Gender Construction

“Sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.” –Chandra Talpade Mohanty

Each reading that I engaged with this week touched upon the impacts of colonization and discourse on gender. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Leila Ahmed, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Yaa Gyasi all provided insight into the construction of gender, specifically in relation to women of the “East,” by observing practices and discourse associated with the “West.”

Chandra Talpade Mohanty, in her essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” discusses and analyzes the “Third World Woman” and how she became to be representative of an entire body of women. Specifically, she notes that this construction is often represented in texts of Western feminists. Before delving into specific western texts about “eastern” women, she argues, “The feminist writings I analyze here discursively colonize the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the third world, thereby producing/re-presenting a composite, singular “Third World Woman”–an image which appears arbitrarily  constructed, but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of Western humanist discourse” (Mohanty 335).

Thus, Mohanty argues that the image of the “Third World Woman” is a result of western thought, and it is often depicted through western feminist texts. Through the production of the “Third World Difference,” western feminists are essentially colonizing women of the “Third World.”

“And it is in the production of this ‘Third World Difference’ that Western feminisms appropriate and ‘colonize’ the fundamental complexities and conflicts which characterize the lives of women of different classes, religions, cultures, races, and castes in these countries. It is in this process of homogenization and systemization of the oppression of women in the third world that power is exercised in much of recent Western feminist discourse, and this power need to be defined and named” (Mohanty 335).

Mohanty, then, believes that feminism, specifically western feminism, has resulted in the subjectivity and objectification of the “Third World Woman.” Similarly, it creates a binary of western/non-western, thus establishing an Other, which, we all know is quite dangerous.

Her essay is beautifully written, as she argues that western feminism has created and perpetuated the image of the “Third World Woman” which traps women from the third world into a construct. She notes, “Women are assumed to be a coherent group or category” (Mohanty 344). This phrase is repeated throughout her essay, as she argues how the perpetuation of this image of one “Third World Woman” being representative of all third world women is troubling and damaging to women. It takes no notice of individuality, but instead assumes that all women of the third world are the same with similar interests, goals, needs, and problems.

Mohanty drives her point home in the following paragraph (it is a long one, but I do believe it is worth the read as it eloquently summarizes the main problem of the image of the “Third World Woman” and the entire point of her essay):

“What is problematical, then, about this kind of use of ‘women’ as a group, as a stable category of analysis, is that it assumes an ahistorical, universal unity between women based on a generalized notion of their subordination. Instead of analytically demonstrating the production of women as socio-economic political groups within particular local contexts, this move limits the definition of the female subject to gender identity, completely bypassing social class and ethnic identities. What characterizes women as a group is their gender (sociologically not necessarily biologically defined) over and above everything else, indicating a monolithic notion of sexual difference. Because women are thus constituted as a coherent group, sexual difference becomes coterminous with female subordination, and power is automatically defined in binary terms: people who have it (reedmen), and people who do not (read: women). Men exploit, women are exploited. As suggested above, such simplistic forumlations are both reductive and ineffectual in designing strategies to combat oppressions. All they do is reinforce the binary divisions between men and women” (Mohanty 344).

The characterization of women as a group based on their gender is again explored in Leila Ahmed’s essay “The Discourse of the Veil” as well as in her interview with Krista Tippet on Speaking of Faith. She discusses the western view of the veil and how it has come to represent oppression of Muslim women. This is problematic on many fronts as the veil is not a symbol of oppression, and by assuming so, any notion of choice is stripped away from the Muslim woman. It insinuates that these women are oppressed and forced into wearing the veil, although in many cases, the veil offers some liberties and expression to women. Ahmed comments on this misrepresentation further, noting that the veil means many things, not just one, and it is nearly impossible to assume that it means one thing across many different countries, societies, and cultures. Yet, that is exactly what is happening: the western view of the veil ASSUMES the veil signifies oppression.

This picture represents common misconceptions of the veil created by the western world. This reminds me of Laura Bush’s speech after the attacks on 9/11 and how she asserted that Muslim women were being oppressed and we needed to save them. The veil has come to be (mis)associated with oppression, when in fact, as Ahmed points out in her interview, it is simply a manner of dress or worn in relation to religion. There is no one concrete meaning for the veil, despite the western desire to create one. 

In her interview on Speaking of Faith, Ahmed notes that the impulse against the veil as something that was initiated by westerners and that, she believes, it is politically manipulated due to it being a way of putting down Islam “because Islam oppresses women.” She further explores these ideas in her essay “The Discourse of the Veil,” as she notes the impact of colonization on Muslim men and how it shifted their views of the veil. Their views fell in line with those of the west, falling prey to the misconceptions of the veil created by the west. Ahmed eloquently notes,

“The discourse…was that Islam was innately and immutably oppressive to women, that the veil and segregation epitomized that oppression, and that these customs were the fundamental reasons for the general and comprehensive backwardness of Islamic societies…Veiling–to Western eyes, the most visible marker of the differentness of women (or, in the language of the day, Islam’s degradation of women) and the backwardness of Islam, and it became the open target of colonial attack and the spearhead of assault on Muslim societies” (Ahmed 321-322).

Ahmed and Mohanty’s essays explain how detrimental misconceptions can become, specially noting how the construct of the “Third World Woman” stripped women of the third world of their individuality, and the western assumptions about the veil subject all Muslim women into the position of victims of oppression. Similar oppression is explored in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” This essay, although dense in content and language, drives home one important point: the subaltern has no voice and no agency, even within their own discourse. She explores the impact of Eurocentrism on the world, specifically the impact of patriarchy, noting that “the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant.” Her main driving point touches upon issues of Othering and gender, noting, “If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow…” (Spivak). This statement is troubling, as to me, it indicates another layer of individuality and agency being stripped from individuals, specifically women of the third world. The impact is startling, as it comes to represent how colonization and Eurocentric thought assume power over the “Third World,” perpetuating the power/powerless binary.

Further exploration of the effects of colonization are explored in Yaa Gyasi’s short story “Inscape.” “Inscape” focuses on two main characters: Gifty and her mother. Gifty seems to be a completely different person from her mother, despite sharing the same background and blood. I felt as if Gifty represented the individuals who are changed through colonization and western thought. She continuously reflects on her lost of faith and religion, as she witnesses her mother’s continuing devotion to her faith and religion. Gifty is confused as to why her mother prays so much; it almost seems foreign to her was she is situated in her new life in California. The story is riveting, as it depicts Gifty finding closeness with her mother again, perhaps through a religious connection at the end of the story when her mother explains that God is in everything.

Throughout the pieces this week, common misconceptions of the veil were explored and discussed. Similarly, the notion of gender formation is explored. A common theme amongst the pieces relies on colonization and the impact that it had–and still has– on societies today.




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