Can it ever be feminist to wear a veil? On the other hand, can it ever be truly feminist to decide which women can or cannot be feminists? The “feminist whiteness” that sociologist Éléonore Lépinard investigates is the unexamined privilege claimed by some majority group activists—in the case of her research, Francophone women in France and Quebec—to speak as feminists and for feminism. Such privilege sets up minoritized women to speak only as supporters or critics of what is already essentialized as “feminism.” And so feminism, as Lépinard shows in Feminist Trouble: Intersectional Politics in Post-secular Times, can apparently become a disembodied and abstract essence. Precisely because of this, the struggle comes down to the whiteness of those who claim its mantle and then brandish it as a source of authority for the right to decide who is and is not a “feminist subject.”
This is the “feminist trouble” to which Lépinard’s title refers. And clearly in Europe, this battle is joined to a great degree over veiling, and the uses of the state to enforce secularism on women. Quebec offers an ideal comparison, as it is wedded to Frenchness culturally but also lies outside European frameworks for regulating immigration.
There is no shortage of books discussing the political ramifications of European efforts to suppress veiling among Muslim immigrants. Nor is there any sign that the pressure on immigrant women to assimilate to specifically French standards of state secularism is letting up. It is thus difficult to offer a contribution that stands outside the fray and gives thoughtful consideration to what is making Islamic veiling practice such a vexed subject.
Yet Lépinard succeeds. She does so by shifting her focus to the feminists who weigh in on one side or the other of the inevitable debates over the two principles of freedom for women—social liberation and individual choice—that are understood as competing for allegiance.
Lépinard presents a much needed reasoned and careful consideration of the norms and ethics at play in this debate, which she frames as a source of “trouble” for feminist activists themselves. And this trouble comes regardless of whether activists are members of a minoritized immigrant community or of the dominant group.
Comparing French and Quebec activists, Lépinard informatively highlights the different relationships between the members of the dominant group and minority group feminists in each national context. A shared sensibility that assumes French or Canadian birth, secularism, and whiteness defines the majority in each country. On any of these criteria, as well as being Francophone in Quebec, those who miss the mark are understood as the minority, thus less than fully included, even if they are citizens or activists.
Individuals grapple with the political meaning of veiling from one or the other standpoint. Lépinard’s comparative structure highlights how the policy histories of Quebec and of France inform the willingness and ability of local feminist groups to include those with immigrant backgrounds. Her agenda in analyzing each feminist argument from the dominant and nondominant positions is not to reach a conclusion about the strengths and weaknesses of accepting an antiveiling stand from the state as consistent with feminism. (That said, she herself argues for accepting veiled women in jobs and schools.) Instead, her conclusion follows from a philosophical principle of caring for the veiling women as individuals. Such a principle, in fact, is espoused directly by the minoritized feminist activists. From their standpoint, challenges to the state’s control over veiling women are grounded in commitments to resisting whiteness and to hearing the voices of women who experience the harms of state bans. Lépinard sees them as important feminist speakers, even when they are disregarded locally.
The primary purpose of the book is to consider the values that are invoked and principles used in making a responsible feminist decision about the politics of veiling, both as groups engaging with the state and as individuals engaged with other feminist actors. The interviews with activists thus delineate the grounds invoked by those in each group who lean in one direction or the other. But they also offer a thick description of the marginality imposed on minoritized women who identify with feminism and wish to participate as full members, especially in the feminist groups in France.
Along the way, Lépinard teases out specific ways actual experiences with veiled women enter into the activists’ evaluations of the practice. This is because her sample of majority and minority activists in both France and Quebec are engaged in direct work with new immigrants and marginalized communities.
Perhaps most important, Lépinard draws a sharp analytic line between, on the one hand, speaking as and for women (a problematically universalizing stance), and, on the other hand, speaking as feminists and for feminism (which she sees as less intrinsically universalizing, instead reflecting a necessary judgment of what feminism “is” and stands for). She situates all her interviewees on the feminist side of that division, as activists who have relatively lengthy histories of engagement with local feminist groups and a strong personal identification with women’s liberation. These interviews focus on the process of inclusion/exclusion in practice, as well as the insistence on a feminist identity as the basis for feminist speech with and for others.
