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Academic Corner

Time to consider postcolonialism

This is a book review of three important books for postcolonial feminism:
Ahmed, L. (1993). Women and gender in Islam: Historical roots of a modern debate.
Delphy, C. (2015). Separate and dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror.
Mohanty, C. T. (2005). Feminism without borders: Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity.

Juliette Roussel

Introduction

Postcolonialism gives attention to the power within discourses as much as feminist theories do (Gamble 2004: 277). In that sense, they are both looking at what is present and what is not within the dominant narrative (ibid.). Thus, postcolonialism reflects on the framing which is based on the colonial history and, thus, the categorisation of some people as abnormal, different or inferior (ibid.).

This paper investigates the benefits of working with post-colonial theories by looking at three important books in this domain. First, the book of Chandra Talpade Mohanty, called Feminism without borders: Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity (2005), focuses a lot on colonialism by the British in India. The second book, written by Leila Ahmed, is Women and gender in Islam: Historical roots of a modern debate which looks more at the Victorian colonialism in Egypt and the historical background of debates about Islam (1993). Christine Delphy’s Separate and dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror (2015) is the third book to be studied and analyses the situation in France more particularly. Within the postcolonial studies, Ahmed focuses on Islam (1993), where Mohanty discusses more race and culture (2005) by identifying a “Third world feminism” (Gamble 2004: 311). Finally, Delphy’s book looks at a variety of people, including women or queer people, for instance, seen as “Others” because of their race or religion (2015: 1).

These books bring the following question: “Why are post-colonial theories crucial in feminism?”. Throughout this book review, I argue that post-colonial theories are crucial in feminism because they enable a larger understanding of the feminist struggles. There are at least two main reasons to highlight. To start, post-colonial theories are a way to deconstruct the dominant narrative about gender and feminist issues. Secondly, they reconstruct feminism by integrating other practices and cultures to obtain more intersectional feminism with the combination of post-colonial issues and feminism.

Deconstruction

To begin, post-colonial theories enable us to deconstruct the dominant narrative within gender and feminist studies. With this in mind, the dominant feminism has to be identified and defined as well as the framing of the abnormal by the hegemonic discourse in feminism.

Ahmed gives particular attention to the different types of discourse about women in the Middle East throughout history (1993: 2-4). The author restates the modern discourses of women and Islam but also look at their roots in history (idem: 125-235). One of the dominant narratives regarding Islam is “colonial feminism” which appeared during the Victorian control of Egypt (1993: 151-154). Colonial feminism is the adoption of feminist goals “in the service of colonialism” (1993: 151). Ahmed adds that women struggles have been the subject of the imperialist narrative of Islam (ibid.). In fact, it applies to the colonisers using the women’s struggles to target the Islamic culture (idem: 152). For instance, the veil became a symbol of the inferiority and backwardness of Islam in colonial discourse (idem: 151-154). Ahmed argues that colonisers who were having sexist speeches in their own countries started to employ a feminist discourse to show that the colonised people’s culture was sexist (idem: 243). It portrayed the “Other men’s culture” as a sexist and irrational culture (idem: 151-155). Therefore, according to her, the Muslim woman or woman from the Middle East is the combination of the “culture of Other men” and women struggles (ibid.). Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that most of the work refers to Egypt, thus it is not always generalisable to every Muslim community or every Middle Eastern country. 

Another well-known critique of the main feminist discourse is done by Mohanty. She calls it “Western feminism” (Mohanty 2005: 17). Mohanty criticises specifically the framing of the “Third World women” as a different and homogenous group by the Western feminists (ibid.). She locates this dominant discourse as mostly present in the United States of America and Western Europe (ibid.). This phenomenon has roots in colonial history (idem: 56-59). However, she clarifies that she does not theorise Western feminist as homogenous but as feminists who identify themselves as such (idem: 18). Mohanty does not talk about the “other” per se but she talks about the “Third World women” as a framing by Western feminists (2005: 17, 18). When Mohanty mentions “Third World women”, she thinks about an analytical and political category of women sharing struggles about racism, colonialism, sexism and monopoly of capital (idem: 46). She adds that this is an invented community because they do not exist biologically only politically (idem: 46). To illustrate her argument, she focuses on six manners for Western feminists to portray Third World women (idem: 23-33). For example, she explains that Third world women are seen as victims of men violence, as dependents individuals or as inseparable from their familial status (ibid.). These Western feminists, denying other struggles and cultures, take their understanding of feminist struggles as the standard leads to the affirmation of universal feminism by Western feminists is, in reality, ethnocentric and harmful to Third World women because they misunderstand Third World women’s situation (idem: 19). As a result, Third World women should be heard about their own position and Western feminists should acknowledge their position. Nevertheless, this category of the Third world category remains vague and makes it difficult to understand clearly who are the Third World women.

In Delphy’s reading, it is not very clear what is seen as a dominant discourse because she talks about various discourses throughout the book as the discourse of the dominant group and the creation of the “Other” (2015: 1, 140, 143). Nevertheless, she explicitly mentions a “dominant and dominated group” (idem: 9). Delphy explains that the dominating group created the culture of the “Other” to designate the dominated group (idem: 22). Undoubtedly, the creation of the Other is central to her book (2005: 1). The main goal of her book is to understand the fabrication process of the “Other” in different contexts and in connection to feminism (ibid.). She explains the fabrication process of the “Other” by saying that it is a way to frame a certain population as out of the norm and less valuable than the majority to legitimise the oppression by the dominant group (ibid.). In this process, she demonstrates that the oppression of women, non-whites and gays are comparable because each of them divides the population into two groups “dominant and dominated” (idem: 8-10). Thus, she deconstructs this discourse of the “Other” to look at the background assumptions.

