Well, after much re-reading and trying to hack through the extensive vocabulary used by Mohanty, I think I’ve got the just of it.
In this piece, Mohanty is attempting to criticize hegemonic feminist discourse for the assumption and therefore creation of a monolithic “third world woman”. She is arguing that the use of monolithic terms and classifications by Western feminists creates an image of the “Third World woman” as “.. ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc.” thus implicitly representing themselves as “.. educated, as modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities and the freedom to make their own decisions.” Mohanty focuses on the textual strategies that many feminist writers use that end up “Othering” anyone who is non-Western (as well as implicitly codifying themselves as Western).
This codification of Western and Third World women in feminist discourse totally ignores the historical, sociological context of women in both regions as well as ignores issues such as class, race, religion, and daily material practices. Homogenization of these issues creates a false sense of commonality of struggle, oppression, and interests among all women globally, as well as perpetuating Western (feminist) hegemony.
This piece left me thinking about Western privilege and language. I honestly hadn’t really ever thought about Western scholarly and academic hegemony in terms of what is published, read, reviewed, and considered valuable in feminist discourse. I also had never thought about the necessity of an extremely careful and in-depth nature of analyses of political, economic, cultural, religious systems present when studying people from non-Western societies. It is too easy to ignore the Western privilege and make blanket statements about societies that perpetuate dominance and superiority. I think that more scholars and academics should be called out when they make general statements such as some of the ones Mohanty critiques.
For example, Mohanty cites a quote from feminist Maria Cutrufelli’s book Women of Africa: Roots of Oppression, “My analysis will start by stating that all African women are politically and economically dependent” (Cutrufelli 1983, 13) and “Nevertheless, either overtly or covertly, prostitution is still the main if not the only source of work for African women” (Cutrufelli 1983, 33). The main problem here is that Cutrufelli uses “women of Africa” as a group characterized by dependency and powerlessness. Because “women of Africa” is seen as a group who are generally dependent and oppressed, “analysis of specific historical differences becomes impossible, because reality is always apparently structured by divisions … the victims and the oppressors.”
I didn’t totally understand Mohanty’s descriptions of types of analyses, but I think her point is that when writing, analyzing, discussing, etc. about the “Other” (in this case, Third World women but this is also including a Third World woman writing about Western women or any combination of author/subject), Western feminists must be very careful in analyzing all of the institutions and systems that are present, to provide an accurate and “fair” context, and account for the implications of these systems.
I thought it was interesting that the piece is named “Under Western Eyes” .. this in itself implies that the Third World is below the Western world. Though, I am sure Mohanty was aware of this when she titled it.
I think that privilege in all it’s forms (white, middle class, Western, Christian, thin, male, etc.) is something that all of us take for granted in some way, shape or form at some point, and it takes a lot of energy and courage to acknowledge. As a feminist academic who writes scholarly articles, I think that taking in to consideration and implementing what Mohanty has presented is not only responsible, but admirable and has potential to change feminist discourse in a very positive way if adopted on a wider scale.