Racism, Sexism, Religion and Anti-Muslim Bigotry

Women and Immigration in France

Reprinted from Women and Revolution pages of Spartacist English edition No. 57, Winter 2002-03

This article is edited and expanded from a talk by comrade Alison Spencer presented at a public educational of the Ligue Trotskyste de France on 16 May 2002. Also presented at the educational was a talk on “Trotskyism, What It Is and What It Is Not” (published in Le Bolchévik No. 160, Summer 2002) which, taking off from the French presidential elections, traced the history of the struggle for authentic Trotskyism against revisionism and class collaboration. Comrade Spencer’s talk was reprinted in Le Bolchévik No. 161, Fall 2002.

The French utopian socialist Charles Fourier explained that the condition of women in society is a very precise means of evaluating to what degree a society has been purged of social oppression in general. Right now in France, some 70,000 young women are threatened with arranged marriages. Some 35,000 young women suffer female genital mutilation or are at risk of being mutilated. These figures were released in January 2002. To give an idea of the escalation of women’s oppression, as a measure of the general level of oppression in this society: ten years ago figures showed that some 10,000 young women were threatened with female genital mutilation—that’s an increase of 250 percent in ten years. By Charles Fourier’s index, these figures show an alarming regression and a real intensification of social oppression in this country.

This society which dons the robes of “liberty and equality” is a real hell for young girls and women of immigrant backgrounds above all. Female genital mutilation and forced marriages are not overtly apparent. These are the terrors and mortal threats which occur inside the family home. But one can easily observe the escalation of women’s oppression and the growth of religious influence with the increasingly common appearance of the veil. There are no figures on this but one sees the veil commonly on the streets, and more and more one sees the Islamic chador (rather than just the headscarf) which symbolizes the total segregation of women from society and their subjugation in the family.

We say that democratic rights are indivisible and that an injury to one is an injury to all. I will explain how this aggravation of women’s oppression is directly related to the anti-working-class, anti-immigrant policies of the French state, which for years has been run by a so-called “left government.” But first of all we have to look at the roots of the expansion of religious influence and anti-woman practices.

The Headscarf and the Republic

In 1989, in the midst of celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, three girls turned up at high school wearing headscarves. There was an immediate explosion of sanctimonious “secularism,” a cover for anti-Muslim bigotry, and these North African girls were expelled from public school and thrown back to the family hearth, with invocations of the “values of the Republic.” In fact, the French state deformed the goals and values of the French Revolution with this attack on these Muslim girls. Under the ancien régime of the French king, France was known as “the eldest daughter of the Church.” The principle of secularism in the French Revolution came from the need to protect the freedom to express ideas and to free society from the hands of the Catholic church. That this principle is used today by a Catholic majority to oppress a Muslim minority in French society is a cruel irony of history. It underscores the degree to which the French bourgeoisie in the epoch of capitalist decay has degenerated from the class that led the 1789 Revolution, a historic watershed in the struggle for human emancipation.

Crucifixes are not forbidden in public school in France. This campaign against the young girls wearing the headscarf was just the beginning of the escalation of a reactionary racist campaign against “Islam in France,” a campaign which especially targeted the North African-derived population in this country. Contrary to the hysterical campaign against the “importation of Algerian fundamentalism” into France, scientific surveys prove that in fact the youth of Algerian background are less religious than native-born French people. (Perhaps it’s because the headscarf is so externally visible that many people think otherwise.) According to the 1992 survey conducted by INED (the National Institute for Demographic Studies), 30 percent of men born in France of two parents born in Algeria say that they have no religion at all. A full 60 percent of those who have only one parent born in Algeria say that they have no religion. For women, the figures are 30 percent and 58 percent, respectively. But for native-born French people, only 27 percent of men and 20 percent of women declare that they have no religion.

The weight of the Catholic church is considerable in French society. In the recent presidential elections, the church effectively ran two candidates, Bayrou and Boutin. Not even the mayor of Paris can keep the Catholic church’s hands off the public school schedule because the church insists that Wednesdays must be kept clear for catechism. So why isn’t the state in an uproar in defense of the principle of secularism against intrusions by the French Catholic church? The Catholic hierarchy and Catholic religious ideology are simply too useful to the ruling class as a prop for social conservatism, sanctifying capitalist class domination. On the other hand, anti-Muslim “secularism” facilitates the rulers’ aim of dividing the workers and segregating that militant layer of North African workers from their class brothers in this country. The public school in the French Republic is a key place to implant racist anti-Arab values in France some two hundred years after the Great French Revolution.

During the furor over the headscarf, the LTF wrote: “In this country rotten with chauvinism and racist terror, these expulsions could not represent anything other than an act of racial discrimination. That is why we condemn them.... It is clear that Muslim fundamentalism in this country could be only the ideology of a horribly oppressed community which has lost all hope of finding within the society in which it lives a perspective of doing away with this oppression” (“Down With the Anti-Immigrant Campaign!” Le Bolchévik No. 97, November-December 1989).