On the whole, the colonial and Western narrative, in that sense the dominant group’s narrative, needs to be deconstructed in feminism. According to Delphy and Ahmed, this group created a category of the “Other” inside feminism which needs to be re-thought. Mohanty refers to the Third World women as Delphy and Ahmed’s conception of “Other” and how the Western feminist created this fake sense of universality which is based on one standard: privileged white women.

Reconstruction

Another reason to support post-colonial theories in feminism is to build deeper intersectional feminism with the combination of post-colonial issues and feminism. To do so, there is a need to integrate other feminist discourses to the dominant one by studying race, religion and culture in relation to feminist struggles.

            Mohanty explains in her book that her second project, after deconstructing the dominant feminist discourse, is to construct and build new visions on Third World women by sharing their experiences in her second chapter (2005: 13). She mentions a “project of decolonisation” which means looking at important concepts in some women’s lives such as race (idem: 71). The concept of race must be studied in all its forms to understand how it works within society and the state system but also feminism (ibid.). Mohanty is advocating for the study of colonialism connected to gender but a particular aspect of her work is that she connects these two oppressions to an even bigger one: the capitalist struggles (idem: 6). In that manner, she argues that colonialism was driven by capitalist goals and therefore should not be forgotten in post-colonial studies (ibid.). She even argues in favour of an “anti-capitalist transnational feminist practice” which puts capitalism at the centre of the struggles but still while looking at cultural contexts (idem: 230). She adds that scholars should look at the marginalised people and knowledge (idem: 231). Hence, capitalism should be considered as the main enemy in feminism because it engenders other kinds of oppression to women.

In the case of Ahmed’s feminist theory focuses on the question of Islam. She writes a chapter about the veil which is very often debated in feminist discussions (Ahmed 1993: 144-170). She illustrates the meanings attached to the headscarf which were built during the colonial period (ibid.). She demonstrates that, within the feminist debates, there are different claims about the veil (ibid.). According to colonial feminism, the veil was considered as backward and oppressive for women (ibid.). However, during the struggle against colonial power, the veil also became an emblem of resistance to the colonial norms (idem: 164). This shows that in different contexts the same element can have different meanings and that the vision of the veil by one perspective cannot be taken as the universal understanding. Furthermore, the author explains that she does not think that Islamic societies are not oppressive for women but she thinks that the colonial misunderstanding of the culture puts the emphasis on the wrong things and for the wrong reasons (idem: 164-167). For instance, one of the major problems was the use of feminism to highlight the superiority of the coloniser’s culture (ibid.). Therefore, the feminist struggles in Muslim countries should be studied with a post-colonial lens to make sure that it does not misunderstand and denigrate other women’s culture or serve another cause than women’s one.

Anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia are very common in France, which is why Delphy also addresses the debate about the headscarf in France (2015: 128-138). The question of the veil in France is rooted in the colonial past of France (idem: 124-148). She states that the veil has become an emblem of gender oppression happening in the French poor suburbs (idem: 128-130). She adds that it is important for the French feminists from the dominant group to recognise that gender-based violence is not inherent in the “ghetto” culture, but misogyny is present everywhere in various forms depending on the place (idem: 140). Furthermore, racist rules cannot be justified by the fact that it would benefit women because of the “double oppression” of women concerned with racism (idem: 141). Consequently, sexism is everywhere and post-colonial studies enables to diversify the testimonies about sexism by also looking at the dominated group. However, the problem with this book is that it is looking at many different issues and lacks some focus to be able to grasp the full argumentation.

In general, in her post-colonial book, Mohanty claims for more consideration of the capitalist effect on women by looking at the experience of the Third World women. Furthermore, the post-colonial lens permits a better understanding of women’s struggles within their local settings. Ahmed shows that for the case of Muslim women postcolonialism is crucial to understand their position better. Finally, Delphy demonstrates that postcolonial theories enable us to see sexism in their various aspects and thanks to the diversity of experiences in postcolonialism.

Conclusion

To conclude, by looking at the three books’ arguments, I demonstrated that postcolonial studies have a critical viewpoint on the prevailing narrative about feminism. Furthermore, postcolonialism in feminism diversifies the perspectives and thereby makes feminism more inclusive. As a result, post-colonial theories are essential because they enable a wider understanding of feminist struggles. Finally, the three authors are post-colonialist scholars. However, they focus on different subjects and they also have different priorities. For instance, the harms produced by capitalism in Mohanty’s book is not as present in the two other books. The discourse about the Other is omnipresent in Delphy’s book where Ahmed focuses more on the effects of the evolution of Islam’s image in relation to women. Hence, the variety within postcolonial authors shows that is looking at a lot of struggles.

Bibliography:

Ahmed, L. (1993). Women and gender in Islam: Historical roots of a modern debate. Yale University Press.

Delphy, C. (2015). Separate and dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror. Verso Books.

Gamble, S. (2004). The Routledge companion to feminism and postfeminism, pp. 3-45. Routledge.

Mohanty, C. T. (2005). Feminism without borders: Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Zubaan.