Gendering the Wretched Frantz Fanon and the Case for Intersectionality

 

I am
the sun and moon and forever hungry
the sharpened edge
where day and night shall meet
and not be
one.

— Audre Lorde (1997), “From the House of Yemanjá”


“Will we recover? Yes. For violence, like Achilles’ lance, can heal the wounds that it has inflicted.”

— Jean-Paul Sartre (1961), Preface to Wretched of the Earth

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In its drawn-out process, colonization brought with it permutations of violence, some of whose targets were, specifically, women1. These permutations included the systematic reorganization of gender roles, the demonization of self-dependent women and the complicity of “native” men in the construction of new, patriarchal, hegemonic societies. While both men and women under colonial regimes suffered unspeakable forms of repression, women faced a distinctly complicated ‘othering’ within the contexts of colonial violence. These contexts relate, in particular, to the forced domestication of women and the relegation of women to the dregs of society—making them, indeed, the wretched among the wretched, to exercise Martinican philosopher, Frantz Fanon’s terminology.

In Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Colour, a seminal essay, the American race theorist, Kimberlé Crenshaw, posits, the problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics have put forward, but that it succeeds at the opposite. Identity politics, she writes, often conflates and discounts intra-group differences. And in the context of colonial violence, this omission of difference from the discourse can be very dangerous, primarily because the violence that many suffered was often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, not in the very least, gender.

Furthermore, ignoring variance within groups adds to tension among groups—an added problem of identity politics, which is relevant to efforts to politicize violence against women. Feminist efforts to politicize the experiences of women and anti-colonial efforts to politicize the experiences of the colonized, have frequently proceeded as though the concerns of each ‘effort’ occur on mutually exclusive grounds. Crenshaw notes that “When the practices expound identity as woman or person of colour as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of colour to a location that resists telling2.”

Fanon’s Concept of the Wretched

“Could we emancipate ourselves from the bedimming influences of custom… we should see as numerous tribes of fetish-worshippers in the streets of London and Paris, as we hear of on the coasts of Africa”  

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Friend (1818) – Essay XIV

Save for among a small group of French existentialist thinkers and an even smaller Pan-Africanist intelligentsia both active in the 1950s, Frantz Fanon only really became renowned internationally in 1961 with the publication of what can be described as his magnum opus, The Wretched of the Earth; more specifically, after the translation of this work into English in 1965.

For the most part, The Wretched of the Earth, an account of the traumatic impacts of colonization on Africans, went unnoticed in France. In the English-speaking world however, his work was met with welcome applause among an entire generation of 60s civil rights advocates, black nationalists and new leftists. At the same time, those who upheld ‘Western liberal’ values were personally wounded by his scathing and unequivocal critique of racism in European societies and, in general, Western Civilization. Fanon, thus, embodied the unsettling cry of the ‘primeval’ global black and brown masses against the stronghold of Euro-American civilization.

Regardless, Fanon’s modern status as an agent of bloody reprisal is based on a very selective reading of a few particularly provocative passages in The Wretched of the Earth’s first chapter, On Violence. Studying the origins and motivations of Boko Haram in Fanon, the Wretched and Boko Haram, authors, William W. Hansen and Umma Aliyu Musa, explain that a great amount of the violence Fanon discussed and dissected was, in fact, “the institutionalized physical but, far more importantly, psychological violence inflicted systematically on the ‘native’—the Algerian Muslim—by the French for more than a century in pursuit of their alleged mission civilisatrice. While Hansen and Musa make this subtlety quite clear, the fact remains that it was in the paragraphs of On Violence that Fanon voiced absolute rejection of the subordination of the colonized and support for resisting the oppression of any class of people.

Fanon speaking in Accra, 1958.

However, modern readings of Fanon often ignore that he assigned significant importance to self-emancipatory violence, the type of ‘violence’ he saw as essential for the oppressed groups of people to mete out to their oppressors in order to radically deracinate what damages years of subservience had made to their personalities and psyches. Years later, in 1977, Fela Kuti would sing of the persistence of what he termed the ‘colonial mentality’, “You don be slave before/Them release you now/But you never release yourself,” and it was towards eradicating this mentality that Fanon saw his type of violence as necessary. The four principal chapters of The Wretched, ‘On Violence’, ‘Spontaneity’, ‘Religiosity’ and ‘Culture’, elaborate Fanon’s understanding of emancipation, using the Algerian insurrection in 1954, and subsequent civil war that continued until 1962, as case studies.