We have always fought for the separation of church and state, and mosque and state, in opposition to the fundamentalists who seek to regiment even the smallest details of private life through the reactionary, anti-woman Koranic strictures. But in France, where Islam can only be an ideology of the ghetto, which accepts segregation, the main enemy is not the Islamic fundamentalists but the French imperialist capitalist state, which is anti-worker and anti-woman and which oppresses the working masses in Algeria, Africa, and here.

In the same period that we defended these young veiled women in France, we hailed the Red Army in Afghanistan which intervened to defend the modernizing left-bourgeois nationalist PDPA government. The Red Army battled the fundamentalists who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women and killed schoolteachers who taught young girls to read. We denounced the withdrawal of the Soviet troops as a betrayal of Afghan women. We fought to extend the gains of the October 1917 Russian Revolution to Afghan women. Is there a contradiction between our line at that time on the headscarf in France and the veil in Afghanistan? Not at all. The question in each situation was how to defend the interests of women and the proletariat internationally. In France, the North African population suffered daily under the conditions of segregation and racist terror and they were marginalized by the chauvinist leaders of the trade unions and leftist parties. It was understandable therefore that some young women sought a refuge in religion and an illusory discovery of dignity. This is why Marx called religion “the heart of a heartless world.” The Marxist struggle against religious obscurantism is inseparable from the fight to abolish the material conditions in this world which induce the need to seek refuge in divine fantasy. In other words, our struggle is inextricably linked to the fight for international socialist revolution. In Afghanistan, the intervention of the Red Army put an extension of the gains of the October Revolution on the order of the day and it was a question of life or death for the Afghan women against the mujahedin cutthroats.

Conversely, the French fake left refused to defend women against imperialist-backed reaction in Afghanistan and against the racist campaigns of the French bourgeoisie at home. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) and its international allies of the United Secretariat, then led by Ernest Mandel, called openly for the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan, siding with the mullahs and the CIA against the Soviet Union and Afghan women. Lutte Ouvrière (LO) was more evasive, but lined up on the same side by comparing the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan to the conduct of French and American imperialism in Vietnam. Meanwhile, with LO openly backing the French government’s expulsion of the veiled girls from school, the LCR grudgingly opposed the expulsions while continuing to loyally support and sow illusions in the Mitterrand popular-front government which launched this racist campaign. And under the recent popular front—the Jospin-headed coalition government of the Socialists, Communists and Greens—LO simply said nothing in opposition to the anti-immigrant police-state measures of Vigipirate, while the LCR could not bring itself to protest this racist repression until almost the very end of Jospin’s reign.

The wielding of hypocritical “secularism” against young Muslim women in France today was prefigured during the Algerian War. Historically, imperialism has had no compunction about allying itself with the most reactionary local rulers and the most backward social institutions in order to secure an orderly flow of profits from the colonies. But when the Algerian masses rose in rebellion against the colonial overlords, the French administration, which presided over an army of torturers, suddenly “discovered” the human rights of oppressed Algerian women, hoping to build a base of support for continued subjugation of the country. As we summarized in an article written in the 1970s:

“The French made use of the Islamic degradation of women to justify denying democratic rights, particularly suffrage, to Muslims. The Algerians reacted with increased Muslim orthodoxy, praising their women as the perpetuators of their true culture against French influence. Due to their seclusion, Algerian women were indeed less affected by French influence than were Algerian men, although the French made a special effort to reach them. During the struggle for national liberation, the French initiated public, pro-French unveilings of Muslim women and organized a Feminine Solidarity Movement which offered them medical care, legal aid, gifts and education in an attempt to draw them out of their isolation and into the service of French imperialism.”

— “The Private Life of Islam: A Review,” Women and Revolution No. 10, Winter 1975-76

In response to the racism of French imperialism’s campaign “for women,” which included forcibly ripping the veils off women and burning the veils in “bonfires of joy,” the FLN [Front de Libération National—National Liberation Front] publicly repudiated these women as whores and raised the slogan, “For a free Algeria, not a free French woman!” Unable to present a genuinely socialist program for women—releasing them from the bondage of Islam as well as from French imperialism—the Algerian nationalists took the veil as their symbol! They enshrined the oppression of women on the pedestal of revolution.

The national liberation of Algeria from French imperialist rule was a victory which Marxists passionately defend. But the inability of bourgeois nationalism to truly liberate the oppressed masses of the so-called “Third World” from poverty, social backwardness and imperialist plunder is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the case of independent Algeria, where women who took up arms and fought heroically alongside men in the Algerian War, and their daughters and granddaughters, now find themselves subjected to the official anti-woman strictures of “Islamic law” and prey to the terror of the fundamentalists who are embraced by large sections of the desperate population as the alternative to the bankrupt, brutal FLN military regime. Only thoroughgoing socialist revolutions throughout the region can open up a future for the women and men of Algeria, and would give great impetus to revolutionary struggle in the imperialist centers. Correspondingly, a working-class conquest of power here in France as well as in other imperialist countries would lead directly toward liberation of the North African countries through socialist revolution.

