Theories of Intersectionality in France. A case-study of the feminist collectives Mwasi and Lallab

Term Paper, 2019

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents


Theories of intersectionality in France

Mwasi collective

Lallab collective




In recent years, feminism in France has been increasingly divided between universalism, which characterized the second feminist wave from the 1970s, and intersectionality, influenced by texts written by academics from the United States. Activists and researchers, especially the ones who are part of ethnic minority groups, have been advocating for a more diverse feminism, taking into account the different experiences of women, depending on their race, class or sexuality. In response to that, a number of French feminists have underlined the importance of a universal approach for feminism “in the face of decolonial, indigenist, racialist, postmodern impostures”, as they wrote in their call published in the newspaper Libération for International Woman’s Day 20191. This dispute has led to strong divisions, between activists, as well as in the academic world. For example, on November 24th, 2018, some groups of universal feminists refused to march with the other feminists to denounce violence against women, because they did not agree with the fact that the demonstration was led by groups supporting intersectional feminism2. This conflict seems particularly strong in France, compared to countries like the United States or Germany, which makes it an important aspect to study. This will be done in this research paper through studying the cases of two collectives which have, in recent years, been at the center of controversies illustrating the gap between universal and intersectional feminisms: Mwasi, an Afro-feminist collective, and Lallab, a collective for Muslim women. The question that this paper will aim to answer is therefore: how can the cases of the Mwasi and Lallab collectives, and their perception in France, be analyzed through the lens of the theory of intersectionality?

This theory seems particularly fit for this research paper, as its arrival in French academia has challenged the more traditional universal feminism in a lot of different ways in the last fifteen years. Moreover, both collectives define themselves as intersectional feminist groups and advocate for taking into account the particular experiences of women.

The first part of this paper will detail the development of the theory of intersectionality in the United States, before looking at the particular case ofFrance and studying some of the reasons that have made its acceptance difficult. The second part will focus on the Mwasi collective, detailing its mission and actions before going over its perception in France, in particular with the case of the Nyansapo festival organized in 2017. Similarly, the third part will focus on the Lallab collective and the controversies it has had to face for its support of the choice of women to wear a hijab. Finally, for the conclusion, parallels will be drawn between the two cases, in order to determine what it shows of the perception of the theory of intersectionality in France.

The literature studied for the theory part comes from both primary and secondary sources, as the reception and appropriation of intersectionality in France is explained. Then, for the cases of Mwasi and Lallab, both the literature (blog posts, articles, websites) produced by members of the collectives, as well as articles written on them, have been studied. As most of this literature was written in French, for the purpose of this paper an own translation into English will be used when citing quotes.

Theories of intersectionality in France

In the United States, the theory of intersectionality has its roots in the heritage of Black Feminism, which contested the universal representation of the subject ‘woman’ created by white feminists. As bell hooks explains, “it was primarily bourgeois white women, both liberal and radical in perspective, who professed belief in the notion of common oppression” (hooks, 1986: 127). In the 1970s, the Combahee River Collective organized itself to work on “those struggles in which race, sex and class are simultaneous factors in oppression” (Combahee River Collective, 1977/1981: 217) and denounce the racism in white women’s movements. During the same period, academics like Chandra Mohanty denounced “the production of the ‘Third World Woman’ as a singular monolithic subject” in Western feminist texts (Mohanty, 1988: 61). Then, in 1989, the American lawyer and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the concept of intersectionality to describe the experience of Black women and underlined the importance it should take in movements fighting racism and sexism:

“Neither Black liberationist politics nor feminist theory can ignore the intersectional experiences of those whom the movements claim as their respective constituents. In order to include Black women, both movements must distance themselves from earlier approaches in which experiences are relevant only when they are related to certain clearly identifiable causes (for example, the oppression of Blacks is significant when based on race, of women when based on gender). The praxis of both should be centered on the life chances and life situations of people who should be cared about without regardtothe source oftheirdifficulties.” (Crenshaw, 1989: 166)

This concept quickly started to be used in the academic world to analyze the particular struggles and oppression faced by women of color or women of the working class, leading to a renewal of sociological works on domination (Chauvin and Jaunait, 2012: 13). However, some people criticize nowadays the fact that this theory, which started as a tool for activists, has been depoliticized by the use academics make of it (Bilge, 2015: 18). Concomitantly, the need to install intersectionality as a science has led to its ‘whitening’, by wanting to go from the particular experience of a multi-minority group (for example, Black women) to a “more representative” knowledge. This illustrates the fact that the experience of Black women is not seen as “ordinary” enough, and that it is often believed that no generality can be drawn from it ( ibid: 23).

