Review of "Under the Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses"

by Monireh Mohammadi
Thursday, January 3, 2013

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Under the Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, in Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Duke University Press, 2003.

 

In Under the Western Eyes, Chandra Talpade Mohanty criticizes homogeneous perspectives and presuppositions in some of the Western feminist texts that focus on women in the third world. More specifically, the author anchors her accounts of Western feminism in a select group of texts produced by Fran Hosken, Maria Cutrufelli, Juliette Minces, Beverly Lindsay, and Patricia Jeffery published by Zed Press in what is entitled the Third World Series. According to Mohanty, these writers draw attention to the codification of scholarly writings that discursively colonize and ghettoize non-Western, “Third World” women as the collective Other. She argues that the universal categorization of a large group of women in non-Western countries is mostly done through constructed monolithic terms and classifications. This approach is keen, she argues, to label women in the Third World countries as “poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, and victimized,”i overlooking the extant complexity, diversity, and multiplicity of women in the non-Western world. Mohanty challenges the notions that over-categorize non-Western women without considering the class, ethnic, and racial contexts to which they belong to. It is noteworthy to mention that, although Mohanty’s analysis is mostly focused on the specific works by the aforementioned writers, feminist writers in the non-Western world, too, can benefit from her criticisms when aiming to write or theorize about the lives of women in rural and impoverished regions.

Under the Western Eyes (UWE) uncovers ethnocentric notions that not only ignore diversity among women belonging to a large geographical spectrum, grouping them with one universal identity—i.e. victims—but also lead to a constructed discourse of what Patricia Hill Collins terms as “dichotomous oppositional differences that invariably implies relationships of superiority and inferiority.”ii The over-generalization of women, Mohanty argues, damages the solidarity and unity among women, and also stratifies them into two opposite groups: Western women, who are universally liberated, enjoy equality, have control over their own bodies and sexuality, who are also superior, intelligent, and educated, vis-à-vis the group categorized as the “Third World women,” who are universally uneducated, victimized, sexually battered, and hence in need of some kind of salvation. This implicit categorization implies asymmetries of power that sets Western feminism as gatekeeper of knowledge through texts and language vis-à-vis the Third World women who are oppressed victims.

Looking at the discursive practice in the production of knowledge, Mohanty deconstructs colonization themes that define women of the Third World as archetypal victims. According to Mohanty, while Hosken and Lindsay focus on the relationship between human rights and female genital mutilation in Africa and the Middle East, they portray all African and Middle Eastern women as victims of male violence, hence objects-who-defend-themselves, and their male counterparts as a group who “share the same political goal: to assure female dependence and subservience by any and all means,”iii hence subjects-who-perpetrate-violence. This archetypal grouping freezes women in a socio-political powerless position and fixed space which problematizes any possible transition—since what remains is only a dual system.

The totalization that Mohanty criticizes forms a dual system that traps people in the Third World into two uniform groups, sustaining the structure and functioning of power relations in what Foucault terms as the “juridico-discursive” model of power. This model, both Foucault and Mohanty claim, imposes a “cycle of prohibition and uniformity” that locks all movements into an either/or mode. According to this dualism, once women find an opportunity to exit the victim status, they inevitably fall into the role of the perpetrator or the oppressor—a further impediment to the realization of the feminist vision: the pursuit of gender justice and equality. As the abovementioned type of Western feminism closes itself to the possibility of other ways of thinking, it also places itself in charge of thinking on behalf of those it deems victims/helpless/incapable.

At each stage of UWE, Mohanty enhances her argument by bringing eye-opening examples from various sources. For instance, she refers to Maria Rosa Cutrufelli’s book entitled Women of Africa: Roots of Oppression. According to Mohanty, Cutrufelli also repeats similar claims by Lindsay and Hosken and writes that since all African women are economically dependent, their main source of income is prostitution.iv While Mohanty criticizes such distorted worldviews, she sarcastically asks whether it would be at all possible to write a book titled Women of Europe: Roots of Oppression and pose similar claims as Cutrufelli and have it published by Zed Press. Mohanti further elaborates:

