White and Eurocentric

2010-06-30 "Sometimes you have to say to yourself: 'Good God this is a really narrow world!'" Dr. Chandra Talpade Mohanty described the limitations of the academia during the recent conference "Transnational / Global Feminism".

The conference in Bergen focused on the challenges for contemporary transnational feminism, and it was arranged by Centre for Women’s and Gender Research (SKOK) together with the Norwegian Association for Women’s and Gender Studies (FOKK). In the age that uses women’s liberation as a discursive weapon in the war against terror, ways of knowing and producing knowledge were presented as the central questions of transnational feminism.

Hierarchies in feminism

Chandra Talpade Mohanty. Photo: Stine Bøe

As claims for global sisterhood and feminism in the west in general have received criticism because of excluding and ignoring for instance women of color, transnational feminism also challenges Women’s and Gender Studies. Mohanty emphasized the topicality of this.

“In the best instances we have moved from white Women’s Studies to multiracial Women’s Studies.” But, even in those best instances the histories of diverse women are discussed within a white and Eurocentric framework.

Mohanty evaluated Women’s and Gender Studies in the USA through a current research project that cartographies dominant theories in Gender Studies syllabi. By looking at the ways transnational feminism is discussed the project seeks links to racial and cultural dominations that seem to be present also in feminist theory.

Queer, white and western?

According to Mohanty this is especially evident in the case of Queer Studies that explore different sexualities. Although there has been an increasing interest within the discipline to theorize issues such as “race” and ethnicity, Queer Studies still build upon few European and Northern American theorists.

There are scholars located in the global south doing Queer Studies, whether it is called Queer Studies or not. It is important to pay attention to the absence of those voices.”

At the same time Mohanty pointed out that transnational thinking should begin at home. Regarding teaching transnational feminism, she urged making Gender Studies students aware of the existing racialized hierarchies.

“Begin from where you are, but with something unexpected that immediately troubles.”

Advocating activism

Mohanty also questioned the privileged role often given to the academia and other research institutions.

“At times it is the activist and not the researcher who possesses the epistemic privilege and is able to construct stories that dispossessed communities can identify with.”

According to Mohanty, the academic is not always the expert and some things can be seen more clearly from the outside of the academia.

Speaking from the combined position of researcher and activist Dr. Nadje Al-Ali demonstrated how the two roles also overlap. In her keynote she gave an example of challenging stereotypes by presenting her work on women’s position in Iraq.

Knowing different, knowing better

“In the 1980’s, visiting my family in Iraq, I saw woman truck drivers and women working at the petrol station that I had never seen in my life growing up in Germany.”

Nadje Al-Ali. Photo: Stine Bøe

The role of women in Iraqi society varied remarkably through out the three decades of Ba’ath regime and it has been far more complex than often understood in the west, explains Al-Ali. That makes the simplifying image of subordinated women, repeated in media, simply false.

The western occupation in Iraq has used the image of subordinated women to justify their cause. Speaking as an activist with long experience of working for Iraqi women’s rights Al-Ali reminded how there was practically no interest in the topic in the 1990’s. But, as women’s rights have moved to the centre of international political power struggle, promoting women’s rights has become more complex.

“Promoting women’s rights globally requires finding the links between different types of subordinations.”

But it is tricky

The heated political climate challenges the activist and the researcher. This becomes especially evident when speaking of the rights of Muslim women in our age of islamophobia.

“In practice, transnational feminist politics is often difficult and requires painful decisions. The big turmoil I regularly encounter is that of addressing women’s rights or fighting racism.”

Getting one’s nuanced message through is demanding if the audience pay attention to one or two details that can be twisted to support the ideas of racist stereotypes, and any violation against women is taken to represent Islam in general. Hence, mediating the multifaceted messages of transnational feminism remains a challenge for the researchers – and also for the media, Al-Ali emphasized.

By Minna Seikkula

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