Thus, the book centers on the “feminist subject,” who articulates feminist principles and is recognized by other feminists as sharing their passionately embraced cause. Who, Lépinard asks, is entitled to be such a subject? And who decides?
Lépinard uses her interviews extremely well to unpack the thought processes of both dominant and marginalized activists. She finds that a feminism defined in practice by the dominant group disempowers any woman less than fully included in the white, secular, native-born feminist community that they construct. Rather than white feminism, she concludes, the community is practicing “feminist whiteness.”
Then, these same interviews form the backbone of Lépinard’s more philosophical examination of feminist commitments in general, which subjects a rich variety of feminist theories to deep reading and critical analysis of their usability. Her consideration of the principles of inclusion defined by feminist theorists guides her to think in feminist terms about women’s freedom and how religion becomes an object of such divisive feminist politics. Much of the book therefore rests on evaluating the adequacy of different theoretical principles of inclusion and exclusion.
Lépinard puts feminist subjectivity in the center of her argument. Consequently, she frames the challenge facing feminist activists as whether or not to extend the definition of “feminist subject” to actors who accept subjection to religious laws. In France and Quebec, this is really a decision about whether to qualify or disqualify a veiling woman from being a “good feminist subject” whose personal right to self-determination demands respect and whose definition of what feminism does or does not demand is acknowledged by others.
The feminist subject therefore does not speak for all women. But she does speak freely on behalf of feminism as a principle. The feminist subject, by definition, seeks to realize a feminist practice, both in interaction with other feminists and in having impact on women’s collective liberation.
There may not be a “good feminist subject” anywhere. But there may be feminists good enough to hear critiques of their positions and fight successful battles for justice.
Lépinard’s sample of activists in France and Quebec captures the diversity of such subjects. But it also reveals the differences in whom each subject fails to recognize. These failures become the theoretical lynchpin of her claims about feminist ethics in general, and in relation to religion in particular. The “post-secular” times referenced in the subtitle situate Islam, in particular, as limiting the ability of women to become good feminist subjects, as secular women are assumed to be free to be. European feminists are, by definition, assumed to be secular.
Lépinard argues that French feminist activists of the dominant group cannot see women who veil (or veil more extensively, with burka or niqab) as feminist subjects who share the feminist political space of self-determination. Instead—feeling called to act on their behalf—white feminists seek to help, rescue, or defend them, even when those same white feminists might (or might not) allow the state to exclude them on the basis of their religious practices.
In this, Lépinard sees the white French feminists she interviewed as practicing “feminist whiteness,” rather than feminism, placing all minoritized women outside the role of feminist subject. For the minoritized activists in her sample, this centering of whiteness means an ongoing process of exclusion, invisibility, and inaudibility.
Lépinard finds that the Quebec feminists are more accepting of a range of practices around Islam; they are also more willing to hear the perspectives of Islamic feminists in their midst as important and deserving of respect. Quebec activists, just like those in France, are concerned about religion as a source of harm to women. And yet, even dominant group feminists in Quebec are reluctant to exclude all positive aspects of ethnic and religious identity from the repertoire of feminist subjects’ voices.
This does not mean that there is unanimity about veiling in either context. The French feminists differ among themselves, for example, over the extent to which laws restricting women and girls who veil from public schools and public-facing jobs are acceptable or not. And even they are widely cognizant of the paradoxes of feminists encouraging the state to enforce certain standards of behavior on women in the name of “women’s emancipation.”
Even so, French feminists are reluctant—at best—to claim political rights for veiling women to speak as feminists. Among Lépinard’s interviewees, the secularized women from Islamic counties report feeling that they are not considered peers and participants in a common feminist enterprise, no matter what political position they hold. Instead, they are either tokenized as examples of an authentic feminism that is rightly opposed to veils or criticized as failing to understand the need to protect women from cultural, familial, and religious pressures to veil.