Capitalist Counterrevolution and Religion

The second round in the story of the headscarf occurred in 1994 when a hundred girls were expelled from school. The international context is important for understanding two things: the rise of religion and the escalation of government attacks against the working class, women and immigrants. A key event was the capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and across East Europe in 1990-92—a huge defeat for the workers movement internationally—which was hailed by virtually the whole “left.”

Reactionary ideas take hold and grow in reactionary periods, and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been a rise of fundamentalism of every kind: Protestant fundamentalism in America (the abortion clinic bombers, the KKK, the Bush government which wants to bury the scientific fact of evolution and teach “creationism” in public schools); Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism in Israel; an ever greater reach by the Catholic church into civil society in Europe; and Islamic fundamentalism in the Muslim countries and in the European centers with large Muslim populations. The rise of religion is not only a result of counterrevolution; it was also a tool of the imperialists to foment reaction in and against the deformed workers states. All the variants of the “opium of the people,” as Marx called religion, are freely disseminated in this period. The growth of this false consciousness is rooted in despair and the lie that class struggle and authentic communism are old hat.

The capitalist class which steals the wealth produced by the workers needs a scapegoat to derail the class struggles which continue to break out, despite the regression in political consciousness. The working class seeks to defend itself against capitalist attacks. Since the Berlin Wall came down, the Western bourgeoisies have substituted the “green menace” of Islam for the “red menace” formerly represented by the Soviet Union. The Persian Gulf War—the bombing and above all the United Nations sanctions which have starved and killed more than one and a half million Iraqis—had a large impact on the North African and Muslim population in France. The Vigipirate plan for heightened state repression of the minority population, which has become the model used by all the imperialist countries to oppress their “enemy within,” was put in place in France at the time of the Gulf War.

Nationally, there were economic and political changes which terribly marginalized dark-skinned people and which also contributed to the intensification of women’s oppression. A new capitalist economic crisis raised the level of unemployment and layoffs. Children whose fathers created the wealth of France in the post-World War II period no longer have the possibility of finding jobs like their fathers, who were themselves the most exploited and the least compensated layer of the proletariat. The factories where the immigrant fathers worked are now closed or are laying off. Youth of immigrant background are treated as a surplus population which the bourgeoisie has no need for. Without the opportunity to realize costs back in profits through economic exploitation of these youth, the bourgeoisie is not motivated to invest money in schools or minority neighborhoods. The only “growth industry” there is the police and the prisons.

According to its economic needs, capitalism brings into the proletariat at its bottom new sources of cheaper labor, principally immigrants from poorer countries who are deemed disposable in times of economic contraction. This is why we in the ICL fight for the unity and integrity of the working class against chauvinism and racism. In every country where we exist, the ICL fights to expose the lie of “national unity” between workers and bosses and to rally the proletariat in class solidarity with immigrants and minorities.

The bourgeoisie’s attempts to blame unemployment on immigrants and their children and to make minority youth synonymous with “delinquency” and social “insecurity” have certainly put the wind in the sails of fascist demagogues like Le Pen. But at bottom the mushrooming of racist hostility directed against immigrants is a reflection of the marginalization of these layers in a contracting economy. As we explained in a 1996 article on immigrants in Europe:

“It is common on the European left to blame the rising tide of anti-immigrant racism on the demagogy of ‘extreme’ right-wing groups. But the fascists are simply expressing in an open, unvarnished and violent way the economic and political interests of the European ruling classes at the present juncture. European capital now has no need for additional imported labor from Third World countries, while second-generation immigrant youth are economically redundant and regarded as a source of social unrest....

“The struggle against anti-immigrant racism must be conducted not only militantly against the fascists but equally on the political plane against the reformist misleaders of the workers movement.”

— “Immigration and Racist ‘Fortress Europe’,” Spartacist [French edition] No. 29, Summer 1996, reprinted in Workers Vanguard No. 652 and 653, 27 September and 11 October 1996

Even prior to the current economic downturn, studies of unemployment in France have shown that there is special discrimination against young Algerian men, even as compared with other young North African males. France has never forgotten that Algeria fought French imperialism and won. The unemployment figure for Algerian high school graduates between the ages of 20 and 29 is 39 percent; while for Spaniards, Portuguese and French, the figure is 10 percent. That’s almost four times as much for the young Algerian men. Young Algerian women also suffer unemployment but there is a layer which has found stable work. But in general, the work situation in France is better for young men than young women. These figures show that young Algerian men still suffer a particular discrimination and racist hatred which France has for those from its former colony which dealt France a bitter military defeat.