In France, the concept of intersectionality took longer to become a topic for academic research. One reason for this is that the questions of race and of postcolonial minorities have remained for a long time inexistent in the public debate (Maillé, 2017: 47). After the Second World War and the decolonization, the 5th French Republic forged its identity on a concept of universalism, “that ignores its anchor point, that is silent on colonialism or links it to its civilizing mission” (Juteau, 2010: 81) and the concept of ‘race’ was mostly banned from the vocabulary, which made it particularly complicated to use, theoretically as well as politically (Dorlin, 2012: 3). For a long time, the French slavery past and the social interrelations of race, ethnicity and coloniality have been excluded from the French sociology, including feminist sociology (Galerand and Kergoat, 2014: 49), as “racism, colonialism and imperialism are externalized and do not concern the French republic anymore” (Vergés, 2017: 162). Nevertheless, it is important to note that the concept of race was not entirely absent of academic research: for example, in the 1970s, the sociologist Colette Guillaumin first studied racism in France, following the work of Frantz Fanon, before drawing parallels between racism and sexism as systems of oppression3. However, she did not study the interrelation of those two concepts, and her work did not acquire proper legitimacy until thirty years later, as it became increasingly important in feminist literature (Naudier and Soriano, 2010: 193). To this day, there is still a — gap between the use of category ‘race’ in universities and its perception in the political debate. As the word ‘race’ is largely understood as biological, it seems to imply a hierarchy between different groups, which is why the Assembly recently voted to take this word out of the French Constitution3 4. Therefore, using the term ‘race’ is often seen as coming from a racist position, rather than from an analysis of the power dynamics that happen between people from different ethnicities. This can become problematic, because it leads to a situation where “the highlighting of a social phenomenon - the racialized dimension of power dynamics - involuntarily participates in bringing back the vocabulary of race and paradoxically tends to be confused with the rhetoric of naturalization - culturalization, ethnicization, racialization - of social antagonisms” (Dorlin, 2012: 3).

Moreover, the second wave of feminism focused primarily on the debate over the hierarchy between the oppression linked to class and the one linked to gender, which “left no room to think about multiple oppressions of the intersection of gender and race relations” (Lépinard, 2013: 286). Social mobilizations were largely led by Marxist theories, and the materialists approached the domination of women by men as a social relation comparable to other dynamics of domination in terms of race and class. This led to the homogenization of the class of women, in response to the fact that, prior to that, it had not been taken into account by the Marxist movement (Chauvin and Jaunait, 2012: 9). Indeed, “this preeminence granted to gender by materialist feminists prevented them from theorizing how relations such as class, race or sexuality intersect with and shape gender relations” (Lépinard, 2013: 287). Some feminists, in particular the self-proclaimed ‘radical lesbians’ like Monique Wittig, rejected this unified view of the subject ‘woman’ and declared, for example, that “les lesbiennes ne sont pas des femmes” 5 (Wittig, 1980: 110), because the concept of ‘woman’ has only meaning in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. However, such work did not have the same academic posterity than materialist feminism (Chauvin and Jaunait, 2012: 10).

Therefore, the racial and feminist past and reality of countries like the United States and France have been approached differently, which can make the direct translation and appropriation of a term like ‘intersectionality’ difficult. As Galerand and Kergoat explain, the words ‘race’, ‘gender’ and ‘class’ are the same in both countries, but they refer to configurations of oppression and to fights for emancipation that are themselves historically situated and therefore not identical (Galerand and Kergoat, 2014: 50). Consequently, they warn of the risks of using the concept of intersectionality in a mechanical way, which tends to reify the categories; and explain that it is better to think in terms of the social relations the processes that produce the categories of sex, race and class (ibid: 51). Kergoat herself has created the concept of ‘consubstantialité des rapports sociaux’5, which stemmed from the work that she did in the 1970s to show that female workers did not experience dynamics of oppression the same way male workers did and that the effects of capitalism were not felt in the same way by men and women (Kergoat, 1978). This concept has for objective to give the researcher the means to go back to the roots in order to identify ways of combating dynamics of oppression, exploitation and domination (Galerand and Kergoat, 2014: 47). The term of co-substantiality brings us to think the unity of substance between three distinct entities, it takes into account the fact that social relations are distinct but that they cannot be understood separately (ibid: 48). The relations between gender and class were therefore already thought in France, before the concept of intersectionality was translated in French academia.

