Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Transnational Feminism

“I say, ‘What do you ladies do on the [military] base all day?’ They say ‘We go into the local Taliban-run town and speak to the women there about women’s rights.’ I say, “Oh. Do you all speak Afghani or whatever it [language] is?” They say, “No.” I say, “Oh…Well. Do they speak English?”. They say, “No.” So I’m like, “Let me get this straight: our federal government is paying for you to go into the local Taliban-run town and play a game of charades…and try to trick [Afghani] women into leaving their husbands?”

This anecdote is by no means from Mohanty herself, but rather from comedian Kathleen Madigan as she discusses a conversation that occurred during her time in Afghanistan performing for American troops. I relay it here as it provides a poignant introduction, or maybe even a trickling down to a colloquial level, of the ironies central to Western feminism’s difficulty in crossing borders, or even encompassing a global female experience; ironies that post colonial and transnational feminist Chandra Talpade Mohanty has been drawing attention to in her studies for the several years.

As a professor and department chair of Women’s and Gender Studies Sociology at Syracuse University, Chandra Talpade Mohanty has been advancing the conversation about feminist dealings beyond the sphere of Western conventions for the past three decades. Born in Mumbai India in 1955, Mohanty remained in the country throughout her young life, receiving her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in English from the University of Delhi, before finishing her education in the US with a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Illinois Urbana – Champaign. Her first published paper, “Under the Western Eye: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses”, as well as her recent book  Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidaritybrought critical attention to the multifaceted nature of the female experience, as it develops differently across eras, regions and classes throughout the world. Mohanty posits that this understanding or viewing of womanhood as globally diverse is often glossed over in the Western feminist construct; or worst yet, is regimented to a category of the “Third World Woman”, which squeezes females living in the southern hemisphere into a boxed conception of the based on what little information is known about the plights of their countries or regions. Mohanty points out these issues not simply as a means of critiquing Western feminism, but of illustrating areas for reconciliation – of building “transnational solidarity” between the women of the Third World, and the women of the West. What Mohanty brings to light, in a substantially more intellectually rooted way than Madigan, is essentially the need to move away from a “game of charades”, and toward real, equal and intelligent discourse.

Tayryn Edwards

2 thoughts on “Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Transnational Feminism”

  1. Hi Tayryn,

    This post reminds me of the scene in We Need New Names when the NGO workers come into Darling’s village to distribute goods. The workers didn’t really make any effort to understand the struggles of the villagers, and their concept of aid seemed to be rooted in a sense of selfishness. I think your post deals with similar problems in the realm of feminism, where Western thought and methods are seen as the most effective, and the idealized harmony of a global feminist movements is valued over the realistic existence of multiple variations on the practice of feminism.

    – Joe Joseph

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  2. Joe,

    I agree – I think especially from a moral standpoint, there is a kind of American or First World gaze directed at southern hemispheric nations in regards to humanitarian efforts. This is nothing new; it is arguably largely the reason why imperialism takes place (or is at least said to, often working under the guise of breeding moral convictions in populations who, as of yet, “just don’t know any better”). It’s even steeped in the conversation of universal right versus relativism – which is itself especially interesting in a feminist context, because it might well be beyond question that the global suffering of woman in war torn and politically regressive countries is extensive, and needs to be rectified. But interestingly enough, the problem isn’t so much in perceiving inequities and wanting to increase education or aid in solving these issues. Instead, it’s perhaps more about the more or less naive strategies (for lack of better words), employed in that effort. It’s perhaps about aid workers or missionaries or what have you, not fully divesting themselves of their own cultural contexts, so that they can fully invest in understanding the contexts of the nations they are attempting to aid.

    That is at least, only my understanding (which is relative in itself.) Mohanty does a much more intelligent and eloquent job of examining these issues.

    Tayryn

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