A Year of Feminist Classics

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Category Archives: Mohanty

Feminism Without Borders: Chapter 1 Discussion

Feminism Without Borders by Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Apologies for disappearing! My offline life got quite busy and my health declined a bit, and somehow the days have just flown by. Also apologies for not yet replying to the discussion questions from last time; I’ll try to do so later today or tomorrow. I hope that everyone’s had time to read the book if they’re going to; if you haven’t read it, don’t worry: I’ll keep the discussion broad enough to include you too! I’ll likely combine some of the chapters together in discussion posts, but since chapter one goes straight to the heart of the book’s intent, I thought it needed its own post.

Chapter one is entitled “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” It’s quite dense and academic, but I think it comes down to Mohanty resisting the urge of Western scholars (both feminist and not) to put Third World women in a box, defining them by one or two categories. Once the scholars have simplified innumerable complexities into the ‘Third World women’ box, they then make broad descriptive generalisations as if they capture their lives at all and broad policy suggestions that are at all useful. But since their scholarly foundations are flawed, anything they build on top is subject to the same structural problems, rendering much of the scholarship essentially useless, particularly for those who wish to enact feminist change. As Mohanty says:

Huston assumes that all Third World women have similar problems and needs. Thus, they must have similar interests and goals. However, the interests of urban, middle-class, educated Egyptian housewives, to take only one instance, could surely not be seen as being the same as those fo their uneducated, poor maids. Development policies do not affect both groups of women in the same way. Practices that characterize women’s status and roles vary according to class. Women are constituted as women through the complex interaction between class, culture, religion, and other ideological institutions and frameworks. They are not “women”-a coherent group-solely on the basis of a particular economic system or policy. Such reductive cross-cultural comparisons result in the colonization of the specifics of daily existence and the complexities of political interests that women of different social classes and cultures represent and mobilize. (30)

And again:

It is not possible, however, to talk about Bemba women as a homogenous group within the traditional marriage structure. Bemba women before the initiation are constituted within a different set of social relations compared to Bemba women after the initiation. To treat them as a unified group characterized by the fact of their “exchange” between male kin is to deny the sociohistorical and cultural specificities of their existence and the differential value attached to their exchange before and after their initiation. It is to treat the initiation ceremony as a ritual with no political implications or effects. (27)

And one more:

…Third World women as a group or category are automatically and necessarily defined as religious (read: not progressive), family-oriented (read: traditional), legally unsophisticated (read: they are still not conscious fo their rights), illiterate (read:ignorant), domestic (read: backward), and sometimes revolutionary (read: their country is in a state of war; they must fight!). That his how the “Third World difference” is produced.

Another problem Mohanty brings up is that Western scholarship defines/presents Third World women as essentially passive. They are portrayed as victims of patriarchy, solely objects acted upon instead of ever subjects doing the acting. And it is precisely this victimhood that, in the eyes of these scholars, unites them.

Thus, for instance, in any given piece of feminist analysis, women are characterized as a singular group on the basis of shared oppression. What binds women together is a sociological notion of the “sameness” of their oppression. …This results in an assumption of women as an always already constituted group, one that has been labelled powerless, exploited, sexually harassed, and so on, by feminist scientific, economic, legal, and sociological discourses. (Notice that this is quite similar to sexist discourse labeling women as weak, emotional, having math anxiety, etc.) This 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. (22-23)

I find that last bit especially intriguing; do feminists fall into a logical fallacy that easily?

Mohanty does not fault all Western feminist scholars. In fact, she includes a few examples of scholars who get it right. How do they do so? First, the pay attention to the specific social circumstances of the women they’re studying (their class, culture, etc.). Secondly, they emphasise the context of their case studies. Mohanty describes the importance of context with an excellent example that requires me to type a fairly long passage, but I think it’s worth it.

…the problem is not in asserting that the practice of wearing a veil is widespread. This assertion can be made on a basis of numbers. It is a descriptive generalization. However, it is the analystic leap from the practice of veiling to an assertion of its general significance in controlling women that must be question. While there may be a physical similarity in the veils worn by women of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the specific meaning attached to this practice varies according to the cultural and ideological context. …For example, as is well known, Iranian middle-class women veiled themselves during the 1979 revolution to indicate solidarity with their veiled, working-class sisters, while in contemporary Iran, mandatory Islamic laws dictate that all Iranian women wear veils. While in both ese instances, similar reasoning might be offered for the veil (opposition to the Shah and Western cultural colonization in the first case and the true Islamization of Iran in the second) the concrete meanings attached to Iranian women wearing the veil are clearly different in both historical contexts. In the first case, wearing the veil is both an oppositional and revolutionary gesture on the part of Iranian middle-class women; in the second case, it is a coercive, institutional mandate. It is on the basis of such context specific differentiated analysis that effective political strategies can be generated. To assume that mere practice of veiling women in a number of Muslim countries indicates the universal oppression of women through sexual segregation not only is analytically reductive but also proves quite useless when it comes to the elaboration of oppositional political strategy.

While this chapter is focused on academic texts, I could see the same problems in books produced for general reading as well. So often, books featuring ‘Third World’ characters are written by Western authors, and they tend to be portrayed in stereotypical ways. In fact, I was reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story “Jumping Monkey Hill.” You can read it for free here. It’s about a writing retreat in South Africa conducted for ‘African writers,’ in which the black Nigerian woman writer is told by the white, English, male retreat leader that her black sub-saharan African woman character is unrealistic. It’s quite powerful, very relevant to this discussion, and I’d love it if you go read it (if you haven’t already!).

Now that I’ve laid out the chapter’s primary issues, let’s discuss them! Do you agree/disagree with Mohanty’s description of how Third World women are portrayed and the ramifications? Do you think she went too far in emphasising context-specific scholarship? Is there room for any generalisations/broader lessons in Mohanty’s vision of a culturally aware academia?

More broadly, and for those who didn’t read the book, do you see signs of what Mohanty describes in your own reading? Any examples you can think of, nonfiction or fiction, written by Western authors that portrayed Third World women as a stereotypical monolith? Has it made you rethink your book selections at all? If so, has it been easy or challenging to find books written by and about Third World women?

These are just jumping off points; if you have other questions/thoughts, definitely share them. Next time, we’ll be skipping to the last chapter in the book, entitled “‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited,” in which Mohanty returns to these issues and elaborates further on what she meant. She especially goes into more detail re: context v generalisations. Talk to you soon!