Friday, 12 August 2011

'Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms' - A review

by Camalita Naicker

I sincerely believe that subjective experience can be understood by others; and it would give me no pleasure to announce that the black problem is my problem and mine alone and that it is up to me to study it. But it does seem to me that M.Mannoni has not tried to feel himself into the despair of the man of colour confronting the white man. Physically and affectively”. (Frantz Fanon 1967: 63/64).

It is in a similar vein that Tracey Denean Sharpley – Whiting makes her argument against the blunt assertions of, what she terms, ‘Liberal Euro -American Lit-Crit Feminism’ which labels Fanon among other things, a misogynist.

However, Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Criticisms, does not devolve into a blind defence of Fanon and his beliefs. Rather, like all good arguments, it examines not only the nuances of Fanon’s writings, but also the goals of feminism. Thus Sharpley-Whiting performs a double task by both engaging with and refuting the criticisms levelled against Fanon as well as actively engaging with her own thoughts and criticisms of a certain kind of feminism by situating Fanonian thought in an alternative and perhaps more proper context and re-appropriating it from its use by regressive patriarchal- nationalist thinking. 

She examines three kinds of feminism with engage with Frantz Fanon: “Euro-American Lit-Crit and Cultural Feminisms” (what she later terms ‘post-modern feminism’); the ‘Algerian nationalist Feminism’ and ‘Radical US- Black Feminism’, the first two sustaining ideas of Fanon as a misogynist and mythologiser respectively.
It is important to note that she does not view Frantz Fanon as a feminist thinker, nor does she discount many of the criticisms which see his work as “masculinst” and “phallocentric”. She disagrees with feminism that relegate Fanon to the level of misogynist and her analysis is thus incompatible with Feminist theory believing this is typical of Euro-American Lit Crit Feminists who often do not level the same criticism at white writers, who are sexist and racist. She attributes this to the lack of anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-colonist engagement in this kind of feminism. 

It is interesting to consider here, her discussion of Feminist engagement with Fanon’s discussion of ‘white women; sexual violence and negrophobia’. For Fanon in “The Negro and Pathology” the colonist reduces the black man to a penis, a marker of illicit sex and sexual violence. However, she asserts that Fanon did not discuss the psychopathology of the rape of the woman of colour because he has only worked with European woman. Furthermore, within their circumstances, Arab women do not comfortably discuss sex with men, it would have been even more difficult for them to seek counsel with him on matters of sexual violence. What he does say is: 

those who grant our conclusions on the psychosexuality of the white woman may ask what we have to say about the woman of color. I know nothing about her. What I can offer, at the very least, is that for many women in the Antilles – the type that I can call all-but-whites – the aggressor is symbolised by the Sengalese type, or in any event by an inferior (who is so considered)”1.

With reference to the above, Sharpley-Whiting, asserts that not only do Feminists stop at Fanon saying he knows “nothing about her”, they also fail to see how even woman of colour would have a fear of rape by ‘lesser’ black males, even though they would have experienced or are at risk of sexual abuse by white colonists. This has the effect of allowing white men, especially those who did perpetrate sexual abuses during colonialism, to escape the cultural stereotype of rapist. This seems to extend beyond the colonial situation and into our present-day society in that post-modern feminists are perhaps themselves guilty of this exnomination of white writers in the academe who are sexist but whose work is still seen as valuable. 