In general for a young woman, it is not as easy to separate from one’s family as it was in the preceding two decades. Breaking with one’s family implies finding work, but jobs that lead to financial independence are rare today. These material conditions are the basis for a return to religion for many young Muslim women. But this is highly contradictory. Many claim an Islamic identity and at the same time denounce in the name of Islam the traditions that throw them back to the family hearth. There are some who wear the veil as an act of defiance toward French society which treats Arab people with contempt. Moreover, it is often the case that young women who don the veil and adopt this image of modesty win the right to leave the house and go out with friends, which was previously denied them. But this bubble of “liberty,” grotesquely deformed and obtained with the veil, does not last for long. Every young woman in an Islamic headscarf knows that her future, according to family traditions and according to religion, is inside the home. And in the meantime, Western society is not offering a future, either. Speaking at a conference of women held at the Sorbonne in January 2002, Fadela Amara noted that “In the 1980s, we older sisters had begun to win our freedom and to take the first steps toward equality, but then everything gradually collapsed in the 1990s with mass unemployment, fundamentalism, and the retreat back into the community.”

Books written by these young women themselves describe a “schizophrenic” life. Some leave the house in a veil and change into a miniskirt in the restroom at McDonald’s, and spend their day dodging the surveillance of older brothers who play the role of family cops, including with terrifying brutality. Often the feeling of being torn in half between French society on the one hand, which demands that they abandon their entire Arab identity, and the family on the other hand, which demands modesty, destroys them, literally. More of these young women commit suicide than other young girls in their age group. In the song, Islamic Women, the female rap stars from Lyautey describe the situation of a Muslim girl: if she wears the veil, it’s the French who reproach her but if she takes it off, her own neighborhood wants to get rid of her.

Anti-Immigrant Laws and Double Jeopardy for Women

For young girls, the increasingly more restrictive immigration policies have created a veritable “marriage market” which kills young women. To understand how these anti-immigrant laws reinforce women’s oppression one must go back several decades. Already by 1974 with the world oil crisis and the economic recession, French capitalists decided that they were not going to need more North African labor (which had begun to replace immigrant labor from East Europe and Southern Europe during and after the Algerian War). In 1974, the French state slammed the door in the face of people coming from the ex-colonies exploited by French imperialism. Men who had destroyed their own bodies for the profits of French capitalists were offered 10,000 French francs and a one-way ticket back to North Africa. The French government might have wanted to totally stop immigration at this point, but the European Union exerted pressure regarding the right to family reunion. But it was quite difficult for a worker, who was often unemployed and housed in a dormitory for single men, to prove to the French state that he could provide for the needs of his own family and thus meet the legal conditions for family reunion.

These restrictions and the terrible conditions of poverty forced many families, and especially the women, into clandestinity and into the black market where, if you’re lucky, you can find work which is so dirty and so poorly paid that no French person wants it. The majority of women who immigrated to France through family reunion were legally denied the right to work. Thus the French bourgeoisie with its anti-immigrant laws reinforced all the old repressive traditions and the segregation of North African women in the family home, cut off from society.

Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Pasqua and Debré and Chevènement laws limited residency rights even further and also facilitated deportations. It should be noted that the so-called “left” governments never withdrew the anti-immigrant laws put in place by the right. On the contrary, they escalated the arsenal of legal and police repression against immigrants. It was Mitterrand who declared that France had reached “its threshold of tolerance” for immigrants to justify deportations. It was Jospin and his “security” campaign which escalated police repression against the youth in the suburbs and in so doing paved the way for Le Pen’s National Front.

In 1993 there was a significant change in the nationality code with the Pasqua-Méhaignerie law. The nationality code which had automatically given French citizenship to children born in France of foreign parents was abolished. Now youth of immigrant background had to request French citizenship between the ages of 16 and 21. (The law was recently modified again and now a child born in France of foreign parents can become French at the age of 18, but only after bureaucratic procedures which are filled with administrative obstacles.) These laws created a situation such that there is now a generation of young people who were born and raised and educated in France, and who barely know the country of their parents or grandparents, and who often do not even speak their parents’ language, yet are stigmatized and declared “not French.”

This law had a profound impact. Rejected by two societies, that of their birth and that of their family, and without the possibility to integrate into a society which offers neither jobs nor a future, many youth sought an identity in religion. The discrimination they suffer exists even linguistically. Youth who are born in France are still called “immigrants” or “of immigrant background” or labeled the “second generation” or the “third generation.” As an American I assume most everyone is “of immigrant background.” And who counts how many generations there are between a Cro-Magnon and Le Pen? (I don’t mean to offend the Cro-Magnons, but it’s clear that Le Pen is some kind of throwback.) This linguistic discrimination reflects the real discrimination against a population which France does not want to integrate, a population which could always be deported, as the Jews were, despite their French citizenship. Under Vichy, some 15,154 French people, a majority of them Jews, were stripped of their citizenship to facilitate deportation to the death camps. This history should be remembered in terms of the recent changes in the nationality code.

