Third World Feminism: Foregrounding Difference

As with most concepts since the emergence of postmodernist thought, it makes little sense now to treat feminism as a single monolithic entity, or feminists as a homogenous class. Beginning with the suffrage movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, feminism as a historical, political movement and philosophy has evolved from merely being a campaign endorsing greater rights for the genteel, educated woman in the Western world, to becoming a fundamental thought in the quest for social justice in intersecting social, economic, cultural, and political phenomena. The concerns that feminism touches are so varied and broad in scope that one can say that single-issue feminism—the struggle against sexism—is already obsolete. Now we don’t talk of patriarchy but of kyriarchy, not only of man and woman but of cisgender and genderqueer, not of universal sisterhood but anticategorical complexity, not simply of feminism but feminisms, in the bid to recognize and analyze the multiplicity of ways in which we are constructed and oppressed on the basis of gender, and the relationship this system of domination and subordination has with interlocking stratifications of class, race and ethnicity, age, and so on in the matrix of oppression.

Myriad feminist theories have developed in various disciplines to address the ever-evolving and multiplying concerns of feminism. One such strand is Third World feminism.

The term “Third World” was coined by the French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952. According to him, the three common characteristics of societies belonging in this category are: 1) disprivilege; 2) political marginalization and; 3) a common interest in overcoming their marginalization (“Third World Feminism”). Third World intellectuals define the term in various ways. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak explains that it was used by those emerging from the “Old World” to describe a “seemingly new world order established after the Second World War” and denote countries “neither with the Eastern nor within the Western bloc” (270), that is, neither allied with the communist states of the USSR and China, nor with the democratic states of America and Europe during the so-called “Cold War.” Chandra Talpade Mohanty defines the Third World geographically: “the nation-states of Latin America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-east Asia, China, South Africa, and Oceania constitute the parameters of the non-European third world. In addition, black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous peoples in the U.S., Europe, Australia, some of whom have historic links with the geographically defined third worlds, also define themselves as third world peoples” (5). Cheryl Johnson-Odim explains that “the term Third World is frequently applied in two ways: to refer to ‘underdeveloped’/ overexploited geopolitical entities, i.e. countries, regions, even continents; and to refer to oppressed nationalities from these world areas who are now resident in ‘developed’ First World countries” (314). To sum, most of the countries categorized as belonging to the Third World were former colonies. Though they have proclaimed their independence, many of them remain under the economic, political, and cultural hegemony of their former colonizers. Thus, the struggle against imperialism—and the feudal relations tied to it—is a continuing one.

Third World Feminism, also referred to as Postcolonial Feminism or Global Feminism, is a strand of feminism that focuses on the experiences of women in Third World societies affected by the history of colonialism. It is born of the inadequacy of Western strands of feminism, especially Liberal and Radical Feminism, which it criticizes as Eurocentric and universalizing, concerned only with the white, privileged female subject. For example, while a First World liberal feminist would clamor for equal access to education or higher salaries for women corresponding to that of men in the same position, Third World women would worry about obtaining basic needs like food and shelter, about the very accessibility of schools. While a First World radical feminist would rant against the double standards to which women are held and the oppressiveness of the institution of marriage, a girl in Congo would just hope against hope that she wouldn’t get raped in a society where 14 is the marrying age, and sex with a virgin is thought to cure AIDS.

Postcolonial Feminism, as the name suggests, was born of the intersection of feminist and postcolonial studies. Revolts against colonial rule for national independence characterized the decades succeeding World War Two. Postcolonialism, concerned with the interactions between colonizer and colonized in the modern period, rose to prominence in the 1970s with the publication of Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism (1978), which critiques Western constructions of the “Orient” (Bahri). These constructions, which are essentialist and dualistic, characterize the East as exotic and “feminine”: passive, uncivilized, weak, dangerous; homogenizes it and posits it as antithetical to the civilized West.

Feminist and postcolonial discourses share many similarities and concerns, for both are engaged in the political struggle against oppression and injustice inflicted by a hierarchical, patriarchal system. As Caslin points out, “Imperialism, like patriarchy, is after all a phallocentric, supremacist ideology that subjugates and dominates its subjects. The oppressed woman is in this sense akin to the colonized subject. Essentially, exponents of post-colonialism are reacting against colonialism in the political and economic sense while feminist theorists are rejecting colonialism of a sexual nature.” Indeed, sexism and colonialism are intertwined, for gender “was a key site of intervention for European rule in the colonies, particularly in its guise as ‘civilizing mission’” (Rajan). In the Philippines, for instance, the control of women’s sexuality, the demonization of female figures of authority and worship, and the imposition of a patriarchal religion helped in the colonial project.

