Sudipta Chakraborty Assistant Professor in English Department of English Sreegopal Banerjee College Hooghly, West Bengal
Since its inception under the aegis of Enlightenment philosophy and democratic idealism during the late eighteenth-century, which marks the consolidation of ‘modernity’, feminism had closely been associated with the movement of ‘human rights’ as a vitally integrated humanist manifestation of its political premises in Europe. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), J.S. Mill’s The Subjection of Woman (1869) and Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) are some of its prominent Anglo-American examples. In her A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf introduced the term “patriarchal”, which describes a disabling socio-cultural, economic and educational condition for women impeding their individual development into a creative personality unlike their male counterparts. Simone de Beauvoir’s influential The Second Sex (1949) identified woman as the negative “other” to the figure of man as the dominating “subject”. Her study remains a seminal contribution to the widely-held distinction between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ in feminist theory. The concept of ‘gender’ signifies the generation of patriarchal constructs of identifying (in terms of biological determinism) which human traits are to be conceived as essentially ‘feminine’ and, therefore, necessarily inferior to ‘masculine’ ones. After Beauvoir the issues of woman’s rights could hardly be accommodated within the ‘liberal’ master-discourse of human rights movement in view of the unequal ‘gender’ status between men and women in the society, and started falling into a radical discourse of its own with clear signs of a departure from liberal humanist tradition to the direction of a politically significant theoretical formulation.
The success of woman’s suffrage movement in the U.K. and the U.S.A. (popularly known as the ‘first wave’ feminist movement) led to more radical claim for securing women’s legal and social rights by the Anglo-American and continental ‘second wave’ feminists, notably, French feminists in the 1960s and 70s. Since mid-80s, alongside the ‘third wave’ feminism in the West in reaction to the failures and limitations of the ‘second wave’, radical feminism as women’s movement for rights became witness to its ideological dispersal in the international framework. For a number of so-called third world feminists like South Asian, African and Chicano feminists the question of the ‘gender’ status of Third World women turns relevant once again. But they approached the old issue with new models of cultural interrogation, and sought to reconstruct a novel variant of radical feminist discourse in disagreement with the common practice of activists’ obsequious campaigning for women’s legal rights in the form of constitutional amendment or reform. At the same time, their motivation stemmed from a perceived threat from the Western feminist scholarship of a neo-imperialist politics of ‘silencing’ or negative stereotyping of the economically underprivileged third world women as passive ‘victims’ of dominant patriarchal (or “androcentric”) ideologies. They engaged themselves critically with the project of returning the patronizing ‘gaze’ of Western feminism by refusing to
lapse into the decades-old debate over biological essentialism on the one hand, and by way of asserting the primacy of race and class in the social and cultural construction of gendered ‘self’ in the underdeveloped nations of the third world on the other. It is precisely at this point that the theoretical debate internal to contemporary feminism(s) turns relevant for the vibrant women’s rights movements in third world countries where social, cultural, economic and material circumstances conditioning and determining the gendered subject-position of a ‘woman’ are significantly different from those of Europe and the U.S.A. As it appears to us, third world feminists and activists of women’s rights have mutually agreed on envisioning their ‘thirdness’ in terms of signifying alternative agency and empowerment in the geopolitical context of uneven development and not that of a necessarily marginalized, and therefore, permanently disabled subject-position in relation to the ‘first world’:
Recently, women of certain countries and backgrounds have appropriated the term [third world] in part because it reminds their audience of historical and contemporary relations of power between developed and less developed countries which they want to challenge, because it is flexible enough to refer to underdeveloped communities within developed countries, and because it avoids the judgements associated with “less developed” and “underdeveloped”. (Ackerly 2000, 16)
Together these feminists have systemically contested the essentializing theorization of ‘second wave’ feminists ― “sisterhood is global” ― which presupposes white Western ‘woman’ as representative of universal womanhood. According to them, a strategic recognition of the role and identity of woman struggling under a multitude of discriminations in the post-colonial society should be a necessary precondition for giving women’s rights movements a culturally meaningful and politically effective direction, and in course of working on this premise they have thrown a pedagogical challenge to the third world academia still continuing in the Western liberal humanist discourse of ‘human rights education’.
