Christine Delphy is a French feminist. She founded the journal Nouvelles questions féministes (New Feminist Issues) with Simone de Beauvoir in 1977 and is a key proponent of the branch of feminism known as material feminism. This type of feminism is one that utilizes a Marxian class analysis to inform the role of women in capitalist society. Instead of the lukewarm and individualist feminism prevalent in the United States (and present in other Western nations including France), this approach challenges the essentially biologist emphasis of the mainstream movement and makes class and race a fundamental part of its analysis of women’s oppression and resistance.
In recent years, she has been an outspoken opponent of the racist laws against Arabs and Muslims in France, especially those that are aimed specifically at women and girls. Foremost among these laws are those forbidding girls to wear the hijab in France’s public schools. Besides calling out these laws for the tools of oppression they are, Delphy has recently published a text that examines the language and structure of the US-led global war on terrorism, France’s role as willing accomplice in most of its aspects, and the nature of the French republic’s insistence on secularism, at least when it comes to the Muslim religion. In the course of these discussions, the nature of colonialism and its aftermath are also discussed. So are racism in France and the French power structure’s continued treatment of “second and third generation” immigrants as something less than French citizens—mostly because of their heritage and skin tone.
To begin the book, which is titled Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism After the War on Terror, Delphy discusses the concept of the Other. The essential point of this discussion is one that not only goes to the root of the concept; it takes that root and cracks open the seed from which it came. The Other exists, writes Delphy, because of a total lack of reciprocity in regards to those that determine who the Other is. In other words, the Other exists solely and only because of its lack of power in relation to the part of those who dominate. In other words, the role of the Other cannot be turned around to create a situation where the dominant groups (the Ones) become the Other. This is because the very definition of what defines the Other is based in its subordination to the Ones. The Other can be based on race, gender, sexuality or class; it can be any combination of these, and it is always subordinate to the Ones, because it is the master groups that have created the definitions of race, class, gender and so on. The subversion of this matrix is the only way to ending it. Delphy underlines her argument by pointing out that our understanding of the Other is a purely Western invention and is part of the sociology of colonialism.
The shortest essay in this collection is titled “War without End.” It was written after the US invaded Afghanistan and challenges the war’s entire rationale. By attacking “terrorism,” writes Delphy, Washington is providing itself with a rationale for never-ending war, since the war itself will create more of those fighters the West calls terrorists. This argument is well-worn by now; almost fourteen years after those first planes attacked the mountains populated by the Pashtun in 2001. Ina subsequent essay, the author discusses the rationale belatedly put forth by George Bush and company that the war on Afghanistan was for the liberation of the Afghan women. While Delphy notes that the liberation of women is always desirable, she pointedly argues that imperial war cannot achieve that goal. The discussion that ensues is a valuable and insightful look at the language of western empire in the twenty-first century and the contradictions of white feminism.
The book’s final essay, titled “Anti-sexism or Anti –Racism” is an insightful and well-crafted discussion of every idea presented earlier in the text. By once again utilizing the battle in France over banning the wearing of the hijab as both a metaphor for more fundamental differences and as the crucial element in the debate it creates, Delphy rips apart the hypocrisy of French society—including the so-called Left—in its defense of the oppression of Arabs and Muslims in the name of secularism. Insisting essentially that this secularism relies on intolerance no different than that practiced by fundamentalist religion, she elucidates the need for a true feminism and radical critique that defies the structures of domination, not one that reinforces them. Certain to challenge her English-speaking readers as much as she challenges her readers in French, Christine Delpy’s text is an important addition to the discussion around religion, racialism, and the aftermath of colonialism.