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.