Monday, June 10, 2019

Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity by Chandra Mohanty

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 here.

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. 

She writes, 

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.  

 Mohanty writes,

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. 


mudpuddle said...

it must have taken a lot of courage to tackle all of this... no offense, but the subject seems like a tornado in a handbasket... climate change, overpopulation, diminishing natural resources, etc. are the determinants that will, possibly in the short term, define the future of the human race... while conversing about the topics in your blog may provide intellectual and emotional interest, it's sort of like arguing which door to let the horses out of when the barn's on fire... still, i understand that such topics are imperative to many professional people, having to do with advancement in their particular fields and maintaining status with associates, but pragmatically, imo of course, it all may not matter too much in the next century... or decade...
i admire the effort and determination behind your research, though, and can't help but feel some valuable knowledge may come from studying the differing perspectives... interesting stuff... sort of...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle- You raise an interesting point. Though I think that humans will be OK with the population and resource issues. From what I understand the world population will stabilize in the next fifty year or so. I think when it comes to resources, when something becomes scarce it gets expensive and we switch to something else. Climate change will likely be the most important issue that humanity faces going forward. With that, I think that the ideas in this book very much relate to those issues. Capitalism, science, modernity are some of the main topics that Mohanty addresses here. These things relate to climate change and other threats in a major way.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, you write so well and this review is excellent. So much to think about. Like you I think the capitalist countries have tended to provide people with more freedom but I also agree with you that the kind of dog eat dog capitalism here in US with no decent healthcare is a disgrace. I want the system they have in England,Sweden,Norway where people seem to be doing well.

Regarding Mohanty I am glad to hear that she doesn't ignore the human rights abuses going on in Iran, Saudi Arabia etc but the stories coming out of these countries about what can happen to someone for simply leading a women's rights protest or writing something on one's blog is frightening and the post colonial writers seem to want to downplay that. I look forward to your future reviews of books that come at the post colonial movement from a moderate and conservative perspective.

mudpuddle said...

you've brought to my attention that i may be looking at things through too narrow a pov... tx for that: it's excellent to look on the brighter side sometimes!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hello Brian!

It says so much about your ability to write about a topic I would not touch with a ten foot pole that you can make me so interested in it. Your commentary is so thoughtful and well expressed.

Based on books written by other professors at Syracuse University-and my mother is a graduate of there as well- her book sounds like a propaganda work that includes all the "correct" thinking that allowed her book to be published.

That right there is rather 1984-esque. Professors have to publish or perish as it were, but they can only write from a certain viewpoint or they won't be published, or even have a job.

People like her make me angry because they 1) establish a set of good and evil of their own making; then 2) proclaim anything that doesn't fit that paradigm as evil; then 3) show their hypocrisy by living in a country that provides them with all of the freedoms and prosperity that comes from living in a country whose system they have deemed as evil.

And most importantly, if their ideals ever became reality, they'd be the first to leave said country.

It really is a case of living in the ivory tower and getting a little drunk on their own "erudite" rhetoric.

Thanks for making me think about stuff I shy away from!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. There is indeed the issue of an echo chamber with dissenting opinions not allowed that is in effect at some Universities. Much of it was explored in Russell Blackford’s Tyranny of Opinion. There is the issue that I mentioned in my previous post about these Postcolonial reading lists not being intellectually diverse.

As much as I disagree with Mohanty I did not think that she is too bad. This is a philosophy book so I am OK with her just expressing opinions. She also does not engage in Ad Hominem attacks that are becoming popular with Postmodernists. I will be taking one more dive into some Postmodern Critical Race Theory writing that is a bit more extreme. Then I think that I will have had enough of this stuff for awhile.

Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Kathy. Indeed, Capitalism with a moderately healthy does of government intervention seems to be the formula for the greatest well being. As I had written in response to Sharon, compared to other Intersectionalists, Mohanty is not that bad in terms of several things especially in terms of oppression originating in the former colonies.

CyberKitten said...

Bravo for reading this - you certainly have more stamina for this sort of thing than I do! I've tried reading similar stuff but the dense prose really puts me off.

As I've probably said before I am not a huge fan of Capitalism. Although it produces many good things and is arguably the best system we've come up with so far I think it is terribly wasteful of resources - both human and natural.

