Monday, 26 May 2014

A response to 'Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms' by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting

Mikaela Erskog

“I shall speak about women's writing: about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies-for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text-as into the world and into history-by her own movement.” -  Hélène Cixous, (1976)

Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting is a feminist critique of feminist critiques of Frantz Fanon’s corpus of work. By evaluating how various feminist critics and their theoretical frameworks interpreted Fanon’s work, Sharpley-Whiting aims to strengthen feminist thought by revealing the limits of certain arguments and the potential strength of others.
I would argue that Sharpley-Whiting’s text places itself within the lineage of critical humanism as she, much like Fanon, does the important task of “questioning of the questioning of [humankind]” (Gordon, 1995: 10). In doing so, I believe Sharpley-Whiting acts in good faith to feminist thought, as she reveals the shortcomings of certain feminist critiques that tend to conceal themselves in order to develop a critical feminist approach that can facilitate the application of feminist values of the liberation, inclusion, self-creativity of women and oppressed humanity.

Furthermore, Sharpley-Whiting’s analysis reflects a critical humanism that strengthens her feminist modality as although she makes it clear that there are aspects of Fanon’s work that may fall short when read by feminist critics (e.g. heteronormativity and hyper-masculine language), her critique demonstrates an understanding of the need for truly productive, liberatory feminist theory and praxis to centre itself not only on the liberation of women, but of the liberation of women being the simultaneous liberation of all oppressed people from patriarchal (colonial) domination (Sharpley-Whiting, 1998: 9 & 24).
Sharpley-Whiting’s reads Fanon holistically and according to his intentions and therefore is able to see how Fanon’s writing serves a humanist project that was “not only advocating gender equity and liberation, but representative of a profeminist consciousness” (Sharpley-Whiting, 1998: 9). Sharpley-Whiting recognises that Fanon’s works are by no means feminist texts. However, coming from a black feminist thought which “[seeks] “the destruction
of all systems of oppression" and the liberation of the most wretched of nonblacks, nonfemales, and the poor”, Sharpley-Whiting recognises the importance of Fanon’s emancipatory philosophies as a means by which all oppressed people have the ability and right to self-define and create their own reality (Sharpley-Whiting, 1998: 22). To reiterate, Sharpley-Whiting (1998: 24) stated:

“Fanon believed that revolution would transform the exploitative and oppressive spheres of formal and informal political, social, and economic life for men, women, and children-humanity from the bottom up. But rather than speak of Fanon as a feminist, it is perhaps more appropriate, as the introduction suggests, to speak of Fanon's radically humanist profeminist consciousness.”

At the 8th Annual Robert Sobukwe Memorial Lecture (22 May 2014, King William’s Town), Pan-Africanist and feminist writer and activist Pumla Gqola, applying Sobukwe’s political approach to social issues on the continent, expressed the need for African’s to look for the patterns of social actors/ phenomena rather than focus on instances. This may be taking the idea slightly out of context, but ultimately, I believe that Sharpley-Whiting performs an authentic feminist critique because she avoids latching onto isolated instances where Fanon may not coincide with feminist thought. Rather, Sharpley-Whiting focuses on the coherent patterns within Fanon’s works in order “to acknowledge and put to use the best of Frantz Fanon” (Sharpley-Whiting, 1998: 74).

Fanon and human agency as feminist praxis

In terms of the opening quote by French feminist Hélène Cixous [who could be problematized as part of the legacy of what Sharpley-Whiting identifies as Euro-American lit-crit feminists], I would argue that Fanon is in fact pro-feminist because he advocates the ability of all people to make themselves anew through authentic praxis as well as self-writing (i.e. of ‘putting themselves into history by their own movement). Furthermore, although it is not the task of men to do this work (as women should not need to depend on men in this manner), Fanon performs a pro-feminist role by making women visible in the liberation narrative.

Sharpley-Whiting’s advocates that Fanon facilitates this necessary conversation about women and women’s issues in a time and place when the everyday lives of women were systematically silenced and their conflicts went  unaddressed (Sharpley-Whiting, 1998: 16). Although not everyone may agree with how Fanon goes about identifying or addressing women’s issues (Algerian nationalist feminists taking issue with the ‘mythology’ of the armed Algerian, female freedom fighter), Sharpley-Whiting (1998: 74) recognises:
“That a male writer [choosing] to chronicle women's activism demonstrates an awareness of the importance of women and their contributions at historical moments and to historical movements. It represents equally a resistance to what feminist critics have long pointed to as the patriarchal tendency to exclude women from history. Algerian women entered themselves into history. History was made by the women. Fanon has merely related Algerian women's resistance in a way that can be remembered, recalled, and corrected by women in their present quests for self-actualization.” [emphasis added].

Sharpley-Whiting indicates that although it seems as though feminist thought is ‘secondary’ to the project of human emancipation, Fanon takes women seriously and understands the fight against colonialism to be the fight against patriarchy; Fanon sees the fate of women to be tied to the fate of humanity, and as such promotes serious pro-feminist critical theories of liberation.

Although the image of the Algerian female revolutionary, armed and deadly, may not be representative of all Algerian women during the 1954-61 Algerian war, the fact that even one such woman existed is something all women could hold onto and begin to reimagine themselves in their own terms. Sharpley-Whiting’s conversation with Fanon and feminist critics facilitates a critical and authentic self-writing of herself and theorizing of an approach to being that is all-inclusive and liberatory by virtue of women historically inhabiting the spaces designated for the wretched of the Earth.


Cixous, H. “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Chicago Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp. 875-893.

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean,  Frantz Fanon: Conflict & Feminism. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: Oxford, 1998.