The emergence of intersectional theory in France happened mostly in the years 2000s, when the works of American writers like Crenshaw or Collins got translated and spread more widely. In 2007, Elsa Dorlin was the first to publish a collection of texts by African American feminists, translated in French6. At the same time, scholars like Françoise Vergés started studying racism and sexism in France through the prism of postcolonialism, for example by analyzing the thousands of forced abortions and sterilizations practiced in La Réunion in 1970, at a time when abortions were still illegal in France7. Moreover, the frequent debates in the media around the question of the hijab started illustrating vividly the gap between universal feminists and advocates of intersectional or decolonial feminism, which will be studied with more precision in the third part of this research paper. Due to the problematic of the concept of ‘race’ in France, which was explained earlier in this paper, any debate on this topic in the media tends to accuse intersectional feminists of ‘communautarisme’8 as well as ‘anti-White racism’9. But the academic world does not entirely agree with the concept of intersectionality either: the historian Gérard Noiriel, for example, accuses intersectional feminism of “marginalizing the history of the working class” (Noiriel, 2018: 8) because he understands it as a competition between the categories class, race and gender10. The political scientist Laurent Bouvet accuses the concept of intersectionality of justifying identity and culturalist revendications of minorities, assimilating them to social struggles in the name of equality11 (Dem, 2017: 67). For him, even though the concept can be valid in the United States, it is not the case in France, where it means losing sight of the specificity of an emancipation project of a republican nature, i.e. a collective and universal emancipation project based on, and based solely on, social equality (ibid: 68). These interpretations neglect the context in which intersectionality was defined by Crenshaw and try to reduce it to a competition between social groups.

To describe and analyze in more details the difficulties faced by intersectional feminists in France, the cases of the Mwasi collective and the Lallab collective, and their perception in French mainstream media, will now be studied.

Mwasi collective

Mwasi (which means “girl” or “woman” in Lingala, a bantu language spoken in the region of the Congo river) is a French Afro-feminist collective created in 2014 to provide a space for African and Afro-descendent women to exchange and speak up on questions concerning Black women.


1 Libération. 2019. ‘Pour un 8 mars féministe universaliste’ 8-mars-feministe-universaliste_1712751

2 TV5Monde. 2018. ‘#NousToutes #JeMarcheLe24 : appel national à manifester contre les violences sexuelles en France’ les-violences-sexuelles-en

3 Formore insights onGuillaumin’s work, see her collection of essays translated in English: Race, Racism, Sexism, Power andldeology, London, Routledge, 1995.

4 For more details, read Rokhaya Diallo’s article: Washington Post. 2018. ‘France’s dangerous move to remove race from its constitution’ dangerous-move-to-remove-race-from-its-constitution/?noredirect=on

5 “Lesbians are not women”

6 Co-substantiality of social relations

7 BlackFeminism.Anthologie duféminisme africain-américain, 1975-2000. Paris, L’Harmattan, 2007.

8 The whole analysis can be found in the following book: Françoise Vergés. 2017. Le Ventre des femmes. Capitalisme, racialisation,féminisme. Paris, Albin Michel.

9 ‘communitarism’, meant as cultural isolationism

10 Some examples of recent articles : Marianne. 2017. ‘Le gouvernement se prend les pieds dans le tapis racialiste de Rokhaya Diallo’ racialiste-de-rokhaya-diallo and Le Figaro. 2017. ‘Fatiha Boudjahlat : « les néo-féministes sont les idiotes utiles des indigénistes »’ boudjahlat-les-neo-feministes-sont-les-idiotes-utiles-des-indigenistes.php

11 For a detailed analysis of Noiriel’s position and wide acceptance in the French academic world, as well as the difficulties faced by intersectional researchers, see the collection of essays Intersectionalité put together in 2019 by Abdellali Hajjat and Silyane Larcher in thejoumal Mouvements: It is telling to know that this collection was censured on Facebook for some days following its publication, because of the amount of flagging it received ( intersectionnalite-ces-mots-qui-restent-tabous-en-france)

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Theories of Intersectionality in France. A case-study of the feminist collectives Mwasi and Lallab
Free University of Berlin  (Otto-Suhr-Institut)
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feminism, intersectionality, feminist activism, france, feminismus, politische theorie
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Hortense Fricker (Author), 2019, Theories of Intersectionality in France. A case-study of the feminist collectives Mwasi and Lallab, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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