Those who have followed my previous posts know that I have decided to read a series of books on the subject of colonialism. As part of that, I wanted to include some books that fall under the category of postcolonial theory. Chandra Mohanty’s Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity is on almost every postcolonial reading list and is often cited as an important source. I wanted to also read one take that was dedicated to the women within the belief system known as postcolonialism. This is the fourth nonfiction book that I have read that can be considered a postcolonial source. I am also interested in feminist thought and theory, so the book is of interest to me in several ways. It will probably be the last book that I read, at least for awhile, that centers on the belief system known as postcolonialism. I will likely move on to more moderate and conservative writers who write about colonialism.
Mohanty is a Professor of women's and gender studies, sociology, and the cultural foundations of education and humanities at Syracuse University. She originally hails from Mumbai, India. In this book, she talks a lot about her background. She has written numerous essays and books on the subject of colonialism, feminism and the developing world. She is often cited as an important postcolonial thinker.
This book is actually a series of essays that Mohanty has written over the years. The essays were originally penned between 1986 and 2003. Her most famous piece, Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses, is included. The essays have been assembled here in an attempt to present a coherent picture of Mohanty’s philosophy as it pertains to colonialism and feminism.
Several factors make writing about his book tricky. First, Mohanty delves into numerous issues that are in and of themselves enormous and are the subject of large scale and complex controversy and debate. The issues include Capitalism, Marxism, Postmodernism, identity politics, intersectionality, humanism and, of course, feminism and colonialism. I could devote numerous blog posts to any one of these issues. In fact, I have already written a lot about colonialism and feminism several times. With all these hot button and complex issues addressed in this book, I cannot “boil the ocean” in this post. Instead, I will try to really focus upon just what the author has written with a few references to these larger issues.
Second, Mohanty can be maddingly unspecific. She tends to wade in halfway on an issue and does not provide specific examples, commentary or possible solutions. This makes it really difficult to discuss her arguments in depth. Complicating all of this further, some schools of thought, such as postmodernism and intersectionality, have been somewhat dominated or at least infused by extreme views in the past few years. Mohanty’s tendency to not dig too deeply makes it difficult to know if she advocates for these extreme views or not. I will give an example of what I mean by this below.
This book is essentially a philosophy book. The author lays out her view of the state of women in the developing world as well as women of color in the developed world. She labels all these women, even those who live in the United States and Europe, as Third World women. She goes on to state what she believes are the primary problems that women face worldwide and ways to raise them out of what she identifies as oppression.
Mohanty describes herself as an anticolonial, antiracist, anti-capitalist feminist. She espouses several main points in her various essays. One of the main themes of this book is Mohanty’s criticism of what she calls western feminism or white feminism. She argues that such feminism is actually a manifestation of colonialism and that it is an attempt to impose harmful values, such as economic empowerment of women. The author labels the economic empowerment of women as Western value that does not apply in the developing world. Through this criticism, the author brings many concepts such as capitalism and universalism in dealing with human issues under scrutiny. She further argues that western feminism, as well as the western world in general, has developed a false representation of women in the developing world that is inaccurately uniform and based upon stereotypes. This line of reasoning is similar to and partially derived from the writings of Edward Said. My commentary on his book Orientalismis .
Another major theme is what the author calls anticapitalism. Mohanty contends that capitalism, as well as globalism, is harmful to women all over the world. She ties capitalism to racism and misogyny. Mohanty views Marxism as a preferential system. She calls capitalism and globalism the results of colonization and what she labels recolonization that occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union. Thus, she refers to the changes that she advocates as decolonization.
The critique and resistance to global capitalism, and uncovering of the naturalization of its masculinist and racist values, begin to build a transnational feminist practice.
Here, Mohanty displays the frustrating vagueness that I refer to above. She gives a few seemingly obscure examples of why she believes that capitalism is harming third world women, but that is all. She also never really explains what she advocates as her version of Marxism.
