Global and Postcolonial Feminism

In the previous post we learned about  Postmodern Feminism. In this post, postcolonial feminism is positioned in relation to other schools of feminist thought and its main issues, conceptual innovations, and potential study fields are discussed. It also clarifies how postcolonialist feminism fits within the larger context of postcolonial thought. It is assumed that readers are familiar with the history and major schools of feminist thinking. The module itself includes quotes from some of the key proponents of "postcolonialism" and briefly explains what its main concerns are. At the end of this post the reader :

  • Will be able to identify and comprehend the necessity of challenging western feminism from a postcolonial perspective.
  • Will be more clear when working with women and men who are marginalised in society, as well as more clear when it comes to the theory that underpins their lived experiences.
  • Will develop your unpacking skills


  1. Introduction
  2. Two Approaches of Postcolonial Feminism
  3. The Subaltern Studies Project and Its Critique
  4. Representation of the Subaltern Subject
  5. Dilemmas of the Postcolonial Feminist Writer
  6. The Importance of Oral History
  7. Summary


If we use terms like "liberal feminism," "radical feminism," "socialist," and "Marxist" feminism to denote specific streams of feminist thought that emerged in Western Europe and later the United States starting at the end of the eighteenth century, all these streams can be seen as emerging from the liberal democratic revolutions of Europe, the formation of nation-states, and the embracing of enlightenment values. Although influential feminists like Alexandra Kollontai, Clara Zetkin, and Emma Goldman argued for feminist values during the socialist revolution at the start of the twentieth century, the other streams of feminism can be dated to the 1960s in Western Europe and the United States, even though liberal feminism is the oldest of these. A later trend that might be regarded to have its roots in the 1980s is "postcolonial feminism."

If we examine some of the earliest texts that we can think of as embodying "postcolonial feminism," we can divide them into two groups: those that criticise postcolonial writing from a feminist perspective and those that contrast postcolonial feminism with the "mainstream" feminism of white, western, urban educated women. The first approach highlights how feminists in the "first world" of the former imperialists still see "third-world women" as a homogenous category and as "other," which blunts their understanding of the issues that these women actually face in various contexts even after the handover of power by the colonial powers, that is, in the "post"-colonial period. The second observes that, for the most part, prominent postcolonial theorists have devoted little, if any, attention to discussing women in the former colonies. Additionally, they haven't given any thought to the concerns voiced by their feminist peers and countrymen.

Two Approaches of Postcolonial Feminism

The first group includes Chandra Talpade Mohanty's Under Western Eyes (1984), which discusses how "some modern (Western) feminist writings have produced the 'Third World Woman' as a singular monolithic subject." When referring to the appropriation of information and scholarship on women in the third world as a component of a feminist discourse that originated in the west, Mohanty (1984) uses the word "colonisation" in a discursive sense. She qualifies the phrase "western feminism" by recognising that this, too, is neither an uniform stream of ideas or a monolithic creation, instead speaking of a "coherence of consequences" resulting from a subject position established by these feminist writers that defines third-world women as "other." She mentions a lack of self-awareness that allows people to overlook their privilege and believe that the sexism they face is prevalent across all civilizations. As a result, their work is compromised, but because of their privileged status in academia, a poorly nuanced or sensitive perception of "third world women" is widely shared. Disregarding one's privilege also entails forgetting the influence one's academic work may have on others, whether it be through internationally funded development initiatives or just by stifling voices who are more local.

Three concepts found in western feminist research are contested by Mohanty (1984). The first is that "the assumption of women as an already constituted, coherent group with identical interests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic or racial location or contradictions, implies a notion of gender or sexual difference or even patriarchy (as male dominance-men as a similarly coherent group) which can be applied universally and cross-culturally." This criticism extends beyond the presumption of gender homogeneity to include the presumed grasp of concepts like patriarchy and gender. We must remember that gender is socially created in a variety of social contexts when we declare that it is.

The second tenet relates to the assertion that women are oppressed everywhere. Then examples are given to "show" that women are oppressed worldwide, without considering how this oppression presents itself for women of different classes, races, and ethnicities, in various occupations, in various nations and areas, and during various eras of history. She cites Fran Hosken's research on purdah, or the custom of Muslim women donning a veil, as an illustration. She discovers this practise in a variety of nations, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Egypt, and comes to the conclusion that it is a common method of sexually controlling women in all of these nations. According to Hosken, "Rape, forced prostitution, polygamy, genital mutilation, pornography, the beating of girls and women, and purdah (segregation of women) are all abuses of basic human rights." These are all seen to be the same because they all involve the sexual domination of women.

Thirdly, these analytic approaches highlight the power imbalance between western feminist scholars and the "third country women" they write about, according to Mohanty (1984). In contrast to "the (implicit) self-representation of Western women as educated, modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the freedom to make their own decisions," the latter are not just homogenised; they are also othered and typecast as "ignorant, poor, uneducated,tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimised, etc." Mohanty continues by citing numerous instances of western feminists writing about "African women," "Vietnamese women," etc. in ways that highlight the aforementioned three principles. Arrogant generalisations based on these discursive concepts include sentences like "My analysis will start by asserting that all African women are politically and economically dependent," or the title of the book "Women of Africa: Roots of Oppression." Similar to other studies, those on the practise of female genital mutilation, which is prevalent in various African countries, have assigned significance to certain practises without considering the social context. She quotes Michelle Rosaldo as saying: "Women's role in human social life is not in any directsense a product of the things they do (or much less a function of what they are physiologically) but the significance their activities acquire through real social relationships." Although he can be criticised by postcolonial theorists for seeking to impose 'order' from a western scholar's standpoint on the patterns he discovers in the civilizations he studies, Mohanty (1984) speaks favourably of Claude Lévi-Strauss' structuralist methodology. The fact that he makes an effort to comprehend the customs and beliefs inside their own social setting is crucial.

