Under Western Eyes by Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Filed Under: Opinion, World | Posted: 02/19/2009 at 3:49PM
Comments | Region: Pakistan
In the article “Under Western Eyes”, Mohanty provides a critique of hegemonic “Western” feminisms. In particular she rebukes the universality of the theories of western feminists and the categorization of the “third world woman” as a monolithic subject. Mohanty feels the assumption that third world women are a coherent group, ignoring the social factors, is problematic. Secondly, the model of men as oppressors is not a universal model, she is against the over simplification of the complexities across culture and gender to a binary division. While illustrating the lack of truth in the claims of western feminists Mohanty is also showing the ethnocentrism of these theorists. The attempts of first world women (subjects) attempting to explain third world women(objects) is viewed as a way of creating power hierarchies and cultural domination , the author calls this discursive colonialism. There is an urgent need to examine the political implications of these theories, before they lead to cultural imperialism.
Mohanty gives a less pessimistic approach than most feminists by criticizing texts which claim that women worldwide are oppressed by male violence. Experience helps people gain a cultural insight through which they are better able to understand the situation rather than relying on a false sense of sisterhood of shared experiences. Universalizations like the assumption of women as sexual-political objects before they enter into a family structure, unitary notion of religion and economic determinism collapse because it is apparent that without due consideration to the context and the situation, it is impossible to group the experiences of women together. Mohanty illustrates this point by the example of using the veil as a form of oppression in one situation whereas in Iran it was used to portray allegiance to other women. Hence, the binary reduction that men oppress and women are oppressed is too simplistic and is not a sufficient model of power. Mohanty suggests a model of power based on Michel Foucault’s theory, which would construct women in "a variety of political contexts that often exist simultaneously and overlaid on top of one another."(p.65)
In conclusion, essentially Mohanty is against the universalization of theories, without due consideration to experience or adequate research but she herself paradoxically suggests an identity of women based on their own personal experiences as universal. However, this is problematic because there is never a singular identity of a woman; there are always many identities in place at every single point in time, which may transform over time as well e.g. religious, political, social identities. Total disregard for the ability to generalize will lead to the impossibility of formulating theories which could help understand the role of women in societies. It is important to understand the theories of western feminists contextually, the claims of universality may not hold true literally but the fact that often patriarchy hinders the lives of women is enough for feminists to suggest a model of power based on it. Mohanty raises valid points about the importance of experience but total reliance of experience solely is a theoretical impossibility.