The chapter, On Violence, is particularly significant because it details the manners and mechanisms by which dominant groups of people create societies that thrive off the abuse and exploitation of a subordinate class. On Violence argues, the most inconspicuous forms of oppression are those that take place at the psychological level or that occur to such a degree that the very personality of the oppressed is threatened with destruction. The victim, the subordinate, begins to accept degradation as among the natural order of things; that she is, indeed, inferior, unworthy, without value. The dominant seeks to establish in the subordinate acceptance of inferiority, an utter lack of Hegelian ‘recognition,’ agreement with becoming what in, On Liberty and The Subjugation of Women, Harriet Taylor Mill and her husband John Stuart Mill referred to as a ‘willing slave’.

Fanon believed that at the very edge, just before utter surrender to the demands of the dominant, a glimmer of self-recognition appears in the consciousness of the subordinate at which point she, instinctively, begins to resist. In a revolutionary situation this spontaneity becomes all-embracing. Indeed, the splendour of spontaneity is that it echoes the immense, exploding rage of victims as they begin to cleanse and purify themselves of their inferiority by performing acts of not only psychological but also physical defiance.

However, in The Grandeur and Weakness of Spontaneity, the chapter that immediately follows On Violence, Fanon argues that despite the motivations and splendour behind this cleansing, it becomes clear that the convulsion of resistance is woefully insufficient in bringing about the desired end—liberation. It is a ‘weakness’ of the oppressed, he argues, the overcoming of which requires organizational capacities the oppressed, on account of being subordinates, are not afforded.

The failure of most revolutionary third-world regimes—as occurred in the 1960s across Algeria, Libya and Zimbabwe—to live up to the extremely high expectations set by the revolutionaries and their supporters has often inspired criticism of Fanon’s ideas on violence as being naïve, romantic, utopian even and, therefore,  not fit for reality. For example, Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), the country’s principal nationalist movement in the 60s, time has evidenced, did not foster a socialist paradise in which everyone, including women, was transformed and liberated. In fact, the FLN degenerated into a series of autocratic, mostly military regimes that quickly relegated women to their pre-revolution roles, to serve as mere supplements to men.

For decades after the degeneration of the FLN, Algeria’s women lived in despondent conditions; no longer dominated by a racist colonizer from ‘elsewhere’, but by fellow Algerian Muslims; ‘othered’, this time, by their own kin.

Collage of the French War in Algeria. Wikimedia Commons

Gendered Wretchedness

“It was a while before we came to realise that our place was the very house of difference, rather than the security of any one particular difference.”

— Audre Loudre (1982), Zami: A New Spelling of My Name

 While Fanon’s theory elaborated extensively on the colonial situation, colonialism and its resulting anti-colonial revolutions cannot be fully understood without a theory of gender power.

Cover of the first edition of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. Published in 1961. Wikimedia Commons

In her 1995 treatise on colonial intersectionality, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, feminist scholar, Anne McClintock, described race as “not simply a question of skin colour but also a question of labour power.” In a similar manner, gender is not simply a question of sexual organs but also a question of subdued labour and imperial plunder. Gender dynamics and power were neither random nor accidental aspects of empire. Rather, from the outset, gender dynamics were fundamental to securing and maintaining the colonial enterprise.

Yet, one of the reasons for the current failure of anti-racist and feminist discourses to address the intersections of racial and gendered oppression, is the dichotomization of both issues. In Mapping the Margins…, Kimberlé Crenshaw highlights that to the extent that discourse can promote the interest of people of colour and women respectively, analysis of one ‘interest’ often implicitly denies the legitimacy of the other. It follows that the inability of anti-racism to traverse gender issues implies that anti-racist strategies of resistance will often repeat and reinforce the subservience and repression of women.

Likewise, the failure of feminism to probe and criticize racism means that feminist discourse will frequently reproduce or, at best, overlook the subjugation of women of colour. These mutual omissions actuate a political dilemma for women of colour but, crucially, pose a persistent problem to women of colour in the colonial context. Strictly embracing either line of discourse, feminism or anti-racism, means denial of an essential dimension of female subordination and precludes the development of political discourse that more fully acknowledges the dimensions within which the multiplicity of womanhood faces oppression.