But then, any discussion around the phrase ‘third world feminism’ must warrant us to take into consideration two cautionary facts that may enable its readers to have a proper understanding of the origin and status of a non-Western version of feminist discourse. Firstly, third world feminism does not necessarily imply an absolute negation of ‘West’ or its rich libertarian heritage of revolutionary ideals. European colonialism has recast and redefined colonial subjectivity so radically that no third world recuperative project concerning the rights of the socially marginalized or subaltern groups could revert back to the concept of an uninterrupted and linear development of historical consciousness. Instead of indulging in a pre-colonial fantasy, third world feminists have concentrated on the divergent strategies that their nineteenth- century forerunners have adopted both in negotiation with and in contradistinction to Western discourses of liberty derived from philosophies of Enlightenment. For example, in her anthology titled Feminism in India (2005), Maitrayee Chaudhury argues that though issues of women’s rights and gender discrimination have always been at the centre of a fervent Indian feminist tradition, Indian feminists have consistently addressed and worked over these issues in reference to their material situatedness within a colonial society necessitating considerable modifications and paradigm shifts of emancipatory techniques, which are viable only within the English society with its different ideas of family, community and maternity. Since the publication of Tarabai Shinde’s article, “A Comparison of Men and Women” in the late nineteenth-century, we have noticed a continuous process of appropriating the colonial condition in favour of projecting the vision of a new future on the part of Indian women activists. Secondly, the discourse of third
world feminism must be wary of what may be described as ‘politics of multiculturalism’. This phrase refers to the common practice of Western ‘third wave’ feminists to reduce the historical and ideological differences among a range of third world feminisms with their specific national, racial or ethnic locations of belonging and commitment to a homogeneous or even cross-cultural uniformity of articulations. An imagined coherence devoid of any possibility of a dialectical interplay between the Indian, African, or Mexican variant of feminist critical practices denies them any claim to political autonomy and independent histories of struggle. Moreover, there is a sharp tendency, quite Eurocentric in nature, among Western feminist scholarship to privilege the
U.S. based ‘black’ feminism over third world feminisms even to the extent of an uncritical identification of the former with the latter. The underlying impulse is to establish the black ‘African-American woman’ as the normative identificatory category of oppressed woman (both of racism and sexism) in its wide metaphorical currency within theoretical discourse as well as a point of reference in empirical analysis. Such universalizing codification is based upon the theoretical fallacy of confusing the ‘ideological’ or the ‘discursive’ with the ‘material’ and that of invoking the old and dated over-generalizations founded upon biological distinctions in total disregard of the social and the economic determinants of a particular marginalized collectivity within a specific culture or nation.
The phrase “third world feminism” came into prominence with Chela Sandoval’s celebrated article, “US Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness” (1991:2000), in which she delineated the “oppositional consciousness” of US third world feminists as an emergent phenomenon in the discourse of “third wave” feminism pitted against what she chose to describe after Gayatri Spivak as the “hegemonic feminist theory” of Western or White feminism. But even earlier than Sandoval’s programmatic advocacy of a “third world feminism”, it is rather in another influential article, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse” (1991:2000), Chandra Talpade Mohanty dared to contest theoretical premises mentioned in the previous paragraph in her insightfully sociological analysis of the foreclosure and structuration of indigenous articulations of femininity in the prison-house of Western feminist ideologies. Her essay contributed much to the contemporary popularity of the term “third world feminism” by transplanting, rather than supplanting one for the other, Kate Millet’s universally applicable “sexual politics” to the arena of cultural discourse with its “material and ideological specificities that constitute a particular group of women as ‘powerless’ in a particular context” (Mongia 2000, 177). The idea behind
C.T. Mohanty’s critique of Western feminism has ideological affinity with other non-Western feminists participating all in their distinct ways in the polyphonic discourse of post-colonial feminism(s), which takes a revisionist stance in respect of the politics of sexual difference as has been rendered ‘universal’ within Western feminist discourse and proposes, instead, what Reina Lewis and Sara Mills describe as “the social construction model of gender” (2003: 4). Thus, C.T. Mohanty’s article poses a serious challenge to the academia not only because it remains a standing critique of Western ‘ethnocentrism’ in the field of feminist representation of non-white, non-European ‘woman’ as passive victim of a universally homogeneous patriarchy but also because it helps transform the foundational ideas of feminism such as ‘gender’, ‘sexual difference’, ‘femininity’ and even ‘patriarchy’ from a radical non-white perspective. The conclusion that sexuality and power relations between man and woman within a society are culturally predicated, is pretty evident in Mohanty’s sustained critique of “five specific ways in which ‘women’ as a category of analysis is used in Western feminist discourse of women in the
