Post-colonial literature saw its emergence in the late 80s, which is precisely after the liberation of third world countries from the reign of colonizers. Although these countries were emancipated from direct forms of oppressive dominance but were still under the veil of leftover social, economic and cultural traces by colonizers. Works based on post-colonialism served as a burgeoning literary critique aimed at reshaping dominant connotations attributing to social, cultural, economic, psychological, and linguistic spheres. It is concerned with resisting colonizers’ pessimistic imprint on race, gender, and diaspora resulting in slavery, migration, and oppression.
Edward Said, a prominent writer, in 1978 laid the foundation for post-colonial and middle eastern studies through his book “orientalism.” In his book, he paints a picture of a critical concept called orientalism, the contemptuous portrayal of the orients by the west. Orients are the societies and people who inhabit Asia, Africa, and North America whose traditions and languages were often scorned upon by the imperialists in an attempt to shove superiority of imperial power, culture, and its legacy into the lives of the east. Moreover, the westerners also justified victimizing colonials of brutality and cruelty under the ambit of the term “civilizing mission,” which the critics instead see as a political rationale to facilitate the Westernization of indigenous people.
Another book that offers a post-colonial narrative in an Indian context infused with magical realism is “midnight’s children” by Salman Rushdie. The book’s portrayal of elements like dehumanization, deceit, marginalization, and fear of Indians during a period post-independence very well brings out its literary genre of post-colonialism. It is also interesting to notice how there runs a subtle theme of patriarchy and male chauvinism in the background of all post-colonialism works, which serves as an instrument in unleashing the ordeal’s shackles faced by women through words.
For instance, in “God of small things,” a fictional text, Arundhati Roy attempts to convey contemporary issues by women in Kerala. Through the lens of her female characters (Mammachi, Ammu, Rahel, Baby Kochamma, Kochu Maria), she narrates domestic violence practiced on mammachi by pappachi. The patriarchal clutch on societal order allows Chacko (his son) to receive an oxford education but denies it to Ammu, justifying it to be a lousy reputation. Her discourse on caste, gender issues, and love laws calibrated in a minute intricate language fetched her international attention. Thus, we can regard post-colonial writings being a facet in advocating third world feminism.
Before delving further into the text, it is critical to understand the very definition of feminism. According to the Cambridge dictionary, feminism stands for “an organized effort to give women the same economic, social, and political rights as men.” In its historical context, feminism can be classified into three major waves. The first wave was witnessed in the women’s suffrage movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Women voiced out for claiming their fundamental rights such as education, voting, profession, equal status at par with men, etc. The emergence of second-wave feminism occurred in the late 60s and was carried on till the late 80s and was a movement mainly focusing on middle class white women issues. However, these movements were seen as heedful to non-western women’s struggles and negated their constraints, which gave rise to third-wave feminism.
Third-world feminism was never a separate entity; post-colonial literature’s thoughts and ideologies molded it. Their chief intention was to take a stance that opposed mainstream Western feminism, mainly a white discourse. Western feminism was blinded by the differences that prevailed in women’s lives and experiences across borders. They were keen on advocating social and political demands that suited their cultural climate, which was colonial in itself.
As rightly said by Edward in his book “orientalism,” an insular dogma was attached to third world women, categorizing them as uneducated, poor, ignorant, victimized, and domesticated. In contrast, western women were regarded as independent and modern, giving themselves an elite grip over society. Western feminism emerged in the late 60s – 70s to raise voice again inhuman prejudices and gender inequality, reviewed discourses of sex, gender, and language defined to whims and wishes of male chauvinism, neglecting the interests of women. However, the momentum gained by western feminists were in-ground seen as a detriment to third world women.
Western theories of liberation demand were vulnerable to universalization and overgeneralization of women’s problems lacking a global perspective due to a colossal gap in privileges enjoyed by both spectrum of women. The magnitude of the difficulties narrated by white women in their literature was lesser than that of third world women. Hence, the solutions they had to offer were never seen to be adequate in the eyes of writers of third world women who demanded heterogeneity of thought.
An example of this would be the broad classification of non-western women who do not originate from the first world as “third world women,” disregarding their divergent composition. Chandra Mohanty, a post-colonial and transnational feminist theorist, analyzes this sentiment in Under Western Eyes: Feminist by saying, “I would like to suggest that the feminist writings I analyze here discursively colonize the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the Third World, thereby producing/representing a composite, singular “Third World woman” -an image that appears arbitrarily constructed but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of Western humanist discourse.”
