since the 1990s, the first war against Iraq and then the second one some 10 years later. Throughout the 2000s, I wrote a series of essays against war: on the ways in which ‘women’s liberation’ regarding Afghan, Iraqi or Iranian women’s rights, serve to justify war on those countries and to render white men whiter and less capable of violence in comparison with “those other” men. And how, in reality, these wars further aggravated the destiny of women, and never gave those women the right to choose between war’s death and servitude. I wrote also on the hypocrisy surrounding the debates around the rights of the foetus, which prevail over the rights of women, only to be sent, once born and bred to war as soon as they reach 18.

But which wars, whose wars do we analyze and oppose? We have a long way to go. Let’s take, for example, France’s war in Africa. Nobody criticizes this war, a war against Islamism, supposed to help indigenous populations. There is no critique of this war beyond the costs of war for France, economic or human – that is the cost in young soldiers. France is acting like the USA, spreading the belief of nuclear arms in Iraq to invade it; only here it is not the nuclear but the Islamist threat.

France has a hold on Africa. France facilitates the rise of African politicians, presidents who favour its commercial interests. And France participates in wars that have destroyed the Middle East, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, and would be ready to demolish Iran had it had sufficient troops. These are wars waged, not so much in the interests of French euros but in the interests of US dollars, in alignment with the USA. Only, in 2003, under Chirac’s presidency, did France withdraw from the alliance, something that was costly at the time for the country, due to the US hold-up on French products. But the allegiance of European countries to what the USA is doing continues to be strong — and highly problematic.

It is difficult to say ‘which war’ we oppose, because France is not really engaged in a particular war, apart from the Sahel one. To ‘start from the beginning’, we could denounce that war because there are French soldiers there. France has started a quasi-invasion of Sahel territories, of the African states situated on that horizontal line of the map. This struggle is directed against Islam.

At the same time, France is the only country overtly fighting its own citizens, combating what the government calls Islamism. All of its six to seven million Muslim or North African citizens are perceived as terrorists. It is not universal, this internal state of war. We could start from this double denunciation.

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