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1In this work, Françoise Vergès begins by linking together two events in January 2018: first, the victory of the female employees of the Onet cleaning company following a historic strike; and second, the publication of an editorial by a group of prominent women in defence of men’s ‘freedom to bother [importuner]’. The former was the conclusion of a long struggle of working-class and racialized women who do the cleaning work in SNCF stations. The strike had gone on for 45 days. The women’s editorial in defence of ‘the freedom to bother’ criticized a ‘hatred of men’ that, the authors explained, could be found in feminism and the #MeToo movement. And yet, Vergès writes, ‘the comfortable life of bourgeois women around the world is made possible by the work of millions of racialized and exploited women, making their clothes, cleaning their homes and the offices where they work, taking care of their children, and fulfilling the sexual needs of their husbands, brothers, and companions’ (p. 10).

2This division of labour between women, which is intimately tied to the North– South divide, is at the centre of the book’s analysis. Vergès does not question that men are also affected by these divides, but defends her choice to focus on the role of women in the South in terms of the need to construct a critique of ‘racial capitalism and the heteropatriarchy’. The decolonial feminism advocated in the book invites us to jointly think patriarchy, the state, and capital. Vergès takes a ‘multidimensional’ approach (a concept proposed by Darren Lenard Hutchinson), which she distinguishes from the ‘intersectional’ approach in terms of the refusal to split race, sexuality, and class into mutually exclusive categories. She proposes ‘a critical decolonial pedagogy’ (p. 33), as exemplified by the approach taken in her previous work, Le ventre des femmes, which analysed abortions and sterilizations performed without consent in La Réunion in the 1970s. In it, she highlights the fact that these behaviours were not simply the isolated actions of a few doctors, but were part of an anti-natalist policy developed by the French state in the ‘overseas’ départements, targeting poor and racialized women.

3Vergès opens the first part of this new book, ‘Choosing a side: A decolonial feminism’, with a brief look at her own political trajectory and her initial rejection of the term feminism. She affirms the need to reclaim this concept at a time when it is monopolized by a ‘civilizational’—white bourgeois—feminism, in connection with either reactionary, far-right or liberal movements, in the service of capitalism. She highlights the emancipatory impact of women’s struggles, especially in the Global South, and the need to integrate those struggles into women’s history as well as the history of decolonial struggles and the struggles of slaves. She defines decolonial feminism as a set of ‘theories and practices rooted in the consciousness of a deep, concrete, daily experience of the oppression produced by the matrix of State, patriarchy, and capital, which manufactures the category “women” to legitimize policies of reproduction and discrimination based on social categorization [assignation], both racialized’ (p. 39).

4The pages that follow are devoted to analysing ‘white privilege’ among Western women. Large swathes of Western feminism, Vergès writes, accommodated themselves to colonization in the 19th century, on the condition that its civilizing mission extend to women, notably through schooling. In the 20th century, these relationships were reframed in terms of the notion of ‘empowerment’ and the rhetoric of ‘women’s rights’. Vergès emphasizes the key role of international organizations and Western governments in constructing an institutionalized and depoliticized ‘developmentalist’ or humanitarian feminism, which, beginning in the 1970s, sought to take the place of revolutionary women’s liberation movements.

5In the second part of the book, she addresses the specific forms taken by ‘civilizational’ feminism in the 21st century. She discusses the debates in 1989 around Islamic headscarves and highlights the role of many women and organizations who emerged from the women’s liberation movements of the 1970s. According to Vergès, the widespread equation of feminism with secularism follows in the line of the discourses of colonization, displaced here onto French territory: it had now become a question of emancipating young Muslim women from the patriarchal culture of their fathers, brothers, and husbands, and thus of measuring their integration by their ability to cut themselves off from their family and their community. She situates this development in a context where the increasing employment of women in managerial and executive positions was accompanied by a massive expansion of service jobs (childcare, cleaning), which were largely based on the arrival of a socially devalued female workforce. She examines the resurgence of a self-proclaimed feminist, Islamophobic discourse: the 2004 law on the headscarf, the events in Cologne of 2015, the controversy around the burkini in 2016. She examines the multiple faces of civilizational feminism: notably the liberal current, which psychologizes domination while seeking to ‘change mentalities’, and state feminism, which erases collective struggles by individualizing them and by casting certain chosen figures as heroes. But she also highlights the erasure of women from a portion of the history of decolonial struggles, which creates the need for a dual commitment, both feminist and decolonial. In the wake, in particular, of Black feminism in the United States, she also explores the question of how to respond critically to sexism among Black and racialized men without falling into racism or moralism.

6In the book’s final pages, Vergès returns to her starting point: the cleaning industry and the predominant place of migrant and racialized women in this socially devalued sector. She discusses the concepts, forged within materialist feminist research, of ‘care work’ and the ‘caring class’, and proposes to analyse the cleaning industry as a care practice at the heart of the ‘division of the clean and the dirty founded on a racial division of urban space and habitat’. In conclusion, drawing on the history of the struggles—and victories—of women in this sector in both the North and the South, she proposes to return to a feminism that carries within it the seeds of a radical transformation of society.

7Reading this short essay in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown due to the COVID-19 epidemic highlights the importance of the issues that it explores. The place of the ‘invisible’ members of our societies and the essential nature of the work they do every day—cleaning, caring for the sick, children, the elderly, etc.—has been made singularly salient by the epidemic. That most of this work is done by women, a large proportion of whom are racialized women, along with the resulting political consequences, is the book’s starting point. This rich book blends historical analysis, research and concepts from the social sciences, and the ‘feminist project of decolonial politics’.

Uploaded on on 04/12/2020
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