Early Feminism at the Service of the Belgian Colonial Ordering of Things in the Congo

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Venue:FIU Modesto A. Maidique Campus, LC 110

AADS Works in Progress Series

"The Bulletin de l'Union des Femmes Coloniales (BUFC): Early Feminism at the Service of the Belgian Colonial Ordering of Things in the Congo"

Dr. Jean Muteba Rahier, Florida International University

During the entire period (1885-1908) of Leopold II’s Congo Free State, the arrival of Belgian women was not encouraged. It remained so in the first years of the Belgian Congo (1908-1960). Recent research has shown that in addition to moral reasons and anxiety about hygiene and politics, the cost of moving a “non-productive” person to accompany her husband during the three years of his contract was also a preoccupation for both the Belgian state and private companies.

The situation changed beginning in the 1910s, and mostly in the 1920s, when Belgian women’s potential role as “civilizer” was contemplated and then wished for as a matter of policy. In 1921, with the backing of various Belgian state officials, the association Union des Femmes Coloniales (UFC)—Union of Colonial Women—was created to provide support to Belgian women before, during, and after their departure for the Congo, and to attempt a coordination of their ‘civilizing role’ and initiatives once in the colony, particularly as they related to Congolese women. In 1923, the UFC began publishing the Bulletin de l’Union des Femmes Coloniales (BUFC).

This essay presents a critical reading of the colonial discourse reproduced in the pages of the BUFC until 1961. It shows how much the BUFC’s genuine objective of helping African women ‘reach civilization’ evokes early forms of feminism and global sisterhood at the same time that it was grounded on, and reproduced a colonial knowledge produced out of a system of racialized difference highly interwoven with the ideology of white supremacy. In that context, whiteness and its related claim to uncontaminated origin in Europe, conferred a ‘natural,’ ‘ineluctable’ and ‘deserved advantage’ over those who are not white and are accordingly considered to be ‘naturally’ inferior. Following the work of Ann Laura Stoller and Anne McClintock, the essay emphasizes the fact that at the time, as is the case now, the categories of race, gender, culture and ethnicity, and social class did not exist in a vacuum but instead informed each other quite closely.

The essay also shows how the Belgian colonial discourse that at first constructed African men and women as ineluctably inferior beings progressively shifted in the late 1950s—when Independence was finally seen as inevitable—to a discourse celebrating the possibility of a Belgian-Congolese community in the Congo, which pushed in the background notions of inferiority. This research follows this ideological transformation in the pages of the BUFC.

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