third world” (Mongia 178), and is particularly so when she boldly asserts that “sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete historical and political practice and analysis” (Mongia 178). Moreover, Mohanty’s article has serious implications for redirecting human rights education to a pedagogical radicalism. The urgency of liberating the discourse of human rights from the Eurocentric liberal humanist discourse of rights has been implicitly conveyed towards the end of her article:
To conclude, then, let me suggest some disconcerting similarities between the typically authorizing signature of such Western feminist writings on women in the third world, and the authorizing signature of the project of humanism in general ― humanism as a Western ideological and political project which involves the necessary recuperation of the ‘East’ and ‘Woman’ as Others. (Mongia 191)
The critical discourse of “third world feminism” presupposes not only a deconstruction of the Western feminist (mis)representation of ‘third-world woman’ but also of a reconstruction of a contestatory discourse of collective and individual awareness of ‘rights’ on the part of third- world women in the colonial past as well as in the post-colonial present. For the third world feminist intellectual the issue at stake, here, is how to build up historically and politically informed discourses of third world feminism, in which third world women are the active agents of their own projects of emancipation from male hegemony. In fact, a self-reliant critical practice and analysis of the subject-position of third world women calls for a defiant gesture of crossing the ideological shadow lines between the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’, the ‘progressive’ and the ‘retrogressive’, the ‘subject’ and the ‘object’ that structure the stereotypical discourses of Western feminist writings on third world women to a great extent. The fulcrum of this emergent critical discourse turns on a refreshingly novel perception of the ideological and ontological autonomy of third world female subjectivity within discourses of resistance to sexual politics. Ideologically, the third-world ‘woman’ stands under no such obligation either to invade or to imitate a supposed ‘centre’ of liberated and modernized womanhood, which is historically available with the Western feminism in credence to its Enlightenment origin. In terms of her own historically and culturally contingent backdrop of non-European and non-White national identity, she awakens to an intellectually enlivening realization of her ever-present agency in the discourse of women’s liberation. Ontologically, she also comes to decipher and dramatize the profound resourcefulness of her indigenous or post-colonial selfhood and ‘body’ in the articulation of her ‘difference’ and freedom.
A theoretical problem arises at this point. Clearly, third world feminisms cannot entirely do away with the legacy of anti-patriarchal aggression and individualistic rationalism underlying the discourse of Western feminism, and yet tend to be local, indigenous and community-oriented in the critical analysis of the representation of the third world woman by Western feminists as well as the construction of indigenous womanhood in colonial discourses. Following Geetha Ramanathan and Stacy Schlau (1995), we may assert that third world feminisms occupy an interstitial “mid-space between these positions” and, thereby, form our richly nuanced basis of understanding the historical role of third world women in resisting the dominant ideologies of either colonial rule or indigenous patriarchy. This interstitial space is simultaneously real and metaphoric, concrete and abstract, and finally a location of theorization and ‘belonging’. Any third world feminist, who chooses to address the problems of gender discrimination and exploitation within the cultural logic of respective third world national contexts, inhabits this interstitial space of ‘difference’ quite precariously but with substantial claim to intellectual
integrity or authenticity often braving the common charge of what Uma Narayan (1997) describes as “Westernization” levelled against her. Voluntarily she commits herself to an ‘in- between’ space of irreducible alterity that not only proffers her the circumscribing knowledge of the historical and the material relations of power structuring the sensibility of a third world woman in the gendered reality of a patriarchal society but also inspires her to explore and engage with alternative discourses of empowerment available within every culture of third world societies. Kumari Jayawardena’s Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (1986) may be cited as a widely acclaimed third world feminist text that gives particular attention to this permanently available resource of indigenous ‘modernity’ empowering third world women throughout the history of gender exploitation and patriarchal violence.
