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Postcolonial feminism is a form of feminism that developed as a response to the fact that feminism seemed to focus solely on the experiences of women in Western cultures. Postcolonial feminism seeks to account for the way that racism and the long-lasting political, economic, and cultural effects of colonialism affect non-white, non-Western women in the postcolonial world. Postcolonial feminism originated as a critique of feminist theorists in developed countries. The critique points out the universalizing tendencies of mainstream feminist ideas and argues that women living in non-Western countries are misrepresented.
Postcolonial feminism argues that by using the term "woman" as a universal group, women are then only defined by their gender and not by social class, race, ethnicity, or sexual preference. Postcolonial feminists also work to incorporate the ideas of indigenous and other Third World feminist movements into mainstream Western feminism. Third World feminism stems from the idea that feminism in Third World countries is not imported from the First World, but originates from internal ideologies and socio-cultural factors.
Postcolonial feminism has strong ties with indigenous movements and wider postcolonial theory. It is also closely affiliated with black feminism because both black feminists and postcolonial feminists argue that mainstream Western feminism fails to adequately account for racial differences. Postcolonial feminism, black feminism, and other racially conscious strands of feminism have struggled to add racial and ethnic differences among women to the feminist dialogue.
Postcolonial feminism is sometimes criticized, mostly as a response from mainstream feminism, which argues, for example, that postcolonial feminism weakens the wider feminist movement by dividing it.
The history of modern feminist movements can be divided into three waves. When First-wave feminism originated in the late nineteenth century, it arose as a movement among white, middle-class women in the developed world who were reasonably able to access both resources and education. Thus, the first wave of feminism almost exclusively addressed the issues of these women who were relatively well off. The first-wavers focused on absolute rights such as suffrage and overturning other barriers to legal gender equality. This population did not experience the realities of women of color, who felt the force of racial oppression, or economically disadvantaged women, who were forced out of the home and into blue-collar jobs.
Second-wave feminism inspired women to look at the sexist power struggles that existed within their personal lives and broadened the conversation to include issues within the workplace, issues of sexuality, family, and reproductive rights. So feminist theory during the first century of feminism failed to account for differences between women in terms of race and class—it only addressed the needs and issues of the white, Western women who had started the movement. Within the last twenty years, postcolonial feminism emerged as part of the third wave of feminism in tandem with many other racially based feminist movements in order to reflect the diverse nature of each woman's lived experience. By acknowledging the differences among diverse groups of women, postcolonial feminism addresses what some call the oversimplification of Western feminism as solely a resistance against sexist oppression. Postcolonial feminism, in contrast, also relates gender issues to other spheres of influence within society.
Postcolonial feminism is a relatively new stream of thought, developing primarily out of the work of the postcolonial theorists who concern themselves with evaluating how different colonial and imperial relations throughout the nineteenth century have impacted the way particular cultures view themselves. This particular strain of feminism promotes a wider viewpoint of the complex layers of oppression that exist within any given society.
Postcolonial feminism began simply as a critique of both Western feminism and postcolonial theory, but later became a burgeoning method of analysis to address key issues within both fields. Unlike mainstream postcolonial theory, which focuses on the lingering impacts that colonialism has had on the current economic and political institutions of countries, postcolonial feminist theorists are interested in analyzing why postcolonial theory fails to address issues of gender. Postcolonial feminism also seeks to illuminate the tendency of Western feminist thought to apply its claims to all women around the world, when in reality the scope of feminist theory is limited. In this way, postcolonial feminism attempts to account for perceived weaknesses within both postcolonial theory and within Western feminism. The concept of colonization occupies many different spaces within postcolonial feminist theory; it can refer to the literal act of acquiring lands or to forms of social, political, and economic enslavement in a society.
Chandra Talpade Mohanty, a principal theorist within the movement, addresses this issue in her seminal essay "Under Western Eyes." In this essay, Mohanty asserts that Western feminists write about Third World women as a composite, singular construction that is arbitrary and limiting. She states that these women are depicted in writings as victims of masculine control and of traditional culture without incorporating information about historical context and cultural differences with the Third World. This creates a dynamic where Western feminism functions as the norm against which the situation in the developing world is evaluated. Mohanty's primary initiative is to allow Third World women to have agency and voice within the feminist realm.
In the article "Third World Women and the Inadequacies of Western Feminism," Ethel Crowley, sociology professor at Trinity College of Dublin, writes about how western feminism is lacking when applied to non-western societies. She accuses western feminists of theoretical reductionism when it comes to Third World women. Her major problem with western feminism is that it spends too much time in ideological "nit-picking" instead of formulating strategies to redress the highlighted problems. The most prominent point that Crowley makes in her article is that ethnography can be essential to problem solving, and that freedom does not mean the same thing to all the women of the world.