There is never a single approach to feminism since it is a notion that continually takes shape with regard to its people and the cultural order they hail from. Thus, emerged post-colonial feminism in an attempt to delineate the typical problems faced by women in third world countries such as domestic abuse, rape, female feticide, dowry deaths, discrimination, etc., which were beyond virtues of sex/gender, keeping in mind the social differences and not pertaining to one universal theory assuming to correspond highly fragmented and multi-valent social constraints. Women of the third world are manacled by their own men’s bigotry and imperialists’ ideologies of chauvinism.
In his book, Edward categorized the west as occidental and the east as orients, where occidentals were the focal point and orients the margins or peripheries. A similar concept is applied to women’s double colonization subjugation, where men are occidental, and women are orients. This human-made classification’s inherent purpose is not merely attributed to false interpretation but also to thrust power and domination of the superior. In both cases, women of color represent others, either the imperialists or their fathers, husbands, etc. From this perspective, males are a mirrored reflection of imperialists and that oriental women are obligated by the rule of colonial and patriarchal power.
The wing of third world feminism was developed by women from South-East Asia, Latin America, Africa that belonged to once-colonized countries to refute the habit of overlooking colonial exploitation through racial politics and ethnic oppression by western mainstream so-called feminists. Many pioneering feminists like Arundhati Roy, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Gayatri Spivak, Uma Narayan, Sara Suleri, Lata Mani, Kumkum Sangari, of post-colonial order maintained a close association with black feminists like Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Kimberla Crenshaw because both were stripped off their identity and recognition by not only the males but also by ideologies of western feminism. Gayatri Spivak and Chandra Talpade Mohanty are two leading figures of post-colonial feminism who have proposed alternative feminist theories that subvert and dismantle imperialists’ ideological constriction.
Spivak, in her infamous article, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” introduced a new word called “subaltern”, which defines women’s circumstances belonging to supposedly lower classes who are marginalized. She brought into light the notion of “double colonization,” which later became a focal point for many later writers. She argues the cruelty of patriarchal tyranny exhibited in the self-immolation of widows (sati). She stresses “that the practice of”sati in Hindu culture portrays the complete absence of women’s voices who are the actual victims to be burned alive to ashes to satisfy male beasts’ sadist thirst. She argues a woman’s mere identity as a third-world woman implies her subordinance to sexual oppression and racial politics, which is specific to her class of women, excluding the whites.
Alongside Spivak, the works of Chandra Talpade Mohanty are also seen as bitterly critical in theorizing women of color as passive victims. Mohanty’s influential article “under western eyes; Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” she critiques women reduced to the monolithic subject of knowledge and disregards the view of non-western women as a coherent and collective group ignoring the nuances in third world feminist scholarships. Often accounts of western feminists are accused of voicing their ideas through the lens of eurocentrism. They solely focus on European history and culture and nullify a more expansive view of the world. Mary Daly, an American feminist, in her book “Gyn/ecology: the mathematics of radical feminism,” compares sati along with European culture of witch burning.
Uma Narayana, a third world feminist, is critical of it by saying Daly fails to understand the social and cultural contexts of sati and that Daly needs adequate historical knowledge, invalidating eurocentrism. In another instance, Narayan writes justly, “Third World feminism is not a mindless mimicking of ‘western agendas’ in one clear and simple sense- Indian feminism is clearly a response to the issues specifically uncomplicated pointing many Indian women (Weedon, 1997).
Critics identify the root cause to claim hegemonic privilege by western feminists depriving third world women of their voice, which is regarded as self -righteous. They instead demand first world self-claimed modern, educated and independent women to bring up discourses that acknowledge historical differences and talk about specificities of atrocities that take place to women in spheres of violence, discrimination in all forms, sexuality, their fundamental rights, pertaining to each cultural and social norm rather than viewing them as products of pity and domesticated victims. They blame western feminism for sticking to homogenized and universalized aspirations that refuse to accommodate third-world women’s amelioration forming a new type of colonial hierarchy again. Thus, Post-colonial feminists demand a particular model of cultural and social context and awareness of specific women acknowledging local contradictions and commonalities in the lives of women whose voices have been clamped for ages.
Nikitha Gopi is a first-year student at O.P Jindal Global University pursuing B.A (hons) Economics and a research intern at CABI.