PQfEW: Pre- and Post-colonial feminisms

Better late than never.

These quotes come from the anthology that I quoted from last week, Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures. The essays are mostly descriptive – they explain and contextualize some of the ways that feminism exists in so-called Third World countries. (The term Third World is problematic, but it is frequently used by these writers to refer to any country that is struggling to develop a national government, economy, and identity in the wake of American or European colonization.) But the essays are also a little prescriptive – they are warnings or maybe even chastisements to Western feminists who make Third World oppression their business without acquainting themselves with the colonial history that led to the present state.

Reading transnational feminism is challenging for me – world history is not my strong suit, and transnational feminists frequently employ sharp theoretical criticisms as well as material narratives. But the perspective is well worth the challenge – let me know if you want me to explain or clarify anything in this sampling.

“Throughout global history, with few exceptions, women, the feminine, and figures of gender, have traditionally anchored the nationalist imaginary – that undisclosed ideological matrix of nationalist culture. For example, at some point of their historical emergence, nations and nationalisms inevitably posit and naturalize a strategic set of relationships linking land, language, history, and people to produce a crucial nexus of pivotal terms – “motherland,” “mother tongue,” historical or traditional “mother culture,” “founding fathers,” etc.- that will hold together the affective conditions, the emotive core, of nationalist ideology and pull a collection of disparate peoples into a self-identified nation.”
“Nationalism is so powerful a force in the Third World that to counter the charge if anti-nationalism – the assertion that feminism is of foreign origin and influence, and therefore implicitly or expressly anti-national – the strategic response of a Third World feminism under threat must be, and has sometimes been, to assume the nationalist mantle itself.” Geraldine Heng, “’A Great Way to Fly’: Nationalism, the State, and the Varieties of Third-World Feminism.”
There are two important prongs to this argument. 1, sexism is often built right into the foundations of a developing nation – the metaphors Heng lists are certainly familiar, and they do reflect a pattern of figuring the nation as a female body that both nurtures/generates its citizens and requires those citizens to protect and possess it. Sometimes this weird gendering of land and people remains at the metaphorical level, but often enough it reifies a preexisting division of labor and urges the nation’s men to protect their women from the political sphere, and the women to replenish the supply of protective men. Heng quotes some staggering speechs from the Singapore prime minister along these lines. She also gives a very literal example of this appropriation of the female body for national image and ideology: the Singapore Girl, the sexy air hostess/mascot for Singapore Airlines. Publicity for SIA revolved around this sexualized, Orientalized image of a passive woman eager to provide comfort and satisfaction. This image crystallizes a number of ideological problems – the appropriated female body, the hypermasculine business world, the Westernization of the business world, without which this Orientalized icon wouldn’t have so much currency – but criticism from women’s activist groups was not successful in addressing those issues. Why? They were accused of trying to sabotage the Airline’s key to successful business – which leads to quote 2: feminism in the Third World might be seen as anti-modern when it attacks processes of development that disadvantage women, but it might also be seen as too modern as it is a product of the West.
Thus, despite all of the internal contradictions, feminism may very well take on the “mantle of nationalism” (a phrase that conjures an image of hiding underneath a big national flag, to me) in order to carry on the business of protecting women’s more immediate interests.

 

“Prevailing gender ideologies have much bearing on the types of violence that are manifested in a given context. The confinement of women to the economically dependent role of housewife is a condition that has made it difficult for many women to leave otherwise unbearably violent situations. In other words, the domestication of women is a precondition for the crime we define as domestic violence.” Amina Mama, “Sheroes and Villains.”This is a line in a larger argument about the types of oppression experienced by women in sub-Saharan African countries, and the ways in which women resist – that resistance is a huge point in each essay I read last week. The writers insist that we avoid falling into the trap of considering “other” women helplessly victimized – where there is oppression, as I said in an earlier post, there will be resistance.
But this quote jumped out because it could certainly apply to American women as well. I find the phrase “the domestication of women” particularly compelling… it sounds like the women are animals that are housetrained for practical use or enjoyment. In the instance Mama describes – the Congolese housewives hand-picked and trained to espouse the local men employed by the colonial regime there – this is not an exaggeration; one can observe vestiges of this kind of sexism in family values talk in our own political arena.