Women’s Oppression and the Family

How do the anti-immigration laws kill young women of immigrant background who are born in France? Here is the conclusion of Michèle Tribalat’s survey in her book Faire France [Creating France] (1995):

“The suspension of recruitment of labor has made marriage with a young girl living in France, particularly when she has French nationality, a very attractive proposition. Thus girls who are raised in France too often find themselves captives of an ‘ethnic marriage market’ in which the family itself often has either a financial or moral interest in marrying their daughter to someone seeking to emigrate.”

In other words, life is slavery for these girls who are treated as property in human flesh to be bought, sold, mutilated, and sometimes killed to protect the “family honor.” The “honor killing” of Fadime Sahindal, a young Kurdish student in Sweden, has spurred protest and has been widely covered in the press. Sahindal was shot dead by her father in January 2002 for the “crime” of resisting an arranged marriage and choosing her own boyfriend.

Often families take advantage of the school vacations to send their daughters back to their countries of origin: to Africa for excision, and especially to Turkey and North Africa for forced marriages. Regarding forced marriages, the Koran stipulates that Muslim women may only marry Muslim men, whereas a man can marry whomever he wants. Young women who protest this fate are often kidnapped, brutally beaten, and sometimes killed. There is no shortage of books on the subject. In one autobiography of a young woman of Algerian descent who was kidnapped and sent back to Algeria, where she was imprisoned under lock and key in the family home because she had dared to go out with a French man here, the woman extrapolates the larger social context from her direct personal experience:

“Virginity is so important in our world! Above all to preserve the honor of the parents. The entire family honor rests on the virginity of the young daughter to be married. One feels as if one is dispossessed of one’s own body in its most intimate aspects.... One is either a virgin or depraved; there is no other alternative.”

This young woman thought ceaselessly of trying to escape but she realized that the problem was much larger than her own family guardians and brothers who played the role of cops. In Algeria, she explains:

“The police are the guardians of public morality. All the other men also practice surveillance of every act and gesture of women in the street. It’s as if all those men were your fathers. Very repressive fathers who collectively guarantee the morality of all the country’s daughters.”

— Aïcha Benaïssa, Née en France, Histoire d’une jeune beur [Born in France: A Young Beur’s Story] (1990)

Elsewhere in Africa, the virginity of young girls and the price they can obtain on the marriage market are assured through genital mutilation. This has nothing to do with a “cultural difference”: female genital mutilation is a barbarous act of violence. In an excision, parts of the clitoris and the labia minora are cut off. Infibulation is an even more drastic procedure wherein the labia majora are removed and the remaining flesh is stitched tightly together side to side. The vaginal opening is reconfigured as a minuscule orifice only large enough for seepage of urine and menstrual fluid. As you can imagine, this kind of mutilation results in terrible pain, infections, difficult and sometimes fatal pregnancies, not to mention of course the complete destruction of sexual pleasure for a woman. Young girls who protest against this mutilation are often threatened that their own mothers will be shipped back to their countries of origin where they will be repudiated and become public outcasts. There is a high suicide rate among mothers and daughters who seek any escape from this barbarity.

It should be emphasized that women of all social classes, even women from the ruling class, are oppressed by these practices. This shows that the main source of women’s oppression in class society is the institution of the family, and that even bourgeois women are oppressed as women. But working-class women are doubly oppressed, and working-class immigrant women suffer triple oppression.

These horrifying practices of female genital mutilation, forced marriages and honor killings show that even a simple, basic democratic right such as that embodied in our fight for “Full citizenship rights for all immigrants and their families!” is truly a question of life or death for women and girls. These examples also expose the hypocrisy of the French bourgeoisie, which flatters itself as the supposed heir of the ideas of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. What a lie! With its anti-immigrant and anti-working-class policies the French bourgeoisie reinforces and perpetuates the most savage and bloody practices in history. As Marx realized, we have to sweep away the capitalist system to give reality to the great ideas of the Enlightenment.

In this period of bourgeois attacks against immigrants, we should recall the key role that immigrant labor played in class struggle in France, such as during the Paris Commune of 1871. As Karl Marx said:

“Proclaiming its international tendencies—because the cause of the producer is everywhere the same and its enemy everywhere the same, whatever its nationality (in whatever national garb)—it proclaimed as a principle the admission of Foreigners into the Commune, it chose even a Foreign workman (a member of the International) into its Executive, it decreed the destruction of the symbol of French chauvinism—the Vendôme column.”

— Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (1871)

The subjugation of women in Muslim countries is not rooted in some uniquely reactionary quality of Islam, as the imperialists pretend today. Go read any farce by Molière and you’ll see that there is a long history of forced marriages in “la belle France” too. Until the power of the church over civil society was broken, at least partly, women’s “choices” boiled down to either arranged marriages or being shut up in a convent for the rest of their lives. Women did not even have the formal legal right to work in France without the express written permission of their husbands until 1965! Nonetheless, unlike in the African and North African countries, in France the rise of capitalist property profoundly undermined backward feudal social relations. These were then largely swept away in the great bourgeois-democratic French Revolution, which paved the road for the development of an advanced industrial society. This revolution abolished the monarchy and aristocracy, limited the power of the church and significantly raised the status of women, although many of the legal gains were subsequently taken away as the bourgeoisie consolidated its rule. Capitalism arrived belatedly in the Muslim world, and it arrived with European colonialism which allied itself with the local feudal powers. In the colonized countries and also among the concentrations of immigrants in the imperialist metropolis, capitalism has reinforced barbarous anti-woman traditions.

The Marxist understanding of the material basis of women’s oppression is laid out in Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). Engels’ book shows how the origin of women’s oppression lay in the initial division of society into classes. Under the “primitive communism” of the old Stone Age, the division of labor between men and women derived from biology (women had to bear and nurse the young) and implied no subordinate social status for women. Technological advances, particularly the development of agriculture, created for the first time a social surplus, leading to the division of society into classes. With the development of classes, the institution of the family became necessary. Engels explains:

“Thus, on the one hand, in proportion as wealth increased, it made the man’s position in the family more important than the woman’s, and on the other hand created an impulse to exploit this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favor of his children, the traditional order of inheritance. This, however, was impossible so long as descent was reckoned according to mother-right....

“The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.”

Thus the origins of the family are completely tied to the inheritance of private property, and it is from this that the question of a girl’s virginity and the subjugation of women derive their importance. Engels says:

“It [the family] is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity; such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs.... As a rule, it is now only the man who can dissolve it [the marriage tie], and put away his wife. The right of conjugal infidelity also remains secured to him, at any rate by custom (the Code Napoléon explicitly accords it to the husband as long as he does not bring his concubine into the house), and as social life develops he exercises his right more and more; should the wife recall the old form of sexual life and attempt to revive it, she is punished more severely than ever.”

I want to underline the importance that Marx and Engels gave the woman question. Engels’ magnificent book was written as a testament to Karl Marx, who studied the question of the family. Against all the suffocating values of bourgeois society, Marx and Engels studied the whole of human experience, including the history of sexual relations. With our journal Women and Revolution, now published as W&R pages in the International Communist League’s journal Spartacist, we try to follow their example: that one must address the totality of human experience if one really wants to change the world and wipe out every instance of oppression and open the road to human freedom in all spheres.

Marx and Engels also had a sense of humor and audacity which we admire. For example, regarding the question of promiscuity and the bourgeoisie’s shame and hypocrisy, Engels wrote:

“And if strict monogamy is the height of all virtue, then the palm must go to the tapeworm, which has a complete set of male and female sexual organs in each of its 50-200 proglottides, or sections, and spends its whole life copulating in all its sections with itself.”

Better to be a tapeworm than a young woman finding herself in a forced marriage!

For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

Several organizations have been formed in response to the urgent need to help young women. We spoke with a Turkish group which receives three to four phone calls per day from young women who end up in a forced marriage or are threatened with one. I spoke with a group called GAMS (Women’s Group for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilation) which was founded to combat the genital mutilation of women but now also does a lot of work to rescue young women from forced marriages. These organizations carry out urgent and sometimes heroic work, but they are weakened by nationalism and sectoralism. Each group is organized on the basis of nationality and sexuality: GAMS for African women, Elélé for Turkish women, the Nanas Beurs for North African women, etc. This national isolation is created by the indifference to these questions on the part of the major left parties and trade unions. While the Communist Party in particular engages in a certain amount of face-saving social work in municipalities it runs, sometimes assisting desperate individuals, they no less than the Socialists are on the wrong side of the fight to mobilize the whole of the powerful workers movement to act in defense of immigrants and in defense of women. The political abdication of a “leadership” that won’t fight on behalf of the specially oppressed means weak unions that don’t defend the interests of any of their members and a political climate dominated by racist arguments in the mouths of both the right and the “left.”

The isolation of the oppressed and the hopelessness in this society which exists today is the bitter fruit of the left’s betrayals. In the 1980s, the youth who composed what was then called the “beur movement” (the word “beur” itself is slang for “Arab”) and their parents had tremendous hope invested in the Mitterrand government. The youth of the beur movement marched across the country on foot, from Lyon to the presidential palace in Paris (L’Elysée) to proclaim “We are here!” and to demand equality. There was not one religious slogan in the movement at this time. But the Mitterrand government, which was a capitalist government installed with the support of every left group, except of course our party, the LTF, did not deliver equality to the youth of immigrant background. On the contrary, the Mitterrand government pursued a policy of deportations, restricted the right to family reunion, and launched an augmentation of police repression in the suburbs as the spearhead of an attack against the working class as a whole.