Celebrating her particular interstitiality, a third world feminist may ideologically be said to approximate the subject-position of a diasporic intellectual. Like a diasporic intellectual, a third world feminist finds herself dislocated within her own society and exploits every form of anti-hegemonic practices to re-locate herself eclectically within her chosen version of community and tradition, meaning that she reconstructs an agency-based and socially empowering text of indigenous womanhood. It situates her paradoxically both within and outside the ‘given’ space of indigeneity or nationality which she criticizes for constricting her ‘voice’, yet nevertheless feels herself inalienably tied to. In this respect, third world feminist critical practice engages itself with literal and metaphoric border-crossing activities in a fashion similar to diasporic intellectuals. For the sake of convenience, we may describe this consolidated programme as ‘diasporization’ of feminist discourse in the third-world. Overriding their conflicting ‘group’ interests and identifications, third world feminists across the world try to reach out to each other not only on the basis of their common refusal of universalizing tendencies within Western feminism but also on that of their shared yet particular experience of slavery, migration, subjugated resistance, place and gendered difference shaping their responses to imperialism. It breeds a spirit of inclusiveness-in-difference beyond the necessary commitment to locational origin among the third-world feminists who are all preoccupied with the common task of decentering the hegemonic ‘centre’ of Western feminism on the one hand, and disrupting the assimilationist discourse of liberal humanism on the other. Presence of such latent affinity erases the insider-outsider or indigenous-migrant binarism in third-world feminism as well. For an instance of cultural insiders reaching out to the outside, we may cite Barbara Smith’s celebratory comments on the now-classic volume of This Bridge Called My Back (1981), co- edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa:
Like Black women, Native American, Asian American, and Latin women are involved in autonomous organizing at the same time that we are beginning to find each other. Certainly This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color [. . .] has been a document and a catalyst for these coalitions. I think more than any other single work, This Bridge has made the vision of Third World feminism real. But with the reality of connection among women of color, we confront again the fact of difference. (2000: xliv)
Furthermore, we may turn to Bapsi Sidhwa, a US-based Parsi writer, for her comments that illustrate her passionate attachment to her South Asian identity with the implication that she is trying to bridge the gap between her expatriate location and indigenous origin across territorial and ideological boundaries:
I’m a Parsi first, then a Pakistani, specifically a Punjabi. I’m woman simply by gender. I don’t feel American at all. My consolidated 3P identity has enriched my writing. (2005: 4)
Also at the theoretical level since the inception, we find the cultivation of ‘interdisciplinarity’ within the discourse of third world feminism encouraging us to read its critical practices in terms of the migrant metaphor of border-crossing. Justifiably, Chela Sandoval describes the emergent academic space of third world feminism as a “juncture” or “location” where “the praxis of U.S. third-world feminism links with the aims of feminism, race, ethnicity, sex and marginality studies, and historical, aesthetic, and global studies can crosscut and join together in new relationships through the recognition of a shared theory and method of oppositional consciousness” (2000: 62). From our above-made references we may infer that “third world feminism” is an ambivalent and fluid term that always advocates the necessity of recasting the third world feminist ‘self’ in a mode of perpetual transition and that of configuring cross-cultural spaces of belonging as well.
Third-world feminism possesses deep affinity with a more capacious and location- oriented or ‘topographical’ (from Greek topos, i.e. ‘place’) form of contemporary feminism, which is post-colonial feminism. We may quote Sara Mills to illustrate the noticeable similarity in theoretical approach between these two forms of feminisms: “Post-colonial feminism, because of this concern to move away from a simplistic Western individualistic analysis of agency, which does not ‘fit’ models of indigenous female behaviour, has tried to develop new ways of describing and theorizing agency” (Jackson & Jones 1998: 104). In fact, post-colonial feminists like Gayatri Spivak and Anne McClintock reacted to a deep-seated contradiction in the anti- essentialist ideology of Western feminism. The foundational premise of Western feminism is that ‘woman’ is only a gendered sign and not an ‘essence’. But while addressing and talking about non-white and non-European women, Western feminists frequently cast them in a type or role or ‘essence’. Again, for the post-colonial and third world feminists, an ideological perplexity crops up precisely at this juncture and makes them struggle to win a point in this debate with Western feminism. Imagining indigenous or third world women without an ‘essence’ makes it difficult to analyze and theorize the mobilization of collective agency, particularly, in historical moments of resistance against imperialism and patriarchy. Gayatri Spivak tries to resolve the dilemma by advancing the theory of “strategic essentialism” with its obvious ambiguities. But it is third world feminists who have