Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses". In Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.

 

In this article, Mohanty critiques what she sees as the failure of Western feminism to properly and critically theorize so-called "third world feminisms" and "third world women". In particular, she is interested in the project of examining Western feminist discourse to understand how this body of work constructs "the third world woman" as a monolithic subject (or object) of knowledge.

It is tempting for Western feminists to think of "colonialism" as a mostly physical practice which involves political, economic, and social systems of overt domination. However, Mohanty draws attention to a form of colonialism which is less explicitly apparent but which is no less significant: discursive colonialism; in other words, scholarship which, in its practices, reproduces unequal relations of power. This discursive colonialism can be achieved in a variety of ways, which I describe below. Mohanty argues that Western feminist scholars must be critical of how their academic practices are implicated in and reproduce hierarchies, ethocentrism, and other forms of cultural domination (cf. Collins). From a survey of recent (to 1991) Western feminist theory on "third world women", Mohanty concludes that this is not yet the case, and that "assumptions of privilege and ethnocentric universality... and inadequate self-consciousness about the effect of Western scholarship on the 'third world' in the context of a world system dominated by the West... characterize a sizable extent of Western feminist work on women in the third world."(p.53) By casting, unwittingly or otherwise, the West as the unacknowledged Subject/norm and the "third world" as an artificially homogenized Object/other, Western feminists deny women in the third world discursive subjectivity and status as active agents in the world (cf. de Beauvoir and existential agency). Mohanty notes that this kind of discursive categorization has its roots in liberal humanism, a model often critiqued by feminists. Given the context of the relative domination of Western scholarship in the concrete sense, i.e. "production, publication, distribution, and consumption of information and ideas" (p.55) an analytic problem becomes a political problem. Thus, the focus of Mohanty's critique is the modes of analysis used when Western scholars theorize women in the third world.

Mohanty identifies three primary analytic presuppositions which she finds problematic in Western feminist scholarship. First, she explores the discursive location of the category "women" in relation to the analysis, arguing that Western scholarship tends to constitute "women" as an ahistorical group undifferentiated by other factors such as class, ethnicity, geographical location, etc. "Women" are defined also primarily by their "object status" in the way they are affected or not affected by a variety of systems and institutions. For example, it is common in Western scholarship to identify women in the third world as victims, universal dependents, passive objects in the process of political change, and so forth. Discursively, gender is taken to have meaning outside of other relationships. Women's identities are understood as constituted prior to their placement in a variety of social institutions, such as the family, rather than meaningful identities being produced through these institutional relations (and meaningful producers of these relations). Gender is thus taken to be the origin of oppression, rather than oppression producing particular forms of gender. In fact, suggests Mohanty, "it is the common context of political struggle against race, class, gender, and imperialist hierarchies that may constitute third world women as a strategic group at this historical juncture."(p.58) Evoking Collins' discussion of Black feminist standpoints, Mohanty proposes that if women in the third world share a group status, it is in their shared history of political and other agency, not their shared status as objects.

Second, she notes the problematic use of evidence used to justify the first presupposition. This is done in three main ways. One, proof of universal phenomena is provided through an arithmetic model where occurrence devoid of context or symbolic understanding is sufficient. An action undertaken in any context is accorded the same significance in this model. Two, concepts such as reproduction, the family, religion, etc. are also used without context and historical specificity. Finally, superordinate structural categories such as male-female or nature-culture are used to organize cross-cultural work and lesser categories; in this process categories which commonly organize a system of representation are taken to organize all systems of representation in the same way.

Third, she proposes that as a result of the first two analytic presuppositions, a model of struggle and subjectivity is developed which does not allow for sufficient agency on the part of the women who are studied. For one author which Mohanty examines, "women in the third world countries... have 'needs' and 'problems', but few if any have 'choices' or the freedom to act." (p.64) Furthermore, it assumes a model of "power" which is top-down and monolithic, pitting "the powerless" against "the powerful".

Mohanty proposes that a better theoretical model involves intersectionality; in other words, constructing the category of "women" in "a variety of political contexts that often exist simultaneously and overlaid on top of one another."(p.65) Such an analysis is politically focused and highly context-specific, mindful of links between women and groups of women without falling into false generalizations, and acknowledges the contradictions as well as the commonalities in women's experiences.