THE FIRST ASSEMBLY OF INTERNATIONAL NETWORK OF WOMEN PHILOSOPHERS, sponsored by UNESCO, was held on December 14th and 15th 2009 in Paris, France.
Thoughts and Reflections of Day One :
The welcome we received was certainly very much appreciated. There was a great sense of elation from the participants as we walked towards the meeting room, many of us uncertain as to the exact location. Our uncertainty was immediately restored as Moufida Goucha along with her team of assistants came to meet everyone and ushered us toward the meeting hall.
The introductory comments and welcome was a nice moment ; it situated the International Assembly. Mr Sané’s contribution allowed the participants to understand the position put forward by UNESCO—that whilst happy to support it, UNESCO saw it primarily as an International Assembly of Women Philosophers. Moufida Goucha’s comments which followed on facilitated the process further as she noted the history and vision of the International Assembly – the order of these two speakers were well thought out and extremely important.
I was a little taken aback when Ms Cassin spoke at length about what it means to work with women philosophers and to be part of a network— each time noting with a great degree of ease her experience within France whilst also referencing those of her colleagues as examples. As Ms Cassin posed her questions, all brought forth since the first meeting of founding members, all I felt was a sense of how by all accounts of what we heard, none of the founding members had cited experience of exclusion due to racism and colonial domination as part of the initiative they wished to pursue ; better still, that we had to work collectively in addressing these inequalities. I did not feel that the question on gender, which Ms Cassin posed as one which examined the difference between a woman philosopher and man philosopher fully encapsulated my experience for to make the distinction on the grounds of gender is to acknowledge the relations of male domination and patriarchy which inform them (and I am quite happy to do so but within a larger framework) ; it is to acknowledge that patriarchal power relations places women in relation to men . . . as the power struggle for equal opportunity in the workplace, to say the least, has determined. But, we also know that patriarchy does not work on its own — it relies on relations of class, race, sexuality and coloniality to exert and reproduce the very power it sets out to maintain . . . and does so always in an intertwined composure. Secondly, I do not think that women who gather in the name of Philosophy and who in doing so refer to freedoms, by noting [that] "plurality as necessary breeding-ground for freedoms" can so glibly, and so nonchalantly speak of the term woman as though it has been emptied of its history of oppression, racism, colonialism and imperialism . . . that women’s participation and complicity in racism, colonialism and imperialism should not be ignored even if they are not able to recognise their participation in the process. Whilst Ms Cassin asserted the notion that our gathering was one which situated our gender I could not disagree more since gender is not a singular, one-dimensional, category and should not be treated as such. In much the same way I believe that when one speaks of freedom as a possibility, one recognizes the not-free ; in the same vein as when we speak of freedom as a necessity for civility one acknowledges that freedom is often acquired through violence and brutality. If we gather together because we are women, does this simply mean that our biology is the main feature which allows us to have some common ground ? If not, in declaring ourselves as women, particularly “Women Philosophers,” aware of the experience that each category is filled with a history of exclusion, can we still proceed to gather and work towards a common goal ? And what exactly is that common goal ? In view of the portfolio of Democracy and Human Security that the newly established International Network of Women Philosophers now forms part of is it not therefore incumbent upon those involved in such a Network to formulate the processes and procedures (at least state this from the outset) by which we agree to work towards Democracy even if it means that some of us will have to recognize that our democracy is based on the historical and contemporary exclusion of others ? That some of us have acquired our freedoms on the backs of others ; that some of us will have to give up certain privileges in the pursuit of democracy so that democracy also serves those to whom we offer it.
Ms Cassin spoke at length about what it means to work with women philosophers and to be part of a network—each time noting with a great degree of ease her experience within France and what it meant to make connections with women. She made a point of informing the Assembly that she was not a feminist ; I think her point may have cleared up any doubt that participants had about her position.
Whilst I consider Monique David-Menard’s contribution valuable to the Assembly I also considered her use of the chair as inappropriate ; she utilized it to deliver a lengthy speech on psychoanalysis. My work is situated between and among philosophical discourse, psychoanalytic discourse and literary discourse ; one would imagine that I would therefore have every reason to be overjoyed at the possibility that psychoanalysis would be treated as crucial for the further development of this Assembly. Ms Monique David-Menard’s examples of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic thought, some of which she cheerfully elaborated upon during the coffee break, leaves little to be optimistic about for they are limited by their formation on the European continent. Much as this topic interests me, like telling scholars that El Biar, in Algiers, is located in Algeria, which is still located in North Africa, and is the birthplace of Jacques Derrida, I simply could not be bothered (at that moment) to further any kind of conversation of the kind that placed the African continent as an afterthought of thought itself and against which I had to assert my own ! Perhaps I flatter myself in thinking that the forefathers of the Negritude Movement, all of whom were from the African continent and the African-Caribbean, and the forefathers of psychoanalysis, like Joseph the dream interpreter who saved Egypt and Frantz Fanon who performed the best form of psychoanalysis on Jean-Paul Sartre when he confronted him on his inaccurate interpretation of the Negritude poets in "Orphée Noir", (the confrontation reported in greater detail in Black Skin, White Masks), observed the LACK among their Enlightened peers, rolled their philosophical thoughts onto their tumultuous tongues and held it until such time that it was ready to be unleashed – in more productive public spaces where the LACK of the Enlightened meets the dark torch of Black Consciousness and a new moment arises. I do not wait for moments, I create them . . . and several are in the making.
