Monday, June 7, 2010

Notes on Postcolonial Feminism

Notes on postcolonial feminism june 2010-06-07

Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes”
Sara Suleri: "Woman Skin Deep"
Both in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader

The first analytical presupposition I focus on is involved in the strategic location or situation of the category ‘women’ vis-à-vis the context of analysis. The assumption of women as an already constituted and coherent group with identical interests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic or racial location, implies a notion of gender or sexual difference or even patriarchy which can be applied universally and cross-culturally. . . . The second analytical presupposition is evident on the methodological level, in the uncritical way ‘proof’ of universality and cross-cultural validity are provided. The third is a more specifically political presupposition, 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 constrained) and being ‘third world’ (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, religious, domesticated, family-oriented, victimized, etc.). (199)

Mohanty on “universalism”

First, proof of universalism is provided through the use of an arithmetic method. The argument goes like this: the more the number of women who wear the veil, the more universal is the sexual segregation and control of women. Similarly, a large number of different, fragmented examples from a variety of countries also apparently add up to a universal fact. (209)

Mohanty on the Veil:

While there may be a physical similarity in the veils worn by women in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the specific meaning attached to this practice varies according to the cultural and ideological context. In addition, the symbolic space occupied by the practice of purdah may be similar in certain contexts, but this does not automatically indicate that the practices themselves have identical significance in the social realm. 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 these instances similar reasons might be offered for the veil (opposition to the Shah and western cultural colonization in the first case, and the true Islamiciszation of Iran in the second), the concrete meanings attached to Iranian women wearing the veil are clearly different in the two 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 the mere practice of veiling women in a number of Muslim countries indicates the universal oppression of women through sexual segregation is not only analytically reductive, but also proves to be quite useless when it comes to the elaboration of oppositional political strategy. (209)

Reading this paragraph reminded me why it might be important to find a way to provisionally defend a kind of universalism – one based on rights, not necessarily values.

Sara Suleri’s critique of Mohanty, in “Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition”

In the context of contemporary feminist discourse, I would argue, the category of postcolonialism must be read both as a free-floating metaphor for cultural embattlement and as an almost obsolete signifier for the historicity of race. There is no available dichotomy that could neatly classify the ways in which such a redefinition of postcoloniality is necessarily a secret sharer in similar reconfigurations of feminism most focal articulation of marginality, or the obsessive attention that it has recently paid to the racial body. Is the body in race subject or object, or is more dangerously an objectification of a methodology that aims for radical subjectivity? . . . . In contesting what she claims is a ‘colonialist move’, Mohanty proceeds to argue that ‘western feminists alone become the true ‘subjects’ of this counter-history. Third-World women, on the other hand, never rise above the debilitating generality of their ‘object’ status.’ A very literal ethic underlies such a dichotomy, one that demands attention to its very obviousness: how is this objectivism to be avoided? How will the ethnic voice of womanhood counteract the cultural articulation that Mohanty too easily dubs as the exegesis of Western feminism? The claim to authenticity – only a black can speak for a black; only a postcolonial subcontinental feminist can adequately represent the lived experience of that culture – points to the great difficulty posited by the ‘authenticity’ of female racial voices in the great game that claims to be the first narrative of what the ethnically constructed woman is deemed to want. (247)

Suleri is quite critical of Trinh T. Minh Ha’s Woman, Native, Other and Bell Hooks’ Yearning: Race, gender, and cultural politics. In both cases, her primary concern is with race-based identity politics. The quote she pulls from Bell Hooks is so atrocious, it made me wonder how anyone could take Hooks seriously.

1 comment:

  1. Where does the Christian idea of the veil - which has not been repudiated by the papal council - connect with these views?