In the final part of this series examining Black & Third World feminists versus White Feminist, we examine Uma Narayan and her contribution to feminism. Uma Narayan criticises white feminists for representing the issues of privileged women, white, western, and middle class women as ‘women’s issues’ (Narayan, 1998, p. 86). Narayan argues western feminists perpetuate gender and cultural essentialism in their work, calling for a postcolonial feminist perspective that is attentive to differences amongst women without replicating essentialist notions of cultural difference (Narayan, 1998, p. 89). In this article, Narayan’s critiques of gender and cultural essentialism will be examined alongside Narayan’s rationale for believing cultural imperialism distracts from global realities.
Gender essentialism conflates socially dominant norms of femininity with the problem, interests, and locations of particular women, cultural essentialism often conflates socially dominant cultural norms with the actual values and practices of a culture (Narayan, 1998, p. 88). A clearer definition of gender essentialism is provided by Harris; Gender essentialism is the notion that ‘essential’ female experiences can be isolated and described independently, of race, class, sexual orientation, and other realities of experience (Harris, 1990, p. 585).
Feminist analyses which try to avoid gender essentialism usually subscribe to cultural essentialism (Narayan, 1998, p. 87). The gender essentialism perpetuated by privileged subjects, including western feminists is understood to be a form of cultural imperialism (Narayan, 1998, p. 89). It is culturally imperialist as distorted images of other cultures are created reminiscent of those created in colonial times, these distorted images create cultural boundaries which are believed to be true but are human constructs (Narayan, 1998).
There are countless essentialist notions of oppressive (ethnic minority) families. In France, the French National Assembly banned schoolchildren from wearing ‘conspicuous’ displays of religious/political allegiance in schools (banning the Muslim headscarf). At least part of the reason for this was the claim that headscarves were being imposed on Muslim schoolgirls by family and community pressure (Philips, 2010, p. 8-9). This ban buys into the notion that French girls are born emancipated within liberal families, whilst Muslim girls are born into dominating conservative families who restrict their free will. These essentialist notions of culture pose problems for Third World Feminist agendas (Narayan, 1998, p. 87). Western feminists may believe they are all oppressed, such as the author of a sisterhood blog states ‘it seems abundantly clear that burqas are oppressive to women’ (Freedom, 2011).
Continuing Narayan’s (1998) assertion that distorted representations of ‘cultures’ have been created. Distorted representations have implications in the wider world as they distract from Western economic and military support for brutal and undemocratic regimes, many which sprout ‘anti-western cultural preservation’ rhetoric even as they remain deeply enmeshed in economic, political and military collaboration with western nations (Narayan, 1998, p. 99). On the flip side, distorted representations can provide covers for western elites, the Bush administration used the language of women’s rights to justify bombing in the Afghan war; and then again against the torture and rape chambers under Saddam Hussein (Eisenstein, 2004, p. 2).
The oppression faced by women in Afghanistan and Iraq was not the sole reason behind the United States military intervention, the language was used to rectify with the US population, gaining support by subscribing to essentialism. Essentialism about Islam holds that Islam has a set of core doctrines that constitute its identity and explain distinctively Islamic practices or institutions. Even though Islam as a religion stretches over fourteen centuries, involves at least two sects, variety in regional, ethnic and national variations, etc. (Khawaja, 2007, p. 698). The US provided military aid to the Taliban in the years before 9/11, and aid to Afghani militia in the 1979 Soviet Invasion. It will be great to read the postcolonial feminist work carried out in the field of essentialist feminism.
Carby, Collins and Narayan have each stop feminism from solely being about white female issues (that is not to undermine the other numerous amazing contributors to the field). They have contributed new ideas ranging from controlling images, sex/gender hierarchies, to gender and cultural essentialism. They have rejected patriarchy, and the nuclear family calling for more complex, inclusive concepts, and have shown how ideologies can be good covers for western elites. It is important to remember that history has disadvantaged many minority groups so Black and ‘Third World’ feminists are vital to providing access to ethnic men/women’s experiences. This work has not dealt deeply with Collins work on intersectionality, or Carby’s work on reproduction due to textual limitations, but this work has exemplified the voices of women who are not white in feminism and their grasp of ‘women’s issues’.
By Shaneka Knight
Facebook: Shaneka Knight
Eisenstein, Z. (2004). Sexual Humiliation, Gender Confusion and the Horrors at Abu Ghraib. Retrieved from https://www.atria.nl/ezines/web/WHRnet/2004/July.PDF
Harris, P. A. (1990). Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory, Stanford Legal Review, 42(3). 581-616. Retrieved from http://www2.law.columbia.edu/faculty_franke/Certification%20Readings/Harris%20Race%20and%20Essentialism.pdf
Khawaja, I. (2007). Essentialism, Consistency and Islam: A critique of Edward saids orientalism. Israel Affairs, 13(4), 689-713. DOI: 10.1080/13537120701444961
Narayan, U. (1998). Essence of Culture and a Sense of History: A Feminist Critique of Cultural Essentialism. Hypatia, 13(2), 86-106. Retrieved from http://www2.law.columbia.edu/faculty_franke/Gender_Justice/Narayan.pdf
Philips, A. (2010). What’s wrong with essentialism? Distinktion: Scandinavian journal of social theory, 11(1), 47-60. DOI: 10.1080/1600910X.2010.9672755