Again in their (lit-crit post modern feminists) support of Mayotte Capecia against Fanon, she asks the seemingly recurring question that is implicit throughout the book, “to what end”? What is Feminism’s goal here? Is it merely to create a gynocentric world to the exclusion of all male-thought, simply because it is male? She charges them with disregarding the racist and unhealthy view Capecia had of black people, as her problem was not the oppression and racism of the colonial system but rather her apparent lack of whiteness which was the key to transcending the system. A closer engagement with Capecia’s work reveals that she was indeed trying to lactify herself which should be included in their analysis before pronouncing Fanon a patriarchal protectionist and a hater of inter-racial relationships. This attempt at “sisterhood”, explored by La Rue and Frances Beale in Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms, is sometimes dangerously ignorant of goals of women, and in particular those of black women. Okome2 makes a similar argument about what she terms “Reformist Evangelist Western Feminism”: Western Feminists like evangelists of the colonial era believe they are in possession of a universal and ultimate truth and their beliefs and experiences are true for all women the world over. Their intention is to not to listen, observe and understand but rather to convert and dispel backward “evil” beliefs and traditions. While western women are presented as enlightened and emancipated; African women are presented as backward and are always the helpless victims of the African male who oppresses and abuses them3. Okome4 believes if African women cannot recognise themselves in our theoretical portrayals of them, we would have failed as scholars”. Sharpley – Whiting’s discussion of the way in which La Rue, Frances Beale and bell hooks have used Fanon in reconceptualising Feminism to include the experiences of black women who face a “double jeopardy” of oppression is an attempt at allowing black women to see themselves within Feminism and being able to situate their struggle in the complex inter-play of race, class and gender.

US Radical black Feminism disagrees with the idea post-modern feminists propagate of “working over Fanon”5 and in addition she charges them with “working over” the nuances of black and white women’s liberation struggles. The discussion around the dichotomy of suppression vs. oppression as experienced by white females and black females respectively is an important insight into why Fanonian liberation theory becomes so important and useful for black feminists. 

While post-modern feminists accuse him of being a misogynist, the book explores the way in which Algerian Nationalist Feminism charges him with being too liberal with his view on the role of women in the Algerian revolution, which they believe mythologises women as equals during the war, a far cry from the regressive position of women in Algeria today with a return to Sharia and the presentation of women as static bearers of culture and tradition stunting their growth into modernity. In an addition, for them, there is for them the dichotomy of the national /liberation framework versus women’s liberation framework, in which women chose to don their veils again in service of the national liberation struggle because they refused to allow their unveiling to be viewed as emancipation by a French coloniser and a celebration of their values, while being aware of the fact, and as Fanon himself notes, that these values may have objectively been worth choosing. 

It is also an issue that has strong resonance with the liberation struggle in South Africa in that similar criticisms have been brought to the fore by some feminist circles against the women’s marches and protests against passes in the 1950’s. The issue for them is that the women protested to protect the home and the family structure (which they view as patriarchal) and this action was to protect the primacy of their role as mothers and homemakers, Nombaniso Gasa6 discusses this at the length in her article Feminisms, Motherisms, Patriarchies and Women’s Voices in the 1950s. Not only were the women participating seen as non-feminists, but they were also accused by Walker7 of subordinating their struggles against domination to that of the national liberation struggle, an argument that finds resonance with the Algerian Nationalist Feminists. In an analogous vein to Sharpley – Whiting by situating her critique within the broader critique of the goals of Feminism, Gasa responds by asking, “What and who is a feminist?”8. These South African women, like the Algerians, were exercising their own agency, “Women were learning new political skills...This pushed women into re-evaluating their own attitudes towards themselves and encourages a greater feeling of assertiveness and solidarity with other women,”9. This is reminiscent of Fanon’s Algeria Unveiled and his descriptions of the Algerian woman re-learning her own body to aid the revolution. Like Gasa’s10 appeal for a non-linear and more nuanced, contextualised approach which understands that “women straddle many positions (whose) lives defy the binaries that are dominant in South African Feminist academe discourse”, Sharpley- Whiting calls for a re-examination of the role of Algerian women in the struggle. She argues that Fanon’s writing was experiential and any romanticising or mythologizing that may have been done about their role was not a product of any over-exaggeration on his part. Perhaps it would be appropriate to situate this argument in lights of Gasa’s11 argument, “we must acknowledge the different forms of self-representation, the choices that are available to women”.