The results of the increase in racist segregation and the betrayals of the left are described by Ahmed Boubeker in Libération-Lyon at the very birthplace of the movement for equal rights for youth of immigrant descent:

“Those who knew the beur capital between 1981 and 1983 would not recognize the place anymore.... At number 10 Gaston-Monmousseau Street, at the very place where the ‘S.O.S. Avenir Minguettes’ group which was the initiator of the first beur march was located, today one finds a prayer room.... Former militants of the beur movement have high hopes...for unity of immigrant youth through faith: ‘The next chapter of the history of young Arabs in France will be Muslim or it will not be at all! Don’t talk to me anymore about the Beurs, what good was this history, aside from making a few Catholics cry and allowing the Jews to sell a few buttons? The truth is that unhappiness comes from living a Western lifestyle, while Islam is the heritage which makes us invincible’.”

— cited in Gilles Kepel, Les banlieues de l’Islam [Islam’s Neighborhoods] (1987)

The French bourgeoisie plays the classic game of “divide and conquer” by using anti-Arab racism. Especially since 11 September 2001, we have been bombarded by the media with tales of “Islamic terror networks” in France. First of all, it’s necessary to recognize that the real “terror network” is NATO, the United Nations, the American and French imperialist governments. Who tortured civilians in Algeria? Who destroyed and bombed the former Yugoslavia? Who oppresses the working-class neighborhoods and suburbs with an army of police? Who lays off workers and destroys their livelihoods? It’s the French bourgeoisie, not a handful of Islamic fundamentalists!

Moreover, the French bourgeoisie has a lot of nerve because they are the ones who deliberately imported Islam into France as a means to police immigrant workers and obstruct Arab-French unity within the working class. The French bourgeoisie used Islam as a bulwark against communism, internationally and also domestically in the factories and immigrant neighborhoods in France. During the 1980s, immigrant workers played a leading role in powerful strikes, particularly in the auto industry. The bosses with their yellow company “unions” such as the CSL (Confederation of Free Trade Unions) deliberately utilized religion to segregate and control militants in the factories. The demand for prayer rooms was never a demand raised by the union movement in North Africa. But here in France the bosses—through the CSL—pushed this demand. Gilles Kepel, in Les banlieues de l’Islam, explains:

“Putting in place an Islamic structure inside the factories presented several advantages for management, whose short-term perspective was to maintain social peace and productivity until these workers could be replaced by robots. It strengthened the adherence of Muslim workers to the company spirit; they recognized that the company allowed them to practice their religion. This created a new kind of intermediary between management and workers, which undermined the monopoly of trade-union representatives.... The demands to open prayer rooms could therefore be satisfied because they were perceived as a means to advance ‘company spirit,’ a social consensus between labor and management.”

While with one hand the French bosses pushed Islam in the factories, with the other hand the bosses’ media denounced North African strikers in the big strikes in the early 1980s at Citroën, Talbot and Renault as “ayatollahs in the factories.” The policies of the left and the trade-union leaderships were equally gross. Instead of organizing working-class unity in struggle against the bosses and the Mitterrand government, the rotten left capitulated to the government they had brought to power and left the immigrant workers isolated. Indeed, “Socialist” prime minister Pierre Mauroy denounced a strike at Renault as the work of “mujahedin”!

This indifference to racial oppression stems directly from a perspective of class collaboration. The French left and the trade-union leadership look for allies in the French bourgeoisie (this year they even looked to and voted for Chirac!) instead of organizing the most oppressed workers here in France as a key proletarian sector and best ally of the French workers themselves. One comrade told me of a recent strike in the post office for workers from the French colonies and overseas territories. Since she wanted to defend the interests of her co-workers, of course she went on strike too, but the next morning her trade-union leadership told her that she did not have the right to go on strike and would not be protected by the union because that strike was only for the workers from the colonies and overseas territories! And so the trade-union tops bring the divide-and-conquer racist politics of the bosses into the workers movement itself.

In the industries where immigrant workers are exploited and manipulated as a reserve army of labor, such as the construction trades, what’s needed is a campaign to organize these immigrant workers and include them in the class struggles in defense of all the workers who fight against the same capitalist state and the same bosses. An undocumented worker (sans-papiers) would find himself much more capable of fighting in his own interests and refusing to be manipulated as a strikebreaker if he had a CGT card, behind which stands the power of tens of thousands in the French workers’ movement. Genuine solidarity with the sans-papiers is not an annual demonstration with movie stars, but the real equality and solidarity which comes from unity in class struggle.