 

“To fully comprehend the struggles of native peoples, and specifically native women, we must also understand the US as an advanced colonial state, because territorial colonization remains integral to the relationship between the state and native peoples.”
“Unlike other racially subordinated groups whose relationship to the American state have been defined largely by forced exclusion, the relationships of native peoples have been predicated on practices of forced inclusion.” Marie Anna Jaimes Guerrero, “Civil Rights versus Sovereignty.”
In case you forgot, the United States began as a colony – and, although we like the heroic story of breaking off from the big mean empire, the first and continuous story is one of disenfranchising a pre-existing nation – well, a multitude of pre-existing nations. This essay describes the ways in which the United States not only rewrote the citizenship and government of the indigenous people, but also superimposed a patriarchy onto cultures that practiced various degrees of matriarchy, gender equality, or gender fluidity.
Two phrases that are useful and meaningful: I’m not completely sure what Guerrero means by advanced colonial state, but it does seem that the US is one of few colonies that has not only maintained its political control over the land and indigenous people for centuries, but is pretty successful at disabling the indigenous culture: Native Americans can choose reservation or assimilation, both of which are largely dictated by US standards. Also, forced inclusion is a succinct way of describing exactly what “assimilation” means – it is not a synonym of integration, which suggests agency and cooperation.

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PQfEW and the price of an ethical dilemma

Which is nine dollars, if you’re curious.

I had jury duty today.  I reorganized my comp class’s readings for the prior three sessions and cancelled today’s session.  I packed two books, one of which was the source for this week’s quotes.

Curiously, I was Juror Number 1.  That meant I got to be the line leader as we marched up to the second waiting room and down to the courtroom.  In the courtroom they gave us all numbered placards, which we were to hold up if we answered “yes” to any of the judge’s questions.  Would anyone be incapable of walking down nine flights in case of an emergency?  No response.  Is anyone related or closely acquainted with the defendant, any of the lawyers, or the judge?  No response.  This is a criminal trial for multiple charges.  The primary charge is murder.  There is a chance – not a certainty, but a chance – that the jury would be asked to consider capital punishment.  Does anyone have a religious, ethical, or conscientious objection with the death penalty?

Pause.  Do you?

I mean, I have a vague distaste for the death penalty.  I think the entire justice system would benefit the community more if it focused on rehabilitation instead of punishment.  Punishment might take the criminal out of the world for a little while or for life, but it doesn’t solve the conditions that lead to crime in the first place.  That’s as far as I’ve ever gotten when reflecting on the death penalty, except in cases where I was so horrified by the scope of the crime that my gut reaction was this man does not deserve to live

But to make that call?  When someone says to you, Citizen you must look at this man who may have killed a human being.  If he did, would you object to the responsibility for killing him in return?  Quick now.

Resume.  I slowly raised my placard, as did about twenty others in the sixty of us.  I’m still not sure if that was the right answer.

Being Number 1 meant that I was first to be called into a little room, where a man asked me why I raised my placard on a question about hardship.  (The trial will probably go on for a week, and I would not be able to cancel or find a substitute for all of multiple classes.)  Then I read for a little while longer, and by 1pm I was released into the hall with a dozen or so others, and was handed a check for $9. 

Interestingly, my reading for this week had much to do with law.  I was reading the introduction to Feminist Geneaologies, Colonial Legacies, and Democratic Futures in which M Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty do more than just criticize the state of globalization and the stumbling development of transnational feminism: they describe what a real democracy might look like.  To do so, they have to dismantle some of the preconceptions of Democracy (they capitalize this intentionally) in the US is practiced. 

“The citizenship machinery is not ‘blind’ to differences; in fact, it uses a legal apparatus to transform difference into inequality.  In its efforts to remain ‘blind’ to differences in the name of equal treatment, the law often perpetuates the naturalization of heterosexuality and the production of psychic economies that conform to the dictates of the ideological superiority of the heterosexual family… on questions of homosexuality the state reneges on its promise to protect all citizens from terrorist violence.”

That’s just the first of several built-in inequalities they pick apart in this introduction.  They describe the imagined recipient of welfare as a young black female (although this is not always the case) and the consequent erasure of young black females as citizens due full rights.  Alexander and Mohanty both immigrated to America, and they have quite a bit to say about the process of gaining citizenship legally and ideologically.  (By the way, how do you love “psychic economies” as a creative way of talking about ideologies?)  But the overvaluation of the heterosexual family seems like a good place to start, since ENDA was recently revised in a way that doesn’t sufficiently protect transgendered people from workplace discrimination.

Actually, discussing how not-blind the law is makes a good connection to last week’s quotes about objectivity and who is presumed to possess it… additionally, Thinking Girl recently read an article questioning whether women and blacks could be impartial judges.

