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The ethics of feminist solidarity

Oh yes, if you thought I was going to beat the agonizing pony once more, you thought right. Because I am here to continue inflicting this nearly dead horse with some more pounding. I am, of course, talking about Dominique Strauss-Khan and the rape allegations which seem to be a never ending tale of misconducts, privileges, rape culture and now, that more facts have come to light, the historical continuum.

You might wonder why I keep writing about this subject. After all, there is so much everywhere already (even written by me), what could I possibly have to add to an already muddled topic, one that seems to be covered to oblivion? The thing is, I am mostly concerned, at the moment, with the unexamined colonial implications of some recent developments. More specifically, with the ethics of feminist solidarity and how this solidarity intersects with the legacy of colonialism.

Time ran an extensive recount of the case yesterday, Cherchez les Femmes, which included some of the actions taken by feminist organizations in France to protest the press coverage of the case (emphasis mine):

“We don’t know what happened in New York last Saturday, but we do know what happened in France in the last week,” begins a petition drafted by a consortium of feminist groups that has gathered 25,000 signatures. The petition goes on to denounce not just sexual violence against women but also the “daily wave of misogynous commentary coming from public figures,” the “anthology of sexist remarks” on the French airwaves and the Internet, and the “lightning-fast rise to the surface of sexist and reactionary reflexes” among the leading French figures defending Strauss-Kahn. A makeshift anti-sexism rally thrown together in a mere 24 hours drew big crowds, mostly young women, many bearing signs with catchy slogans such as “Men play, women pay” and “we are all chambermaids.”

We are all chambermaids! How catchy! How media friendly! So much solidarity in this statement, so much empathy! Except that no, there is no solidarity and aside from the catchy tone, it enunciates the core of my problems with the ethics of feminist solidarity in the West: it leaves the power imbalance out of the equation. It erases the fact that, sadly, not all women are equal and that, for some, rape is not just rape, but also an act of colonialism on their bodies, an act of class war inscribed on their very subjectivity, an extension of state sanctioned violence on their personhood. Because, in case you weren’t aware yet, the victim in question is a Muslim woman from Guinea, a former French colony.

However, French media and, disappointingly enough, French feminists creating catchy slogans, do not mention France’s hand in the fate of this woman’s home country. They now stand in solidarity with the victim, “they are all chambermaids”. A solidarity that doesn’t take into account the role of the oppressor in these events is the kind of one sided, privileged noise that continues to perpetuate the problem. There seems to be no acknowledgement from feminist organizations of the fact that there is a power imbalance, that an immigrant woman from a former French colony is significantly more vulnerable and more likely to be attacked, that she lacks the privileges that native French women get to enjoy and that, in France, women like her are constantly subjected to racial slurs and attacks (included from their very own government, who displays a shameful Islamophobic and patriarchal stance towards the bodies of Muslim women).

Instead, we are told by these protesting feminists that “We are all chambermaids”! This erasure diminishes the plight of colonized women and, in its naive effort to appear egalitarian, in fact, it excises the lived realities of chambermaids; of women who do not, actually, have the privilege of being part of the dominant culture. If we are all chambermaids, we are all identical. We all enjoy the same freedoms, our struggles are not intersected by varying degrees and types of oppressions. And in case this needs clarifying: there is nothing further from the truth. The troubles of a Muslim chambermaid from a former French colony are certainly not equal to those of a Native French woman who has the luxury of protesting in Paris.

A “top down” solidarity is, actually, no solidarity at all. If we wish to be truly inclusive, if we wish to be self aware, our ethics of solidarity must include an acknowledgement of differences and a deep examination of how Western countries continue to benefit from the legacy of colonialism. Otherwise, I am afraid to say, our feminism is part of the problem.


  1. SigVib wrote:

    Isn’t “we are all chambermaids” a nod to the well-known (in France) slogan of may 68 “We are all German Jews”?

    Students used this to counter attacks of Daniel Cohn-Bendit which highlighted his “foreign” origins.