Relationship to Western feminisms
Postcolonial feminism is critical of Western forms of feminism, notably radical feminism and liberal feminism and their universalization of women's experiences. Postcolonial feminists argue that the experience of women in cultures impacted by colonialism is often vastly different from that of women in Western countries and should be acknowledged as such. Postcolonial feminists can be described as feminists who have reacted against both universalizing tendencies in Western feminist thought and a lack of attention to gender issues in mainstream postcolonial thought.
Similar to intersectionality, postcolonial feminism began to examine the complex ways that gender interacts with other systems of oppression and discrimination. Postcolonial feminism began as a criticism of the failure of Western feminism to cope with the complexity of postcolonial feminist issues, as represented in Third World feminist movements. The Third World feminist movement criticizes the failure of Western feminists to recognize that not all women live in their particular political environment and location. Postcolonial feminists seek to incorporate the struggle of women in the Third World into the wider feminist movement. This has led to the development of contemporary feminism and its intersectionality, both within the Third World and in the Western world. The core criticism of postcolonial feminism is that Western feminist movements failed to provide a guide for women in the Third World. This perhaps inspired the later examination of the intersectionality in contemporary feminism. It is on the basis of shared experiences that feminists of different political persuasions have argued and pushed for unity, or finding an identity among feminists across the various scholarly disciplines. However, women in the developing world experience the legacy of socio-cultural oppression, in addition to the political issues that are entangled with the decolonization process. This complicates the struggle of these women in terms of fighting patriarchy, in comparison with feminists in the Western world who do not need to fight colonial structures. Western feminists and feminists outside of the West also often differ in terms of race and religion, which is not acknowledged in Western feminism and can cause other differences.
Postcolonial feminists do not agree that women are a universal group. Thus, the examination of what truly binds women together is necessary in order to understand the goals of the feminist movements and the similarities and differences in the struggles of women worldwide. The aim of the postcolonial feminist critique to traditional Western feminism, is to strive to understand the simultaneous engagement in more than one distinct, but intertwined, emancipatory battle. This is significant since feminist discourses are critical and liberatory in intent, and are not thereby exempt from inscription in their internal power relations. The hope of postcolonial feminists is that the wider feminist movement will incorporate these vast arrays of theories, which are aimed at reaching a cultural perspective beyond the Western world by using experiences of the feminists of the Third World.
Feminist postcolonial theorists are not generally unified in their reactions to postcolonial theory and Western feminism, but as a whole, these theorists have significantly weakened the bounds of mainstream feminism, allowing it to apply to women in many different cultural contexts globally rather than focusing only on a middle-class, English-speaking woman in the developed world who is only combating patriarchy.
The intent of postcolonial feminism to reduce homogenizing language is coupled with an overall strategy to incorporate women in both the developed and the developing world into the theoretical milieu. There is a tendency throughout many different academic fields and policy strategies to use Eurocentric or Western models of societies as a framework for the rest of the world. There are indigenous feminist movements that take place within particular country contexts, but this type of scholarship often goes unnoticed in the Western world. Postcolonial feminism works to bring the voices of Third World women to the forefront and allow their critiques of Western feminism and their own unique feminist models to shape our modern notion of feminism.
Relationship to postcolonialism
During the colonial period, colonial powers often imposed Western norms on colonized regions. Many of the aftereffects of colonialism remained in place even after colonization had ended. Postcolonial studies examine the continued effects of colonization in now decolonized countries. The postcolonial feminist movements look at the gendered history of colonialism and how that continues to affect the status of women today. In the 1940s and 1950s, after the formation of the United Nations, former colonies were monitored by the West for what was considered social progress. The definition of social progress was tied to adherence to Western socio-cultural norms. The status of women in the developing world has been monitored by organizations such as the United Nations. As a result, traditional practices and roles taken up by women—sometimes seen as distasteful by Western standards—could be considered a form of rebellion against colonial rule. Some examples of this are women wearing head scarfs or female genital mutilation, which are generally discouraged by Western women, but are seen as legitimate cultural practices in many parts of the world. Thus, the imposition of Western cultural norms may desire to improve the status of women, but has the potential to lead to conflict.
Postcolonialism can provide an outlet for citizens to discuss various experiences from the colonial period. These can include: "migration, slavery, oppression, resistance, representation, difference, race, gender, place and responses to the influential discourses of imperial Europe." Postcolonial feminists see the parallels between recently decolonized nations and the state of women within patriarchy. Both take the "perspective of a socially marginalized subgroup in their relationship to the dominant culture."  In this way feminism and postcolonialism can be seen as having a similar goal in giving a voice to those that were voiceless in the traditional dominant social order.
