On Feminism and Postcolonialism

I am a feminist. I have been a feminist all my life, starting from a young age, when I told my mother that I was going to make my husband change his name (my views on this subject have been refined since then, but you get the picture). Specifically, I identify as an intersectional feminist. This means that I think different types of oppression often intersect or relate to one another and often compound upon one another to create multiple layers of disadvantage.

As an intersectional feminist, I am interested in questions of race, class, sexual orientation, gender, disability, and imperialism. I find, however, that, in particular, people often assume that there is a tension between eliminating patriarchy and respect for the self-determination of previously colonized persons and cultures. It is argued that minority ‘cultures’ often hold views that feminists would traditionally see as oppressive to women. Therefore, it would seem that, in certain instances, we need to choose between being good feminists and being postcolonial scholars.

I have come to think that this tension is, at the very least, overstated. First, many feminists arrive at their conclusions through faulty assumptions. ‘Women’ aren’t a homogenous group with the same experiences of patriarchy. Power structures, and therefore women’s experiences, are context-specific, and therefore prescribing the same set of solutions to the oppression of all women is both problematic and ultimately ineffective.

Moreover, there is a strong tendency in Western political theory to paint women in the Third World as helpless and in need of saving. Some theorists advance substantive theories of ‘adaptive preferences’ and autonomy, which suggest that according to our intuitions of what qualifies as autonomous behavior, Third World women must be ‘dupes of patriarchy.’ This is quite frankly insulting, and as one of my favorite professors, Sperry, notes, our ‘feminist intuition’ is itself culturally contingent. It doesn’t acknowledge the thought processes and deliberate planning that women make when ‘bargaining with patriarchy.’

Both of these tendencies are highly problematic. They don’t respect the diversity of women’s experiences or their ability to make decisions. They also don’t seem to sit well with our intuition that cultural diversity is valuable and adds meaning to peoples’ lives and decisions.

As a result, it might be tempting to take the opposite approach and argue that we need to prioritize ‘culture’ over women’s rights, as if the two are in tension with one another. Many cultural norms are incompatible with some feminists’ intuitions about what constitutes patriarchal behavior, and women often find practices empowering that ‘Western’ women might not understand or find abhorrent. It is tempting to say that the differences between cultures is irreconcilable, and it’s imperialistic to hold universalistic ideas of social justice and feminism.

This is problematic for several reasons. First, it raises questions such as the one I asked in my last post: who speaks for a given culture? When we view cultures as homogenous, we often accept the opinions and views of cultural elites. This drowns out dissenting voices and fails to acknowledge that cultures are sites of contestation. Second, it reinforces a racialized epistemology that creates, in the words of Grovogui, an ‘ontology of difference.’ Sabaratnam argues that this culturalist thinking is an instantiation, or ‘avatar,’ of Eurocentrism. It suggests that the Global North has a monopoly on concepts such as democracy and freedom and reinforces the idea that subversive norms are in some sense ‘alien.’

Sabaratnam argues that this is not the appropriate way to view colonialism. Colonialism, she says, is problematic in that it is alienating rather than alien. Colonialism operates through “displacements, violence, silencing, humiliations and dispossessions.” Concepts such as democracy, feminism, and freedom, while certainly contested concepts, are not fundamentally alien to postcolonial societies, but rather, I would suggest that it is the imposition of these concepts by means of force or patronizing ‘civilizing’ missions that causes imperialistic alienation.

That being said, many times, concepts like democracy, autonomy, or gender equality look radically different in different cultural contexts. This can be seen through the case study of the Igbo in Nigeria. There is significant evidence that suggests Igbo social relations were radically different pre-colonization. First, the Igbo language is not overtly gendered. While there are words for male and female, the third-person pronoun (O) is the same for both men and women. This flexibility in language reflects a broader culture of flexibility in the sexual division of labor and gender roles pre-colonization, as well as a culture of increased sexual freedom for women. Women also had a significant political voice, as they had their own political organizations which held comparable power to men’s organizations. (If you want to read more about the Igbo, I can send you my first MSc thesis which used them as a case study).

This suggests that a) the West does not have a monopoly on gender equality—in fact, it was the alienating nature of colonization that caused radical shifts in Igbo gender relations, b) Igbo ‘culture’ arguably contains the tools necessary to subvert gender norms, as Nzegwu argues, and c) the goal of eliminating gender-based oppression has to be considered within a specific context—there may be more than one way of dismantling the patriarchy.

We have a tendency, as Phillips argues, to portray Western cultures with reference to their most progressive tendencies while portraying the Global South according to its least progressive elements. However, it should go without saying that not all people within a given culture feel the same way, and making blanket statements about how a culture feels about women drowns out the voices of feminists within that culture.

When we stop accepting essentialist ideas of culture and instead acknowledge the internal diversity within cultures, the tension between eliminating postcolonial oppression and gender injustice seems to dissipate. Both are alienating in their own right, and we need to acknowledge the ways in which they intersect and compound one another. We can’t accept a feminism that homogenizes women and ignores colonial histories. We can’t accept a feminism that views women in the Global South as mere ‘dupes of patriarchy.’ Our feminism must be intersectional and sensitive to concerns about imperialism.



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