    I think maybe the chambermaid slogan is used in the same way, since a prominent French journalist dismissed the DSK case as a “troussage de domestique”, a reference to an aristocratic entitlement to extract sexual favours from domestic staff. (

    It stresses that some commentator used the very fact that the victim is a chambermaid to diminish her.

    The chambermaid slogan would then be a way to fight this idea, that there are “lesser” victims.

    Friday, May 27, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink
  2. s.e. smith wrote:

    Except that what Flavia is arguing is that the slogan is an act of erasure that ignores the power imbalance in this case; it’s not an act of reclamation to dismiss the idea of ‘lesser’ victims, in that context, because it makes it impossible to discuss the reasons why chambermaids and domestic servants are at an increased risk of sexual assault. And, as Flavia also pointed out, it sidesteps the complex social and colonial history behind this case.

    Friday, May 27, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink
  3. Semantics wrote:

    Flavia – Your writing is excellent! My comment is more about the other comments than the piece, but I wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading this article.

    Hi S.E. Smith,

    I could be mistaken, but I think what Sigvib is saying is that the “we are all chambermaids” slogan (if it is, in fact, a deliberate echo of the “we are all german jews” slogan), is an attempt to indirectly discuss that very issue. The slogan has its own complex history and cannot be understood without taking that into account. On the other hand, I think the original slogan was also controversial for similar reasons.

    The women with the placards are claiming an identity that they obviously cannot assume. Why? To bring attention to the fact that women who are chambermaids are more likely to be assaulted. I agree that the “Men play, women pay” slogans ignore the colonial history behind this; however, I think the “we are all chambermaids” slogan is addressing that history, not sidestepping it–just in a more sophisticated way than might normally be seen on a placard.

    The idea that ideas must be presented in a straightforward fashion is very Eurocentric and also very modern. Indirect discussion used to be quite common even in the West, although you have to dig back into the Classics to see it at its best. It is arguably a very effective way of raising an issue; however, modern Westerners are no longer used to seeing it outside of satire.

    (Sorry! Massive comment…)

    Friday, May 27, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  4. Semantics wrote:

    Off-topic, but has anyone else read the XKCD guy’s response to Ben’s Stein’s hypothesis that DSK wouldn’t commit a crime because he’s, you know, rich and well-educated? And an economist?

    It’s sort of awesome. Apologies if this counts as spamming the thread, or whatever.

    Friday, May 27, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  5. Erin wrote:

    Thanks for this very thought provoking piece, Flavia. I think it is a positive thing that feminists marched in France to counter the appallingly sexist and misogynistic support that DSK has received from, for shorthand, I’m going to call the establishment. I think I am getting your point on the slogan, but still, I feel it is great that people took to the streets to protest sexism. Is it useful to consider as well the situation where a French woman claims she was also sexually assaulted by DSK but was pressured by her politically connected mother not to press charges? ( We are clearly not all chambermaids, but we are apparently all fair game where DSK is concerned.

    Friday, May 27, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  6. Kiri wrote:

    Wonderful post!

    Friday, May 27, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  7. samanthab wrote:

    Semantics, except that the phrase “We are all German Jews” originated in reference to Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was from an upper middle class family and a student leader. He was not far below the protesters in class. Nevermind that Daniel Cohn-Bendit is a self-identified pedophile, if his writings are to be believed, and therefore not the most tasteful reference to invoke in putative defense of a rape victim. That’s just a tad problematic in its own right.

    Friday, May 27, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  8. Marie wrote:

    The troubles of a Muslim chambermaid from a former French colony are certainly not equal to those of a Native French woman who has the luxury of protesting in Paris.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a protest in Paris, but it’s no tea party. There’s no reason why the women going to that protest were particularly wealthy: despite being a touristy metropolis, there are plenty of poor people, foreign people (in Barbès, for instance, or in the 13th arrondissement, or the suburbs) and protest-happy but poor as church-mice students.

    Saying that protesting is a luxury is a very bad choice of word when you’re talking about France, even an offensive one. Taking to the streets is very often the only way that people have to get heard in a country where the ruling elite never listens to the people and the people has lost its trust in its leaders a long time ago. Very often, protesting is the only way not to get screwed, and it’s done by people of all social and ethnic origins.