This contrasts with Quebec, even though veiling is vexing for feminists there as well. The minoritized feminists in Quebec still face a considerable organizational struggle to be heard within the majority-white feminist groups to which they try to belong. But they have allies and access. And both help translate the minoritized feminists’ demand to be heard into actual mobilizations of feminist organizations against repressive antiveil lawmaking. Speaking “as feminists,” they articulate their concerns in terms of the concrete harms being done to the Muslim veil wearers who are denied access to schools and jobs.
The Quebec feminists have a more recent history of struggle to build a secular and nondiscriminatory state, because being Francophone and Catholic was made problematic for their Canadian feminist identity while also being tightly bound to Quebec nationalism. The duality of loyalties thus seems more normal to Quebec feminist activists, less obviously disqualifying religious or secular Islamic women from being able to know and represent their interests. Consequently, the Quebec feminist groups were relatively open to hearing the objections of minoritized women to the consequences of antiveiling measures, and relatively prompt to speak out against such state policies.
Lépinard is clearly sympathetic. She sees Quebec activists’ sympathies for the women facing concrete harms from antiveiling laws and prejudices as an expression of an ethic of care in political terms, and elaborates on caring as the key theoretical question. But this perspective may be too limiting in several ways.
First, Lépinard frames the debates wholly in terms of how feminist activists see other women as actual or potential “feminist subjects.” This emphasis on being willing to share identity and identities as the core of feminism somewhat limits the range of ideas that she considers central to defining feminist politics. This is advantageous in giving her a basis for distinguishing collective political claims made “as feminists” from all statements made speaking “as women” or “for women.” But it limits a feminist politics of inclusion to the abstract challenges of articulating claims collectively as a “feminist interest,” rather than allowing a wider and more practical politics of justice and injustice. Thus the feminist subject is narrowed into a speaker concerned with the defense of women’s interest either in secularism as collectively liberating or in equal educational employment opportunities as individually emancipating.
Second, while Lépinard’s philosophical considerations about inclusivity and exclusivity accurately capture the debate in France and Quebec, I wonder if and how the same kinds of analysis would generalize usefully to other issues that have become touchstones of feminist identity and sites of political struggle over state power over women’s bodies in other contexts. Legal abortion seems to be a similarly fraught issue in other countries, where the question of feminist subjectivity and religious belief also intersect.
Does the “feminist subject” include women engaged in activism on women’s behalf but also willing to see the state limit women’s freedom in the name of protecting “life”? Is a “veiled feminist” an oxymoron, as much as or more than a “pro-life feminist”? Organizations claiming to represent “feminist pro-life” constituents, such as the Susan B. Anthony List, are active in the US, at least. If women with such feminist identity claims are disallowed from being authentic or responsible or consistent feminist subjects, are all feminists with religious loyalties or beliefs inherently excluded or excludable? Are Catholic women in religious orders disallowed from feminist subjecthood because they choose to embrace some degree of subordination to religious authority, even as they engage in contesting both secular and religious authority over incarceration, the death penalty, and reproductive rights?
Third, the framing of these debates as arising in a “post-secular” context assumes Islam introduced religious difference into France. This unfortunately obscures anti-Semitism as a continuing issue in many countries, including both France and Canada. Religion means something specific, because secularism is also specific, and not to be confused with social justice. France’s version of secularism is troubling for justice issues beyond veiling practices. Lépinard tries to translate the empirical differences she finds in France and Quebec into formal principles of feminist care and relationality, which I think reflects her search for theoretical principles to ground feminist politics outside nationality as well as religion, race, and class.
Yet as her own empirical evidence so nicely illustrates, feminist practices follow from standpoints that are irreducibly different and imbued with power, but vary in their sensitivity to their own limitations. There may not be a “good feminist subject” anywhere. But there may be feminists good enough to hear critiques of their positions and fight successful battles for justice.
This article was commissioned by Michèle Lamont.