Colonial stories: towards an anti-racist feminism

Colonial stories: towards an anti-racist feminism

Bruno Sena Martins 

Recognizing the different constellations of power and meaning that define the living conditions and horizons of the feminist struggle demands, among other things, that we consider that the existences of women are differently determined by the terms of structural racism. In fact we have inherited, from a lengthy colonial period, a world system strongly anchored in the way in which racism, patriarchy and capitalism have combined in a process of exploitation that defined entrenched hierarchies about the human. We are still living within the legacy of “imperial formations”, from which the many ruins – colonial legacies – that endure in the present descend, haunting the future (Stoler, 2008, p. 194).  In this sense, we must talk about slavery, colonial wars, forced labor, miscegenation as rape, and liberation struggles in order to understand the lasting ties between the experience of racialized women and centuries of colonial violence, which still have repercussions today in the form of institutional racism.

In Europe, a continent deeply defined by Eurocentric arrogance, reflecting on feminist struggles and horizons that go beyond the hetero-patriarchal hegemony forces us to face the continuities between an imperial past and the accumulation of oppressions that burden black women today. The European oceanic expansion of the Iberian peoples – initiated in the 15th century with Portugal’s incursions into Northern Africa – indelibly affected the world from 1492 onwards, with the arrival of Cristopher Columbus in the Americas. This signaled the beginning of an overseas colonization by the European peoples, through which many of the asymmetries seen in today’s globalized world were defined, a process that, in just a few centuries, changed the face of the “new world”, establishing a social reality profoundly marked by colonial and racist violence. Up to 1850, 12.5 million African men and women were transported to the American continent in the transatlantic trade of enslaved persons.[1]

The Portuguese imperial cycle, for example, lasted significantly until 1974, after 13 long years of Colonial War between the Portuguese army and the African liberation movements. Born in the wake of the anticolonial fights of the post-war period, the Portuguese Colonial War, with fronts in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique directly or indirectly functioned as a decisive antechamber for the independence of Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe. In Portugal, the war led to the creation of the Movement of Armed Forces (MFA), which, on 25 April, 1974, prepared the military coup that overthrew the long dictatorship known as Estado Novo, paving the way for democracy.

For a long time, the presence of colonial violence in European democratic spaces resembled a “public secret”, as Michael Taussig calls it, i.e. “that which is generally known, but cannot be articulated” (Taussig, 1999: 6). This plan confronts us with a Eurocentric memory and with European national discourses that reject the inclusion of colonial violence as part of the founding narratives of global capitalism and Western modernity. Portugal, far from being isolated in its commitment to a learned “forgetfulness”, shares with many other European ex-colonial empires a decolonization yet to be made, that which would result from the full recognition of the colonial path as central to the experience of Western modernity.

The challenge of overcoming a public memory founded on the dominant terms of Eurocentric modernity does not just entail recognizing the social and historical realities that have been silenced, but also summoning and translating the worldviews that remain unintelligible within the narrow modes of representing a subordinated otherness, according to the cognitive and material demands of a certain idea of Europe and its colonial project (Said, 1993; Mudimbe, 1998). Moreover, it involves refusing the celebratory arrogance that considers Europe the cradle of a civilization with a liberating and universalistic vocation, exposing the unsustainability of a lineage that consecrates democracy and human rights as precious and exceptional European legacies.

Through looking at the colonial past it is possible to recognize the continuities between the silencing of colonial history by the Eurocentric narrative, the silencing of women by colonial violence, and the ongoing erasure, under the guise of a liberating universalism, of the structures of institutional racism that mark the struggles of women racialized as black.

If we look at the Portuguese Colonial War, for example, we realize that black women were victims of massacres and sexual violence, partners and prostitutes of colonial soldiers, but that they also provided food and logistical support to the liberation movements, fought in these movements and educated the population in the context of anti-colonial awareness raising. In 2012, I had the opportunity to visit a village in northern Mozambique, Nangade, where numerous ex-fighters of FRELIMO (Mozambique Liberation Front) who had become disabled during the war were stationed. Thirty-eight years after the war it was surprising to realize that among those mutilated, legless, armless, or blind ex-fighters a high percentage were women who had fought against colonialism and whose stories of struggle and suffering we rarely get to hear.

The due recognition of the struggle and of the suffering of black women in the context of a lengthy colonial history should inform an attentive look at the way racialized women encounter “episodes of everyday racism” (Kilomba, 2008). In European societies black women are disproportionately represented in the poorest segments of the population, subjected to job insecurity and unemployment, and exposed to various forms of violence. The limited visibility of this scenario within feminist, LGBT+ and workers’ struggles shows to what extent the structures inherited from the colonial-racist nexus keep these women’s lives from being “grievable lives” (Butler, 2009).

Fortunately, the recognition of black women’s struggles, subjectivities and political voices has been growing in different national contexts. This emergence, coupled with the idea of self-esteem, as a radical political agenda (hooks, 1995: 119) foreshadows an important process of the decolonization of feminist struggles and political subjectivities. By exposing lasting colonial wounds and injustices, black women’s voices allow us to access political resistances and struggles that are crucial to an anti-colonial and anti-racist feminism – an essential perspective for broadening the horizons of democratic struggle and historical justice.

[1] For an analysis of the database of transatlantic slave trafficking, see:

Butler, Judith (2009), Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London; New York: Verso.
hooks, bell (1995), Killing Rage: Ending Racism. London: Penguin Books.
Kilomba, Grada (2008), Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism. Münster: Unrast.
Mudimbe, V. Y. (1988), The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Said, Edward W. (1993), Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf.
Stoler, Ann Laura (2008), “Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination”, Cultural Anthropology, 23(2), 191-219.
Taussig, Michael T. (1999), Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative, Stanford: Stanford University Press.


Bruno Sena Martins is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra (CES/UC). He is co-coordinator of the “Human Rights in Contemporary Societies” PhD Programme and the educational outreach activity “CES Goes to School”. Between 2016 and 2019 he was Vice-President of the Scientific Board of the CES/UC. His research interests focus on the body, disability, human rights and colonialism. The translation of this article was supported by Portuguese na­tional funds through FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, under project UID/SOC/4304/2019.