- Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity
The publication of Chandra Talpade Mohanty's germinal essay, "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses," made her a much admired and respected scholar, deeply influencing the thinking of many feminists, including myself. The essay, which quickly became part of the Women's Studies canon, is reprinted in Mohanty's latest book, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity.
In this book, Mohanty identifies three "problematic directions within U.S.-based feminisms." The first is the growing, largely class-based rift between activist feminism and university-based feminist theorizing, the latter being susceptible to careerism and a narrow professionalism. The second is the deepening of consumerist and corporatist values, fuelling a rise of "neo-liberal" and "free market" feminism, concerned only with "women's advancement up the corporate and nation-state ladder." Last is the "narrowing of feminist politics and theory," which she defines to be a result of the "critique of essentialist identity politics and the hegemony of postmodern skepticism about identity" (6). Mohanty argues the case for a materialist analysis that addresses issues of identity, agency, community, home, and nation within the context of the institutions of the global political economy. Divided into three sections, the book addresses the major themes that have consistently occupied Mohanty's writings: decolonizing feminism; demystifying capitalism; and reorienting feminism. [End Page 221]
The first section of the book, "Decolonizing Feminism," is vintage Mohanty. Her critique of the textual strategies deployed by Western feminists in cross-cultural studies to construct a monolithic image of third world women as always and everywhere victimized, unrelentingly oppressed by "their" patriarchal cultures, remains as pertinent today as when she first wrote her classic essay. The textual strategies she identified at that time included the assumption that the category of 'woman' is a discrete, unitary formation, constituted prior to women's entry into social relations and institutions, such as the family; and the uncritical use of descriptive generalizations and disjointed examples as "proof" of the universality of the oppression of women in all Third World societies. The result of such flawed analytic and methodological approaches distort the understanding of the various types of agency of Third World women, particularly the forms of resistance they develop, and thwarts the potential for cross-cultural feminist alliances. Simultaneously, Western feminists constitute themselves as active agents of history—liberated, educated and free—through the object status they impose upon their downtrodden "sisters." Mohanty argues that the power exercised through such constructs is not unlike that exercised by other Western colonialist discourses. Unfortunately, the book does not carry this analysis forward to examine the current situation of Muslim women (in Muslim and non-Muslim societies) in the midst of the aggressively militarist empire-building of the U.S. regime in its invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. The ubiquity of the image of Muslim women as desperately in need of rescue by the "West" reveals how strong are the current forces that antiracist feminists have to contend with in the United States as elsewhere.
Mohanty has long argued that Third World feminism is distinguished from liberal feminism by its refusal to elevate gender as the primary axis of power, insisting instead on the salience of race, class, sexuality, and nationality, along with gender, in shaping the lives of women. The book reiterates Mohanty's persuasive case, as well as her argument that the commonality of interests shared by Third World women is based not in biology, color, or geography, but in a shared history and experience of struggles against racist and colonial domination. Mohanty is critical of feminists who have adopted her ideas on difference, but ignored her insistence on situating these differences within the context of commonalities between the various feminisms she studies. Surprisingly, then, Mohanty unceremoniously dismisses deconstructions of the unitary category of gender undertaken by postmodern feminists. A substantive engagement with the particular postmodern feminist theories she is critical of, which she defines as hegemonic and representing a "problematic direction[s] within U.S.-based feminisms" (6), would...