    As a result, there is a long culture of protesting, and catchy slogans, a lot fo them stemming from May ’68, is one of them. The one you’re talking about started with “nous sommmes tous des Juifs Allemands,” but after 9/11 there was “nous sommes tous Américains” in the newspaper.

    And I think it’s a fairly innocuous statement of empathy towards someone who is a bit of a hero for French feminists right now. Yes, France has many issues with colonialism, neocolonialism and xenophobia, and those need to be addressed. Acting like sociopaths isn’t going to help solve the problem.

    Playing the Oppression Olympics isn’t going to help either. Native French Christian women in France are definitely more privileged than Black Muslim women from Guinea in France, no argument there. And DSK’s victim would definitely have been better off financially and socially if France hadn’t colonized and pillaged Guinea. But despite her handicaps, she was still able to do something that Tristane Banon, one of DSK’s wealthy French victims in Paris, wasn’t able to do: go to the police, lodge a complaint without getting talked out of it by her own mother and be taken seriously. That’s one bit of privilege that women in New York have that women in Paris don’t. It may not seem like much but to a victim of sexual assault (and Banon is reported to have suffered from depression for years and to have been shunned professionally) that’s a lot.

    Friday, May 27, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Permalink
  9. samanthab wrote:

    Marie, I know multiple women in the US that have been talked out of filing such a report by their mothers. Anecdote is not data. If it were, I might point you to Jonathan Franzen’s novel, “Freedom.”

    Saturday, May 28, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  10. Marie wrote:

    SamanthaB, check out this video:

    No young woman wanted to enter DSK’s office when he was in Parliament. The specialized lawyer she went to see already had a huge pile of files of women who’d had trouble with DSK and didn’t go to the police. In a later interview, Thierry Ardisson said that he had 14 friends who’d been attacked by him. As he said, “in France, that’s part of the landscape.”

    I’ve lived in both France and the US and I know the kind of boundaries that French women can expect to see respected and the kind of boundaries that American women can see expected. While the situation is not perfect in the US, not by a long shot, it’s still way, way better than in France.

    According to the Chiennes de Garde (, an estimated 8% of rapes are reported to the police in France against 37% in the US ( How’s that for data?

    Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink
  11. samanthab wrote:

    That doesn’t constitute “privilege” for one incredibly marginalized immigrant woman tending rooms in an NYC hotel. Both of those numbers are absurdly low. Let’s not argue over crumbs, please! That’s some fucked up shit, and the grass really ain’t enough greener. I hope we can agree on that!

    Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  12. Hannah wrote:

    Flavia – just wanted to say that I’m absolutely adoring your posts. You always make me think of issues from a new angle and I feel my brain expanding every time I read your work. Whoop!

    Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Permalink
  13. Athenia wrote:

    In feminism for real, one of the writers explicitly stated that solidarity can ultimately privilege certain agendas. So I understand that solidarity is problematic.

    At the same time, in NYC, the police took advantage of a fashion exec in questionable ways. Women in Queens are being sexually assaulted at subway stations.

    So, I have a hard time figuring how privilege works exactly. For example, that hotel worker works for a union and is presumedly here legally. That’s privilege right there.

    Monday, May 30, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  14. Marie wrote:


    My point is that in terms of how seriously the justice system takes sexual assault, geographical location trumps socioeconomic status. In the US, any woman (even sex workers like the stripper in the Duke lacrosse case – which is saying something considering how little attention anyone has for the plight of sex workers) has a better chance of being listened to than upper-class Tristane Banon in France, who is still lucky compared to a Saudi princess.

    As I said before, the situation is still far from perfect in the US, but you have it a lot better than in France. Your crumbs are far bigger than ours.

    Monday, May 30, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  15. B. Adu wrote:

    I in essence agree with you, but ‘we are all chambermaids” is better than “we are sluts”, by far.