Another important theme here is the author’s argument for a change in the higher educational system in developed nations. Once again, her lack of specificity is an obstacle to understanding and analyzing her writings. She advocates for including more ethnic diversity in college staff and reading material. She is clear about that point. She also seems to be advocating something of a revaluation of the methods used to ascertain truth. Thus, she calls for the decolonization of the educational process.
a public culture of dissent entails creating spaces for epistemological standpoints that are grounded in the interests of people and that recognize the materiality of conflict, of privilege, and of domination.
The above quotation may seem a little obscure, but I have run into similar language in postmodernist readings and have even run into it with people who advocate for postmodernist or postcolonial belief systems. If I am reading this correctly, spaces for epistemological standpoints seems to call for different ways of finding truths beyond what is often cited as reason, logic and science. Recognizing the materiality of conflict, of privilege, and of domination seems to be calling for the use of different methods based upon the background of the truth seeker.
A further clue to what the author is talking about comes when she refers to
The contrast between Western scientific systems and indigenous epistemologies and systems
This all seems to be indicative of the postmodern belief that absolute methods of finding the truth, such as logic and science, are not entirely valid or at least not the only ways to find the truth. Thus, the call to decolonize education. I should note that in one essay, the author does state that she does not consider herself a postmodernist but that she is sympathetic to many postmodernist ideas.
The author also advocates intersectionality, that is, the belief that all oppressions, such as sexism, racism and other forms of bigotry, overlap and are related. When an individual is looked at, all the various oppressions must be examined. In addition, power structures that are responsible for oppression are also related. Some branches of intersectionality contend that almost every interaction and action can be viewed within the framework of power and oppression.
I disagree with the anti-capitalism, anti-globalism and Marxism here. As I have written elsewhere, I agree with criticism of a lot of capitalistic practices. I agree with the author when she advocates for worker’s rights and the need to organize labor movements in the developing world. I am well aware that capitalism, especially in unregulated forms, has led to, and continues to lead to, misery. However, I think that capitalism, with sensible regulation accompanied with government support of economic and social fairness, is the best way to get to a more prosperous and just society. In the long run, it is in capitalist societies where women and minority groups have made the most gains.
I also disagree with Mohanty’s call to decolonize education. The tenants of reason, logic and science are some of the things that have driven human progress and that have alleviated suffering and injustice. I also do not believe that these methods and values are exclusively Western. Once again, societies in all corners of the world that have embraced these values have seen the greatest gains for women and minority groups.
Though, as I wrote above, I cannot delve into every controversial issue that this book raised, I want to mention intersectionality. As noted above Mohanty advocates intersectionality. This belief system has somewhat evolved in recent years. It is a big topic, and I cannot really examine it thoroughly in this post other than to make one point about Mohanty’s views. Recently a branch of intersectionality has become extremely preoccupied with white men and the supposed oppression meted out by white men. This extreme branch has gone further and has been accused of, I believe rightly so, of minimizing, excusing and sometimes even justifying violence and oppression committed by non-whites. As mentioned above, this is too big of a topic to address comprehensively in this post. However, in regards to this book, I should note that Mohanty does not make excuses for oppression and violence committed by non-whites. She is highly critical of oppression in the developing world (Mohanty explains how she prefers the term “Third World”). She rightly condemns both racist and violent Hindu Nationalism, of which she writes that some of her family members advocate, as well as the theocracies in Saudi Arabia and Iran. As I have observed in some advocates of intersectionality, she does not place blame on developed nations or upon white men for the ills perpetuated by these movements and governments. With all of that, it seems clear that Mohanty finds capitalism and globalism to be much bigger problems.
The fact that this book is so esteemed within both the postcolonial thought system and some branches of feminist thought make it important. Many people that I discuss these issues with adhere to postcolonial and /or intersectional beliefs that seem to have originated or at least were developed by Mohanty. I disagree with many of the author’s conclusions, but I also think that it is vital to read writers who have diverse opinions, even if we disagree with them. Thus, I am glad that I have read this book.