contributed more meaningfully and in a historically nuanced manner to this problem of ‘essence’ and ‘agency’. They have foregrounded a variety of gender performances by third world women in the context of colonial history and their analyses have shown us the fallacy of casting indigenous womanhood in a stereotyped or representative role. In their view, the opposition between ‘essence’ and ‘agency’ in indigenous womanhood stems from the more fundamental hiatus between the reading strategies of ‘West’ or ‘first-world’ and its ‘other’, the ‘third world’. In this respect, briefly we may refer to two instances of oppositional reading practices by renowned third world intellectuals, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (1993) and Dipesh Chakraborty (1992). For both of them, the stereotyped or essentialist images of indigenous woman as passive victim (e.g. Rajan’s ‘Sati’) and retrogressive subject (e.g. Chakraborty’s traditional Indian woman) are basically historical constructs instituted by the hidden collusion between European imperialism and nationalist patriarchy, and therefore, an alternative reading strategy needs to be devised in order to contest and disrupt such derogatory imaginings. Our purpose to cite Dipesh Chakraborty’s seminal essay, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?”, is to show the interdisciplinary affinity between third world feminist discourse and subaltern historiography. Our attention is particularly drawn towards Chakraborty’s reference to the nineteenth century autobiography of Ramabai
Ranade. He quotes extensively from Ramabai’s text to show instances of familial opposition to an enthusiastic Ramabai’s practice of frequenting the public meetings under the reformist inspiration of her husband, M. G. Ranade. The opposition came chiefly from her mother-in-law and her husband’s sisters who spoke on behalf of the restrictive order of ‘old’ patriarchal extended family, but interestingly enough, whose language betrays “their own sense of self- respect and their own forms of struggle against men” (Mongia 237). Their reiteration of women’s relative autonomy in preserving the age-old values within an Indian family, even at the cost of disobeying their husbands’ instructions sometimes, gives us the impression not only of “the deep ambivalences that marked the trajectory of the modern private and bourgeois individuality in colonial India” (Mongia 238) but also of an alternative perspective of envisioning women’s agency in colonial patriarchy. From this alternative stand-point, Chakraborty interrogates the standardized historical reading of India’s transition into ‘modernity’ in terms of the national subjects’, particularly women’s, gradual exposure to the liberal ideals of Western Enlightenment. Both Rajan and Chakraborty have contemplated the issue of woman’s ‘agency’ in close relation to the historical and ‘performative’ context of indigenous womanhood. Time and again, their accounts make us aware of the fatal error of reading ‘essence’ in third world women from the perspective of Western feminism only because such reading practice serves to hide our own history from our perception and forces our imagination to remain forever colonized.
Discussing the critical exploration of woman’s agency in third world feminist discourse, we must not restrict our attention to historical investigations into the colonial or pre-colonial past. We need to extend it to the discussion of third world feminists’ fervently creative engagement with post-colonial experiences of female subjectivity as well. But this is too vast an area to be accommodated comfortably within the limited space of our article. For the sake of convenience and brevity, we would like to refer to a representative instance in the personal account of our contemporary writer-cum-activist Taslima Nasrin. In this particular instance, Nasrin writes about her experience of attending an evening party at Gulshan. She expresses her deep disgust at the affectation and vanity of the so-called well-educated and Westernized women of aristocratic society present there in the following manner:
Why is this perversion? Why do they erase their own first names under the prefix ‘Mrs’? Again, by adulterating their academic education with inordinate riches they invent for themselves a quaint culture which is neither Bengali nor English. While speaking Bengali, I have noticed, their tongue gets benumbed, as it were, and does not at all help them in pronouncing vowel sounds clearly. None of them is known by her own name. They stay at home just as companions to their husbands and travel abroad. They nurture an alien culture in parties at home, [and] they go swaying and rolling at each other with hi! and hello! [translation mine] (2009: 107).
On her way back home she reflects poignantly on those women’s utter ignorance of their inauthentic existence and their alienation from the socio-economic reality of the country they inhabit:
I had the misfortune to be a witness to the perversion that a few families in an impoverished country are exposed to. While returning home from Gulshan I think over the political and economic bankruptcy of the country, and I feel wretched in dismay thinking of these cackling women who are intellectually dead. I feel like bending my head in despair and dismay thinking of the unfortunate country and its equally unfortunate women. [translation mine] (108)
This is a suggestive moment, we may say, from where a radical woman like Taslima starts contemplating the identity and rights of ‘third world women’ concretely with a significant departure from an absurd and servile practice of Western mimicry.
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