Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses – Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Published in: Boundary 2 , nr. 3 page 333-358, 1984
When I started the Women Unbound challenge, I stated that I wanted to focus on gender, religion and ethnicity. Most of the books I’ve read had to do with this topic. I have a few more up for review, but instead I decided that this 26 page long article deserved to be the last featured “book” I write a post on for Women Unbound. Under Western Eyes is truly a classic when it comes to ethnicity and gender. Even though it was first published in 1984 it is still highly relevant today. I found myself nodding my head to so many of the things Mohanty points out, especially when I look back on the memoirs written by Iranian women I have been reading lately.
Mohanty’s basic argument is that Western feminists should be more aware of the political implications of their writings on non-western women. Their view of these women is often moulded by certain preconceptions about women and feminism in general that might implicate a certain colonial power relationship between the western world and other countries. In this article, she points out the common flaws in such writing, without arguing that any research on non-western women by western researchers is irrelevant. Instead, she provides examples of research that is relevant but doesn’t make the mistakes Mohanty argues against. This is one of the things I liked about the article: it isn’t only about what other researchers are doing wrong, but rather provides a guideline as to what constitutes good research in Mohanty’s opinion.
What interested me most were the common flaws of the way Western feminist portray the “Third World Women”:
“What I wish to analyze is specifically the production of the “Third World Woman” as a singular monolithic subject in some recent (Western) feminist texts.”
Mohanty makes the important point that often feminist tend to view all women as having the same mission in the world: feminism, often defined by the use of words such as “We are all sisters in one struggle”. This feminism often implies that there is a worldwide patriarchical conspiracy against women, which all “reasonable women” should want to fight off in the same manner. They should become self-proficient, non-religious and in control of their own bodies. In other words, they should become exactly like the model image Western feminist have of themselves. This line of thought often forgets that there is no such thing as a category of “women” outside of historical, cultural and socio-economical circumstances. Rather, the category of women is “made” within these structures, which implicates that power relations between the sexes might work differently in different circumstances.
This has implications for the way we look at Middle-Eastern women for example. First of all, Mohanty points out that it might be rather too easy to speak of “Middle Eastern Women” as a homogenous category. Second, it often means we view religious women as suppressed per se, without taking into consideration that women from different socio-economical backgrounds might experience their religion differently and that religion does not automatically implicate suppression. Third, it often denies women in such countries any type of agency. For example, women used to wear the veil as a sign of protest during the Iranian Revolution. Veiling thus had a different meaning in 1977-1979 than it had when veiling became a mandatory act in a religious theocracy. And fourth, and I thought this was a very interesting point, such views often portray men as inherently evil. It thus often reduces complicated conflicts to an overall worldview of “us” versus “them”, as in “women” against “men”.
I have written down about 5 pages of quotes, of which I decided to include (almost) none. Why? Because I strongly believe that anyone who wants to study women (rights) in non-western countries, or simply anywhere, in a serious manner needs to read this article.