According to Arif Dirlik, the “postcolonial” begins when “Third World intellectuals have arrived in First World academe.” One can say that postcolonial feminism began when Third World feminists arrived in the First World academe. Postcolonial feminism developed to address the multiplicity of realities and concerns that women in the Third World face, which are not considered in the discourse of Western feminism, with its emphasis on gaining greater individual freedom for women (including personal/subjective emancipation) and obliterating gender bias. The discourse of Western feminism speaks in universals—it assumes that all women share the concerns of white bourgeois women in ending sexist oppression. However, as bell hooks points out, underprivileged, non-white women “would not have defined women’s liberation as women gaining social equality with men since they are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do not share a common social status … [and] many males in their social groups are exploited and oppressed. Knowing that men in their groups do not have social, political, and economic power, they would not deem it liberating to share their social status” (19).

Postcolonial feminism also arose to counter the tendency of some post-colonial theorists, like many Marxist theorists, to ignore gender difference in their discourse. Postcolonial feminists emphasize that colonial oppression affected men and women in different ways, and that women were doubly oppressed, because of their race and because of their gender (Caslin).

Postcolonial or Third World Feminism analyzes the ways in which gender, class, and ethnicity intersect to constitute a matrix of oppression. It is concerned with the theme of “double colonization” or the subjugation of Third World women by both imperialism and the patriarchy.

The patriarchy, the dominant sociocultural system in most Third World societies, manifests in customary law, religion, and tradition (“Third World Feminism”). These include practices like female infanticide, arranged marriages, patrilocal marriage, and footbinding (China); purdah (the segregation of males and females), lifelong dependence on men, the commoditization of women, dowry murders, wife-battering, the prohibition of widow remarriage, and sati (widow-burning) (India); religious discrimination and gendered bias reinforced by the notion of karma (Sri Lanka and Buddhism); female genital mutilation, child marriage and rape (Africa); women’s second shift, the feminization of overseas service-oriented labor, sexual slavery and human trafficking, and mail-order brides (Philippines), and the list goes on. Despite being associated with certain countries here, many of these practices and others like them occur across various Third World societies.

Colonization, and the economic system of capitalism that it introduced, aggravated class differences and reinforced women’s subordination in society. Despite the end of colonization, economic exploitation persists in this age of globalization in the form of neocolonization or imperialism, and Third World women remain doubly marginalized in the global workplace. On one level, they are limited by gendered labor, if not deemed inferior to their male counterparts; on another, they are deemed inferior to their “white masters,” who hold political and economic power.

In the face of such mutually constitutive systems of oppression deeply embedded in the social fabric, Third World feminism struggles for holistic and integrative transformation or the “liberation from all forms of oppression by the state, by society, and by men” (Bhasin and Khan qtd. in “Third World Feminism,” 13) and emancipation from discrimination resulting from gender, class, and ethnicity. Because the systems it contends with are rooted in world politics and economics, and the uneven power relations imputed in the North-South divide in a globalized world, Third World feminism is invested in national sovereignty and gender-fair development. This means that the full integration of women in the process of advancement of the social, cultural, economic, and political conditions of their society is necessary for social change.

In contrast to the Western feminist drives for individual women’s rights, for postcolonial feminists, addressing wider issues of class, race, and nationality that contribute to women’s oppression are sometimes more important. Thus, they struggle for national and cultural sovereignty and economic enfranchisement to improve their conditions of existence. They also emphasize and analyze local politics and power relations over the universalizing feminisms of the West (Koh). In the Philippines, for instance, GABRIELA delineates women’s goals that focus on economic independence from neocolonial influence, and a democratic and participatory government in a sovereign nation free from foreign intervention (“Third World Feminism”). Other concerns of postcolonial feminist discourse include the role of women as symbols in the nationalist imaginary and their historical contribution to anti-colonial struggles; the dilemma faced by the postcolonial woman caught in the conflict between “tradition” and “modernity” and the social roles they endorse; the state’s investment in gender regimes; the law’s regulation of sexuality; the politics of female labor, including the gendered division of labor in the global economy; and the centrality of gender to development. Postcolonial feminism has also contributed to the critique of ethnicity and religious fundamentalism, war, state violence, and militarization (Rajan). Discursively, postcolonial feminists criticize “Othering” or the production of stereotypes and representations by the patriarchal/imperial “male gaze” to justify the subjugation of its “Other,” by highlighting its weakness or moral corruption, and therefore its need for protection or guidance by the dominant entity.

