Mohsen Abdelmoumen: In your opinion, should the feminist struggle be considered as a societal issue or as a fundamental issue in the context of a revolutionary strategy?
Dr. Saliha Boussedra: It depends on how the problem is considered. First let us clarify what we mean by the terms « societal » and « social ». « Societal » envisage all that is a matter of morals, ethical values and finally relates to questions of law. By « Social » we can hear what commits the material conditions of life, in this sense, social issues are not only moral problems but very practical problems, and it is the material conditions of life that must be changed and not just the « values ». In the so-called « third wave » feminism, the claims seem to be very much about the issues of representation (how many women in the media, at the national assembly, etc.) or it focuses more specifically on issues of violence against women or on issues related to the body. Viewed from this angle, from the point of view of representation or morals, the feminist struggle may indeed appear as a purely societal question which would then depend on the evolution of morals. But it is a window that seems far too narrow for me to consider the feminist struggle as a whole. This problematic perspective of feminist struggles seems to me to have its origin also in conceptual problems of « idealistic » nature.
Indeed, one of the problems that arise in the way women are considered is that the abstract category of « woman » is completely cut off from the empirical domain on which it is nevertheless taken, as pointed out by the Belgian philosopher Françoise Collin. In other words, she is cut off from real women. The other problem that arises in France is on the contrary to rely only on the empirical field by taking the testimonies of women for truth value without submitting these speeches to criticism as is the case in some sociological surveys involving Prostitution, for example.
It seems to me that a return to « real » women would be desirable. As Marx said about human beings or « real men », real women are beings of needs such as eating, dressing, lodging, raising children, etc. This massive reality of women in the world is their most significant reality. Women and men around the world must first maintain their lives and, if necessary, the lives of their families. A speech or a struggle for women who does not start from this massive material observation seems to me to be the only criticism of the sky whereas it would be advisable to get back on earth: in other words a criticism that does not rely on the material needs that constitute the massive reality of women and simply imagining the Eve of the future from an exclusively category-specific point of view, that is to say abstract, abstract from any concrete reality, is quite problematic.
In your opinion, can we dissociate feminism and class struggle?
Again, it all depends on how things are considered. The feminist struggle in Europe first focused on the conquest of fundamental rights, in other words, this fight first aimed at a « political » emancipation through claims to the right to vote first, then on the right to abortion, on the right to open a bank account without the permission of the spouse, on parental authority (against « paternal power »), etc. Under these conditions, all women remained concerned by these issues and feminist mobilization could be achieved by transcending the class membership of different categories of women. Once political emancipation has been achieved in Europe in particular, it is discovered that political emancipation is not in itself synonymous with « social » emancipation. So not only do women realize that political emancipation has not brought them equality to work (especially that of wages with male employees) nor did it allow a questioning of the sexual division of work as it exists in the domestic home (in other words, the burden of domestic work and the raising of children continue to weigh on them).
In these conditions appear class realities between the different categories of women. For women in the bourgeois classes, once the political emancipation has been achieved, the feminist struggle is no longer has any place, or it should only focus on the number of women in the media or in the political arena or even in positions of power. But for women in the dominated classes, the issue of social emancipation remains a whole (they have no servants to provide the burden of domestic work, they do not have the money to pay for child care when they work, they do not have good access to care, etc.). If we take into account this distinction between political emancipation and social emancipation, then the struggle of women of the dominated classes can not be dissociated from the class struggle.
However, one of the main obstacles to the association of feminism and class struggle was to consider that workers’ organizations were unable to take into account women’s issues. This is not completely wrong historically. But we have an extraordinary historical example that occurred during the years that upset revolutionary Russia in the 1917s. Women such as Alexandra Kollontai, who was not the least of feminists, understood that the fate of working women was irreparably linked to the conquests and victories of the working class. And they were not wrong. The conquests that the Bolshevik feminists were capable of were, at the time, truly extraordinary and were at every level: in terms of domestic work with the creation of nurseries, canteens, etc., on the level of salaried work with equal pay, maternal leave, reduction of working time, etc. Finally, in terms of fundamental rights with decriminalization of homosexuality, right of abortion, gender equality, parental authority, etc. This is to say that feminists in Europe (and probably also in the United States) have an interest in joining the political and trade union organizations that defend the interest of labor. If the feminist struggle does not seem us separable from the class struggle, it is in the name, on the one hand, of the fact that women are more and more fully engaged in wage labor and, on the other hand, because their place in the world of work affects their living and working conditions in the domestic space and vice versa.