According to Jacques Lacan, the French psychologist and psychoanalyst, women do not inhabit history proper; instead, he argues, women bear a prepositional relation to history. Lacan, who was prominent for much of the twentieth century, built his theory on the position of women within history, on Sigmund Freud’s who saw the concept of the Oedipus Complex3 as essential to identity formation, where identity formation is a multi-stage process: in the pre-Oedipal stage, the individual or subject is not yet fully formed. And in order to move from this stage of pre-maturity, the unformed self must be repressed for a healthy individuation process to take place. This process then leads on to the individual becoming what Lacan termed Symbolic.

For Freud, women do not go through the process towards the Symbolic without retaining some of their oedipal residues. Women, he argued, are pre-Oedipal and pre-Symbolic, permanently threatening the male Symbolic with painted faces and unruly hair. By his theory, women are incapable of ever really disrupting anything—or, in Fanonic sense, carrying out a revolution. Just as in imperial discourse in which white men were the sole heirs to the grand narrative of historical progress, so in Lancanian discourse are men the sole heirs to the Symbolic.

Women in Lacan’s outline are apportioned the role of sufferer, victim, nonentity, disempowered, voiceless, unsexed; are, adds McClintock in Imperial Leather…, the bearers and custodians of distance and difference but never the agents and inventors of social possibility. For exactly this reason, women, he argued, can be the objects of repression but never the subjects, never the ones at the forefront of resistance.

Imperialism, the zeitgeist of the period within which Lacan was most active, and concurrently, European domination, was from the outset, a violent encounter with established hierarchies of power. This encounter occurred not as the unfolding of Europe’s inner destiny but as untidy, opportunistic interference with other regimes of power. Such encounters, in turn, transformed the trajectories of imperialism itself. As Fanon pointed out in Wretched of the Earth, “by its very structure, colonialism is separatist and regionalist. Colonialism does not simply state the existence of tribes; it also reinforces and separates them.”

In a history of the modern world centred on the dispossessed titled, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, historians, Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh capture vividly, the Lacanian biases that worked to perpetuate existing racial and patriarchal hierarchies at the onset of the modern world.  Of the several accounts they provided, Catherine Despard’s stands out.

Catherine, an African-American woman married to an Irish soldier, Colonel Edward Despard, and with whom she sailed from Central America to London in 1790. Catherine, Rediker and Linebaugh wrote, was “shunned by her husband’s family because she was a “poor black woman, who called herself his wife”. However, despite the societal rejection of her marital status to the Colonel, Catherine was politically active. She participated in the prisoners’ rights movement of the 1790s, later linking Edward and other incarcerated revolutionaries with activists outside the prisons. She worked boldly, and at the highest levels of society interacting with the likes of Lord Nelson, Britain’s hero and victor over Napoleon at the Nile.

Indeed, the struggles of freedom, humanity and justice in which Catherine was an active participant were quickly published in Paris, Dublin, Edinburgh and New York, in the early 1800s. Yet modern retellings of nineteenth century revolutions have completely ignored Catherine Despard. She has remained outside of history proper, as what Linebaugh and Rediker describe as “a shadow (woman) within a shadow (a black woman), within a shadow (a revolutionary black woman).”

Thus, the gendered dynamics of colonized cultures were distorted in such a way as to modify the brutal forms that imperialism took in various parts of the world. No doubt because women of colour before and after the intrusions of imperial rule were already disadvantaged within some of their societies, the colonial rearrangement of their sexual and economic labour gave inevitably very different results and experiences from those of colonized men. Colonized women made none of the direct economic or military decisions of Empire and very few reaped its vast profits—the vast, fissured architecture of imperialism was gendered throughout by the fact that it was mainly white men who made and enforced laws and policies in pursuit of European interests.

Historian, Andrew Zimmerman’s 2010 book, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South, provides examples of gendered colonial experiences. Zimmerman, for instance, discusses the economic and social context of the present-day Togolese before and after colonization by the Germans in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century.  Furthermore, he highlights the influence and cross-fertilisation of German policies with that of the Tuskegee Institute that arrived from America with the purpose of transforming present-day Togo into a cotton economy similar to that of the post-Reconstruction American South.

Indeed, with the arrival of the colonizers, the independence of women often remarked upon by European visitors, began to wane. In a sense, the relative economic independence of women may have even been an unintended consequence of slave trade, which had so drastically reduced the proportion of men to women in the Bight of Benin. But, Zimmerman argues, competition with European industry debilitated the economic independence of African women earlier than it did that of men. For example, by the late nineteenth century, European spinning mills could produce yarn of various colours with chemical dyes more cheaply than Togolese women could with weighted spindles, and indigo and other natural dyes. This limited, although it did not entirely eliminate, the market in Togo for yarn spun from locally grown cotton by Togolese women. European competition, however, did less harm to male weavers.