The second quote is a good one for me to remember – it’s so easy when discussing the cultures of hate in our own society (not to mention other ones!) to think of the objects of this hate as, well, objects.  And victims.  The example Mohanty likes to use is the veil… Westerners just love to go on rants about the veil and the seclusion of women in other countries, but the veil can also have significant personal and religious meaning.  The trouble is not the veil itself, but the forced choice of whether to wear it or not.  Regardless, it’s not useful to think of veiled women (or any women) as victims of the veil or their womanhood, because to do so erases the personhood right out of the picture.

“Women do not imagine themselves as victims or dependents of governing structures but as agents of theur own lives.  Agency is understood here as the conscious and ongoing reproduction of the terms of one’s existence while taking responsibility for this process.”

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PQfEW: Feminist epistemology and standpoint

I’m quite late for Feminist Friday – my family was in town over the weekend.  I also only managed to cobble together two quotes and some general discussion… but that’s probably good, since the ideas are quite abstract. 

Epistemology, you probably already know, is the study of knowledge and how knowledge is, well, known. Feminist epistemology seeks to affirm women as people who can know and create knowledge – still a relevant point to make, since people still get up in front of the APA and make up theories about why women have no substantial contribution to science and culture.  (For a good rundown and smackdown on this speech, try here.)

“Vision can be good for avoiding binary oppositions. I would like to insist on the embodied nature of all vision and so reclaim the sensory system that has been used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere. . . Vision in this technological feast [as it currently is] becomes unregulated gluttony; all seems not just mythically about the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have put the myth into ordinary practice. And like the god trick, the eye fucks the world to make techno-monsters.”
Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.”
I love this article. Haraway is no Adrienne Rich, but she does have a way with words and makes a kind of poetry out of a serious critique of scientific methodology. Her overall argument in this piece is that it’s all very well and good for women to become social and natural scientists and participate in making knowledge, but it’s also important to understand how the current understanding of “making knowledge” is necessarily limited. If science seeks total, objective, and abstract knowledge, then it is ignoring its own blind spots, irrelevancies, and biases. But if one can situate one’s knowledge as originating from a particular standpoint (I’m white, female, overeducated, middle-class, etc.) then one can acknowledge one’s partial knowledge of what there is to know… and my partial knowledge is relevant and interesting but only part of a bigger picture.

 

This particular pair of quotes appear in her discussion of the obsession with vision in science. Vision is useful, she says, if we understand it as seeing from a body in a particular place. The text I omitted was a description of how science and medicine enhanced the “primate” eye, make it see further and more and differently – which is not a problem for Haraway, except when it seduces our primate brains into thinking we can see everything. This imagined omnivision is a “god trick,” a phrase she invokes frequently to characterize various scientific aspirations that ignore their human limitations.  The eye seduced into believing in its own omniscience becomes an invasive, destructive eye:  it actively and hungrily devours what it can see (c.f. “male gaze“).  The solution, then, might mean acknowledging that no single eye (naked or not) can claim true objectivity – objectivity can only be approached by conversations among multiple subjective standpoints.

“Feminist inquiry joins other ‘underclass’ approaches in insisting on the importance of ‘studying up,’ instead of ‘studying down.’ While employers have often commissioned studies of how to make workers happy with less power and pay, workers have rarely been in a position to undertake or commission studies of anything at all, let alone how to make employers happy with less power and profit. Similarly, psychiatrists have endlessly studied what they regard as women’s peculiar mental and behavioral characteristics, but women have only recently begun to study the bizarre mental and behavioural characteristics of psychiatrists.”
Sandra Harding, “Is there a Feminist Method?”

As the title of this piece suggests, Harding is attempting to answer the demand for feminism to account for itself in terms of method and methodology – there was plenty of feminist theory floating about, but how you could possibly take that seriously if it didn’t have a system? Harding, along with previously quoted women, notes that there are and should be many feminisms. There are, however, ways to characterize and systematize a feminist approach. It largely has to do with recognizing your standpoint and how it affects your worldview; it is, kind of consequentially, also about critiquing systems of power and distribution. This quote points out the recentness of this institution analysis, and makes some very striking material examples – how many centuries did philosophers and doctors explain away the weirdness of women on behalf of the women? It also points out the possible good intentions of the clueless… employers want their employees happy, obviously, because they have an investment in the labor. Likewise, people of either sex might participate in sexism and misogyny without realizing it because they don’t, of course, hate women… or at least they think they don’t… but they are nonetheless invested in systems that disadvantage or dehumanize women.

 Feel free to demand explanations or ask for more detail!

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PQfEW: This Bridge Called My Back

I’m excited to note that although last week’s Powerful Quotes didn’t receive much comment, it is one of the most viewed and most searched-for posts from the past few weeks.  So here you go again.

