The brief history of Afrofeminism in France, from the 19th century until now

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Afrofeminism is still little-known in France. Black feminism definitely had a huge influence on Afrofeminism in France but both tend to be mistaken. Their economical, social, political and cultural dynamics are part of the reasons why they stand out from one another. The choice of terminology exemplifies their differences. To me, Afrofeminism tends to be more used as it is more inclusive, take into account all people with African heritage and being part of the African diaspora, whatever their cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

The beginnings of Afrofeminism in the French West Indies colonies

Unfortunately, there is little research on the beginnings of Afrofeminism in France and little data are available.

The role of Afrodescendant women is still overlooked in the history of feminism in France. It’s in the early 1900s that feminist narratives were firstly vocalized in Guadeloupean newspaper, through le journal de Dame de la colonie (1911-1912) and L’Écho de Pointe-à-Pitre (1918-1921). L’Écho de Pointe-à-Pitre magazine stood out with its political stance, through women’s suffrage, the criticism of a system inherited from slavery and the consequences on women conditions. Feeling left out, racialised West Indian women were keen to make their voices heard and to fight for their rights.

The feminist and antiracist demands quickly intersected in the afrofeminist agenda. Negritude, a movement of black Afrodescendant intellectuals, is often talked about by its most famous protagonists such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, and non-male protagonists are, overtime, overlooked. However, Suzanne Lacascade, Paulette and Jane Nardal, Suzanne Roussi Césaire have not only contributed to the negritude but also to afrofeminism and addressing both race and gender issues.

The sisters Paulette and Jane Nardal –  © Jean-Louis ACHILLE

‘Women of colour living alone in the metropolis, less favoured until the Colonial Exhibition than their easily successful male fellows, felt long before them the need for racial solidarity which would not be only of a material order; that is how they became racially aware. The feeling of uprooting [ ] will have been the starting point of their evolution’. The following statement by Paulette Nardal expressed the need for black women to come together and to vocalize their singular experiences as women and as Afrodescendants. In the 1940s, a couple of feminists organizations were established such as in Martinique, with L’Union des femmes de la Martinique founded by Jeanne Lero and Le Rassemblement féminin founded by Paulette Nardal.

The multiple suffragists’ campaigns paid off as in 1945, women from French West Indian colonies got finally a political voice thanks to voting and constituent assembly representation with 2 female deputies, Eugénie Éboué-Tell and Gerty Archimède, advocating for better women’s conditions including retirement credits, the right to social secrutiy, maternity leaves.

The second wave of Afrofeminism in Metropolitan France

The 1970s and the rise of the first Afrofeminist collectives and organisations

A couple of extraordinary Afrofeminists collectives and organisations emerged in metropolitan France. La coordination des femmes noires founded in 1976, embodied a new wave of afrofeminism, where African women and women of African and Carribean descent united and stand up against the similar issues they daily faced. Sexism, classicism, racism, sexual are among the oppressions they struggled against and fought for greater reproductive health rights. The organizations regularly took actions against deportations but also against the events on the African continent, such as apartheid in South Africa and the totalitarian regimes in place.

Events such as the Black Women’s Day on 29 October 1977, was created. It aimed to expose and discuss the issues faced by black women in France, but was also criticised for being too feminist and bourgeois. This day was subjected to criticism, accusing the participants of being too feminist and bourgeois, criticisms to which they replied the following year:

‘In the same way that we intend to fight the capitalist system which oppresses us, we refuse to suffer the contradictories of activists who, while claiming to fight for socialism without inverted commas, nevertheless perpetuate in their practice, with regard to women, a relationship of domination that they denounce in other contexts’. Furthermore, they took part in numerous demonstrations, including the one for International Women’s Day in 1980.

Demonstration on International Women’s Rights Day – 8 March 1980 – ©Catherine Deudon

Although sexual mutilation and polygamy were previously socially acceptable in France, Awa Thiam, a leading Afrofeminist figure, made it her battle cry, first through her book La Parole aux négresses and then by founding her organisation, Commission pour l’abolition des mutilations sexuelles (CAMS). 

Awa Thiam’s aimed to raise awareness of genital mutilation among African and Afro-descendant women, as well as among national education and social workers. By taking a stand, Awa Thiam encouraged the breaking of taboos in some African communities, fostered sisterhood among Afro-descendant women and redefined herself as a negro African woman.

New organisations emerged in the 80s, such as the Centre d’études et de rencontres des femmes africaines (CERFA) introducing social support through courses, training, literacy classes and legal advice. We had also the Mouvement pour la défense des droits la femme noire (MODEFEN) fighting against racism, all type of violence against women, sexism, valuing women’s empowerment through freedom of choice in lifestyle, body awareness, education.

Afrofeminism in a digital age

The 2010s were the turning point for Afrofeminism in France, a growing online. The first blogs were rising, Mrs Roots, Les bavardages de kiyémis, badassafrofem, to name a few. Afrofeminist identity progressively evolved. At the time, the terminology was centered around intersectional feminism, Afrodescendant.e and ‘féminisme Afro‘.

There is the urge to vocalize personal experiences, to stand together and to own the narratives, a sentiment echoed many times through Afrofeminism evolution. Many black women with African heritage did not find themselves in feminist movements, ignoring the intersections between anti-black racism and sexism. They share their daily lives, their views, debate, aiming to create spaces for exchange and discussion, feeding them through blogs, hashtags, Instagram accounts, YouTube channels, podcasts, documentaries.

Afrofeminist issues were also explored in art, with ‘Noire n’est pas mon métier’ by Aissa Maiga, and ‘Ouvrir la voix’ by Amandine Gay, expressing the testimonies of several black women, valuing the plurality of their perspectives and deconstructing the many stereotypes about black women.

©Amandine Gay

Afrofeminism is getting digital but is still firmly rooted in place, on the ground, thanks to the initiatives of many organisations and collectives, amongst them MWASI, an Afrofeminist collective organising workshops, pieces of training and festivals, including Nyansapo, which caused controversy as it was only accessible to black women. The controversy highlighted the discomfort around non-mixed spaces, the lack of willingness to understand their importance of non-mixed spaces and the role of Afrofeminist organisations.

Afrofeminism is diverse and necessary

Afrofeminism has evolved over the years, within Afrodescendant communities. Emerging in a colonial context, in the West Indian colonies, developed in metropolitan France in the African and Carribean communities, afrofeminism is now anchored in the Afrodescendant communities, as a generation growing up in France.

Afrofeminism took its roots in black feminism but adapted it to the multiple realities that black women in France face. Afrofeminism encompasses different Afrofeminist movements. It is important to remember that Afrodescendant women in France come from a variety of cultural, religious, economic and social backgrounds and that a single feminist movement cannot respond to all the realities of Afrodescendant women.

Afrofeminism still lacks acknowledgement, in a French, color-blind and patriarchal society. Race, intersectional feminism, are still misunderstood and neglected topics. However, the work of all afrofeminists is more than necessary, for black women to have safe spaces where they can find all types of support.

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