Friday, 24 June 2011

Fanon and Feminism

by Laurie Cashdan, News & Letters

T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting. Frantz Fanon: Conflicts & Feminisms. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

Tracy Sharpley-Whiting's new book on conflicting attitudes of feminists to the Martinican revolutionary philosopher Frantz Fanon is sure to stir up new controversies regarding the value of Fanon's writings for feminism. We cannot afford to allow anti-Fanon feminist arguments to remain unchallenged, she shows, if we are to work out a radical humanist vision for today.

Sharpley-Whiting addresses writings on Fanon by three groups: those she calls "liberal Euro-American lit-crit feminists"; Algerian nationalist feminists, some participants in the Algerian 1954-62 liberation movement, as was Fanon; and radical Black feminists in the U.S. She is most sympathetic to the third group, which has drawn heavily from Fanon in constructing women's liberation unseparated from Black liberation.

She is most critical of the first group, whose postmodernist critiques revolve largely around Fanon's treatment of Martinican writer Mayotte Capécia in his 1952 Black Skin, White Masks. Most of these commentators, Sharpley-Whiting argues, have not read Capécia for themselves, but simply attack Fanon's critique of a Black woman writer. Taking Fanon's analysis out of the context of his study of the psychic alienation of the Black colonized in relation to the white colonizer, they erase Fanon's revolutionary critique of the Antillean colonized subject who attempts to be recognized as fully human by trying to assimilate the colonizer's culture (p. 34). Such analyses pit feminism against Black liberation, she insists.

ALGERIAN FEMINISTS, on the other hand, are directly concerned with national liberation, but ask why Algerian women in the 1954-62 national liberation movement failed to win equality after independence. They question whether nationalism might be inherently incompatible with women's liberation. Marie-AimŽe Helie-Lucas, founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, accuses Fanon of "mythmaking," insisting his writing on women freedom fighters does not confront their subordination before or after independence.

Sharpley-Whiting's response to Helie-Lucas and several other Arab feminists becomes a fascinating jumping-off point for considering Fanon's "profeminist," radical humanist vision. Her analysis hinges on his warning in The Wretched of the Earth about "the pitfalls of national consciousness."

She connects Fanon's warning to his concern with "national consciousness" that is an "all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the whole people." The new government must "guard against the danger of perpetuating the feudal tradition which holds sacred the masculine element over the feminine," Fanon cautions (quoted p. 64). Sharpley-Whiting compares his warning to Sojourner Truth's criticism of Frederick Douglass as "short-minded" when he favored Negro men alone winning the vote after the Civil War, as analyzed by Marxist-Humanist Raya Dunayevskaya.

SHE LINKS FANON'S prescient warning to his analysis in A Dying Colonialism (the "mythmaking" discussion) about women freedom fighters and the profound transformations they generated. As women reinvented themselves as unveiled revolutionaries, there was "'a new dialectic of the body of the revolutionary Algerian woman and the world,'" Fanon wrote (quoted p. 70). This "new dialectic" profoundly affected the Algerian family, in which the woman "'literally forged a new place for herself by her sheer strength'" (quoted p. 72).

Sharpley-Whiting makes an exciting contribution to the Marxian concept of revolution-in-permanence-a phrase she uses-by pinpointing Fanon's attempt to capture philosophically that moment at which Algerian society was in the process of becoming something new, a moment tragically rejected by Algeria's post-independence leaders. Although she does not discuss the Hegelian dialectic of negativity, she shows how Algerian culture's transformation was emerging from within the revolutionary process, not from an outside colonial power which tried to force modernity on the colonized for its own purposes.

Feminists cannot afford to fall into their own "pitfalls" by relegating Fanon to the dustbin of history. This is especially important today, when Algerian women fighting fundamentalism are once again engaging Fanon's dialectic of self-transformation.