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  • Veiled and Revealed
  • Nezih Erdogan
Meyda Yegenoglu, Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism. London and New York: Cambridge UP, 1998.

When feminist studies, as it developed in the Anglo-American world, turned to Third World countries, it produced a discourse which put an emphasis on the situation of women oppressed in male-dominant societies marked by backwardness. This discourse regarded women of the less democratic, less learned, unstable, and poverty-stricken societies as deprived of the possibilities and channels of power which are elsewhere accessible to Western women. This “backwardness,” which became a recurrent theme, is of course sustained by a silently conducted comparison between underdeveloped or developing countries and industrialized ones. Such a comparison betrays a difference which remains central to the discourse disseminated by mainstream feminist practices: it re-introduces the “West and the rest” opposition, thus constructing the sovereign Western female subject endowed with all the privileges and powers reserved solely for her.1 This opposition also brings us back to the problems posed by postcolonial theory in its analysis of how “Orientalism orientalizes the Orient.”

Postcolonial theory, which has offered a most productive critique of Orientalism and colonial discourse, nonetheless seems to have overlooked the fact that any careful study of the colonial subject as constituted by colonial discourse needs to insert the terms of sexual difference into its field of investigation. For example, although the work of Edward Said has established the still influential paradigm of postcolonial studies, it has its limitations in demonstrating how sexual difference operates in the production of Orientalist discourse. It is important to see that the power of colonial discourse stems from how it positions woman.

As Paul Feyerabend suggests in another context, controversial movements and fields of knowledge may serve as medicine to one another. One may say that feminist studies, especially overseas, is in need of a medicine that could be provided by postcolonial theory, and postcolonial theory could in turn benefit from feminist studies. At this point, Meyda Yegenoglu’s Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism comes as a most rewarding read. Its virtue does not only lie in the ways in which it exemplifies interdisciplinary study (which it impeccably does), but also in the way it draws a framework which makes possible a previously unavailable discussion.

From the onset, Yegenoglu develops a dialogue with other writers of postcolonial theory ranging from Edward Said to Homi Bhabha, from Partha Chatterjee to Gayatri Spivak, and with feminist writers including Elisabeth Grosz, Judith Butler, and Vicky Kirby. Aiming to “map the field,” she opens with a discussion of the conceptual tools at hand. Thus, in the first chapter, she gives a lucid depiction of the post-structuralist scene—a difficult and demanding job. Yegenoglu clearly demonstrates the limitations of the pertinent theoretical works and the extent to which she will utilize them. Then she moves on to define a field of investigation for the specific purposes of her project: the problem of the Third World woman.

Can one feel at ease with this identification of such an object of study? Just as the infamous question of Freud, “What does woman want?”, causes the woman to disappear (that is, for example, all the possibilities of her self-expression) and brings about a construction of her as produced by man (hence, the woman as symptom of man), any inquisition of the Third World woman entails a double erasure: first in terms of sexual difference and second in terms of colonial othering. Thus Yegenoglu resists the temptation of speaking of this “not yet discovered” object, and instead sets out to delineate the conditions of its objecthood. She repeatedly warns the reader against the double illusion that we can know the woman and that we can know the Third World woman. The illusion is in reality the effect of the colonial discourse which serves to conceal the impossibility of its very object.

Take, for instance, her brilliant analysis of Lady Montague’s letters on the Turkish women of the Ottoman Empire. The harem has served for the Orientalist as a fantasy stage and the Muslim woman as the anchor which structured this space, enabling colonial discourse to operate on...

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