Mohanty- On Culture and Gender (Bite-Sized Study Guide Series)

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Mohanty on ‘Culture and Gender’, in ‘Under Western Eyes…’

Mohanty argues that (Western) feminist writing ‘discursively colonizes… women in the third world’, and gives examples of this ‘discursive colonization [of] third-world women’ in the media and political discourse.

Mohanty denotes that Western feminist writing is not an impartial field of knowledge. Because it is ‘purposeful and ideological’ it is not free of political implications. Feminist academia tends to make hierarchical divisions, implicit or not, between themselves and a supposed ‘other’, not only by gender but also by class. The middle-class Western intellectual is automatically assumed to be the subject/norm, creating an unequal balance of power. It divides itself from the multiple native cultures present throughout the colonised working classes that it objectifies, reinforcing the ‘third-world difference’.

Mohanty observes that the discursive processes of western feminist writing reduce the diverse historical, cultural and familial heterogeneities of ‘third-world’ women to the representation of a singular, homogeneous ‘third-world woman’. By casting third-world women in the artificially homogenised role of the object of study, they effectively deny these women discursive subjectivity and equal status as active participants in their world. This ensures third-world women are understood only through how they are impacted upon by certain traditions and/or institutions: their ‘object status’.

Examples of this are present within the Western media and political discussions. Take, for instance, women in British workplaces denied permission to wear the veil because of feminist belief that this is an unfair imposition, despite the country’s supposed democracy. Alternatively, examine the fierce opposition to arranged marriages, in ignorance to their difference to forced ones and/or their cultural value.

Mohanty’s criticisms of the creation of binary oppositions within Western feminist theorisation revolve around their allocation of political and cultural power – or more specifically, powerlessness. Women are understood to be an objectified group, regardless of differentiations in geography, ethnicity and class. This implies that they already share the pre-existing identity of ‘woman’, which is present before – and seemingly unaffected by – entering into the structure of social relations. Their ‘object status’ is then evaluated. In fact, their placement within the various social, economic, familial, religious and/or legal structures appears to be an afterthought. This contains discursive connotations: essentially, that gender has a fixed meaning outside of our social relationships.

The consequence of this assumption is that gender is understood as the origin of their oppression, rather than subjective examples of oppression producing particular forms of gender. Therefore, Mohanty believes Western feminism does not serve to challenge the sexual power struggle, but simply to invert it. Their dichotomous understanding of the (im)balance of power ‘locks all revolutionary struggles into binary structures’, into a ‘[group] move from powerless to powerful’. Instead of this approach, Mohanty encourages the idea of intersectionality as a theoretical model: that is, the avoidance of false generalisations in favour of a context-specific, politically focused approach to the analyses of gender relations.

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