Wretched of the Earth book covers from around the world.

Women and Economic Violence

In Alabama in Africa, Andrew Zimmerman reminds us through a discussion of the devastating impact of German colonizers on Togolese women and, particularly, that violence can indeed be economic. The economic opportunities the emerging colonial economy in Togo presented, revolved around non-sedentary, polygamous, matriarchal domesticity—which the colonial state and the Tuskegee expedition from the US strongly opposed. In traditional Togolese extended households, women and children lived away from the authority of the husband and father. Spending time in the patriarchal household as the colonizers demanded would, therefore, require that women temporarily abandon their own household farms for those of their husbands—who would usually have more than one wife. The manufacturing and agricultural production of these households distributed through regional markets, kept Africans economically autonomous and necessitated individual mobility.

However, for colonizers to possess control of Togolese economic powers, inherent gender dynamics had to be replaced; and this saw the economic repression of women. As German police power made it possible for merchants and their male clerks to establish enterprises in the hinterlands, police power also displaced women who were dominant traders in much of a growing pottery industry that had sustained women’s prosperity and independence. Women and children carried out the labour of cracking palm kernels, and this may have taken up some of the economic slack from the decline of spinning and other women’s industries.

However, it is important to note that for the Togolese in general, cracking kernels may have represented ‘new drudgery’ rather than new prosperity. While the interventions by Germans and Tuskegee personnel ultimately proved disastrous for most men and women in Togo, women initially lost more economic power than men did. This, in turn, allowed for the rapid domestication of women.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, in Mapping the Margins…, and Anne McClintock, in Imperial Leather…, both argue that the gendered dynamics of colonized cultures were distorted in ways that enabled the different permutations that imperialism took in various parts of the world. Togolese men, therefore, participated in the colonial construction of domesticity, for it promised them new opportunities to control women and children. The colonial domestication of Togolese women provided men the opportunity to recover what masculinity they felt they had lost as a result of colonial rule itself. Thus, the colonizers by compelling Ewe men to grow cotton and go to the market, for example, forced them to carry out what had formerly and exclusively been a woman’s task.

For the Kabiye, in northern Togo, Zimmerman recounts, the German state’s forced labour regime also overturned conventional gender relations by subordinating one man to another, something alien to their culture. One Togolese man, interviewed in the early 1980s, remarked that, after the introduction of tax work, “the white man and his men could mistreat our people like their ‘women’.”

Without a doubt, the colonial exercise had more than an incapacitating effect on the communities it subjugated. According to Zimmerman’s Alabama…, German officials in Togo sought to systematically control the population by substituting the polygamous homes and the female autonomy of southern Togo with patriarchal, monogamous, agricultural households. While such wide-ranging plans for social engineering were unlikely to succeed without much greater state control than existed in Togo (or anywhere else for that matter), they did motivate state interventions that significantly shaped the lives of many Africans.

Most importantly, Zimmerman observes the emergence of a new kind of Togolese woman, a “wretched” woman in the Fanonic sense: one engineered for the explicit purpose of furthering colonial ambitions. Previously, Zimmerman notes, Togolese women had lived in polygamous households, with each woman possessing a hut and raising her children independently. Women travelled and traded throughout the week.  Colonial authorities, however, proposed that, with the introduction of the plough, the work of draft animals would replace the labour of wives and children, facilitating the transition from polygamous, female-headed households farming with hoes to monogamous, patriarchal family farms, in which the labour-contributions of women had diminished.

A Liebig bullion card from the series “Colonies of the European Powers” – The German colonies of Togo, Cameroon, and German East Africa, c1910.

On Women and Moral Violence

“Fit in here, in my palm, in my shadow, do not be bigger than my idea of you (…) who said you could exist without permission? (…) I lean in and almost recognise you as human. But, no. We can’t have that.”

—Warsan Shire (2012), Be Small for Me

Even as the colonial political economy eroded women’s economic autonomy in Togo, some men pressed for further patriarchal authority. And what could not be obtained by economic repression, became the mission of religiosity. In Alabama…, Zimmerman describes the role of missionaries in perpetuating the subjugation of Togolese women.  One African missionary, he recounts, accused women and children of taking unfair advantage of the peace and prosperity brought about by German rule in order to free themselves from the control of men. Another missionary explained “why the blacks cannot raise their children”, by pointing to the independence of Togolese women. The argument went, because wives lived independently and raised their own children, fathers could not strike or otherwise punish their own young sons and daughters; the independence of women and children threatened, ultimately, the foundation of sexual difference: women became men and men, by implication, became unsexed.