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 sociological grouping characterized by common dependencies or powerlessness that problems arise—we say too little and too much at that same time.v

In UWE, through various accounts Mohanty attempts to contextualize the complexity of women in the non-Western world, in particular to cultural practices that are viewed as universally oppressive when examined by Western eyes. She mentions, for instance, that it is inaccurate to generalize the concept of veiling in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and India as a way of sexual control over women or as a universally oppressive reality. She argues that the veiling in Iran, for example, should be looked at from a different perspective at different historical junctures—during the Revolution of 1979, for example, some women used the veil as a means of solidarity with their working-class sisters who were active in street demonstrations. In the post-Revolution period, on the other hand, the Iranian regime forced veiling as part of a mandatory religious law. The point, in short, is that it would be intellectually lazy to bundle all veiling into a single pejorative category. Having said that, the voluntary veiling by a small group of Iranian women during the Revolution, however, was an isolated and short-lived exception that, to my opinion, does not lend itself as a particularly good example for Mohanty’s argument. Although the veil has become far from being solely a traditional cover for women in Iran, in post-revolution the concept of veiling is indeed a single universal form of severe oppression on Iranian women. This is because, regardless of a woman’s own conviction on veiling, refusing to veil is punishable by religious laws that apply to all women in Iran. Thus, even if Iranian women use the veil to negotiate and contest their social and public presence, it does not change the nature of oppression that is imposed indiscriminately from above. Although this particular example is unhelpful to Mohanty’s argument, she is nonetheless right to dismantle a universal view that assumes veiling is a means of oppression on all women throughout the entire Muslim world, full stop. This view denies the existence of veiled women who are not forced to veil but do so anyway according to their own religious convictions while employing full agency over their lives all the while refusing to consider themselves as powerless or oppressed.

Another interesting claim that Mohanty tackles in UWE belongs to the reductionist approach taken by Juliette Minces, who has focused on women in Arab and Islamic societies. Minces argues that since the tribe and family are the only patriarchal social structures that a Muslim woman typically knows, the only status that she acquires in such a society is of a mother, wife, or sister. This in turn, Minces argues, has led Muslim women across these societies to have “an almost identical vision” of themselves.vi Minces view, Mohanty claims, not only assumes a singular kinship system to be the effecting factor of the oppression of women, but also fails to consider the class and cultural differences that exist across these societies. She further points out that Minces fails to mention any specific practices in the family that cause the oppression of Arab and Muslim women. Again, this sort of worldview of women in Muslim society not only victimizes all Muslim women but also undermines their ongoing struggles, efforts, and achievements.

An appropriate example from the post-Revolution struggle of Iranian women can clarify Mohanty’s criticism of Minces’ claim. First, it is important to bear in mind that it is incorrect to presuppose and collectively categorize all Iranian women as victims. Although the current male-centric theocratic regime in Iran actively attempts to assign women to their traditional roles of home-making, Iranian women have nevertheless refused to sit at home and become dependant or sexual victims. Their active presence in the resistance to the Iranian regime has manifested in the women’s rights movement and a variety of campaigns, one of which is the renowned Campaign for One Million Signatures for Change.vii The staggering growth of women’s participation in higher education and the work force in Iran strongly indicates that Iranian women are active and determined to stay in the public sphere rather than limit themselves to traditional roles of homemaking. Since the 1990s, more than 60 per cent of Iran’s university students have been women, a statistic that has led the Iranian government to impose quotas in order to limit the number of female students entering universities.viii Between 1994 and 2008, the number of NGOs in Iran that were founded and run by women for women went from 54 to 600.ix The active public presence and surge of female writers, filmmakers, lawyers, human rights activists, and scientists is another indication of the endeavours and achievements of Iranian women who refuse to be placed in a fixed status by any group, being it Western feminism or fundamentalist oppressors. All this, in a word, makes nonsense of any account that homogenizes women in the developing, Third World, or Muslim world.