Aside from working against the political, economic, and cultural structures of domination employed by patriarchal imperialism, postcolonial feminists also criticize “Feminist colonialism,” or the tendency of Western feminism toward Eurocentricity and universalizing.  Marilyn Frye, a white feminist, points to the ignorance of Western feminist discourse about the plight of colored women and the former’s complicity in the latter’s oppression. In “On Being White,” Frye writes, “A liberal white feminism would seek ‘equality’; we can hardly expect to be heard as saying we want social and economic status equal to that of, say, Chicanos. If what we want is equality with our white brothers, then what we want is, among other things, our own firsthand participation in racial dominance rather than the secondhand ersatz dominance we get as the dominant group’s women. No wonder such feminism has no credibility with women of color” (125). Postcolonial feminists argue that Western feminism’s idea of “universal sisterhood” effaces the differences in class, race, and nationality between women (Koh), perpetuating white privilege. hooks points out that the “emphasis on Sisterhood was often seen as emotional appeal masking the opportunism of bourgeois white women” (44).

Third World feminists like Trinh Minh-ha (Women, Native, Other), Chandra Talpade Mohanty (“Under Western Eyes”), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (“Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” “Can the Subaltern Speak?” etc.) explore postcolonial women’s subjectivity and problematize not only the generic notion of sisterhood, but the very category of “woman” and Western Feminism’s ethnocentric conception of it.

While the concept of “universal sisterhood” effaces the difference of non-Western women, the Western feminist construction of the “third world woman as a singular monolithic subject” (Mohanty 51) likewise overlooks their historical specificity. In viewing them as a generalized and homogenous oppressed subject, Western feminists often fail to acknowledge the voices and agency of Third World women. Mohanty calls this “discursive colonization” and sees it as a manifestation of “a latent economic and cultural colonization of the ‘non-Western’ world” (74).

Spivak exhorts the privileged Western feminist to “unlearn the privilege.” She says, “What we are asking is that the holders of the hegemonic discourse should de-hegemonize their position and themselves learn how to occupy the subject position of the other rather than simply say, ‘OK, sorry, we are just very good white people, therefore we do not speak for the blacks’” (Spivak qtd. in Kilburn). Instead of emphasizing “third world difference”: “that stable, ahistorical something that apparently oppresses most if not all of the women in [third world] countries”) (53-54), she argues for “a viable oppositional alliance” for “what seems to constitute ‘women of color’ or ‘third world women’ … is a common context of struggle rather than color or racial identifications. Similarly, it is third world women’s oppositional political relation to sexist, racist, and imperialistic structures that constitutes our political commonality” (7).

Spivak advocates the use of “strategic essentialism,” “a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest” (214). In an interview for Boundary 2, Spivak argues:

Essentialism is bad, not in its essence—which would be a tautology—but only in its application. The goal of essentialist critique is not the exposure of error, but the interrogation of the essentialist terms. Uncritical deployment is dangerous. Critique is simply reading the instructions for use. Essentialism is like dynamite, or a powerful drug: judiciously applied, it can be effective in dismantling unwanted structures or alleviating suffering; uncritically employed, however, it is destructive and addictive. (Spivak qtd. in Kilburn)

In its inquiry into the complexity of gender-based oppression and its roots in uneven cultural, material, and political relations in the age of globalization, postcolonial feminism seems an attractive and comprehensive feminist theory indeed. This is especially true for feminist intellectuals in the Third World, who must have most keenly felt the limitations of dominant western feminist paradigms, paradigms that by no means sufficiently addressed their particular experiences as postcolonial subjects in a patriarchal society, doubly marginalized by gender and race, and often also by class. With postcolonial feminism, they developed the necessary theoretical framework with which to make sense of their situation, subvert oppressive hegemonies, and empower themselves and their nation. Despite the political goods of postcolonial feminism, however, criticism has been leveled against some self-defined Third World women intellectuals. Diane Brydon writes, “now that the marginal is being revalued as the new voice of authority in discourse, it is tempting to accept the imperial definition of the colonized as marginal” (4), when in fact, these Third World women inhabit a privileged place in First World feminist academia.

Sara Suleri argues,

rather than extending an inquiry into the discursive possibilities represented by the intersection of gender and race, feminist intellectuals like hooks misuse their status as minority voices by enacting strategies of belligerence that at this time are more divisive than informative. Such claims to radical revisionism take refuge in the political untouchability that is accorded the category of Third World Woman, and in the process sully the crucial knowledge that such a category has still to offer to the dialogue of feminism today. (765)

Suleri also attacks the emphasis that feminists like Mohanty and Trinh place on personal narratives and “authenticity.” She asserts that Mohanty’s “claim to authenticity—only a black can speak for a black; only a postcolonial subcontinental feminist can adequately represent the lived experience of that culture—points to the great difficulty posited by the ‘authenticity’ of female racial voices in the great game which claims to be the first narrative of what the ethnically constructed woman is deemed to want” (760). Instead of claiming that “personal narrative is the only salve to the rude abrasions that Western feminist theory has inflicted on the body of ethnicity” (764), Suleri argues that postcolonial feminist discourse be grounded in the reality of the postcolonial condition, for “lived experience does not achieve its articulation through autobiography, but through that other third-person narrative known as the law” (766).

