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Summary & Analysis of Under the Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship & Colonial Discourses

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Does feminist scholarship apply to all women, in the same way? Let's take a look at that question through the work of Chadra Talpade Mohanty and her influential article ''Under Western Eyes.''

'Under Western Eyes' and Chandra Talpade Mohanty

What do women in Africa, South Asia, and East Asia all have in common? They are all women! Does that sound like an obvious statement? It is. In fact, it might be too obvious.

''Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses'' (1984) is an academic essay by Indian-American feminist scholar Chandra Talpade Mohanty. In this essay, Mohanty presents the argument that Western feminist scholarship has reduced all women of the third world into a single, collective other. She critiques the approach to third world women and feminism, arguing for more nuanced scholarship from Western scholars.

Argument and Terms

Let's start by fully defining Mohanty's argument, as well as the terms she employs. In ''Under Western Eyes,'' Mohanty explores how Western scholarship treats women of the third world, what we call developing countries (specifically those of Africa and South/Southeast Asia). Her thesis is that Western feminism has a habit of treating third-world women as a homogeneous group. This means that Western feminist scholars tend to see all third world women as essentially the same. These women can be sorted into one single category that applies to all non-Western women universally, thus creating a singular idea of the average third-world woman and ignoring the diversity of experiences within this group.

So, what does this average third world woman look like? In much of Western feminist scholarship, she is assumed to be sexually constrained, uneducated, often ignorant of her own subjugation, bound by family and tradition, domestic, and victimized. By presenting the average third world woman in these assumed terms, the Western woman thereby becomes implicitly defined as the opposite: educated, modern, with control over her body and life choices. According to Mohanty, since the homogeneous third world group of women is largely defined by universal oppression, they therefore (implicitly) need to be saved by Western feminists.

This brings us to the final major point of the argument. Mohanty claims that this homogeneous approach to non-Western women amounts to an act of colonialism in Western feminist discourse. Mohanty defines colonialism as a ''relation of structural domination, and a suppression ... of the heterogeneity of the subject(s) in question.'' In this case, many Western feminist scholars reduce the diverse heterogeneities of women in the third world, colonizing it by forming it into a homogeneous category for Western scholarship to use.

Summary of Major Points and Evidence

Mohanty's argument takes a critical look at Western feminist scholarship's approach to third world women. So, how does she defend this?

Throughout her essay, Mohanty focuses on examples of this analytic discourse found in existing Western feminist scholarship. Specifically, she focuses on the Zed Press ''Women in the Third World'' series, in which various scholars examine women's lives in third world countries and regions. Some of the main scholars that Mohanty critiques include Fran Hosken, Maria Cutrufelli, Juliette Minces, Beverly Lindsay, and Patricia Jeffery.

To organize her critique, Mohanty claims that she has identified three main analytic principles used by Western feminism in regards to the third world. They are:

  1. The assumption that ''women'' is an existing, coherent, universal group with identical interests, needs, and desires across cultures.
  2. An uncritical use of methodologies in order to prove the above principle.
  3. An implied model of power and struggle based on both previous principles that creates the idea of the average third world woman.

1: Women as Category

The first principle Mohanty sees in Western feminist discourse is the tendency to assume that the term ''women'' is a universal, cross-cultural category. In short, women are a homogeneous category, defined by homogeneous oppression. How does this work in scholarship? Mohanty sees five ways Western scholars use women as a homogeneous category of analysis when dealing with non-Western women.

  • Women as victims of male violence: Mohanty looks to scholarship on female circumcision in Africa that treats all violence as having the universally applied goal of assuring female subservience. While Mohanty does not argue that acts like female circumcision have this goal, this monolithic approach does not contextualize violence within the specific society and culture that perpetrates it.
  • Women as universal dependents: This framework uses women as a homogeneous category defined by dependency relationships. In this perspective all dependency looks the same and all third world women are defined by it, reducing entire societies into universal categories of victims and oppressors.
  • Married women as victims of colonial process: Western scholarship examines things like marital exchange and rituals before and after colonialism purely in terms of the fact that it happened without accounting for how people placed value on these rituals in their specific societies.
  • Women and familial systems: Scholarship tends to act like there is a singly type of patriarchy and patriarchal family in non-Western countries. Therefore, women are seen as having a universal role in the family within these countries.
  • Economic Reductionism: The development of the third world is often assumed to equal economic progress, and women are seen as being universally affected or not affected by this process because they are treated as a homogeneous category before economic development even begins.

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