Women Unbound nr. 8: Under Western Eyes by Chandra Talpade Mohanty

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.

11 thoughts on “Women Unbound nr. 8: Under Western Eyes by Chandra Talpade Mohanty

  1. winstonsdad

    seems like a good read ,true we don’t think what implications our actions in west have on the wider world ,alll the best stu

  2. leeswammes

    Interesting! I never really considered that not all women in the world want the same thing UNTIL I got two Indian colleagues, who were totally happy with their parents suggesting a husband for them and doing all the cooking (while also working full-time).

    Who am I to tell them that’s not cool? They were not suffering a bit (in fact, they were (and are) having a great time living here in the Netherlands, away from their, sometimes suffocating, family).

  3. Helen

    This sounds like an important and thought-provoking article. It’s true that many of us make assumptions about people without really understanding the situation from their perspective.

    Congratulations on completing the Women Unbound challenge, by the way.

  4. Nymeth

    I need to see if I can get my hands on this article! I think that overall there’s more awareness of this now than there was a few decades ago, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t have a lot to learn, of course.

  5. Care

    Wow, indeed. Thought-provoking. Sister Outsider mentions similar themes of feminists assuming too much about other women and what they ‘need’.
    Congratulations on completing the challenge.

  6. amcatoir

    Hello, I stopped by because Leeswammes listed you as a Bodacious Blogger. Your very interesting review has reminded that I’m also doing the Women Unbound challenge and I need a suggestion for the Women’s Book Salon at work. We are doing Southern Woman for July, but this review has me thinking they might like this for Sept. Thanks.

  7. Pingback: June Wrap-Up and July Reading Plans « Iris on Books

  8. chasing bawa

    It’s something I’ve always pondered whenever I go to Asia, but have never really thought about deeply. Feminism is so interesting and complex precisely because there are general aspects and those that are particular to different situations and culture. When you live in a particular country you have to adapt according to the rules (obvious and not so obvious) of that country. So thanks for pointing out this important article.

  9. Aarti

    This sounds like a really important article, Iris! I find it fascinating, because I know I always feel a little tickle of annoyance when people say things like, “I know our lives here in the West are better than the lives of women in 3rd world countries, but…” as though the cultures are exactly the same and all women desire the same thing.

  10. Pingback: Update on “Ain’t I A Woman?” and the “Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism Anthology” « A Year of Feminist Classics

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