CHANDRA TALPADE MONHANTY: Under Western Eyes (excerpt)


(Chandra Tapalde Mohanty, 2011)

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,’ colonization has been used to characterize everything from the most evident economic and political hierarchies to the production of a particular cultural discourse about what is called the “Third World.”‘ However sophisticated 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 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 poiitical necessity (especiaiiy in the age of Reagan) of forming strategic coaiitions across ciass, race, and nationai boundaries. Clearly Western feminist discourse and politicai practice is neither singular nor homogeneous in its goals, interests or analyses. However, it is possibie to trace a coherence of effects resulting from the implicit assumption of “the West” (in all its complexities 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 themselves as (implicitly) Western. It is in this sense that I use the term “Western feminist.” The anaiytic 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 coior around the worid. These iimitations 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 schoiarship and feminist political practice and organizing determines the significance and status of Western feminist writings on women in the third world, for feminist scholarship, iike most other kinds of schoiarship, 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 anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, etc.); it is a politicai 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 ideological composite Other constructed through diverse representational discourses (scientific, literary, juridical, linguistic, cinematic, etc.)—and “women”—reai, 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.* 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, singuiar “Third World Woman”—an image which appears arbitrarily constructed, but nevertheless 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-Maiek 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,”‘ 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-Maiek 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.’

Western feminist scholarship cannot avoid the challenge of situating itself and examining its role in such a global economic and poiiticai framework. To do any less would be to ignore the complex interconnections 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 ideal 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 frorh the point of view of women of color addressing privileged White women). Western feminist writing on women in the third world must be considered in the context of the global hegempny of Western schoiarship—i.e., the production, publication, distribution and consumption of information and ideas. Marginai or not, this writing has political effects and impiications beyond the immediate feminist or disciplinary audience. One such significant effect of the dominant “representations” of Western feminism is its conflation with imperialism in the eyes of particular third world women.» Hence the urgent need to examine the political implications of analytic strategies and principies.

My critique is directed at three basic analytic principies which are present in (Western) feminist discourse on women in the third worid. 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 principies holds for anyone who uses these methods, whether third world women in the West, or third worid women in the third worid 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 with identical interests and desires, regardiess of ciass, ethnic or raciai location or contradictions, implies a notion of gender or sexual difference or even patriarchy (as male dominance—men as a correspondingly coherent group) which can be applied universally and cross-culturally. The context of analysis can be anything from kinship structures and the organization of iabor to media representations. The second principle consists in the uncritical use of particular methodologies in providing “proof” of universaiity and cross-cultural validity. The third is a more specifically political principle underlying the methodologies and the analytic strategies, i.e., the modei 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 essentiaily 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 sexuaiities, and the freedom to make their own decisions. The distinction between Western feminist re-presentation of women in the third worid, and Western feminist se//-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 deveiopmentalists 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),'” all construct themselves as the referent in such a binary analytic.

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1. Paul A. Baran, Political Economy of Growth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1962); Samir Amin, Imperialism and Unequal Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977); Andre Gunder.Frank, Capitalism and Underdeveiopment in Latin America (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967).

2. See especiaily essays in Cherrie Moraga & Gioria Anzaidua, eds.. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radicai Women of Color (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1983); Barbara Smith, ed.. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1983); Gloria Joseph and Jill Lewis, Common Dif- ferences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives (Boston: Beacon Press, 1981); Cherrie Moraga, Loving in the War Years (Boston: South End Press, 1984).

3. Terms iike “third” and “first” worid are very problematical both in suggesting over.simplified similarities between and amongst countries labelied “third” or “first” worid, as weii as impiicitly reinforcing existing economic, cuitural and ideologicai hierarchies which are conjured up in using such terminology. I use the term “third worid” with fuli awareness of its probiems, only because this is the terminoiogy avaiiabie to us at the moment. The use of quotation marks is meant to suggest a continuous questioning of the designation “third world.” Even when i do not use quotation marks, I mean to use the term critically.

4. I am indebted to Teresa de Lauretis for this particular formuiation of the project of feminist theorizing. See especiaily her introduction in de Lauretis, Aiice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1984); see also Sylvia Wynter, “The Politics of Domination,” unpublished manuscript.

5. This argument is similar to Homi Bhabha’s definition of coloniai discourse as strategicaily creating a space for a subject peoples through the production of knowledges and the exercise of power. The full quote reads: “[colonial dis- course is] an apparatus of power… an apparatus that turns on the recognition and disavowal of racial/cultural/historicai differences. Its predominant strategic function is the creation of a space for a ‘subject peopies’ through the production of knowledges in terms of which surveiliance is exercised and a complex form of pleasure/unpleasure is incited. It (i.e., coionial discourse) seeks authorization for its strategies by the production of knowledges by coloniser and colonised which are stereotypical but antithetically evaluated.” Homi Bhabha, “The Other Question—the Stereotype and Colonial Discourse.” Screen, 24 (November-December 1983), 23.

6. Anouar AbdehMalek, Sociai Dialectics: Nation and Revolution (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1981), esp. p. 145.

7. Abdel-Malek, Social Dialectics, pp. 145-46.

8. A number of documents and reports on the U.N. International Conferences on Wonnen, Mexico City, 1975, and Copenhagen, 1980, as well as the 1976 Wellesley Conference on Women and Development attest to this. Nawai el Saadawi, Fatima Mernissi and Mailica Vajarathon in “A Critical Look At The Weiiesley Conference” {Quest, IV (Winter 1978), 101-107), characterize this conference as “American-planned and organized,” situating third worid participants as passive audiences. They focus especially on the iack of seif- consciousness of Western women’s implications in the effects of imperiaiism and racism in their assumption of an “internationai sisterhood.” A recent essay, by Pratibha Parmar and Vaierie Amos, is titied “Chailenging Imperial Feminism,” Feminist Review, 17 (Autumn 1984), 3-19. Parmar and Amos characterize Euro-American feminism which seeks to establish itseif as the oniy legitimate feminism as “imperial.”

9. The Zed Press “Women in the Third Worid” series is unique in its conception, i choose to focus on this series because it is the oniy contemporary series I have found which assumes that “women in the Third Worid” is a legitimate and separate subject of study and research. A number of the texts in this series are exceiient, especiaily those texts which deal directly with women’s resistance struggles. However, a number of the texts written by feminist socioiogists, anthropoiogists, and journalists are symptomatic of the kind of Western feminist work on women in the Third Worid that concerns me. Thus, an analysis of a few of these particuiar texts in this series can serve as a representative point of entry into the discourse I am attempting to iocate and define.

10. M.Z. Rosaldo, “The Use and Abuse of Anthropoiogy: Refiections on Feminism and Cross-Cuiturai Understanding,” Signs, 5, no. 3 (1980), 389-417, esp. 392.

Originally published in:

Boundary 2 12 no. 3/13, no. 1 (1984), reprinted in Feminist Review, no. 30 (1988).

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