What is Postcolonial Feminism?
Nadje Al-Ali (feminist writer and researcher) defines the postcolonial as being
The theory of postcolonialism is a lens that can be applied to any manner of academic pursuits. The movement has roots in academic projects of decolonisation, such as Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961), which argued for the decolonisation of not only the body but also the mind, and famously Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). Said’s theory of orientalism illuminates the pervasive tradition of Western literature, art and culture to fetishise and stereotype representations of Eastern cultures and people, whilst centring the Western experience to the extent that people who are note white and western are, by default, ‘other’.
Postcolonialism overall is the practice of studying cultural impacts and legacies of colonialism which have manifested themselves in human and political consequences.
Postcolonial feminism, therefore, aims to understand and undo the legacies of colonialism within feminist activism. In other words, postcolonial feminism wants to decolonize feminist activism - reclaim it as more than just a pursuit of the western world and its people. Postcolonial feminist academic writing seeks to understand and interpret everyday lived experiences through a postcolonial perspective, de-centring the white, western, Eurocentric experience.
As mentioned, postcolonial feminism evolved in reaction to the western feminist centring of the white experience, and its focus on white women’s lives, rights and experiences above all else. Postcolonial feminism therefore illuminates the vast difference between what we are subliminally taught is universal (read: white) and what are in fact the varied lived realities for the rest of the world’s population.
White feminism tells us that equality is fixed, and looks the same everywhere. Postcolonial feminism reminds us that while western feminism might advocate for, as an example, equal pay, that same concern may not be forefront for women outside of Europe and America.
Revoking the narratives of the White Saviour Complex
The issue is that white feminism doesn’t see this nuance, and in many ways elucidates the white saviour complex* in its activism. For example, the US interference in Afghanistan and the war on terror in general was framed as a fight for gender equality. Laura Bush, in a radio address about America’s involvement, stated that “because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment… The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women” (US Government, 2002).
Feminist scholar Lila Abu-Lughod has compared Laura Bush’s rhetoric to historical colonialism which often framed women’s rights as a reason for continued oppression - for example in South Asia British rule was justified through intervention in child marriage, sati and other practices.
Other common instances of the white saviour complex in white feminism include protesting the wearing of the hijab in all situations (for example FEMEN’s ‘International Topless Jihad Day’), protesting for gay rights in other ‘backwards’ countries without accepting the homophobia in our own home countries, and general narratives of ‘civilising’ other cultures.
The continuation of colonialism
Postcolonial feminism also draws our attention to the uncomfortable reality that colonialism is not really over. The impacts colonialism and imperialism have had on the global order and global capitalism mean that non-European and American countries and peoples continue to be exploited. This is often called ‘neo-colonialism’, which is defined (by google) as “the use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to control or influence other countries, especially former dependencies”.
Postcolonial feminism reminds us that, while some say exploited peoples should ‘let colonialism go’ because it was so many hundreds of years ago, the effects of colonial and imperial endeavours continue to oppress. There is so much more I could point out to prove the continuation of colonialism, but in reality I won’t be able to say it as poignantly or succinctly as others, so instead I’ve collected some very important articles that you may want to read…
Residual Colonialism in the 21st Century, John Quintero, United Nations University
Don’t Tell Me to Get Over Colonialism That is Still Being Implemented Today, Luke Pearson for the Guardian
Get Over Colonial Guilt? Not So Fast Mr. Hague, Myriam Francois-Cerrah for HuffPost
Femen’s Obsession with Nudity Feeds a Racist Colonial Feminism, Chitra Nagarajan for the Guardian
Feminist Perspectives on Globalization, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Some postcolonial feminist writers to check out
(for some I have found articles that are available free on the internet, which I have linked)
Fatima Mernissi - I greatly recommend reading her autobiography “The Harem Within”
Chandra Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” (this one is pretty heavy, so grab a cup of tea before you sit down!)
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (again, pretty heavy)
If you’re still struggling to understand postcolonial feminism, consider the hypocrisy of signing petitions against the Yulin Dog Festival, bemoaning the cruelty of other cultures, and then enjoying a ham sandwich for lunch.** Postcolonial feminism invites us to look beyond what we deem objectively liberating and oppressive, right and wrong. It opens up the opportunity to create transnational rather than international alliances - i.e. grassroots and community movements supporting other grassroots and community movements in other countries, rather than imposing what we may believe is the path to equality.
Postcolonial feminism is a way to look beyond the whitewashing of feminism, and to understand the nuance of power, geopolitics and money at play in the oppression and exploitation of various people, and thus for each feminist to become accountable for their own actions and activism. In reality, feminism is not feminism unless it is postcolonial.
* White Saviour Complex: a white saviour is a white person (or fictional character) who saves or thinks they are saving a person of colour from their oppression.
** I'm not criticising anybody who eats meat, just those who think their meat is morally superior to others'.
Article by Mairi Lubelska