Feminism, Geography, and Chandra Mohanty

Feminism, Geography, and Chandra Mohanty

Julie Cupples
Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity
Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003, 300pp

Julie Cupples reviews a retrospective collection of essays by Chandra Mohanty on the geopolitics of gender and race.

Chandra Mohanty became widely known and celebrated (as well as critiqued) after her essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” which was originally published in 1986. This widely cited and many times reprinted essay was hugely influential to those of us engaged in cross-cultural feminist scholarship. The essay demonstrated that many researchers, particularly those trained and inserted within Western feminist scholarship, have tended to produce monolithic, universalising, and essentializing constructions of women in the Third World. Mohanty was particularly critical of the discursive production of the `Third World woman’ in writings on Gender and Development that tended to erase historical and geographical specificity. “Under Western Eyes” alerted us to the dangers of assuming that women are a coherent group upon which social, economic, or political processes act and enabled us, I believe, to produce work which engaged more seriously with the politics of knowledge production. I certainly have taken her words seriously and they have greatly influenced my own research practices and philosophies in Nicaragua and I have continued to use the essay as a basis for discussion in classes. Thanks in large measure to Mohanty, we learned the value of abandoning pretensions of global sisterhood in order to build both solidarity and a more politically effective feminist scholarship.

“Under Western Eyes” is the opening chapter of Feminism Without Borders, a collection of mostly previously published work representing Mohanty’s significant contribution to feminist post-colonial and transnational studies over the last two decades. Originally from Mumbai, India and today living and working as a professor of Women’s Studies at Hamilton College in the United States, Mohanty has added much to the debates on feminist epistemology and the politics of location. I enjoyed re-reading many of these texts, and their collection in a single volume is highly illustrative of the contribution and the challenges Mohanty has made to cross-cultural feminist scholarship.

The arguments in these texts will be familiar to many feminist researchers, whether they are re-reading them or encountering them for the first time. Indeed, at times from the vantage point of the early 21st century, many of Mohanty’s well digested and debated arguments now seem a little anachronistic. Of course, as Mohanty herself acknowledges, many of these issues, despite theoretical development and refinement by others, continue to be highly pertinent not just because of the resilience of gender and racial inequalities but because of the ways in which the latest phase of global capitalism, or what Mohanty has referred to as the military/prison/cyber/corporate complex, works to re-colonize marginalized subjects in complex ways and undermine gains fought for and achieved.

It seems valid, given the nature of this text, to outline Mohanty’s contributions to this body of thought that are brought together in this volume. One of Mohanty’s central endeavours has been to put issues of race and racism at the heart of feminist politics. Through detailed analyses of other people’s work as well as her own, Mohanty clearly illuminates how race cannot simply be added onto gender as another cumulative dimension of oppression but that ideologies of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality themselves are racialized. Mohanty also made calls in the 1980s for scholarship which is geographically and historically specific. The most valuable kind of feminist research is that which avoids specious generalizations about “Third World Women” or “Women in Africa” and instead takes the lived experiences of specific women as a basis for understanding and theorizing. In this regard, labels and definitions must never be used unthinkingly because they have the power to produce constructions and understandings of gender and race as well as to reflect them. Another of Mohanty’s prime aims has been to make explicit and effective the links between scholarship and activism. To do this, we need to acknowledge differences between women (and avoid universalizing narratives) while building coalitions and solidarities. Mohanty retains hope in the possibility of building feminist solidarities across national, racial, class, and sexual divides and suggests that a way forward here is to understand and theorize how the lives of both privileged and marginalized women are interconnected through global processes. Mohanty’s work also demonstrates how and why the politics of location matter. Our personal backgrounds and experiences and the identities we adopt for ourselves or have projected onto us have political and theoretical implications with which we must engage. Throughout this text Mohanty reflexively explores her multiple identities, for example, as a member of the secular elite in India, a foreigner in Nigeria, and a woman of color in the U.S., and shows how these identities have informed and continue to inform her feminist politics and scholarship. This is in keeping with Mohanty’s constant efforts to place experience at the heart of her work.

While she is clearly a standpoint feminist who believes in the analytical value of historical materialism and rejects what she sees as the cultural relativism of postmodernist thought, Mohanty is theoretically promiscuous. She draws on Foucauldian perspectives when necessary and her critique of universalizing positions means that her ideas have had great appeal for postmodernist feminists. She aims in her work to strike a careful balance between the discursive and the material, between experience and theory, and refuses to privilege one term over the other. Instead, she argues forcefully that feminist struggles are fought on both an ideological, representational level and an experiential, everyday level; thus she reminds us that the value of theory resides finally in its political effectiveness.