As participants we were all aware that time constraints played a major role in our short and often brief verbal exchanges ; yet, many of the participants were asked to keep their contributions brief and often were only given the floor if they had something to say that was pertinent to the topic under discussion even if that participant had waited for several minutes to have an opportunity to speak. It felt rather out of place that someone who held the floor as chair was utilising the occasion to deliver speeches rather than offer the chair as a forum through which discussion had to be mediated. This did not only happen when Monique David-Menard took the floor but on quite a few occasions.
As per the presentation done by Giulia Sissa : I thought, in view of the founding principles, and the admission by one of the founding members, Barbara Cassin, that a presentation highlighting the very process of exclusion would perhaps bring a final moment to the day as it would illustrate the very struggle of democracy that women from certain parts of the world had endured to even enter the White colonial halls of Philosophy ; that an Assembly who met under the rubric of a broader structure such as Human Security, Democracy and Philosophy – which spoke of freedom – would find it pertinent to offer a way forward by presenting the work of a woman Philosophy from the African continent, An Arab woman Philosopher, for example, thereby illustrating the extent to which we need to bring the international focus together . . . for not all of us are borne into freedom nor did freedom come knocking on our doors as a consequence of the liberties extended to our White women counterparts, at first, then as an afterthought to our African male counterparts. The presentation by Giulia Sissa felt very much as though we were ushered into a process where we had to see a European woman at work – Nicole Loraux – and that the example of this woman’s contribution is what European women Philosophers look toward when citing examples of women Philosophers . . . as though the points pertaining to struggle, democracy and Human Rights (the broader structuring of the UNESCO context, which the founding members drew on in asserting their mandate) is limited to the European continent, and assures us that the struggle of women Philosophers on the European continent is why we gather for an International Assembly of Women Philosophers – to further the aims of European women’s work –- that African women Philosophers need to be taught the proper colonial route to women in Philosophy, constantly referring to European women’s Philosophy as the foundation for our own.
For most of the afternoon of the first day I felt as though the chair was being utilised to assert a particular brand of French colonialism disguised as feminism ; that French Philosophy was the standard, the backdrop, against which we all needed to refer, for it formed the basis for Philosophy and thus the basis for this Network. The manner in which many of the French women spoke was perfumed with coloniality, and it was sprayed throughout the room, thrust forward in ways which words cannot always capture but which soon hung like a cloud above the heads of those who sat and listened, often times politely, other times reluctantly yet always observing the protocol of intellectual etiquette we have been trained to endure. It is the latter that has come to stand testimony to what colonials call good manners. Some of these are bitter pills to swallow ; others reinforce that we can never drink at the same water fountain.
Thoughts and Reflections on Day Two :
The second day of the symposium was centred on the theme, “What do Men Philosophers think of Women Philosopher ?” The description in the bulletin notes that the question is "overtly impertinent and ironic, opening space for re-examination and self-interrogation." Apart from the two African men, I did not particularly feel that the positions of the men who presented their views on the topic opened up such space/s. I felt pleased, elated, when I heard Ali Benmakhlouf speak as I felt that he showed regard for the women at the Assembly and he did not have anything to prove ; his talk was also informative and interesting to me as an African woman. With Souleymane Bachir Daigne, I felt much the same—that here was a man who had made great efforts to address the women at the Assembly, express his affections for the sisters – both familial and political – who had educated him on women in Philosophy apart from his area of expertise and who was ready to share his experience with us, even if it meant telling us about how racism was brought into the realm of his academic life by those who were determined to show him that he was not to see himself as a philosopher only, not under any circumstances.
For the remaining part of the afternoon, with a host of three male philosophers, each of whom were to speak to the question of what male philosophers thought of women philosophers, there was simply no possibility for dialogue much as the notation of “debate” under the title suggested. Each of the three men pursued the honourable seat offered to them as though it was an invitation to lecture (and instruct) not debate ; there was not even the presumption of such an exercise. Mr. Malamoud’s tone was instructional, his attitude cautionary and he took a position that placed him as a father figure warning his daughters, as fathers often do and speaking down to the women under his employ as masters often do to their paid subordinates. He spoke of Philosophy as a practice we had not been privileged to experience or encounter, due to our femaleness, and he was therefore informing us out of duty. An enormously patronizing lecture with finger-pointing tone—one clearly permitted within the French tradition where his seed lie planted.