It does annoy and amuse me in equal measure when reason, logic and science are portrayed as either western or even white constructs. Although arguably *everything* is a cultural construct - including the idea of cultural constructs - things such as mathematics describe the universe independently of the humans who invented it. Math cannot be politically biased [lol].

As far as I'm concerned colonialism and much else you mentioned the book covers is simply about power differentials. Cultures with more power dominate and influence those with less power. If an aggressive expansionist culture originated in the East instead of the West we would be talking about Chinese colonisation and world cultural dominance. For a whole host of reasons we did it first. It's entirely possible it could have happened differently given different circumstances..

Stefanie said...

Great review, this sounds like a very heady and thought-provoking book. In regards to decolonizing education, I kind of agree with her. I suspect she is not saying that scientific methods and truth finding are bad or wrong, only that there are others ways of knowing and finding truth than how western science approaches it. There is so much knowledge and information about the natural world that indigenous people know and have passed down from generation to generation that western science has ignored or labeled myth but is now discovering that there was something there all along.

As for capitalism, I kind of agree with her on that one too. It has not been that great for women or minorities. We've had to fight every inch of the way to even be allowed to participate and we still don't get equal participation or pay. Capitalism as a system also requires unlimited growth in order to keep an economy going, but resources are limited, fossil fuels are running out and it will all eventually come crashing down.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Stephanie - Some Postmodernists, especially the folks who seem to be flooding into the discourse now, really do question the tenants of science and reason. It is hard to know exactly where Mohanty stands here as she is a bit vague. Though I am generally skeptical of folk cures and methods, at lest in terms of usefulness. However, if there is anything to them, it is through the scientific method that this would be determined and also allow us to sort the useful from the not so useful.

When I say capitalism I prefer the non - American type with sane regulation and vigorous social programs. Women and minorities have been oppressed throughout history and the struggles within capitalist societies has been enormous and difficult. But capitalist societies seem to be the only ones that make progress.

I think that there is little danger of running out of resources. As the price rises on fossil fuels technology and the market will bring us alternatives. But I know we both agree an Climate Change. That may bring everything down. In which case, capitalism will have brought doom.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks CyberKitten. That is the thing about capitalism. It has many problems. But no one has come up with anything better.

I agree. Science and reason are universal and has roots in many civilizations, but just Europe.

Indeed. Almost every society was expansionist and violent. The only thing special about Europe was for a time, the Europeans had better technology.

Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers said...

This is an excellent review, with much food for thought, but IMO the best bit is this:
"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."
In a world where we can tailor the news, ideas, and opinions to our own taste, so many people are now living in an echo chamber. I like the open-mindedness of people such as yourself, willing to engage in other ideas.
Lisa (ANZ LitLovers)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lisa - There are indeed lots of echo chambers and lots of people living in them. As of late I have been trying to read some books that I disagree with. More to come.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Goodness, not exactly easy bedtime reading is it? Seriously though, what a great post; I love the mind that seeks knowledge like this.

I found your commenting that from what you understand 'the world population will stabilize in the next fifty year or so' interesting (and I admit somewhat reassuring) given that there are those that do not give humanity that long.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy. Back in the 1960s and 1970s many thinkers thought that a population explosion was going to cause global calamity. However, As time goes by, people are more educated, women are empowered and people have less children. However, while world population has grown, the rate is slowing and is expected to stabilize.

It is climate change that we have to worry about. It could be what does is in.

James said...

I admire your ability to endure the torture that a book like this inflicts on a reader. Based on your commentary I can only conclude that the author bases her pronouncements on premises that I do not share. The lack of specific examples is telling. I'm glad I did not have to endure professors like her when I studied at the University of Wisconsin.

Stefanie said...

In terms of science, I am not thinking so much of medicine, though that too needs consideration, but mainly things like land and resource management. For instance, the aboriginal peoples in Australia managed the land quite well through various efforts such as controlled burning before white settlers came. It was not often they had problems with dust storms and loss of soil and plants due to drought. It has only been in the last thirty or so years that some farmers have figured out they need to drastically change the way they manage their land and have begun to incorporate methods the aboriginal peoples had been using for centuries. They've had great success in regenerating their land while neighboring farms still following the science of industrial agricultural methods continue to struggle.

