Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses

Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses

Chandra Talpade Mohanty

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It ought to be of some political significance at least that the term “colonization” has come to denote a variety of phenomena in recent feminist and left writings in general. From its analytic value as a category of exploitative economic exchange in both traditional and contemporary marxisms (particularly contemporary theorists such as Baran, Amin and Gunder-Frank)’ to its use by feminist women of color in the U.S. to describe the appropriation of their experiences and struggles by hegemonic white women’s movements,52 colonization has been used to characterize everything from the most evident economic and political hierarchies to the production of a particular cultural dis- course about what is called the “Third World.”‘3 However sophisti- cated or problematical its use as an explanatory construct, colonization almost invariably implies a relation of structural domination, and a supression-often violent-of the heterogeneity of the subject(s) in question. What I wish to analyze is specifically the production of the “Third World Woman” as a singular monolithic subject in some recent (Western) feminist texts. The definition of colonization I wish to invoke here is a predominantly discursive one, focusing on a certain mode of appropriation and codification of “scholarship” and “knowledge” about women in the third world by particular analytic categories employed in specific writings on the subject which take as their referent feminist interests as they have


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been articulated in the U.S. and Western Europe. My concern about such writings derives from my own

implication and investment in contemporary debates in feminist theory, and the urgent political necessity (especially in the age of Reagan) of forming strategic coalitions across class, race, and national boundaries. Clearly Western feminist discourse and political practice is neither singular nor homogeneous in its goals, interests or analyses. However, it is possible to trace a coherence of effects resulting from the implicit assumption of “the West” (in all its com- plexities and contradictions) as the primary referent in theory and praxis. My reference to “Western feminism” is by no means intended to imply that it is a monolith. Rather, I am attempting to draw attention to the similar effects of various textual strategies used by particular writers that codify Others as non-Western and hence them- selves as (implicitly) Western. It is in this sense that I use the term “Western feminist.” The analytic principles discussed below serve to distort Western feminist political practices, and limit the possibility of coalitions among (usually White) Western feminists and working class and feminists of color around the world. These limitations are

evident in the construction of the (implicitly consensual) priority of issues around which apparently all women are expected to organize. The necessary and integral connection between feminist scholarship and feminist political practice and organizing determines the significance and status of Western feminist writings on women in the third world, for feminist scholarship, like most other kinds of scholarship, is not the mere production of knowledge about a certain subject. It is a directly political and discursive practice in that it is purposeful and ideological. It is best seen as a mode of intervention into particular hegemonic discourses (for example, traditional anthro- pology, sociology, literary criticism, etc.); it is a political praxis which counters and resists the totalizing imperative of age-old “legitimate” and “scientific” bodies of knowledge. Thus, feminist scholarly practices (whether reading, writing, critical or textual) are inscribed in relations of power-relations which they counter, resist, or even perhaps implicitly support. There can, of course, be no apolitical scholarship.

The relationship between “Woman”-a cultural and ideo- logical composite Other constructed through diverse representational discourses (scientific, literary, juridical, linguistic, cinematic, etc.)-and “women”-real, material subjects of their collective histories-is one of the central questions the practice of feminist scholarship seeks to address. This connection between women as historical subjects and the re-presentation of Woman produced by hegemonic discourses is not a relation of direct identity, or a relation of correspondence or simple implication.4 It is an arbitrary relation set up by particular cultures. I would like to suggest that the feminist writings I analyze here discursively colonize the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the third world, thereby producing/re-presenting a composite, singular “Third World Woman”-an image which appears arbitrarily constructed, but never-


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theless carries with it the authorizing signature of Western humanist discourse., I argue that assumptions of privilege and ethnocentric universality on the one hand, and inadequate self-consciousness about the effect of Western scholarship on the “third world” in the context of a world system dominated by the West on the other, characterize a sizable extent of Western feminist work on women in

the third world. An analysis of “sexual difference” in the form of a cross-culturally singular, monolithic notion of patriarchy or male dominance leads to the construction of a similarly reductive and homogeneous notion of what I call the “Third World Difference”-that stable, ahistorical something that apparently oppresses most if not all the women in these countries. And it is in the production of this “Third World Difference” that Western feminisms appropriate and “colonize” the fundamental complexities and conflicts which characterize the lives of women of different classes, religions, cultures, races and castes in these countries. It is in this process of homogenization and systemitization of the oppression of women in the third world that power is exercised in much of recent Western feminist discourse, and this power needs to be defined and named.

