Identity, Representativity and Hegemony in Women’s Francophone Postcolonial Texts

Josefina Bueno Alonso, University of Alicante, Spain.

Keywords: Identity, Diaspora, Knowledge

1. Francophone Postcolonial Discourse

Before giving a detailed description of the project, I would like to talk about my research background and my teaching duties. For several years, I have been teaching French Literature with a special interest in Gender Studies. Over the last few years, I have lectured on literature and culture of French-speaking countries. I usually teach women’s writing from French speaking countries and from a variety of historical and geopolitical contexts; especially women’s writing from the 19th century to the present. I am a member of the Center of Women Studies, so Feminist Theory and Gender perspectives are important tools in my teaching and in my research (1). In the last few years, as I am teaching in a Gender postgraduate course, I take an interdisciplinary approach, namely an approach with a special emphasis in postcolonialism, identity, migration from North-African countries, cultural hegemony, and their representations in the literary women texts.

Many of the papers in Travelling Concepts, point out equalities/inequalities and different hierarchies of power between East and West from an interdisciplinary approach, and in this spirit I would like to focus on the women from Maghreb and their present and future role in the ‘new’ Europe. It should be noted that the kind of inter-dependence between Francophone literature and its centre – French Literature - is not the same as that which exists in English-speaking or Spanish-speaking countries. Do we still read Maghrebian texts as a form of sub-cultural expression? What is the contribution from feminist theory?

Therefore, my approach examines the relationship between French and postcolonial texts, treating texts as a set of discursive practices, where power and hegemonic relations are inter-woven, thus influencing not only the text’s production but also its diffusion and/or reception. The historical legacy from these texts (slavery, colonisation, racism, etc.) is undeniable. However, these texts also reflect new concepts directly derived from contemporary society (neo-colonialism, integration, multiculturalism, globalisation, etc.). My aim is to analyse Francophone world texts within their historical context and in relation to their mother country while trying to understand how and why this hegemonic relationship remains today, now that the colonial links have apparently disappeared. It also deals with concepts of location, identity and gender, and how they are perceived in Europe (2), where most of these texts originate.

Francophone postcolonial discourse is a context marked by the French language and culture, which leads me to re-examine some of the ideas which were put forward in Trento (the first meeting of the Travelling Concepts group in January 2004) and which are alluded to in some of the papers (3). We should not ignore the predominance of the English language in this field, neither should we overlook the influence of Anglo-American feminist theory (4). When translating concepts into another language, we need to consider the limitations of the target language. Equally, we need to take into account the relevant geographical, historical and social contexts, so as not to fall into the trap of an excessive universalism and thus unwittingly reproduce existing hierarchies. The following example is a clear illustration of this: I do not intend to transpose Anglo-American postcolonial theories to the Francophone context, but rather, to analyse, compare and identify gaps and differences. For although they have experienced similar historical situations – the process of colonisation – we must not forget that the processes were different, the relationship with the metropolis was different, and that even from an international perspective, the position of France (its language and culture) is neither comparable to that of the English language nor to Anglo-Saxon culture.

2. The Complexity of Identity
I am interested in theoretical discourse on identity formation from different disciplines (philosophy, literature, sociology, ethnology, etc.), paying particular attention to Maalouf (1998), Abou (1986), Deleuze (1980) and Glissant (1996) among others and starting from theories about rhizomatic theories (Deleuze (1980), Braidotti, (1994); Glissant, (1996), etc.). I will focus on the ‘in between’ and hybridising concepts, such as the deterritorialisation and dislocation processes experienced in and through literary texts. According to the above-mentioned theories, the distinction between cultural identity as opposed to ethnic identity, viewed from an ethnological point of view, has a particular effect when talking about gendered discourse.

We must not forget that ‘identity’ is the initial and main category that dominates the writing process, in the same way that writing acquires liberating and transgressive connotations (Cixous, 1986: 61). In the Maghrebian context, for example, it is interesting to note the ambiguity inherent in gendered discourse: we should not forget that although France represents a colonising power, it has also represented a liberation both in the literal and figurative sense. Moreover, this is a cultural context which is characterised by a strong patriarchal authority, supported in turn by religious discourse – that of the Muslim religion. Writing thus becomes the agent whereby on the one hand, the structures that function on a symbolic level are deconstructed (Bourdieu 2002), while on the other, it becomes the ideal space in which to reconstruct an identity marked by the person’s sex and by the desire for representativity with regard to the normalised ‘Other’ (5).

My aim is therefore to analyse in which women’s texts the discourse on identity that may be inferred from both their social and literary discourse. This analysis will take into account the cultural context in which they were produced (immersed in, and influenced by, French feminist theories). Another important aim will be to analyse how Francophone intellectuals and writers have re-interpreted, re-conceptualised and re-elaborated their original sources. On the one hand, I will refer to Western French feminism while, on the other, I will make reference to ‘non-Western feminism’: Spivak (1987) Landry&Mc.Lean 1996), Mohanty (1991), Mernissi (1992, 2003), etc. We cannot overlook the effects of immigration on gender perspectives in many European countries and how it has suffered and continues to suffer from the ups and downs of cultural change (6). The social construction of gender is not immune to the cultural effects of a given historical period (7).

