Sunday, November 27, 2011

Spivak and Global Feminism

I think a paramount concern for feminism today is figuring out how to address oppression globally. I am thinking of genital cutting (or genital mutilation depending on who you are talking to) and the practice of suttee in India, which Spivak speaks briefly about in this essay, but was a foundational piece of her original essay by the same title. We (Americans, Western women, academics, etc.) may see genital cutting in Africa as an atrocity to womankind, and may not be able to imagine why a woman would throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. What often, if not inevitably, follows after learning about practices such as genital cutting and suttee is self-righteous indignation. How could they possibly be subjected to such treatment? Do they HATE women over there? Papers are written about the women’s treatment, horror stories are shared, and maybe even the general public gets in on the action, signing petitions calling for those with power to “do something” to correct such wrongs.

What inevitably happens, though, is women from Africa, or India, or whatever non-Western nation we are focusing on speak out against our meddling in their business. These are sacred practices, they say. These are rituals that have been performed for generations, and are integral to our culture and way of life. Here is where it becomes more complicated for the Western feminist, whose only intention was to help a fellow-oppressed group. It is here that the question of whether the subaltern can speak really becomes important, and I think it is a question global politics demands an answer to.

How can those from the outside, (namely the West in this case) ever hope to truly act on behalf of the women from Africa, or India, or anywhere else for that matter? How is making a petition to get the powers that be to put pressure on nations to end genital cutting helping to empower the women of Africa? I’m not arguing that the practice isn’t heinous—I think it’s awful and am happy to see a movement to end it—but I think a top-down approach to ending a cultural practice is in some ways equally as oppressive as the practice itself. I think this is the problem Spivak is putting words to.


  1. Katharine,

    I completely agree with your view of how people of other countries often make question and wrongly judge other cultures which oftentimes results in very uninformed views and opinions of the norms and way in which other societies function. Your example of genital mutilation reminded me of a similar type of situation; a while back I came across a political cartoon that represents the ‘stereotypical’ way in which an American and Muslim woman view each other’s respective clothing:

    Simple choice of clothing is of course not on the same level of actual physical alteration, but it causes some of the same issues. In this case, certain items are worn out of respect towards religion and tradition: it is a ceremonial practice, and like you said, how can those from the outside claim it is wrong? Normal behavior amongst any culture can greatly vary and typical occurrences of one may be completely appalling to the other. But, who is to judge which what is ‘right?’ When Spivak is speaking about women in terms of the subaltern she states, “This gesture of transformation marks the fact that knowledge of the other subject is theoretically impossible” (Spivak 805). So, based on this, it seems that she is arguing that an outsider will never be able to understand a different subject/situation.

    Jumping from Spivak and back to the cartoon, I think it might be interesting to analyze also in terms of Burke’s terministic screens, he says: Whether or not we are just things in motion, we think of one another…as persons. And the difference between a thing a person is that the one merely moves whereas the other acts” (53). Therefore, it is our actions that have the ability to define our character, and what’s more, it is our culture and societal norms that dictate what standard acceptable behavior is. In my opinion, oftentimes judgments are made without considering alternate perspective: to each his own.

  2. This has also been an issue in regards to headscarves and other head coverings worn by Muslim women, especially in France, where controversial laws have banned girls from wearing headscarves to French public schools. In this case, feminist concerns have been articulated to cover up (like a headscarf lulz) the actual reasons behind wanting to ban the headscarf (xenofobia, etc). For instance, in her book Politics of the Veil, Joan Wallach Scott notes that one reason behind anxiety about the headscarf is men's understood 'natural right' to view women. Scott writes, "Depriving men of an object of desire undermines the sense of their own masculinity" (159). This is one of BAJILLIONS of instances of non-feminists hijacking feminist rhetoric for specifically un-feminist reasons (like abortion-- CHOOSE life, etc). So... Just another layer of sociocultural confusion to add to global feminist debates.


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