My thanks to Pluto Press and Edelweiss for a review copy of this book.
A Feminist Theory of Violence: A Decolonial Perspective is a short book by French political scientist and historian Françoise Vergès, and translated by Melissa Thackaway. The book views the current state of violence in society from a feminist perspective/lens, focusing on but at the same time not restricted to violence against women.
Violence in the book is considered in a wider sense not only including physical violence as commonly understood (rape, massacres, genocide, and so on) and also perpetrated, for instance in wars, but also discrimination, hardship and vulnerabilities, the burden of which is borne (unfairly) by only certain segments (women, racialized people, those dubbed as ‘dangerous’ classes, etc.), degradation of ecosystems, and relentless exploitation of resources.
The book argues that we cannot respond to and address violence against women without considering violence as a whole—the global state of violence that persists today (as she writes a one point—a world where ‘war has been naturalized and peace reduced to an interlude between two violent moments…’). Violence as enslavement, exploitation, torture and censorship have always been the ‘tools of colonialism and capitalism disguised as civilizing missions and humanitarian missions’. The Western way of life, which elites all over the world have adopted, in fact rests on the normalization of violence. In such a scenario, how can one address violence which becomes both ‘inevitable’ and ‘necessary’?
Perhaps more worrying is that the entity/authority that is charged with ‘protecting’ people from violence—the state—itself perpetrates violence—militarizing protection, enhancing surveillance, creating enclaves (‘safe’ spaces vis-à-vis others), ‘constructing’ people into ‘dangerous’ classes and races. In practice, peoples are divided into those seen ‘worthy’ of protection and those excluded from it, which Vergès describes as ‘a tangible division that describes the social world’. As she writes, ‘When protection is subjected to racial, class, gender and sexual criteria, it contributes in its logic and its application to domination’.
Feminism too, is divided today into ‘appropriate’ (which doesn’t attack capitalism), and that which is anti-fascist and anti-capitalist. A decolonial feminism according to her is aware of the violence of the state and the impacts of racism and colonialism and the relevance of all forms of struggle. It is also about evoking the right to a peaceful life in a violent world—developing a ‘right to rest, to a peaceful life’. She also stresses the need to protect human beings ‘without turning them into victims and without considering weakness as a failing’.
This is a powerful and thought-provoking book which peels away the facades that society currently lives behind—of peace, justice, equality, and rights. It highlights a number of relevant issues, among them the need to address violence as a whole and in all its forms that pervade our society today, rather than singling out different forms for that can clearly never be effective since as she notes violence today is normalised. In that regard, it is as important to address the differentiation of people—their classification on the basis of race, gender, class, sexual orientation—as those seen as worthy of being protected and those not. As is clear from the examples she cites, such distinctions are traceable to and continue on from colonialism at which time existing ‘human rights’ protections like prohibitions on slavery were manipulated so as to allow the practice to flourish. Today, these are reflected in the denial of roles of peoples (often from the Global South) in the every day fulfilment of the ‘ideal’ lives in the Global North, for not only do they face discrimination, exploitation and vulnerability in the everyday—but when they might be victims/accused in ‘crimes’, they receive differential treatment from a machinery supposedly created to protect all.
The book illustrates its points with examples and instances from different parts of the world including the United States and India, but I particularly found interesting instances from French colonial history and contemporary French politics, as well as from French overseas territories like Guadeloupe, of which my knowledge is limited.
We seem still left with many questions—will the world ever see sense, see what they are doing (after all, for instance, after the pandemic and the positive impacts on nature during the lockdown, we seem to have learnt little); if the state itself is complicit in violence, what/who are we to turn to; if discrimination and attitudes towards certain sections of society persist in practice despite all of the instruments we supposedly have in place, what is their value?
While I thought the book makes a number of relevant points, I felt at the end one is left with rather a sense of despair for as the author concludes—we are living in an era in which it is impossible to escape the unleashing of uncontrollable violence produced by greed, cupidity, and power unless we organize alongside those who have nothing to lose.
Having read Liz’s review of Marina Sitrin and Colectiva Sembrar’s Pandemic Solidarity a couple of days ago, I noticed that Pluto Press is an independent publisher, and so the book I am reviewing works as an entry for Lizzie and Kaggsy’s ReadIndies2022
This review also appears on a human rights blog/page I contribute to: Rights Compass, here