What do you think of the movements that came after the Weinstein scandal such as « BalanceTonPorc » (ExposeYourPig) and « MeToo »?
It is quite difficult for me to comment on this scandal in that my remarks here will not be based on scientific research, so it is more a matter of opinion. What I find extraordinary in what has happened is its totally unexpected character, in this sense, there was with this scandal something that is of the order of the event. For me, who am a communist, I am taken aback by two things: on the one hand the spontaneous character of all these testimonies of women, on the other hand by the effects on the real that these mass testimonies produced. The only word that comes to my mind to qualify this event is that of « insurrection ». These women who have risen especially against Weinstein (which is only the name of all those men who still have not understood that women are a subject of law) have something of « insurgents ». The insurgent is the one who opposes, which rises against an established order, an authority, without necessarily resorting to violence. As if a wave, an insurrectional wave, had seized all these women. To this it must be added that this insurrection is passed mainly by social networks. It is not an insurrection that would have taken place in the street for example. And yet, although spontaneous and unfolding through social networks, this uprising has produced effects on the real: there will now be a before and an after Weinstein. For the first time, no doubt, the « shame » of women who have suffered sexual violence has changed sides. This order that generations of feminists have sought to overthrow, an insurrectional wave has succeeded. It is, for me, clearly extraordinary. The question that, I think, remains unanswered is the continuation of this wave on the political level. Institutional and organized feminism attempts to pursue on a legal and political level the struggle started by women in the wave against Weinstein. But without the concrete and on-the-ground support of all these women who testified, Institutional feminism or the political parties that have supported and taken sides in favor of these women will hardly be able to continue this struggle. In France, for example, a proposal for a law against « sexist outrage » already promises to be inapplicable in practice and institutional feminists as well as political parties seeking to advance women’s rights, will not be able to do this without the practical and concrete support of the women who testified (that requires their presence on the field of struggle) as soon as they will face the government. In rebelling against Weinstein and his comrades, insurrectional women have said loud and clear that they must be treated as subjects of law, that the respect due to their person must be verified in the public space as well as in the workplaces or the domestic space. But the massive existence of harassment and sexual violence attests to the fact that women, despite their existence as subject of law, continue to be seen as the property of the domestic space, legal conquest is not enough to protect them from the logic of private property as it still has in the family space. In the material reality of the domestic space which constitutes an economic base, women continue to be considered as private property and this reality is found in the public domain or in the workplace. This is why a revolutionary feminism, as it aims at social emancipation, fights for the abolition of the division of labor and private property (whether this property is that of the family or that of the capitalists). But to say that women (mainly women of the dominated classes) continue to be perceived as private property in the family’s field is not to say that women constitute a social class. The sexual division of work in the family is a form of division of labor that does not have sufficient development to make women a social class, which is why their class interests continue to be that of wage labor. On the other hand, as they fall within specific categories of wage-earner, they may be carriers of claims common to their wage categories and may also be recognized, beyond their categories, by wage-earner in its whole. As for the trade union and political organizations, the latter are well advised to consider the claims of these categories of wage labor, not only because they are usually half of the population in different societies, but also because they constitute more and more a significant part of the wage system itself. This is why a revolutionary struggle which does not take account in its strategy of political and social importance of women, especially working women, seems us absurd.
You wrote a very interesting article about Marx and the issue of prostitution, How do you explain that capitalism has trivialized prostitution until call it sex work?