Postcolonial feminism has been criticized for laying too much blame on indigenous patriarchal “Tradition.” Ejikeme, a Nigerian feminist, contends that while it is true that many indigenous traditions subjugate women, to point to “Tradition” as the root cause of Third World women’s oppression, a problem only aggravated by colonialism, “obscures reality more than it clarifies it.” No single “Tradition” exists all over the Third World, and not all Third World societies are patriarchal. Indeed, she adds, “what is considered ‘traditional’ in African communities is often of relatively recent vintage and was colonially-generated.” Blaming “Tradition” for the oppression of Third World women conveys the idea that indigenous “beliefs and practices constitute part of an ancient, unchanging way of life, not easily amenable to change,” when they are, in fact, greatly affected by the colonial experience and contemporary realities.

Just as they criticize Western feminism for “Feminist colonialism,” postcolonial feminism has also been the target of critique for “theoretical colonization.” Thus, postcolonial feminists take pains to expound their own subject positions to establish the historical specificity of their discussions and avoid totalizing strategies, which efface difference and presume the homogeneity of concepts like the “third world woman,” the “black woman” and the “white woman” (Viljoen).

Sometimes, conflict arises between feminist and postcolonial agenda, for, as Viljoen points out, “feminist struggle is not necessarily coterminous with the struggles for political freedom characteristic of oppositional postcolonialism” and “some post-colonial nationalisms have entrenched rather than dismantled the power of patriarchy.” In such cases, postcolonial feminists have been forced to choose where their first loyalties lie—with gender issues, or racial ones. And whichever choice they make opens them up to criticism.

Nevertheless, I feel hopeful about the contributions of postcolonial feminism to feminist thought. In the recognition not only of differences but also commonalities, and the development of mutual respect and understanding despite  divergent perspectives and experiences, the women of the world may yet strengthen the grounds for shared political struggle.



Works Cited

Bahri, Deepika. “Introduction to Postcolonial Studies.” Postcolonial Studies at Emory. Emory University, n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2011.

Brydon, Diana. “Commonwealth or Common Poverty?” Kunapipi: Special Issue on Post-Colonial Criticism 11.1 (1989): 1-16. Web. 3 Jan 2012.

Caslin, Sinead. “Feminism and post-colonialism.” The Imperial Archive. Queen’s University of Belfast, 2006. Web. 26 Dec. 2011.

Dirlik, Arif. “The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism.” Critical Inquiry 20.2 (1994): 328-356. Web. 3 Jan. 2012.

Ejikeme, Anene. “Let the women speak! and listen.” Pambazuka News. 17 Jan. 2008. Web. 3 Jan. 2012.

Frye, Marilyn. The Politics of Reality: Essays in feminist theory. Freedom, California: The Crossing Press, 1983. Print.

Graves, Nicola. “Third World and Third World Women.” Postcolonial Studies at Emory. Emory University, n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2011.

hooks, bell. Feminist theory: from margin to center. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000. Google Books.

Johnson-Odim, Cheryl. “Common Themes, Different Contexts: Third World Women and Feminism.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Mohanty, Russo, Torres. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. Google Books.

Kilburn, Michael. “Glossary of Key Terms in the Work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.” Postcolonial Studies at Emory. Emory University, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2012.

Koh, Adeline. “Postcolonial Feminism.” The Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project. Richard Stockton College, 2010. Web. 26 Dec. 2011.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Introduction” and “Under Western Eyes.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Mohanty, Russo, Torres. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1991. Google Books.

Rajan, Rajeswari Sunder. Postcolonialism and Gender. New York University, Fall 2010. Web. 3 Jan. 2012.

Selden, Raman, et al. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Prentice Hall, 1985. Print

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. The Spivak Reader. Eds. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean. Great Britain: Routledge, 1996. Google Books.

Suleri, Sara. “Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition.” Critical Inquiry 18.4 (1992): 756-769. Web. 3 Jan. 2012.

“Third World Feminism” (Readings)

Trinh, Minh-ha. “Difference: A Special Third World Woman Issue.” Discourse 8 (Fall-Winter 1986-87): 10-37. Web. 3 Jan 2012.

Viljoen, Louise. “Postcolonialism and women writing in Afrikaans.” The Postcolonial and Postimperial Web. George P. Landow, n.d. Web. 3 Jan. 2012.


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