The text is divided into three main sections: (1) Decolonizing Feminism (2) Demystifying Capitalism (3) Reorienting Feminism. The first, in addition to “Under Western Eyes,” includes a reprint of a chapter which originally appeared in 1991’s Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, which also takes up the themes of knowledge and representation, focusing on the relationship between Third World Women, colonialism, and feminism. She illustrates how discourses of race and racism, which are profoundly gendered in their dimensions, were central to colonial rule. Given these legacies, writing - and in particular the writing of the lives of Third World women - should be seen as a political practice and should engage centrally with issues of race and racism as well as gender. This first section also includes “What’s Home Got to Do with it?” in which Mohanty analyzes Minnie Bruce Pratt’s 1984 autobiographical narrative, “Identity: Skin Blood Heart,” and develops a complex approach to understanding the relations between home, identity, and political change.

The second section brings together work on the gendered politics of the global labour market as well as two chapters on the U.S. university. Chapter 6 shows how ideologies of femininity, sexuality, and race are central to understanding the global labour market. By comparing the situations of workers in diverse locations, including lacemakers in Narspur, electronic workers in the Silicon Valley, and migrant women workers in Britain, (and by developing interesting analyses of existing scholarship), Mohanty demonstrates how similar ideological patterns exist within different class dynamics. She thus enables us to think about common struggles without universalizing women workers across the world. Chapters 7 and 8 provide insightful approaches to pedagogy and the corporatized university. While Mohanty is not unaware that certain contradictions inherent to capitalism lead to the creation of opportunities as well as constraints, and though she continues to view the academy as an important site of political struggle and change, she is nevertheless highly critical of the commoditization of higher education. She believes we need an anti-capitalist and feminist lens though which to critique the corporate restructuring of universities, which has decreased their public accountability and poses threats to both citizenship and democratic forms of participation. Mohanty offers a particularly interesting analysis of how university authorities have enacted strategies designed to reduce prejudice but which have instead created an insidious kind of diversity management whose effect is to occlude any awareness of historical contexts in favor of interpersonal ones.

The final section consists of just one ambitious chapter, “Reorienting Feminism,” which revisits “Under Western Eyes” nearly two decades after its original publication and addresses some of the responses and critiques of this significant essay. Here, Mohanty rejects the postmodernist readings of her work and attempts to reconnect to both materialist analyses and the universal. She urges feminist scholars to broaden their concerns and focus their struggle within the anti-globalization movement, where Mohanty finds hope for the future. This essay also explores how we might teach feminist studies in the early 21st century and suggests we might reject courses that adopt Feminist-as-Tourist (add and stir approach) or Feminist-as-Explorer (cultural relativist approach) models in favor of a comparative feminist studies alternative that would illuminate how the historical experiences of U.S. women of color, white women, and women in the Third World/South are interconnected.

One problem with this kind of book which draws largely on work published in the 1980s and early 1990s is that it fails to account for the significant ways in which more recent feminist research has addressed many of the concerns raised in its first two chapters. There is now a significant body of literature which attempts to make a theoretically sophisticated sense of the links between gender and globalization and of the importance of feminist struggles under neoliberalism. Work of this sort by feminist geographers such as Sarah Radcliffe, Nina Laurie, or Claire Dwyer is not even cited, despite the insights it has brought to Mohanty’s principal concerns. Much of this work has addressed the multiple connections between constructions of femininities, gender inequalities, and economic, cultural, and political globalization processes, as well as the ways in which these connections create both constraints and opportunities for women across the world. While the last chapter of Mohanty’s book attempts to reflect on how `Under Western Eyes’ has been received over the years and to outline her current thinking on the issues raised, none of the previously published works which are reprinted have been updated in any way. In this respect, Feminism Without Borders represents a lost opportunity to incorporate the insights of more recent feminist work and to more fully acknowledge that we are in a vastly different theoretical space today, thanks in part to the pioneering work done by postcolonial feminists such as Mohanty herself. Nevertheless, this collection would undoubtedly make a valuable starting point for undergraduate students wishing to gain an accessible and engaging overview of transnational feminist thought and how boundaries or borders produce particular politics and identities.