For many centuries, reversing the existence of female gender power was a crucial assignment of the religious patriarchs. In The Many Headed Hydra, Linebaugh and Rediker encapsulate the nascent biases against the role of women in religion, and the silencing of particularly revolutionary-minded women through the story of Francis and Edward Terrill. Their story took place almost two centuries ahead of the German mission in Togo, yet both situations shared similar motivations and results.

Francis, a “blackymore maide” who, as a member of a radical religious congregation in Bristol, England during the 1640s, provided leadership especially to the women of her church congregation. The text, which narrates her story, was the product of a church elder, Edward Terrill. And Terrill, who was white, where Francis was black; a man where Francis was a woman; and master where Francis was a servant, necessitates a contextual reading of Terrill’s account of Francis, with, at the centre, the established differences between the narrator and the narrated.

Terrill recorded the text in a conversation with the founder of the congregation to which both Francis and Terrill belonged.  At first, he undermines the role of women’s spirituality within the community, within the governance of the church, and within its emerging doctrines. The women of the gathered were notoriously outspoken in the 1640s, and Francis, “one of the Sisters of ye Congregation”, was among them. However, what is more sinister than his nascent disapproval of her revolutionary inclinations was his opportunistic utilisation, of Francis’ death to emphasise the glory of the male Baptist church. Terrill wrote with an assertion of male authority, male governance, and doctrine as enunciated by male ministers, stressing that upon her death Francis “was Honourably Interred being carryed by ye chiefest of note of ye Bethren in ye Congregation (devout men bearing her) to ye grave.”

In essence, Francis, too, embodied, a new form of wretched—she was Anabaptist, she was an independent woman and she was “West Indian”.  Her story was an attempt to confine women of colour in an ever-repressive manner even in death, to peripheral as opposed to proper history. Theoretically, discourse the likes of Lacan’s found compatibility with the systemic separation of women from economic autonomy, as historians have shown. A new patriarchal order, one versed in religious teachings and endured by Francis, Catherine Despard and the Kabiye of Togo, stifled female resistance.  Indeed, Fanon’s notion of the ‘wretched’ applied to these women but his expectation that the oppressed would undergo a revolutionary awakening that could, potentially,  prevent utter capitulation has, for centuries, been lost to the complicity of colonized men and colonizers in sustaining a subjugated womanhood

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“As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world”

—Virginia Woolf (1938), Three Guineas

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Further Reading 

Berman N. (2012) “The Sacred Conspiracy: Religion, Nationalism and the Crisis of Internationalism”. Leiden Journal of International Law, #25 (Leiden).

Faulkner, R.A (1996) “Assia Djebar, Frantz Fanon, Women, Veils, and Land”, World Literature Today Vol. 70, No. 4, pp. 847-855.

Hansen W. (2011). “Frantz Fanon and the European Intellectual Tradition: A critique of Europe’s Prodigious Theses”. In: M’Bayo, Ritchard (ed.), Political Culture, Cultural Universals, and the Crisis of Identity in Africa. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Heggoy, A. A. (1974). “On the Evolution of Algerian Women”. African Studies Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 449-456, 1–9.

Lichtenberg-Ettinger (1992), “Matrix and Metamorphosis”, Differences, Vol. 4, No. 3.

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  1. A point many Feminist writers have extensively discussed, including: Bradford, H. (1996) in “Gender and Colonialism: Rethinking the History of the British Cape Colony and its Frontier Zones, c. 1806-70”, Journal of African History, 37, pp 351-370. Also, Imam A. (1988), “The Presentation of African women in historical writing”, in S. Kleinberg (ed.), Retrieving Women’s History (Oxford), 31 quoting G. Emeagwali.  Finally, see also, Awe, B. (1991), “Writing Women into History: The Nigerian Experience”, in K. Offen, R. Pierson and J. Rendall (eds),Writing Women’s History (London), 211-12.
  2. In this case, our discourse refers to the dichotomy as applies to colonized women of colour, particularly Africans.
  3. Oedipus Complex denotes the emotions and ideas that the mind keeps in the unconscious, via dynamic repression, that concentrates upon a child’s desire to sexually possess the parent of the opposite sex (e.g. males attracted to their mothers, whereas females are attracted to their fathers). See Rycroft, C. (1995) A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London, 2nd Edition).