Mohanty is aware that given the inherence of politics in the discourse of culture, lack of consciousness about the effect of Western scholarship on the Third World—and universally positing Third World women as victims in need of saviour—can lead to grave and broader consequences. Western scholarship, she warns, can potentially play into the hands of “contemporary imperialism, which is no longer only through fire and sword, but also through the attempt to control hearts and minds.”x The George W. Bush era is an example in which pervasive propaganda machinery used such discourses prior to the US attack on Afghanistan, a propaganda campaign that essentially advertised an imperialist war as one that was concerned with the liberation of Afghan women. The same propagandist discourses surface every now and then, whenever the tension between Iran and the West intensifies. Mohanty reminds us that constructed discourse on the Third World have implications far beyond a single nation’s borders.

In UEW, Mohanty also recommends that the implicit self-representation of some Western feminists that generalize Western women as secular and liberated is also not a complete picture of women in the West—if it were, then there would no longer be any need for feminist political activism in the West. Indeed, the struggle of women still continues in the West. Unfortunately, despite considerable achievements by Western feminists, there is still a range of social ills that are directly gender related. Statistics show, for example, that women in Canada still earn 30 per cent less than men, while domestic violence, sexual exploitations, and female human trafficking in the recent years have become urgent issues throughout North America.xi

Mohanty challenges the binary positioning of the women in the Third World against the women in the West vis-à-vis the complexity, diversity, and multiform extant in both worlds. Certainly, this dichotomous and limited Western-centric view cannot be helpful to women’s causes around the world but rather posits the superiority of one vis-à-vis the inferiority of the other. The types of Western feminism discourses that Mohanty critiques is by nature a colonialist discourse that implies the notion of “they” who are not like “us,” an over-determined discourse that creates two classes of women in which one necessitates the other—“one that enables and sustains the other.”xii According to Edward Saïd the “process of othering has everything to do with knowledge, and power acting through knowledge to achieve a particular political agenda in its goal of domination.”xiii Rudyard Kipling’s poem, White Man’s Burden, is a good example of an earnest attempt to understand the “other”xiv but which ultimately casts him or her as the “savage,”xv one who requires a sort of saving by the cultivated white man. One needs to simply replace the word “other” in Kipling’s poem with the “Third World women” and the word “savage” with “victim” to make sense of the particular colonial Western feminism celebrated in the Third World Series.

Under the Western Eyes informs us that the factor that unites women as sisters in struggle is the sociological understanding of the “sameness”xvi in withstanding oppression, regardless of class, culture, or geographical borders we belong to. In her commitment to feminist solidarity, Mohanty suggests that it is imperative to be mindful of the hegemony of the Western scholarly establishment when producing and disseminating texts that emphasize monolithic terms such as “Third World women.” Otherwise we give way to yet another form of discursive colonization that not only overlooks pluralism but also impedes the cause of women.

i Mohanty, Chandra Talpade.“Under Western eyes” in Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

ii Hill Collins, Patricia. “Learning From the Outsider Within, The Sociological Significance on Black Feminist Thought.” Beyond Methodology: Feminist Scholarship As Lived Research. Ed. Mary M. Fonow and Judith A. Cook, Indiana University Press, 1991.

iii Hosken, Fran. Female Genital Mutilation and Human Rights. Feminist

Issues 1, no. 3. Quoted in Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.

iv Cutrufelli, Maria Rosa. Women of Africa: Roots of Oppression. Quoted in Under the Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.

v Mohanty, Chandra Talpade.“Under Western eyes” in Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

vi Minces, Juliette. The House of Obedience: Women in Arab Society. London: Zed Press, 1980. Quoted in Under the Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.

vii http://1millionchange.info/english/spip.php?article225

viii http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/09/22/iran-ensure-equal-access-higher-education

ix http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/kt050309.html

x Abdel-Malek, Anouar. 1981. Social Dialectics: Nation and Revolution. Albany: State

University of New York Press, quoted in Under the Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. Feminist Review, No. 30 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 61-88..

xi http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/pubs/ht-tp/htta-tpem-eng.htm.

xii Mohanty, Chandra Talpade.“Under Western eyes” in Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

xiii Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

xiv Kipling, Rudyard. Complete verse, Anchor Press, 1989.

xv Ibid.

xvi Mohanty, Chandra Talpade.“Under Western eyes” in Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.


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