You have more faith in capitalism and the market than I do! :-) Whatever the future brings, I just hope that there is social and economic justice for the the people who need it most.

Judy Krueger said...

Last year I read a sometimes difficult but amazing book called Braiding Sweetgrass. Written by a Native American woman who is also a university trained botanist, she managed to address how science and indigenous knowledge could combine to deal with the way humans treat the earth and each other, even economically.
I too admire the reading you are doing on the thinking that people are doing and writing about. Human beings are both the culprits and the solution for our problems. That takes thinking, communicating, comparing viewpoints without rancor or blame.
I also am aware that capitalism was dreamed up mainly by men, as were many other approaches to society in all parts of the world. It has to be a good sign that women are finally getting into the game.

Sandi said...

There seems to be a Great War of us vs. them out there. It is destructive. Men and women don't have to be against each other. Men are not our enemy.

Brian Joseph said...

Ha! You made me laugh James. I am OK with disagreement in terms of ideas even when I strongly disagree. At least Mohanty does not engage in ad hominem arguments and attacks. That is a big problem with the latest group of internationalists. I will be reading at least one more book that I would call far left. After that, I will be done with this stuff for awhile.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephanie- I believe that the Native Americans also engaged successful land management. I am all for utilizing old and traditional methods that work. We will still use reason and logic to determine their efficacy. My issue is with folks who challenge the basic precepts of science and reason and who inaccurately label those things as Western constructions.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Judy. There is a lot of rancor out there. Some of the disagreements that I have referred to have sparked all out war on social media with PHDs joining the fray.

I think that capitalism arose naturally despite the fact that Adam Smith codified it. I also believe that both women and men participated in its formation and growth. Of course all the societies that it grew in were male dominated.

The empowerment of women is indeed a great development. It is both a reason for, and a sign of human progress.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sandi - Division between genders is not good. But I do not detect a lot of acrimony towards men in Mohanty’s writing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle- On the other hand one could question how useful that this set of ideas is.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I suspect I would have returned this book to the library after a chapter or two. Does she agree that education is important for women in developing countries or is that, too, a western construct that doesn’t fit the developing world?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - The far left like the far right can be frustrating. I suspect that Mohanty would not object to girls education, but I think that she would do it very differently.

baili said...

I am amazed by your commentary dear Brain like always !

this book sounds interesting to me ,writer has expressed her opinion and it is her right i think ?

i felt compelled to agree with her thought that women from different part of lands have different measures for the identification of "oppression"

I appreciate her dare for speaking her mind but world is complicated place and changes in views and systems are inevitable and inevitable

we are part of constantly changing world and all we can do is learn to survive because if we won't we will not have right to live as simple is that

thank you for amazing blog and insightful reviews my friend!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Baili. Things are really complicated and any generalizations are bound to run into trouble. The thing about women in different parts of the world having different needs and wants, while it may be generally true, but my observation of both women and for that matter men, who are fighting oppression around the world, are all fighting for the same basic human rights.

thecuecard said...

My, this book seems to contain various complex ideas within it, but seems a bit generalized too right? To label all women of color in Europe & North America as Third World seems incorrect. And the economic empowerment of those women sounds pretty helpful. I understand she thinks we stereotype women in developing countries ... as not having their own empowerment or whatnot. It's an interesting thought and could be explored further.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The Book is Indeed filled with ideas. It covers a lot of people on a worldwide basis so there is a lot of generalizations. The thing about financial empowerment being bad and not applying basic values to people in developing nations is fairly standard postmodernism and Intersectionalism. Mohanty seems to have pioneered some of these ideas.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
I have been away from blogging the past week due to travel.
Chandra Mohanty’s Feminism without Borders is new-to-me and sounds complex and interesting. I am also interested in feminist thought and would like to read her essays at some point. Your commentary is intelligent and thorough, as always. Thank you for this post.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. There is never a rush to comment. One can just read a Mohanty's individual essays. In fact, one might be better off taking her work in small doses.

Susan Kane said...

She wrote during a very vital time in history, esp. for women.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - It was a vital time of change. I would say that it still is. Mohanty is still active. I am not sure if she is writing much. But there are videos on YouTube showing her at speaking panels and events in the posts year or two.