In the context of the West’s hegemonic position today, of what Anouar Abdel-Malek calls a struggle for “control over the orientation, regulation and decision of the process of world development on the basis of the advanced sector’s monopoly of scientific knowledge and ideal creativity,”6 Western feminist scholarship on the third world must be seen and examined precisely in terms of its inscription in these particular relations of power and struggle. There is, I shall argue, no universal patriarchal framework which this scholarship attempts to counter and resist-unless one posits an international male conspiracy or a monolithic, ahistorical power hierarchy. There is, however, a particular world balance of power within which any analysis of culture, ideology, and socio-economic conditions has to be necessarily situated. Abdel-Malek is useful here, again, in reminding us about the inherence of politics in the discourses of “culture”:

Contemporary imperialism is, in a real sense, a hege- monic imperialism, exercising to a maximum degree a rationalized violence taken to a higher level than ever before-through fire and sword, but also through the attempt to control hearts and minds. For its content is defined by the combined action of the military-industrial complex and the hegemonic cultural centers of the West, all of them founded on the advanced levels of development attained by monopoly and finance capital, and supported by the benefits of both the scientific and technological revolution and the second industrial revolution itself.7


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Western feminist scholarship cannot avoid the challenge of situating itself and examining its role in such a global economic and political framework. To do any less would be to ignore the complex inter- connections between first and third world economies and the

profound effect of this on the lives of women in these countries. I do not question the descriptive and informative value of most Western feminist writings on women in the third world. I also do not question the existence of excellent work which does not fall into the analytic traps I am concerned with. In fact I deal with an example of such work later on. In the context of an overwhelming silence about the experiences of women in these countries, as well as the need to forge international links between women’s political struggles, such work is both pathbreaking and absolutely essential. However, it is both to the explanatory potential of particular analytic strategies employed by such writing, and to their political effect in the context of the hegemony of Western scholarship, that I want to draw attention here. While feminist writing in the U.S. is still marginalized (except from the point of view of women of color addressing privileged White women), Western feminist writing on women in the third world must be con- sidered in the context of the global hegemony of Western scholar- ship-i.e., the production, publication, distribution and consumption of information and ideas. Marginal or not, this writing has political effects and implications beyond the immediate feminist or disciplinary audience. One such significant effect of the dominant “representations” of Western feminism is its conflation with imperial- ism in the eyes of particular third world women.8 Hence the urgent need to examine the political implications of analytic strategies and principles.

My critique is directed at three basic analytic principles which are present in (Western) feminist discourse on women in the third world. Since I focus primarily on the Zed Press “Women in the Third World” series, my comments on Western feminist discourse are cir- cumscribed by my analysis of the texts in this series. This is a way of limiting and focusing my critique. However, even though I am dealing with feminists who identify themselves as culturally or geographically from the “West,” what I say about these analytic strategies or implicit principles holds for anyone who uses these methods, whether third world women in the West, or third world women in the third world writing on these issues and publishing in the West. (I am not making a culturalist argument about ethnocentrism; rather, I am trying to uncover how ethnocentric universalism is produced in certain analyses, and in the context of a hegemonic First/Third World con- nection, it is not very surprising to discover where the ethnocentrism derives from.) As a matter of fact, my argument holds for any dis- course that sets up its own authorial subjects as the implicit referent, i.e., the yardstick by which to encode and represent cultural Others. It is in this move that power is exercized in discourse.

The first principle I focus on concerns the strategic location or situation of the category “women” vis-a-vis the context of analysis. The assumption of women as an already constituted, coherent group


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with identical interests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic or racial location or contradictions, implies a notion of gender or sexual difference or even patriarchy (as male dominance-men as a cor- respondingly coherent group) which can be applied universally and cross-culturally. The context of analysis can be anything from kinship structures and the organization of labor to media representations. The second principle consists in the uncritical use of particular methodologies in providing “proof” of universality and cross-cultural validity. The third is a more specifically political principle underlying the methodologies and the analytic strategies, i.e., the model of power and struggle they imply and suggest. I argue that as a result of the two modes-or, rather, frames-of analysis described above, a homogeneous notion of the oppression of women as a group is assumed, which, in turn, produces the image of an “average third world woman.” This average third world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually con- strained) and being “third world” (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc.). This, I suggest, is in contrast to the (implicit) self-representation of Western women as educated, modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the freedom to make their own decisions. The distinction between Western feminist re-presentation of women in the third world, and Western feminist self-presentation is a distinction of the same order as that made by some marxists between the “maintenance” function of the housewife and the real “productive” role of wage labor, or the characterization by developmentalists of the third world as being engaged in the lesser production of “raw materials” in contrast to the “real” productive activity of the First World. These distinctions are made on the basis of the privileging of a particular group as the norm or referent. Men involved in wage labor, first world producers, and, I suggest, Western feminists who some- times cast Third World women in terms of “ourselves undressed” (Michelle Rosaldo’s term),10 all construct themselves as the referent in such a binary analytic.

“Women” as Category of Analysis, Or: We Are All Sisters In Struggle

By women as a category of analysis, I am referring to the critical assumption that all of us of the same gender, across classes and cultures, are somehow socially constituted as a homogeneous group identified prior to the process of analysis. This is an assump- tion which characterizes much feminist discourse. The homogeneity of women as a group is produced not on the basis of biological essentials, but rather on the basis of secondary sociological and anthropological universals. Thus, for instance, in any given piece of feminist analysis, women are characterized as a singular group on the basis of a shared oppression. What binds women together is a socio- logical notion of the “sameness” of their oppression. It is at this point that an elision takes place between “women” as a discursively con-


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structed group and “women” as material subjects of their own history. Thus, the discursively consensual homogeneity of “women” as a group is mistaken for the historically specific material reality of groups of women. This results in an assumption of women as an always-already constituted group, one which has been labelled “powerless,” “exploited,” “sexually harrassed,” etc., by feminist scientific, economic, legal and sociological discourses. (Notice that this is quite similar to sexist discourse labeling women weak, emotional, having math anxiety, etc.) The focus is not on uncovering the material and ideological specificities that constitute a particular group of women as “powerless” in a particular context. It is rather on finding a variety of cases of “powerless” groups of women to prove the general point that women as a group are powerless.

