Postcolonial Feminism: Combating Colonial Rhetoric in Feminist Theory

Being the sixth part in a series on different feminisms, the fifth part was, “Individualist Feminism: A Libertarian Feminism.

Postcolonial Feminism is a subset of feminism that developed in the 1980s because it appeared that feminism only focused on the experience of women in Western cultures.

Within this essay the terms “Western,” “Western Feminism,” and “Mainstream Feminism” refer to ideas and cultures founded upon eurocentric ideals and espoused mostly within Europe and North America.

According to Chris Weedon (of Cardiff University) Postcolonial feminism seeks to account for the ways that racism and the long-lasting political, economic, and cultural effects of colonialism affect non-white, non-western woman in the postcolonial world.

In her article, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Chandra Mohanty points out the importance of Postcolonial Feminism, critiquing what she refers to as “Eurocentric” Feminism: “This mode of feminist analysis, by homogenizing and systematizing the experiences of different groups of women in these countries, erases all marginal and resistant modes of experiences.” Mohanty’s argument demonstrates the foundation laid by Postcolonial Feminists to observe and respect differences, as opposed to overlooking them.

A major component of Postcolonial Feminism is a critique of the feminist theories in developed countries. For instance,  the universalizing tendencies of mainstream feminist ideas and the ways women living in non-western countries tend to be misrepresented.

Mohanty unpacks this misrepresentation by invoking images of stereotypes typical in western understandings of different women in different cultures, including “the veiled woman,” “the powerful mother,” “the chaste virgin,” and “the obedient wife.” Mohanty points out that these images exist in “universal, ahistorical splendor.” Ultimately. Mohanty posits that  this causes “a colonialist discourse which exercises a very specific power in defining and maintaining existing first/third world connections.”

It is an empowering call that Mohanty puts forth, that women of any culture ignore not only being universalized with western women, but also with being universalized within any group, especially groups that do not share societal and cultural views and values, or groups that do not share a similar history.

Postcolonial Feminists combat misperception by telling their own stories, validating their existence, and being their own people, regardless of what other feminists claim they must or must not do.

Chilla Bulbeck, in her article, “Reorienting Western Feminism,” challenges western women to “Learn about the other woman, not as the stereotype we see in the popular media, either oppressed by foreign customs or as the exotic other, clad in coulourful difference.”

Postcolonial Feminists aim to educate Western Feminists in such a way that Western Feminists will construct their identities independent of the pejorative stereotypes of women they have othered. In this respect, Postcolonial Feminism does not build itself in complete opposition to other feminisms, not even Western Feminism, as it simply tries to restructure the feminist conversation to be more inclusive of previously ignored individuals.

Postcolonial Feminists aim to remind feminists that there is more than the label of “woman” to define and distinguish individuals or even groups of individuals. People can be defined by social class, race, ethnicity, and/or sexual preference, and all with a focus on the historical and social perspective of their respective society/culture. In this respect, Post Colonial Feminism illustrates early signs of intersectionality in feminism. Western feminisms, then as now, were dealing with Trans* exclusive radical feminists, white privilege, class privilege, and assuredly a laundry list of overlooked privileges.

Postcolonial Feminists note that while the West tends to create an othering binary that places them as the primary and the rest of the world as the secondary or other, that it can just as easily be perceived the other way around. Weedon argues that “The history of the West is, in large part, the history of its exploitation of its nonwhite, non-Western Others.”

Mohanty drives this point home: “only from the vantage point of the West is it possible to define the ‘third world’ as underdeveloped and economically dependent. Without the over-determined discourse that creates the third world, there would be no (singular and privileged) first world.”

In addition to criticizing the impacts of  Western privilege and its tendency to overlook intersecting struggles, thus ignoring historical, cultural, and societal differences, Postcolonial Feminists resist being homogenized, as Mohanty discusses: “However, it is the analytic leap from the practice of veiling to an assertion of its general significance in controlling women that must be questioned. 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. 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 Islamicization of Iran in the second), the concrete meanings attached to Iranian women wearing the veil are clearly different in both historical contexts.”

Because the concept of colonization involves both land acquisition and cultural enslavement (social, political, and/or economic), Marie-Claire Belleau asserts that Postcolonial Feminists critique traditional Western Feminism because it does not strive to understand the simultaneous engagement in more than one distinct, but intertwined, emancipatory battle that Postcolonial Feminists face (Belleau, “‘L’intersectionnalité’: Feminisms in a Divided World”).

Postcolonial Feminism helps shape feminism from a universality to a movement of individual experiences and struggles. Postcolonial Feminists struggle against the aftereffects of colonial oppression that sometimes results in the glorification of pre-colonial cultures. In many places, the pre-colonial culture had traditions of power stratification along gender lines, and women had very little power.

Therefore, when discussing Postcolonial Feminism, confronting racism is important; Cherrie Moraga, a writer and feminist activist, asserts in her essay  “Refugees of a World on Fire. Forward to the Second Edition”: “As Third World women we clearly have a different relationship to racism than white women, but all of us are born into an environment where racism exists. Racism affects all of our lives, but it is only white women who can ‘afford’ to remain oblivious to these effects. The rest of us have had it breathing or bleeding down our necks.”

Moraga goes on in that essay to discuss how Postcolonial Feminists desire to push feminist theory to address how individual people can acknowledge racist presumptions, practices, and prejudices within their own lives and try to stop their perpetuation through this awareness.

Postcolonial Feminism calls for a rejection of homogenization and universalizing of women; it calls for an understanding of historical, cultural, and social differences; and it calls on Western women to observe and combat racism even on the most intimate of levels.

In closing, Weedon, in “Key Issues in Postcolonial Feminism: A Western Perspective,” summarizes Postcolonial Feminism effectively: “Thinking difference in new, non-oppressive ways is a key objective of postcolonial feminism, both in the West and in the Third World.”

Works Cited

Bulbeck, Chilla. Reorienting Western Feminism: Women’s Diversity In A Postcolonial World. Cambridge University Press. 1997.

Belleau, Marie-Claire. “L’intersectionnalité”: Feminisms in a Divided World”. Feminist politics: identity, difference, and agency. 2007.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. 1984.

Moraga, Cherrie. “Refugees of a World on Fire. Forward to the Second Edition”. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. 1981.

Weedon, Chris. Key Issues in Postcolonial Feminism: A Western Perspective. Cardiff University. 2000.

Postcolonial Feminists of Note:

Chandra Talpade Mohanty

Yvonne Vera

Kirsten Holst Petersen

Barbara Smith

Gloria Anzaldua

Uma Narayan

Evelyne Accad

Gayatri Spivak

Heidi Safia Mirza

bell hooks

Jackie Huggins

Audre Lorde

Radhika Mohanram

Cherrie Moraga

Aileen Moreton-Robinson

Author’s Note: As a white, Western woman, I am offering up this brief summary of Postcolonial Feminism as a part of a grander series on different feminisms. I would like to request that interested persons send in their work or their favorite blogs, essays, zines and journals, and also to submit, if they are interested, testimonies concerning Postcolonial Feminism and/or critiques of traditional Western Feminisms to me at JessicaAFisher.15@gmail.com, so that I may share them while working on my next piece in the series.

With Thanks!

Jessica Fisher

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Categories: feminism, Jessica Fisher | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Postcolonial Feminism: Combating Colonial Rhetoric in Feminist Theory

  1. Pingback: Fat Feminism: Health At Every Size | Being Feminist

  2. ruiz

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