Friday, 17 June 2016

Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms by Tracy Sharpley-Whiting

By Gorata Chengeta

In her book, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting (1998) appraises the feminist arguments about Frantz Fanon’s work. In sum, her argument is that Fanon faces the cliché of being “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, because (as she shows) he could be accused of sexism whether or not he wrote explicitly about women’s marginalization (1998, p.74). In this essay, I will explore Sharpley-Whiting’s main arguments and relate these discussions to developments in intersectional feminism.

The author’s main defense of Fanon’s work is that Fanon’s words have been misread or misinterpreted as generalizations. Sharpley-Whiting, in a few occasions makes the argument that Fanon’s psychoanalysis of women of colour was an analysis of those who had internalized racism, not all women of colour (1998, p.36). For instance, she highlights that Capecia, who is the focus of many feminists’ critiques of Fanon, was “duped” – thus, she argues that Fanon studied Capecia as an example of the type of coloured woman he was speaking about, not as an example of all women of colour (1998, p. 36, p. 38 & p. 42).

In a further analysis of the arguments which frame Fanon as a misogynist, based on his discussion of Capecia, Sharpley-Whiting elucidates how Fanon was accurate in his analysis. Instead of focusing on Fanon’s choice to interrogate the writing of a black woman, the author argues that instead we should interrogate Fanon’s argument. Here, she argues that the crux of Fanon’s critique is that, on a psychological level, Capecia shows the internalization of racism by a black woman. The claim of blackfemmephobia charged against Capecia is evidenced in Sharpley-Whiting’s discussion of how she describes Lucia, but also in other instances where Capecia talks about herself (1998, p. 43).
The second main critique Sharpley-Whiting (1998) makes of feminist criticisms of Fanon looks at the claim of myth-making, in regards to women’s roles in the Algerian revolution, particularly in A Dying Colonialism. According to Helie-Lucas, Fanon’s framing of the role of women in the Algerian revolution amounts to myth-making because he overstates its impact in fundamentally shifting the woman’s role in the Algerian society (1998, p. 57). Here, it is argued that gender hierarchies still existed within the liberation struggle, even though women were included. This critique also premised on the fact that after the liberation struggle, women were “shuttled back into the kitchen” (1998, p. 57).

Another important point made by Algerian feminists is that the level of autonomy women gained within the struggle was limited (more so than Fanon acknowledged). For instance, it is argued that the coercive element of women using the veil in order to further the struggle for liberation has often been overlooked (1998, p. 61). Such arguments are tied to the impact that the struggle for a national culture played in the development of post-independence Algeria. Particularly, it is highlighted that women in Algeria faced the burden of having to be the custodians of national culture after independence (1998, p. 58). Helie-Lucas (in Sharpley-Whiting: 1998, p. 59) writes,

Women are supposed to raise sons in the faith and traditional moral standards and to teach the language of the forefathers. Women should be bound by tradition, while men had some access to modernity.

For these reasons, it is argued that women’s roles have not been changed by the revolution: rather that “women were used by the revolution as tools” (el-Saadawi in Sharpley-Whiting: 1998, p. 59). Crucial here, is the acknowledgement that participation in a liberation struggle does not, by default, win women’s rights (despite the transformations in gender roles which occur during the struggle) (Gadant in Sharpley-Whiting: 1998, p. 21).

In my view, Sharpley-Whiting does not make a strong enough case against the arguments presented. However, I agree with her that Fanon is “at most, optimistic”. Although I think the arguments citing Fanon’s “myth-making” deserve merit, given that he died before he could analyze the events of post-independence Algeria, I also think that his interpretation of the Algerian independence moment is a fair assessment of what he witnessed at the time.

I find the claim of myth-making important, on the basis that the claim evaluates the impact of Fanon’s writing in perceptions of the Algerian war (countering misrepresentations). However, I do not think that the claim of myth-making can be credibly used as evidence of Fanon’s sexism. The matter of Fanon being sexist, in my view, is a separate matter to that of how his work has (debatably) misrepresented a historical narrative. In addition, in line with Sharpley-Whiting (1998, p. 73), I think it is important to separate Fanon’s intention - which was in actual fact, not to present a “definitive, complete historical picture on the Algerian” revolution -  with the impact of his work, which I think is influenced by other people (mis)reading it as a historical account of the war.

Another important theme in Sharpley-Whiting’s analysis is that of Fanon as Feminist. At the core of this issue is whether or not Fanon can be categorized as a feminist. The author responds that it is more important to look at the “feminist dimensions” of Fanon’s work, because of the contestations about the definitions of feminism (1998, p.24). For me, one of the most important dimensions of feminism is the recognition of women’s (or people’s) autonomy and agency. Based on Sharpley-Whiting’s work, I would now like to explore Fanon’s contributions in relation to intersectional feminism.

One of the strengths of Fanon’s work, as pointed out by Sharpley-Whiting, is his recognition of gender-based hierarchies (1998, p. 33 & p.71). In addition however, his work also shows a nuanced recognition of women’s agency. The author shows that in his evaluation of Capecia, he recognizes her agency, more so than his criticizers (ironically), who frame her as being under economic duress (1998, p. 39). In his discussion of the Algerian family, his analysis of the transformation in traditional modes of behaviour also emphasizes his understanding of agency. In his criticism of colonial feminism, he again shows an understanding of how this discourse is re-inscribing the idea that Algerian women lack agency (1998, p. 68). In his arguments, it is clear that Fanon advocates for the recognition of every person as a full human being. Hence, his work is crucial for intersectional feminists who are working towards a new humanity/humanism: a feminism which moves beyond the liberation of (white, middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual) women.

Additionally, I also believe that Fanon’s contributions to psychiatry should be modeled into intersectional feminist praxis. One of the criticisms of contemporary feminism is that it has failed to acknowledge the plight of people with mental illnesses or disabilities. As such, in recent times, ableism within the feminist movement has become a talking point (Whitestone: 2015). As other texts have shown, Fanon was committed to psychiatric care which recognized the sociogenic factors of illness – meaning that he did not view his patients as problem-people and rather, emphasized the role of structural oppression in mental illness. Here, we see that based on his understanding of structural oppression, Fanon’s work fits well into intersectional feminism, especially since, as advocates such as Blahovec (2015) have stated, feminism and disability rights are two sides of the same coin.

Reference list:

Blahovec, S., 2014. 4 Reasons That Feminism and Disability Rights Are Two Sides of the Same Coin.  Accessed online 20 May 2015 from
Sharpley-Whiting, T. 1998, Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Whitestone, S. 2015, How Mainstream Feminism Continues to Perpetuate Ableism (And How We Can Change That). Accessed online 20 May 2015 from