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On postcolonial feminism

If we don’t tell our stories who will know we did not comply:

We did not wish our lives away, but stayed focused,

And staunched the cut of virginal blood,

To stop our daughters being slaves;

We learned to sing survival songs,

Through violence and rape and war;

We did not tell each other lies, or taste slow poison all alone;

And stitched for our dead not effigies, but new dolls

So our artistry shows only prayer heals despair,

Through the things we struggle for.

(Busia, 2010)

Postcolonial feminism is a hefty chapter in feminist theory. Briefly, postcolonial feminism exists in the boundary of two other discourses; the anti – colonialist and anti – racist discourse and the white, Western, middle – class feminism. It discusses and criticizes both the ignorance of the gendered power dynamics inside the anti – colonialist movement and, on the other hand, the exclusion of the issues of racism and neocolonialism in the mainstream, Western feminist thought. Postcolonial feminism could be described as the stream of feminist thought that challenges the established, gendered economic and political hierarchies of colonialism and neocolonialism. From a structuralist view point, these constructed hierarchies intersect with other societal realities of order and oppression like class, ethnicity and sexuality “in the different contexts of women’s lives, their subjectivities, work, sexuality, and rights” (Rajan & Park, 2005, p. 53). In a post – structuralist view though, gender is an ongoing construction (a becoming, not an a priori being) inside other ongoing processes of ethnification and racialization (Lykke, 2010). Gayatri Spivak, an Indian – American feminist scholar, suggests that deconstruction it’s where postcolonial feminism shall begin; that is to question “the privileging of identity so that someone is believed to have the truth. It [deconstruction] is not the exposure of error. It is constantly and persistently looking into how truths are produced” (Spivak, 1996, p. 9). These truths, being produced primarily, if not exclusively, by a white, Western, middle – class feminist standpoint, argue of a global sisterhood, of a unified ‘we’, of women as an identical category who fight the same patriarchal constraints.

Gayatri Spivak

Many feminist scholars opposed to this unified understanding of being (or becoming) a woman. From a black feminist standpoint, bell hooks (1982) would say that we are the Black, marginalized women who have been oppressed by the white (and Black) patriarch and his white wife and she would ask to herself and to the white feminists and abolitionists “Ain’t I a woman”? Audre Lorde (1983) would question on the (non) existence of the Black and Third World women and lesbians to the feminist academia and would “urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears (Lorde, 1983). Who would be that face for Donna Haraway in her “Situated knowledges”? Wouldn’t it be “the knower”, the one that must hold themselves accountable on their production of knowledge and reality that they engender? (Lykke, 2010). But for whom this reality is engendered if not for women? For Haraway is for the subjugated, because “there is no way to “be” simultaneously in all, or wholly in any, of the privileged (i.e., subjugated) positions structured by gender, race, nation, and class. … Subjugation is not grounds for an ontology; it might be a visual clue. Vision requires instruments of vision; an optics is a politics of positioning” (Haraway, 1988, p. 586). This positioning in Lugones & Spelman “Have We Got a Theory for You!” (1983), is the Hispanic geopolitical positioning (for Lugones), which criticizes the singular, monolithic, capital F, Feminism and the we in which mainstream and standpoint feminisms refer to is much more complex and entangled, that may even reflect both situated persectives, the Hispanic and the Anglo – American one.

Chandra T. Mohanty

A classic text in postcolonial feminism, that challenges the presupposition that gender, patriarchy and sexual difference are notions that are constituted by and for an identical and coherent group, is Chandra T. Mohanty’s article “Under Western Eyes” (Mohanty, 1988). In this text, feminism is no apolitical and in fact, its homogeneous category of women produces two kind of images; the ‘average third – world woman’, who is both sexually constrained due to her gender and victimized, ignorant and uneducated due to her Third World positioning, and its opposite counterpart of the white, modern and educated woman, who has “control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the ‘freedom’ to make their own decisions” (Mohanty, 1988, p. 65). By accepting a sameness of the oppression and defining women as a powerless group, just because it is justified by the stereotypical tropes of the Third World women as victims of the Arab familial system and Islam, of male violence, of economic developmental projects, western feminism freezes women in a objectified position, while pushes the political agenda of the ‘white savior’ in the name of sisterhood. Mohanty challenges the simplified and usually naive approach that women as a gendered category exist a priori the cultural, traditional, economical and religious structures, in which they find themselves trapped with patriarchal constrains. Rather, she argues, that “it is in the family, as an effect of kinship structures, that women as women are constructed, defined within and by the group” (p. 70). After all, mainstream feminism has its methodological universalism to prove the production of the monolithic images of both Third World and First World Woman. The problem is when first world women “rise above the debilitating generality of their ‘object’ status” (p. 80), but third world women never do, so they need saving.

‘Muslim Women Don’t Need Your Saving’ – Maliha Khan

But “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?”, asks Abu-Lughod (2002), a Palestinian – American anthropologist. This question rises as a result of the imperialistic American war in Afghanistan in 1999 and Laura Bush’s justification of this intrusion in the name of Afghan women who “are no longer imprisoned in their homes. … The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women” (U.S. Government, 2002 in Abu-Lughod, 2002). The appropriation of women’s voices by the colonial power is often embodied in the “politics of the veil” (p. 785). Western feminism often ignores the specifiecities of the historical and political narratives of the burqa and the meaning it serves in Muslim women’s lives. Veiling is confused with lack of freedom and agency, and Muslim women are studied into an anthropological surprise and excitement for not throwing off their burqa, the moment they are liberated form the Taliban. Muslim women and Muslim culture is approached as the ‘Other’, the ‘exoticized’ and Abu-Lughod puts up the question “can we only free Afghan women to be like us or might we have to recognize that even after “liberation” from the Taliban, they might want different things than we would want for them?” (p. 787). Is it really salvation that Afghan women need or rather “a more egalitarian language of alliances, coalitions, and solidarity” (p. 789).


Abu-Lughod, L. (2002). Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others. American Anthropologist, 104(3), 783–790. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3567256

Busia, A. P. A. (2010). A song in seven stanzas for our granddaughters. In D. H. J. Browdy, P. Dongala, O. Jolaosho, & A. Serafin (Eds.), African Women Writing Resistance : An Anthology of Contemporary Voices. University of Wisconsin Press.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066

hooks, bell. (1982). Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Pluto Press. https://hamtramckfreeschool.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/hooks-bell-aint-i-a-woman-black-woman-and-feminism.pdf

Lorde, A. (n.d.). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/dsala/pages/1343/attachments/original/1544567321/The_Master%27s_Tools_Will_Never_Dismantle_the_Master%27s_House.pdf?1544567321

Lugones, M. C., Spelman, E. V., Lugones, M. C., & Spelman, E. V. (1983, January). Have we got a theory for you! Feminist theory, cultural imperialism and the demand for ‘the woman’s voice.’ Women’s Studies International Forum, 6(6), 573–581. https://doi.org/10.1016/0277-5395(83)90019-5

Lykke, N. (2010). Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203852774

Mohanty, C. (1988). Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. Feminist Review, 30(1), 61–88. https://doi.org/10.1057/fr.1988.42

Rajan, R. S., & Park, Y. (2005). Postcolonial Feminism/ Postcolonialism and Feminism. In H. Schwarz & S. Ray (Eds.), A Companion to Postcolonial Studies (pp. 53–71). Blackwell Publishing Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470997024.ch3

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