While it is a truism to say Algerian women did not enjoy liberation along with their black and Arab male counter-parts at independence, having fought beside them and been subsequently erased from history and pushed back into the home and old tradition, it is also plausible to ask whether any of it was discussed. Not only is this tension between the military and the political explored at length in Fanon’s own works but Alice Cherki delves into his thoughts in Fanon: A portrait. This provokes a further question: Should there not have been more “thinking before the building”?,12 and South African black feminists might face the same difficulty.
At a Fanon Colloquium held at Rhodes Univeristy, Grahamstown in July 2011, Ato Sekyi Otu said “one cannot be a revolutionary in public and an abusive dog at home”13, Lillian Ngoyi might have responded by saying “The husbands speak of democracy but do not practice it at home”14. While it is clear from Fanon’s work, and Sharpley-Whiting’s assertions that Fanon did believe in a revolutionary role for women, as well as them evolving with the struggle and re-discovering themselves, not every male in the struggle shared these beliefs. There was a struggle within the liberation movements. That part of the leadership with a deep patriarchal structure came to dominate independent Algeria. But the later turn to strict Islamic oppressive laws in Algeria was not something that anyone predicted during the anti-colonial struggle. Whether these shortcomings can be attributed to Fanon rather than a lack of clear dimensions and dialogue between women and men in the struggle, as well as an adherence to and reverence for said oppressive religious laws (or let it be said any other religion’s oppressive laws) remains to be seen. Least of all because we know that Fanon believed in a secular social-democratic state in which women would be equals. 

In discussing the subordination of women’s struggles to that of the national liberation struggle, Gasa15 asks “Why the Berlin Wall between blackness and liberation struggle on the one hand and feminism on the other?” She stresses a need for the connection between all forms of oppression experienced by women16. This argument is explored in Sharpley – Whiting’s chapter on Fanon and the US Radical Black Feminists. Gasa’s discussion on the universal and the particular is also a common theme in Sharpley – Whiting’s book and again we see Fanon’s significance in Feminism, as he too spoke about a universal humanism and a local praxis. This idea is explored later in the Epilogue: Pitfalls, Post Modern Academic Feminist Consciousness and the US Social Crises. 
The epilogue, whose namesake is Fanon’s The Pitfalls of National Consciousness, is a reiteration and stating of what Sharpley-Whiting asserts through this entire book, and it is also where she re-appropriates Fanon from the patriarchs and uses his work to explore the shortcomings of Feminism. It is also a tying together of all Fanonian thought that has significance for Feminism but most importantly for black women, whose experiences are different from those of white women. In the preceding chapter, Affinities: US Radical Black Feminism and Fanon, she succinctly makes the argument (many of us who subscribe to Fanon’s idea of a universal humanism and do not believe in the post-modern Feminazism, which seeks to create a world without men hoped would be coming) and answers the question that seems to be running through-out the book: what should be the goals of feminism? Rightly so, Sharpley-Whiting argues that it is not the primary task of feminist theory to be corrective of male-centred theory, is it not time that feminism had one total philosophy and should it not encompass, in addition to the total liberation of women, the over-throwing of all oppression in the hopes of creating total human freedom: free of all inequalities. No doubt Fanon’s work becomes even more valuable when we think about the creation of a universal idea of freedom, however it must have a local praxis. 

This is again where she makes her departure from mainstream post-modern feminism and toward Fanonian thought, in creating a new world: like the national bourgeoisie Fanon speaks about in his Pitfalls of National Consciousness, Third-wave feminists too, have forgotten about the vital link between the people and theory. In attempt to theorise feminism, in a post-modern era of ‘universalisms’ 17 we forget the particular, a point Nombaniso Gasa18 also makes. If anything, Fanon was equally an activist as well as a thinker, in fact his thinking was informed by his activism and his engagement with people, for Sharpley- Whiting this has deep resonance and the pitfall of modern feminism is its failure to connect with women both inside AND outside of the academy. Not only have feminists become obsessed with academic freedom and inclusion but at the same time failing to restructure the academy, they have also been playing the role of “gate-keeper” deliberately keeping out progressive male-thought (pre-dominantly black male thought) simply because of its masculinisms. This idea of “gate-keeping” has strong resonance with African academics like Mkandawire and Mbembe and is useful here when considering black women in a pre-dominantly ‘white’(by membership or culture) post-modern Feminism. For these academics what is most problematic about the writing on Africa is it is an arena dominated by Western writers or people who have been termed “Africanists”. Mkandawire19 is very out-spoken on this point; when he refers to a closed circle of references in which Africanists act like gate-keepers keeping out African Scholars wishing to publish literature on Africa. Not only do these gate-keepers engage in exclusion tactics but they are also the only academics in the world who can write about a place without consulting any academics from this place, thus their texts on Africa rarely include references from African academics rather they reference and cross-reference other. Thus Africanists, like themselves, each of them merely reaffirming the others work and these works are allowed to be read and distributed around the world20. This dominance is underlined by western hegemony within the academe, the idea that only Westerners get to comment on Africa is problematic since Western knowledge now becomes more authoritative and superior to African knowledge. This is attributed to the fact that most texts on Africa are written for a Western rather than an African audience.21

