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  • Is Cosmopolitanism Not For Women?:Migration in Qurratulain Hyder's Sita Betrayed and Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines
  • Ania Spyra (bio)

When I was young I used to dream . . . of peeling off my skin plantain-fashion, of going forth naked into the world, like an anatomy illustration from Encyclopedia Britannica, all ganglions, ligaments, nervous pathways and veins, set free from otherwise inescapable jails of colour, race and clan.

Salman Rushdie, The Moor's Last Sigh1

The inexorable prisons of color, race, and clan that Salman Rushdie evokes here, when peeled off in a hopeful reverie, leave the eponymous character of The Moor's Last Sigh as a free-floating physical body, comfortable in a world of apparent sameness. Realizing, however, that shedding the skin stands only at the very beginning of a long process of de-differentiation, Moor adds that his dream has its extension in another vision, this time one of becoming "simply an intelligence or a feeling set loose in the world."2 Consequently, to ease his presence and mobility in the world, Moor wants to shake off first differences inherent to the body, and then the body itself. Although seemingly growing out of an idealism that strives for universal equality, the outlook endorsed by such a vision evokes the Enlightenment ideal of the disembodied mind as constitutive of a public sphere consisting of free, reasoning individuals.3 Additionally, because it seems impossible now to unwed the Enlightenment from the imperialist project that underpinned it, it becomes clear that the ideas that gave rise to universalism underlie also the notion of the cosmopolitan: the same "person"—generic and genderless citizen—is to be at home in the world.4 Such a universalist position has already been interrogated by many cultural critics, who revealed its specificity to a very limited group of men. Also Rushdie clearly realizes the limitations of this stance and has his character mourn that "in the waking world a man's not as easy to flay as a banana, no matter how ripe he be." Moor acknowledges that, beside his parents and history, [End Page 1] his "own black skin" constitutes one of the unshakeable burdens, a mark of difference that bars him from the universal masculine body.5

What Rushdie does not mention, however, is how women fit into this model, or rather how they do not. Clearly, if you peel off only the skin, the body you are left with still bears gender distinctions; and it is on these differences, as some feminists claim, that women's position in a society is based.6 Nor can women as easily dream of peeling away their body in its entirety, because their value usually is predicated on that body, which means for their group of belonging more than just ligaments and ganglions, more even than the reproductive organs as such. As I show in this essay, the symbolic meaning invested in their bodies extends far beyond corporeality, and it is these symbolic burdens that make it difficult for a woman to be a cosmopolite. However, because cosmopolitanism hints at a freedom of movement and change and thus an ability to escape containment, because it connotes volitional belonging to many places at the same time while upholding the possibility of a single human community, I would like to believe that women, who in the globalizing world constitute a large group among all the people displaced by historical events, economic migrations, or education, are not excluded from the cosmopolitan ideal. Recovering the term cosmopolitanism for feminist uses would imply freeing the body from weighty inscriptions, rather than freeing the subject from the body itself. Also the recent recuperations of cosmopolitanism, which see it as worth holding onto because of the responsibility for a shift in the unequal distribution of power that an emotional investment in a global community promises, stress the importance of working through—rather than erasing—the differences inherent in human bodies while constructing a cosmopolitan community.7

To interrogate the limitations of disembodied cosmopolitanism when applied to an ex-colonial woman of color, even if moneyed and upper-middle-class, I turn here to two South Asian texts that depict bourgeois women...


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