All of the quotes this week come from an incredible anthology, This Bridge Called My Back. It was written, collected, and edited by feminists of color in the 80s, still responding to the repercussions of identity politics. The poems, essays, journal entries, and letters in this volume rage against racism and homophobia in mainstream political movements, describe the lived experience of being female and racially marked and perhaps also lesbian in American culture, reflect painfully on personal practices of racism and woman-hate that had to be unlearned, critique colleagues, postulate possibilities. It’s an incredibly visceral read, both indicting and inviting for a reader like me (who is mostly invisible except for that indelible female mark that sometimes looks like a target).

Unfortunately, it’s out of print. Otherwise I’d ask everyone to read it. I read it from a photocopy of a photocopy, but I did order one of the slightly more expensive “Haha it’s a rare book now!” copies because I’m fairly certain I’ll teach from this text eventually.

“Why am I compelled to write? Because the writing saves me from this complacency I fear. Because I have no choice. Because I must keep the spirit of my revolt and myself alive. Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and hunger. I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you.”
-Gloria Anzaldua, “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers.”

I couldn’t resist another quote about writing, because that is one of the ways for me to enter this text and identify with it. I thought this quote chimed nicely with the Barbara Christian quote  last week, but this excerpt is part of a much longer description of Anzaldua’s struggle with the language, her right to make it speak her mind and testify to her subjecthood, and then her pleasure with language’s ability to metamorphose in the act of writing and surprise her, teach her something she doesn’t already know. “I say mujer magica, empty yourself. Shock yourself into new ways of perceiving the world, shock your readers into the same.”

The rest I submit to you to speak for themselves.

I’ve had enough
I’m sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody

Nobody
Can talk to anybody
Without me
Right?

I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends’ parents. . .

Then
I’ve got to explain myself
To everybody

I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.

Excerpt from “The Bridge Poem” by Donna Kate Rushin

I am awake now, my lover still sleeping beside me, wondering how we can blend our two worlds. How to mend the holes in our pasts, walk away bravely from the nightmares.
. . .
We both have no choice but to be survivors though the fears are still there. Whenever i see a crowd of men, my heart sinks to my feet, whenever i hear sudden noises, sudden crashing, anger, male noises, their very laughter is abrasive to my ears I shrink inside, walk close to the walls of my soul, i look for a place to hide

Excerpt from “Dreams of Violence” by Naomi Littlebear

I lack imagination you say

No. I lack language.
The language to clarify
My resistance to the literate.
Words are a war to me.
They threaten my family.

. . .

Understand.
My family is poor.
Poor. I can’t afford
a new ribbon. The risk
of this one is enough
to keep me moving
through it, accountable.
The repetition like my mother’s
stories retold, each time
reveals more particulars
gains more familiarity.

You can’t get me in your car so fast.

 

Excerpts from “It’s the Poverty,” by Cherrie Moraga

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Powerful quotes from empowered women

I’ve been reading a LOT of feminist theory each week. All of it is thought-provoking, some of it is world-rocking, and quite a bit of it is beautifully written – many of these women, like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, are not only theorists but also poets.

Some of the thoughtful, politically conscious blogs I enjoy have a custom of posting on specifically feminist issues each Friday. I don’t trust myself to stick to a similar routine – I’m already churning out as much coherent thought as I can in weekly response papers for either class, and it doesn’t make sense to post those here. However, I can join in on Feminist Friday action by sharing some particularly compelling points from my reading each week, usually from places where I wrote “Wow!” in the margins. Perhaps some of you will be encourage to read up – you don’t have to be widely read to be a feminist, but people frequently make assumptions about the many forms of feminism without reading any of it at all.

This week’s theme seems to be the difficulty of negotiating solidarity with individuality.

“Stopped by the movements of a huge early bumble bee which has somehow gotten inside this house and is reeling, bumping, stunning itself against windowpanes and sills. I open the front door and speak to it, trying to attract it outside. It is looking for what it needs, just as I am, and like me, it has gotten trapped in a place where it cannot fulfill its own life. I could open the jar of honey on the kitchen counter and perhaps it would take honey from that jar; but its life-process, its work, its mode of being, cannot be fulfilled inside this house.And I, too, have been bumping my way against glassy panes, falling half-stunned, gathering myself up and crawling, then again taking-off, searching.”