This argument is particularly significant for two reasons, the first is the case of Mayotte Capecia’s work: most feminists have not directly engaged with it but have instead cross-referenced each other but also in the broader spectrum of what Sharpley-Whiting is trying to achieve, and an issue that is pertinent to all scholars, why is knowledge produced? And is the production of knowledge an end in itself? Fanon would argue it is not, Aime Cesaire22 relates Fanon’s respect for thought, his hatred of talkativeness and cowardliness and the fact that he could not think of thought in any other terms except that it should be transformed into action and again his relevance to feminism is revealed. A theory divorced from people and praxis is empty, this is what Sharpley- Whiting is telling us and who better to use to say this than Fanon. The exclusion of male-thinking from Feminism because it is about the liberation of women is gendered in itself, and while Sharpley-Whiting discusses the shortcomings of Fanon’s thought and psyche and suggests that bell hooks might be too accommodating in her defence of Fanon, she recognises his usefulness to feminism and in doing so critiques the dominant discourse within the broad category of feminism. 

This book therefore is not just useful to Fanonian scholars because of its response to the questions of gender raised by feminists, but it is significant in the larger scope of the academe. By engaging with criticisms of Fanon it engages and takes on narrowly defined and ill-nuanced feminisms and attempts to fill in the gaping holes left by post-modern lit-crit feminists who do not adequately engage with the intersection of race, class and gender.


1 Fanon, F. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. p 138).

2 Okome, MO. 1999. Listening to Africa, Misunderstanding and Interpreting Africa: Reformist Western Feminist Evangelism on African Women. Paper Presented at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Pp39

3 Ibid pp50

4 Ibid pp41

5 In Fanon, Conflicts and Feminisms , Sharpley – Whiting makes the distinction between working over and working with and it is the latter she wishes to do with Fanon’s work.

6 Gasa, N. 2007. “Feminisms, Motherisms, Patriarchies and Women’s Voices in the1950s” in Gasa, N (ed) Women in South African History. Pp214

7 Ibid

8 Ibid

9 Ibid. Pp227

10 Ibid. Pp226

11Ibid. Pp 217

12 Grant Fared’s “To Dwell for the Post Colonial” suggests the importance of a re-thinking so that we might turn the building of a society into a dwelling, this is extremely relevant when thinking about Fanons’ stress on the ideological and political vision for a new Algeria, before the military or violent revolution.

13 Quoted from memory

14 Quoted in Gasa, N. 2007. “Feminisms, Motherisms, Patriarchies and Women’s Voices in the1950s” in Gasa, N (ed) Women in South African History. Pp216.

15 Gasa, N. 2007. 214

16 Ibid

17 Again here we are reminded of Okome’s critique of western feminism

18 Read Feminisms, Motherisms, Patriarchies and Women’s Voices in the1950s” in Gasa, N (ed) 2007. Women in South African History.

19 Mkandawire, T. 1996. The Social Sciences in Africa: Breaking Local Barriers and Negotiating International Presence. The African Studies Review, Vol 40, No 2. Pp 32

20 Ibid

21Ibid. Pp 35

22 Quoted in Sharpley-Whiting, Fanon, Conflicts and Feminisms