The treacherous leadership of the French workers movement capitulated in the face of Islamic reaction, which particularly targets the most militant North African workers—to say nothing of what it means for a woman worker to have mullahs in her workplace! In the 1980s, the CGT and the Maoists brought out leaflets where each accused the other of being bad Muslims and eating during Ramadan! The CSL was not denounced for being the bosses’ union and outside the workers movement but because it was “controlled by the Zionists”! And at the same time that the CGT and the French Communist Party capitulated to Islam and anti-Semitism imported by the bosses into factories in France, their sister party in Iran, the Tudeh, gave its full support to the Khomeini government. There, the French CP and Tudeh applauded the repression against the leftist Fedayeen, just two years before Tudeh was in its turn eliminated by Islamic reaction!

The problem is that the organizations which lead the French workers movement aim to administer capitalism, not destroy it. That is why they continue to capitulate to and justify racism, because racial oppression is a fundamental aspect of French capitalist rule. The strikes which were in their majority composed of immigrant workers were isolated and so more easily broken by the capitalists, as in the Flins auto strike in March 1995. On the other hand, public sector strikes (such as the enormous strike wave in December 1995) were not extended to the private sector with its powerful layer of immigrant workers.

Despite unemployment and layoffs, immigrant workers and their children still occupy a central position in French production. They are also a living link with workers in Africa and Asia. Far from being merely “oppressed victims,” these immigrant workers possess social power which is key to making a revolution. What’s necessary is a revolutionary leadership, a tribune of the people, which fights against the daily racist terror in the suburbs, which fights for jobs for all, especially for the youth of immigrant background, which fights for women’s rights, including against forced marriages, against excision, and for the right of free abortion on demand. We are dedicated to the construction of a revolutionary party and our beacon is the experience of the Bolshevik Party and the Russian Revolution of October 1917.

Women and the Russian Revolution

How do we get out of this situation? Returning to Engels’ Origin of the Family, we find:

“We can already see from this that to emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labor and restricted to private domestic labor. The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time. And only now has that become possible through modern large-scale industry, which does not merely permit of the employment of female labor over a wide range, but positively demands it, while it also tends towards ending private domestic labor by changing it more and more into a public industry.”

Envisioning the socialist revolution, Engels writes:

“With the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike, whether they are legitimate or not.”

The Russian Revolution fought to put these ideas into practice. Women were given immediately the right to vote (a right which American women were granted in 1918 in response to the Soviet example, and which French women did not get until 1944!). All laws against homosexuals were abolished. The power of the church to control marriages, legitimize births, etc. was abolished. The very conception of “illegitimacy” was abolished. Recognizing that the family cannot simply be abolished, but must be replaced by collective social institutions, the Bolsheviks implemented measures to begin this work immediately, insofar as they were able under the conditions of poverty, inherited social backwardness and civil war in the early Soviet Union.

Women’s liberation is not something that can be accomplished simply by passing new laws. It was necessary to change the material conditions of life and to find the resources to do so. Lenin was very conscious of this, above all for the work in the Soviet East where women were veiled and oppressed by Muslim traditions. These traditions themselves were rooted in material conditions. In the old society, water and land rights were linked to marriage, for example. A man who possessed more wives therefore possessed more land too. “Land to the tiller” was a means of liberating women from polygamy and forced marriages, yet these were not changes that could be accomplished by decree or overnight.

Many Bolshevik women, under the direction of the Zhenotdel (Department of Working Women and Peasant Women) donned the veil themselves to go among the women of Soviet Central Asia, to educate and liberate them. It was extremely dangerous work and many Bolshevik women organizers were murdered. That was the reason why the new workers state reinstated the death penalty, explicitly against “anti-feminist murders,” which were declared “counterrevolutionary crimes.” The creation of a planned, collectivized economy permitted the workers state to invest the surplus from the more advanced west in the more backward east and thereby begin to lay the basis for the equality of peoples in the Soviet Union. This is clearly seen when one looks at the vital statistics in the republics of the former Soviet Union on one side of the border and compares them with Afghanistan on the other side of the border. On the Soviet side, women were no longer imprisoned in the veil, they were literate; on the Afghan side of the border they were largely illiterate and the statistics for infant mortality and life expectancy were dramatically different on the two sides of the frontier. Of course with capitalist counterrevolution, all the old crap is returning to the former Soviet republics, where women are the first and foremost victims of the economic devastation and political reaction which accompany capitalist rollback.

As Trotsky said in a 1924 speech at the Communist University for the Toilers of the East at the time when the Bolshevik power was bringing the perspective of women’s liberation to Central Asia: “There will be no better comrade in the East and no better champion of the ideas of revolution and communism than the awakened workingwoman.” We say that there will be no better fighters for the class struggle and the socialist future, here and on the other side of the sea, than immigrant women.

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