The difficulty of saying I – another phrase from Christa Wolf. But once having said it, as we realize the necessity to go further, isn’t there a difficulty of saying ‘we’? You cannot speak for me. I cannot speak for us. Two thoughts: there is no liberation that only knows how to say ‘I’. There is no collective movement that speaks for each of us all the way through.”
Adrienne Rich, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location.”

I had a hard time choosing just one quote from this piece, which reads more like a poem than a talk at a conference (which was the occasion for its presentation). The implications of the bee story are pretty evident, but just to give you some context: Rich was one of the major theorists for feminist and lesbian identity politics when identity politics were developing across all movements. In this piece, written sometime later, she is trying to negotiate the problems that arise when she says “I AM” a woman, a lesbian, etc.and you don’t account for the complications of your position in a web of power – I am also white and therefore have a different relationship to power than women and lesbians who are not. Hence, politics of location: literally and figuratively, from where do you speak?

So the honeybee passage, I think, is about struggling to break out of the limitations of her previous self-definition… but the description of the banging up against glass and stumbling seems to speak about so many more kinds of limitations, like the ability to self-define in the first place. To recall a previous post about Rich and compulsory heterosexuality… sexual “preference,” too, could have been a glass enclosure that I stunned myself against over and over until I found a way to negotiate it. (Jeffrey Weeks sez: “heterosexuality has to be learned.”) Or, the whole metaphor of the home as limit could have resonance… It reminds me of a circular, pointless argument I had with a conservative writer a few months ago. I was arguing for the accessibility of vaccines like Gardasil to protect women who are victims of sexual violence. The other guy argued that if it weren’t for radical feminists trying to behave like men and refuse the protection of men, maybe women wouldn’t be assaulted so often. Aside from its basis in false premises (the “protection” offered women, namely marriage, is as much a location of violence and abuse as any other location), this statement sort of horribly denies the female right to self-determination. Women shouldn’t need men and seclusion to protect them from other men – that’s like offering a jar of honey to this bee, it is not at all the same thing as making one’s own.

The second quotation deals more closely with the issues of solidarity and individuality, and I selected it because it’s so concise, almost slogan-ready. Basically: identity politics developed because of exclusion. Your history is white, so I will celebrate and argue for my blackness. Your feminist theory is straight, so I will make a space for lesbian theory. The trouble is, then, that people don’t claim single identities… and if you’re a black feminist theorist, you still might not discussing the needs of black lesbian women, and if you’re a white female feminist, you’re very likely ignoring any other forms of oppression than sexism. Speaking for other people threatens to erase them. At the same time, Rich argues here, you cannot speak only for yourself… and Audre Lorde has some ideas about that.

“Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative. This is a difference between the passive be and the active being.”
– Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”

Audre Lorde is notable for her powerful, memorable exhortations – for example, the title of this piece, which comes from another essay of hers. This piece is her response to an invitation to comment on “the role of difference” within the lives of women at a conference. She notes and lambasts the otherwise absent consideration of race, sexuality, class, and age in so much theory: she is supposed to be a token, and speak for them all. But the supposed correction for this oversight – bring in a black lesbian feminist, and make sure we talk about racism as well as feminism, about sexuality as well as sexism – implies that there is no connection between those various conversations. Lorde argues that if you ignore differences or treat them as incommensurable, rather than acknowledging how they necessarily shape and compel the conversations that must take place, then you’re just reinstating the means by which you and others are oppressed: using the master’s tools, as it were. Thatis passive and redundant; what’s active is confronting, challenging, and talking about difference.

P.S…. I’m a nerd and I love this:
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“I can only speak for myself. But what I write and how I write is done in order to save my own life. And I mean that literally. For me literature is a way of knowing that I am not hallucinating, that whatever I feel/know is.”
– Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory.”

This article is written as a criticism of some then-new waves of critical theory that abstract the hell out of everything. Theory is important, Christian argues, but if it loses a connection with practicality then it becomes prescriptive (read: oppressive, limited). This line falls nearly at the end of the argument, where she manifests her own purpose in reading and analyzing literature in response to all the prescribed purposes she outlines earlier. This is a really good reminder for those of us who repeatedly ask ourselves what we’re doing in grad school (“But what do we think we’re doing anyway?” which is the title of another Christian piece). That one sentence – what I write and how I write is done in order to save my own life – just hit me in the gut. I think that what I write has always been done to save my own life in some sense, from my bad teenage poetry to my long, heated journals in college to my online analysis of my love life in New Orleans and especially now… it’s always been about reassuring myself that what I experience is and has a knowable shape, even when it doesn’t.
In that way, our motives may originate within our own skins… but notice that what saves her life is the communion with texts, the testimony from other minds that she is not hallucinating after all.

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