3. Gender Theory: Sociological Discourse Versus Literary discourse
I take as a starting point the premise that the works of women writers from the Maghreb in the French language constitutes militant writing in the widest sense of the word, although many of them have rejected the ‘feminist’ label. We must also bear in mind that in parallel to gender discourse, other forms of discourse, which aim to combat and eradicate all kinds of oppression or discrimination, be it for reasons of sex, social class or race, are becoming more and more visible. I therefore aim to analyse the inherent gender discourse in these texts taking into account this dual dimension (gendered and social), and to reveal the interweaving of these two forms of discourse and how they complement each other. Since the main aim of this project is to examine Travelling Concepts, I will focus on the analysis of gender discourse in Francophone postcolonial texts, and how these have taken concepts from different disciplines and from different linguistic perspectives. Accordingly, I aim to examine the re-writing of French feminist theory and its re-working, taking into account the postcolonial individual (8). How do feminist concepts work in Francophone poetics? Is it a mere transposition of Anglo-American postcolonial theory or do they denote specific situations marked by different geographical, historical, political or social contexts? Is postcolonial discourse at variance with French feminist theory? Are we right to say that postcolonial writers tend more towards a feminism of difference than a feminism of equality? Some, such as the writer Calixthe Beyala, talk about féminitude as a feminism of difference ‘s position and therefore she is not absolutely convinced by it (1995: 20).

Feminist theory is thus confronted with a social discourse which prevails in France and in other European countries which have a large Maghrebian population: the vindication of an identity different from the European hegemonic identity (Braidotti, 1994: 10), marked by belonging to a different religion and affected by difficulties of integration, xenophobia, etc. Consequently, women’s discourse suffers from various internal and external tensions which make it more and more difficult to ‘be a woman’, ‘define oneself as a woman’ (9), and ‘identify oneself as a woman’. Fatema Mernissi is undoubtedly the most identifiable voice of Islamic feminism in the Western world, which does not mean, of course, that her version is pre-eminent elsewhere in the world. In her most recent statements, she has criticised the excessively stereotyped and distorted picture that the Western world has painted of Islamic culture and Islamic women. She has also stressed – in rejecting the idea of assimilation to Euro-American culture – the snares of Western feminism masked by the veil of equal opportunities (Mernissi, 2003: 73) (10). Another important point is the analysis of the gender perspective which may be arise from a fuller consideration of the situation of French Muslim women, meaning those born and brought up in France, and who possess full French citizenship. In this case, the definition of gender conflicts with the acceptance of the ‘Other’, from an ethnic perspective. Here, it should be noted that France is currently in the midst of a controversy surrounding the ban on the wearing of the veil, in which women are the main agents and referents, and which has reduced the problem for these women to an opposition between their female and religious identities (11). For some women writers, for example, one of the drawbacks of feminist discourse is that it is directly opposed to religious discourse, whatever the religion. Therefore, the social debate over feminine versus religious identity is reflected in the different points of view displayed by women writers.

Finally, I would to stress that teaching these texts in our academic environment, where Gender Studies does exist but is not officially recognised, is of fundamental importance to me. Teaching students about new Francophone identities means introducing concepts of gender, race, geography or class, in order to develop a way of looking at new contemporary cartographies within my/their pedagogical contexts, as well as everyday experience of reality.


1. I am working on representation of motherhood from a gendered and non-European point of view in a national project coordinated by Silvia Caporale.
2. I am interested in exploring this issue in a European context, bearing in mind Joan Anim-Addo’s caution in her paper that ‘Europe is involved in creolisation not only when the Creole subject moves to Europe which then becomes the site of his/ her cultural production.’
3. Especially the challlenges of an ‘international curriculum’ pointed out in Clare Hemmings’ paper.
4. Western feminist criticism often ignores the contribution of Islamic women discourse. In this sense, I fully agree with Biljana Kasic when she argues that ‘shaping Women’s Studies curricula in relation to postcoloniality ‘forces the disruption of space/time/knowledge between academic industry in the “West” and in the so-called “South/East”.’
5. As Biljana Kasic points out, it is ‘not easy to critically link different subjects of the Other(s) and Otherness across the world with one’s own position of the Other’.
6. Especially since the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 and, for example, the ban on the use of the veil in France.
7. I think with Assimina Karavanta that these texts could be situated in ‘a third, incalculable dimension’. It is a classed and a gendered ‘other’, as she asserts, but might it not also be a religious ‘other’?
8. I share Clare Hemmings’ the fear about the concept of ‘difference’ and I think the teaching of ‘difference’ (of gender, class, sex, race) should include a focus on, and be delivered through a ‘transformative pedagogy’.
9. For this question, Luz Gomez’s paper provides a useful set of reflections on the importance of a religious paradigm for Gender Studies.
10. Cf. ‘The harem for Western women is size 38’ in El harén en Occidente (2003:73).
11. Cf. Ce voile qui déchire la France de Fawzia Zouari (2004).


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