In this section I focus on five specific ways in which “women” as a category of analysis is used in Western feminist discourse on women in the third world.” Each of these examples illustrates the construction of “Third World Women” as a homogeneous “powerless” group often located as implicit victims of particular socio-economic systems. I have chosen to deal with a variety of writers-from Fran Hosken who writes primarily about female genital mutilation, to writers from the Women in International Development school who write about the effect of development policies on third world women for both western and third world audiences. The similarity of assumptions about “third world women” in all these texts forms the basis of my discussion. This is not to equate all the texts that I analyze, nor is it to equalize their strengths and weak- nesses. The authors I deal with write with varying degrees of care and complexity. However, the effect of the representation of third world women in these texts is a coherent one, due to the use of “women” as a homogeneous category of analysis, and it is this effect I focus on. In these texts women are defined as victims of male violence (Fran Hosken); victims of the colonial process (M. Cutrufelli); victims of the Arab familial system (Juliette Minces); victims of the economic development process (B. Linsday and the [liberal] WID School); and finally, victims of the Islamic code (P. Jeffery). This mode of defining women primarily in terms of their object status (the way in which they are affected or not affected by certain institutions and systems) is what characterizes this particular form of the use of “women” as a category of analysis. In the context of Western women writing/study- ing women in the third world, such objectification (however bene- volently motivated) needs to be both named and challenged. As Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar argue quite eloquently in a recent essay, “Feminist theories which examine our cultural practices as ‘feudal residues’ or label us ‘traditional,’ also portray us as politically immature women who need to be versed and schooled in the ethos of

Western Feminism. They need to be continually challenged …. “12

Women As Victims of Male Violence:

Fran Hosken,’ in writing about the relationship between


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human rights and female genital mutilation in Africa and the Middle East, bases her whole discussion/condemnation of genital mutilation on one privileged premise: the goal of genital mutilation is “to mutilate the sexual pleasure and satisfaction of woman” (“FGM,” p. 11). This, in turn, leads her to claim that women’s sexuality is controlled, as is their reproductive potential. According to Hosken, “male sexual politics” in Africa and around the world “share the same political goal: to assure female dependence and subservience by any and all means” (“FGM,” p. 14). Physical violence against women (rape, sexual assault, excision, infibulation, etc.) is thus carried out “with an astonishing consensus among men in the world” (“FGM,” p. 14). Here, women are defined consistently as the victims of male control-the “sexually oppressed.” Although it is true that the potential of male violence against women circumscribes and elucidates their social position to a certain extent, defining women as archetypal victims freezes them into “objects-who-defend- themselves,” men into “subjects-who-perpetrate-violence,” and (every) society into powerless (read: women) and powerful (read: men) groups of people. Male violence must be theorized and interpreted within specific societies, both in order to understand it better, as well as in order to effectively organize to change it.’4 Sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.

Women As Universal Dependents:

Beverly Lindsay’s conclusion to the book Comparative Per- spectives of Third World Women: The Impact of Race, Sex and Class states: “…. dependency relationships, based upon race, sex and class, are being perpetrated through social, educational, and economic institutions. These are the linkages among Third World Women.”’15 Here, as in other places, Lindsay implies that third world women constitute an identifiable group purely on the basis of shared dependencies. If shared dependencies were all that was needed to bind us together as a group, third world women would always be seen as an apolitical group with no subject status! Instead, if anything, it is the common context of political struggle against class, race, gender and imperialist hierarchies that may constitute third world women as a strategic group at this historical juncture. Linsday also states that linguistic and cultural differences exist between Vietnamese and Black American women, but “both groups are victims of race, sex and class.” Again Black and Vietnamese women are characterized by their victim status. Similarly, examine statements like: “My analysis will start by stating that all African women are politically and economically dependent.””6 Or: “Nevertheless, either overtly or covertly, prostitution is still the main if not the only source of work for African women.”‘7 All African women are dependent. Prostitution is the only work option for African women as a group. Both statements are illustrative of generalizations sprinkled liberally through a recent Zed Press publication, Women of Africa: Roots of Oppression, by


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Maria Rosa Cutrufelli, who is described on the cover as an Italian Writer, Sociologist, Marxist and Feminist. I wonder if, in 1984, anyone would write a book entitled “Women of Europe: Roots of Oppression”? What is it about cultural Others that make it so easy to analytically formulate them into homogeneous groupings with little regard for historical specificities? Again, I am not objecting to the use of universal groupings for descriptive purposes. Women from the continent of Africa can be descriptively characterized as “Women of Africa.” It is when “women of Africa” becomes a homogeneous socio- logical grouping characterized by common dependencies or power- lessness (or even strengths) that problems arise.

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