With regard to Marx’s position on prostitution, a position we can consider as « abolitionist », I explain it in part indeed in this article that you are kind enough to quote. For Marx, prostitution is what he calls the Lumpenproletariat. The individuals of Lumpenproletariat do not belong to any particular social class, their interest is strictly individual. That is why it is not possible, from Marx, to compare the situation of the worker to that of the prostitute. The first is a social class, which is not the case for the second. For Marx, prostitution does not, strictly speaking, constitute « work » because it is not an activity that brings emancipation. Rather, it is a matter of what revolutionary feminists call « violence » to women. To answer your question, more particularly with regard to the phenomenon of « trivialization » that you raise, I would say that if some currents of feminism speak of « sex work » it is that they perceive this activity with the eyes of the capitalist. For them, as long as an activity can bring in money and it can be registered as part of a « contract », so it must be considered as a work, regardless of the conditions of women who prostitute themselves or are brought to do so, no matter the consequences on these women but also on society, they only take into account the money that can be paid and the contract in which this activity can be registered.
From a Marxist point of view, the phenomenon of « trivialization » can be explained by, on the one hand, the strength of the bourgeois revolution in that the latter has managed, as Marx says in « the Manifesto of the Communist Party », to lift the veil which hitherto surrounded the social relations to make it appear what holds them, namely reports of private property. On the other hand, capitalist production mode is the only mode of production that has managed to change, to a certain extent only, this economic base that is the family. Through this upheaval, it revealed that intra-family relations were also relationships that can be understood in terms of private property. That in this context prostitution is « trivialized », I almost say that there is nothing more normal. But this « trivialization » is itself the product of a long history because capitalism has not been able to ‘remove’ suddenly all obstacles, particularly moral ones, from the ‘trivialization’ of prostitution to impose a ‘purely’ economic morality. The dislocation of family ties induced by the enrolment of women in the labor market has many consequences, particularly on the sexual division of work in the family. In this context, the institutions that had hitherto the burden of matrimonial relations, such as the families themselves or the religious institutions lost their power over the individuals who compose the family sphere.
Under these conditions, liberal or capitalist feminism thinks that relations between the sexes, or better yet, sexual relations could then be supported by the market itself and regulated by the latter. It is this logic of the management and regulation of sexual relations by the market that underlies the discourse of this liberal feminism which, in my opinion, works against the interests of women and serves only the interests of the bourgeois class.
You are both philosopher and artist, and you have written a play in which you perform: « A beer with mint ». Do you think that political messages calling for change are better through artistic expression? What can you tell us about your theatrical experience?
At the time I wrote this play, I was coming out of a period when I was a big activist, mainly in feminist collectives or in the struggles around the popular neighborhoods. I was a bit desperate to see what I could try to explain about the phenomena of sexism just like those of racism, I could not make myself heard despite the sometimes theoretical content of my remarks. In fact, I experienced a certain impotence of the exclusively « militant » speech, and I then turned to the theatre in the hope of finding a means of expression that might affect the audience I was trying to address. Through this writing of texts, my first goal was to mix what I call « flesh and blood » with the bone of speech. Militant discourse can have something rough, dry, because it is deployed as part of a power relationship. But in doing so he can lose sight of the very meaning of what he seeks to defend. It seemed to me that we had to go back to this meaning, through simple words and values but who are able to reach audiences in what they have more dear like the meaning of their lives, their relationship to the family, the relationship to happiness, the relationship to society. My goal was to show how the characters in the play, beyond what can separate them from a certain audience, are carriers of universal dimensions and questions, in other words, it was a matter of showing, beyond the differences, what is likely to be common to us all.
In fact, it is difficult for me to answer your question completely. At the time I wrote « A beer with mint », I felt powerless politically and theoretically; only the passage through the artistic expression and the part of emotion which accompanied it seemed to me able to express what I felt as a truth. But since then, many things have changed both theoretically and politically. Finally, I would say that it seems to me that, yes, artistic expression has the power to convey through emotion an understanding of the world that other types of discourse may have more difficulty in rendering account. Nevertheless, I do not believe, and I have, moreover, never believed that artistic expression alone could suffice to upset the world. For this reason, the theoretical work and the political struggle seem to me absolutely necessary.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Saliha Boussedra?
Saliha Boussedra is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, member of the EA2326 of CEPHAC (Research Center in German and Contemporary Philosophy). Her research focuses on the place of women in Marx’s work and the issue of prostitution. She is member of the editorial board of the journal Cause Commune (Common cause). She is co-author of a play entitled « A beer with mint ».
Published in American Herald Tribune, May 05, 2018: https://ahtribune.com/world/2246-saliha-boussedra.html
In Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.070518.htm