But beyond criticism and critique
There is only so much one can say, only so much one can be disgruntled about and then there are moments when reflection offers a greater possibility than the experience one has critiqued. I asked myself over and over whether I wanted to be part of this International Network and each time the answer was yes. Why ? Because I believe there are many who, like me, recognize that one’s role is not determined by others but by ones’ self. I feel strongly about a Network which recognizes the needs of women in Philosophy as crucial to the further development of the field of Philosophy and however brief the description of the term woman holds on the tongue of the speaker, I have to speak to it, inform it, elaborate upon it ; it is therefore important that I shape the future of the Network, to participate in the process, just as much as those who had the determination to form it, who spent hours debating its significance and determined its vision, and who had the grace to invite me—those who sought out and recognized the need for diversity and democracy and who will have those concepts fleshed out, fleshed, be faced with in the flesh. I regard my agency as the one aspect of my identity that I can count on ; through it, I can work towards the very strength of diversity that was mentioned but which the examples by key speakers paid no mind to. During moments when I felt despondent at the Assembly I re-read the information stated on the website of Josiane Ayoub, the UNESCO chair in Philosophy at L’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) which I brought along with me to the Assembly as a reminder as to why I was attending. It is within the broader frame of this possibility that I place my willingness to continue. In reading it then, I share this here :
Through a coherent set of activities in training, development, research and documentation, the Chair aims to favour the creation of a space for critical thought on the need for the international community to endow itself with operative institutions such that liberty no longer belongs solely to those who dominate the market and, in so doing, to draft the shape of an alternative globalization in the context of the mutations of present day society.
It is precisely because of the analysis expressed in this vision statement that I first attended the UNESCO Day in Philosophy at UQAM in November. After having met Josiane and several of her women colleagues (and a handful of graduate students), it became clear that the above statement, which was part of a larger vision statement, was not only one that graced the pages of her website but one which stood firmly rooted in her beliefs and the beliefs of the women present at the event. Her manner throughout was one that demonstrated that she carried her beliefs in challenging domination, especially the market of Philosophy which comes from the society out of which it has emerged.
But let me now turn again to the International Assembly : I re-read the three key notions each time as I sat among the participants reminding myself that my interest was sparked by the UNESCO Chair in Philosophy in Montréal to whom I spoke before I left, who told me, “you are now part of the UNESCO Chair’s team.” The three key notions as noted by the International Assembly of Women Philosophers are : “The sense of community, the sharing and the stimulation that are today more than necessary in the act of thinking.” The latter was stated in the Editorial of the Information Bulletin.
All communities go through difficulties in trying to establish themselves ; all forms of sharing stems from the fact that we have not all inherited an equal portion of that which ought to be shared ; all forms of stimulation that are today more than necessary in the act of thinking come from a wide-spectrum of emotion—for some it is passionate speech, speech infused with personal accounts of histories untold—hidden or forbidden ; and all acts of thinking differ in who or what is imagined as thought, idea, before it becomes speech and action, and all forms of thought continue to have its structure of thinking informed by the very language within which it appears. I was approached by several women at the Assembly who remarked on my manner of speech as “passionate” . . . I am also aware that my passionate speech can easily be treated as aggressive and Bishop Desmond Tutu’s as passionately political . . . and whilst it does not bother me, the interpretation of passion when it pertains to the oppressed is often treated as an impediment to speech and to thinking—I, have no such fear. The UNESCO Chair in Philosophy at UQAM had this to say about the chair :
Finally, it is a stage for freedom of expression which accepts the pluralism of references and of schools, which seeks dialogue above and beyond all borders and which requires, in the name of the right to philosophy, a community of equals engaged in the work of philosophical reflection.
The problem with freedom of expression is not that it does not find itself on platforms among those who are not free but that it lies in the arms of those who cradle its infancy—those who cannot walk alongside the freed when they speak the history of their freedom – those who wish to speak their freedom on their own terms . . . who possess the spoken words to utter the extent of their own freedom and who are not limited by the very provocateurs of liberty, equality and fraternity, who fly the flag but cannot walk the walk.
The International Network of Women Philosophers is just as much my responsibility to shape as it is anyone else’s. In taking up the “challenge of diversity” . . . “the philosophical space of freedom,” I accept my membership to this International Network – one which speaks of my full participation and my continued whole-hearted work towards the principles and objectives the founding members embraced. I will never apologize for how I come to Philosophy since Philosophy has never apologized for how it came to me.
Dr. Rozena Maart