    Tuesday, May 31, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink
  16. samanthab wrote:

    Yeah, the fact that Americans by and large have better, if still horrific stats on the filing of rape accusations, in NO way erases the point underlined the original post. There’s a horrific amount of insensitivity, inefficacy, and disingenuousness to the chant “We are all chambermaids now.” No, no you’re NOT all chambermaids now. And that the slogan is a historic reference to a self-reported pedophile doesn’t exactly alter this much.

    It’s a red herring to address comparative stats on rape reporting. 8% is a grotesque number, but the chant itself was not about American vs. French privilege. You can’t erase the class and cultural insensitivity of the chant by throwing in another issue. You are playing the Oppression Olympics, and doing so in a manner that’s insensitive to the real suffering of this woman.

    Tuesday, May 31, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  17. Marie wrote:

    You have this idea that those women who have “the luxury of protesting in Paris” do so in between shopping for diamonds at the Place des Vosges and having dinner at the Tour d’Argent. That’s completely false and it’s actually quite offensive to the number of poverty-stricken Parisian people, French and otherwise, whose only chance of getting heard is often a protest (if you’re interested how privileged French cleaning staff are, read Quai de Ouitreham by Florence Aubenas). You’re confusing the leaders of the protest, who are probably women who have a presence in the media, and the rest of the protesters, whose socioeconomic status and ethnic make-up you know nothing about. One of the biggest feminist groups in France? Ni Putes Ni Soumises, which is a group of women from ghettos, many of them second generation immigrants from African countries, just like DSK’s New York victim. And before you ask “if they are poor, what were they doing in Paris,” let me introduce you to the wonderful invention that is public transportation.

    And by the way, Daniel Cohn-Bendit is not a self-reported pedophile. The slogan “nous sommes tous des…” has nothing to do with those allegations anyway and has evolved way beyond his role in the student rebellion of May 1968. It’s what I explained in my first comment, but clearly you missed that.

    You say that the slogan is “culturally insensitive” and disingenuous, but you don’t know the first thing about its history or what it means to those who wrote it. You say that the ones who wrote it have not right to feel solidarity towards DSK’s victim, but you don’t know the first thing about them, either. Why don’t you take five minutes to educate yourself before you judge something you know nothing about?

    Tuesday, May 31, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  18. Marie, you are crossing the line from being culturally insensitive to being just plain offensive.

    The privilege of protesting, from your Eurocentric point of view, might not be anything remarkable. For a woman who comes from Guinea, protesting might be the difference between life and death.

    Just in case you are not aware, there are many countries, including, but not limited to those who were under French colonial rule (i.e. see Argelia), where protesting in the way you see as so natural and as such an acquired right, can get you imprisoned or killed.

    That’s the kind of lens I apply when I say protesting is a luxury and a privilege. The fact that you are so Euro-normative in your views actually proves my point even further: how can you have any solidarity with a woman from Guinea when you are not even aware of how oppression works in a totally different way for her?

    This group that you claim to be very multicultural and inclusive, Ni Putes ni Soumises, I find the opinion of Muslimah Media Watch to be diametrically opposed to yours. They clearly feel the group is Islamophobic and not representative of the experiences of Muslim women living in France. Since you speak French, may I suggest you also read this about NPNS? It clearly explains this feminism of White people for Muslim women in a very French context and very specific to the ways White French women actually are detrimental to the problems faced by French, economically disadvantaged Muslim women.

    Also, you say we should “educate ourselves”. What leads you to believe that we haven’t already done so and come to these conclusions? Could it be that we know what we talk about and still hold these opinions? Or, again, you think of your experiences as so normative that anyone who doesn’t share them must do so out of ignorance?

    Tuesday, May 31, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  19. Joel Reinstein wrote:

    I’m not sure I follow. Do I have this right? You’re pointing to the interconnectedness of oppression: misogyny, and the rape culture, springs from the same fundamental hellhole as neocolonialism, racism, and class oppression? The beneficiaries of one of these things must acknowledge that before they can speak out against the others without perpetuating the fundamental problem?

    Tuesday, May 31, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  20. Politicalguineapig wrote:

    Flavia: It’s Algeria.

    Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink