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Feminism without Borders, by Chandra Mohanty.

January 30, 2013

Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, by Chandra Talpade Mohanty. Duke University Press Books (2003), Paperback, 312 pages

Chandra Mohanty is an academic, born and raised in Mumbai (Bombay) and now teaching in the United States.  Her writing, especially in the first chapters of this book, are slow, dense reading, aimed primarily at other academics, but the points she makes are insightful and vital for a much larger group of readers.  Unlike most theorists, Mohanty is not interested in establishing unchanging patterns.  She cares about the fluid and historical context.  Her specific goal is to create an analysis that provides a basis for organizing for needed change.  Recognizing diversity, she looks for common ground where we can build alliance.  She cares deeply about history, which of course sold me on her.

In the opening chapters, Mohanty seems to be laying all her qualifications about what she is not doing and pointing out the errors in how others, especially some feminists, conceptualize Third World women.  While I agreed with her depiction of how we all tend to stereotype women outside the western countries, I found her writing challenging.  I was more impressed with her discussion of how we are each “located” in the power dynamics of our particular time and place.  By identifying the “relations of rule,” fluid and yet concrete, we can begin to identify the sources of oppression in our own lives and in the lives of others.  Thinking of my own life in these terms gave me new insights.  While Mohanty writes clearly about race and gender as defined rather than inherent, her attention to historical and material conditions and to exploitive power sets her apart from post-modernists.

Mohanty next asks us to look at the meaning of work from the perspective of “Third World women,” not because their experiences are identical, because their locations give insight into globalization.  She sees international, corporate capitalism as recruiting women around the world who work as an extension of their responsibility to their family, not as individuals ready to organize.  Thus the women are invisible as workers doing temporary, marginal tasks.  Women are defined as still dependent on men, not real workers making their own decisions about their own lives.  This is a challenge to everyone since Marx who has conceptualized industrial workers and class on an individualized male model.  Marxism never did well in theorizing women and family, though they and leftist scholars since have tried.  Starting from the women workers, we see a different picture; one in which women organize around their shared experiences of both work and family.  I wish that Mohanty had said more here. I find this the most radical and interesting chapter in her book.

Instead, Mohanty moves on to write about her own location as an Indian teaching in an American university.  She recounts how globalization threatens academia, destroying its vision of being an autonomous place, independent of government and markets where possibilities can be debated and students learn to be good citizens devoted to equality and justice for all.  Today it produces consumers, interested in private gain, not citizens committed the public good.  Her criticism is scathing and should be read by all those connected with high education.  She does not, however, effectively link what is happening here with her analysis of women working in factories, despite the fact that increasingly those who teach in academia are temporary marginal workers, not tenured professors like herself.  Instead she continues her critique of globalized, corporate capitalism as it shapes the language and patterns of thought into market-related issues of private gain and loss.  Her focus here is not on private property, but on the way in which we have lost the ability to think and talk about anything beyond our own individual profit.

In the last section of the book, Mohanty returns to her earlier article, clarifying and expanding on the need for us to think clearly and analytically about the problems of women as a key to understanding the threats of globalized corporate domination.

Whatever complaints I have about Mohanty’s writing, she did what I most appreciate an author doing.  She pushed me to think in new ways.  She left me wondering if we have limited our vision of feminism too narrowly to the relationship of individual men and women.  For many, feminism is about the private and the psychological.   We have concentrated on women as wives, despite the fact fewer of us are marrying and some of those who do no longer define themselves solely with their husbands and family. In doing so, we have lost our voice on public economic and political issues.  Perhaps Mohanty’s book is difficult because she is attempting to articulate difficult issues we, as feminists, have been avoiding.

I strongly recommend Feminism beyond Borders to anyone willing to spend time and energy understanding the forces aligned against women throughout the world today.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2013 8:38 am

    I found that the dense theoretical nature of the writing really eased off after the first couple chapters; that seems to be pretty common. Anyway, I too was surprised by the veer into the culture of American higher education late in the book, but I also found it pretty exciting. I’m planning to write about it in my post.

    • February 3, 2013 10:12 am

      Yes. The problem is that they scare off readers by starting off so densely. Glad you will say more about her analysis of academia. I think she is right on about how things are changing. It just doesn’t fit the rest of her book very well.

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