Another aftereffect of colonialism is that it sometimes results in the glorification of pre-colonial culture. In many places, the pre-colonial culture had traditions of power stratification along gender lines, and women had very little power. Thus the push back against the colonial power could lead to the acceptance of inherent gender inequality in the society and a refusal to try and change that to give more power to women. One way that postcolonial feminists want to fight this entrenched gender inequality is by putting gendered questions into the postcolonial discourse, and thus forcing postcolonial theorists to begin addressing women's issues in their theories.
Race and religion
Racism has a major role to play in the discussion of postcolonial feminism. Postcolonial feminists seek to tackle the ethnic conflict and racism that that follow the colonial period, and to bring these issues into feminist discourse. In the past, mainstream Western feminism has largely avoided the issue of race, relegating it to a secondary issue behind patriarchy and somewhat separate from feminism. Race was not seen as an issue that White women needed to address.
Postcolonial feminism attempts to avoid speaking as if women were a homogeneous population with no differences in race, sexual preference, class, or even age. The notion of whiteness, or lack thereof, is a key issue within the postcolonial feminist movement. This is primarily due to the perceived relationship between postcolonial feminism and other racially based feminist movements, especially black feminism. In Western societies, racism is sometimes viewed as an institutionalized, ingrained facet of society. Postcolonial feminists want to force feminist theory to address how individual people can acknowledge racist presumptions, practices, and prejudices within their own lives and try to halt their perpetuation through this awareness.
At a TEDx Talk in London in 2012 (TEDxEuston), an event focused on African ideas, the outspoken Nigerian feminist and award-winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussed why everyone should be a feminist. She describes gender oppression that is occurring in Nigeria in the video, which was uploaded onto the TEDx Talk channel on YouTube. With the use of anecdotes about her own experiences with gender oppression while growing up, Adichie stresses how men and women need to start viewing each other as equals, which is inherently the definition of feminism.
Vera C. Mackie describes the history of feminist rights and women's activism in Japan from the late nineteenth century to present day. Women in Japan began questioning their place in the social class system, and began questioning their roles as subjects under the Emperor. The book goes into detail about iconic Japanese women who stood out against gender oppression, including documents from Japanese feminists themselves. Japan's oppression of women is written about, displaying that women from yet another culture do not live under the same circumstances as women from western/white cultures. There are different social conducts that occur in Asian countries that may seem oppressive to white feminists; according to Third World feminist ideologies, it is ideal to respect the culture that these women are living in while also implementing the same belief that they should not be oppressed or seen in any sort of sexist light.
Chilla Bulbeck writes about how feminism strives to fight for equality of the sexes through equal pay, equal opportunity, reproductive rights, and education. She also goes on to write about how these rights apply to women in the Third World, and how access to these things might be harder than expected. Women and girls in East Asia are experiencing much different lives that women in girls in more "western" countries, such as Europe or the United States, and freedom may mean something entirely different for each woman and/or girl. Bulbeck also writes about how non-western women are viewing western feminism and discusses how it applies to them.
Sherine Hafez, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies, and author of An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women's Islamic Movements describes the ways that Islamic women are being oppressed by their gender through Islamic religion. As they begin to stand up for their rights as women, they are being shut down due to the fact that their religion is forcing them to continue to be modest and sheltered, henceforth being called secularists.
Critiques of postcolonial feminism
As postcolonial feminism is itself a critique of Western feminism, criticism of postcolonial feminism is best understood as a push back from Western feminism in defense of its aims. One way in which the Western feminist movement criticizes postcolonial feminism is on the grounds that breaking down women into smaller groups to address the unique qualities and diversity of each individual causes the entire movement of feminism to lose purpose and power. This criticism claims that postcolonial feminism is divisive, arguing that the overall feminist movement will be stronger if women can present a united front.
Even movements that acknowledge the differences among different groups of women that postcolonial feminism advocates, may sometimes criticize the postcolonial feminist approach. For example, one argument is that Western women can more effectively express the voice of Third World women from a feminist perspective than can Third World women themselves, due to factors such as greater access to education and resources.
Another critique of postcolonial feminism is much the same as the critiques that postcolonial feminism has for Western feminism. Like Western feminism, postcolonial feminism and Third World feminism are also in danger of being ethnocentric, limited by only addressing what is going on in their own culture at the expense of other parts of the world. Some critiques of postcolonial feminism from within the movement itself argue that it would be stronger if it could transcend the limits of nationalism and refocus more on similarities, rather than just differences.
- Chicana feminism
- Global feminism
- History of feminism
- Islamic feminism
- Sex segregation and Islam
- Transnational feminism
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