Finally, a feminist analysis approach that "homogenises and systemsatizes the experiences of various groups of women in these (Third World) countries" also eliminates the possibility of resistance on the part of Third World women, who have already been labelled as "passive," "obedient," "ignorant," and other negative adjectives.

The 1988 article Can the Subaltern Speak by Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak serves as a significant illustration of the second category of postcolonial-feminist texts that I have previously described. The word "postcolonialism" refers to a collection of historical work that challenges the prevalent, imperialist-perspective interpretation of the history of former colonies. The goal of postcolonial writing is to change the viewpoint. According to Edward Said, the majority of western study on the history and modern societies of the colonies is a component of the colonisation project, which aims to seize and maintain control over the populations in these areas. What then does postcolonialism try to accomplish? According to Michel Foucault (19, though not in the context of colonialism), an episteme is defined as the body of ideas that affect how people perceive knowledge in a certain period in Spivak's (1988) discussion of the "epistemic violence" committed by empire. The remotely organised, dispersed, and diverse attempt to define the colonial subject as the Other is what imperialism does. This project also involves the asymmetrical erasure of the remnants of that Other's shaky Subjectivity. Postcolonialism then makes an effort to bring back the erased Other.

The Subaltern Studies Project and Its Critique

Spivak (1988) is writing after a number of volumes of Subaltern Studies have been released; this was an initiative by South Asian historians who aimed to recreate the history of South Asia from the perspective of the subjugated, or subaltern, sectors of society rather than the 'native' elites. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci coined the term "subaltern," which is originally a British phrase for an army officer below the rank of captain, to refer to "someone with a low standing in a social, political, or other hierarchy," as well as "someone who has been marginalised or repressed." It shows that unlike classic Marxism, where members of the same class have equal ties to the means of production (owner, non-owner), or the same position in the mode of production, revolutionary social transformation is not just brought about by the leadership of the working class (Landlord, serf in feudal society or capitalist, worker in capitalism). It also depends on the opposition put up by those who are oppressed on a social, political, or cultural level. The collective for subaltern studies published several books.

Regarding the goals of this enterprise of history, Spivak (1988) quotes Ranajit Guha (1987), one of its leading intellectuals:
“The historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism - colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism . . . shar[ing] the prejudice that the making of the Indian nation and the development of the consciousness-nationalism which confirmed this process were exclusively or predominantly elite achievements. In the colonialist and neo-colonialist historiographies these achievements are credited to British colonial rulers, administrators, policies, institutions, and culture; in the nationalist and neonationalist writings - to Indian elite personalities, institutions, activities and ideas.”Subaltern Studies attempts to rewrite Indian history from the point of view of ‘the people’.
But the subject of "the people" still remains. Guha "proposes a dynamic stratification grid depicting colonial social production at large," according to Spivak. This is what it is:
  1. Dominant foreign groups-Elite
  2. Dominant indigenous groups on the all-India level. 
  3. Dominant indigenous groups at the regional and local levels. 
  4. The terms ‘people’ and ‘subaltern classes’ [are] used as synonymous throughout [Guha’s definition]. The social groups and elements included in this category represent the demographic difference between the total Indian population and all those whom we have described as the ‘elite.’
Spivak (1988) quotes Guha as describing the third item on this list as follows: “At the regional and local levels [the dominant indigenous groups] . . . if belonging to social strata hierarchically inferior to those of the dominant all-Indian groups acted in the interests of the latter and not in conformity to interests corresponding truly to their own social being.” She notes that Guha here uses a terminology close to the Marxist concept of ‘false consciousness’. The true ‘people’, however, are Other to the first three and cannot, it is assumed, speak for themselves. To quote Spivak: “For the ‘true’subaltern group, whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself; the intellectual’s solution is not to abstain from representation.”Several of the essays in the early volumes of Subaltern Studies concern themselves with peasant insurgencies. 

Spivak (1988) brings in the notion of the feminine at the very end of the article being discussed. “Within the effaced itinerary of the subaltern subject, the track of sexual difference is doubly effaced..... both as object of colonial historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant. 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.”

Representation of the Subaltern Subject

In this article, Spivak explores the contradiction of the intellectual and the postcolonial historiographer who seeks to speak for or represent the underrepresented groups that history has erased. She draws attention to the distinction between the two types of representation that the German words darstellen and vertreten denote. While vertreten denotes rhetoric-aspersuasion or a more political type of representation, the first designates the process of representation in the sense of a portrayal. Marx's remark on minor peasant proprietors, "Those who cannot represent themselves must be represented," is cited by Spivak, where representation is in the sense of vertreten. These peasants lack a political voice, but they are also rendered invisible by the forms of representation that are imposed on them from without (darstellen).

We will illustrate this by using a passage from Jane Hiddleston's Understanding Postcolonialism, in which she discusses Spivak's essay Can the Subaltern Speak? ' Spivak then illustrates the application of this elision (between darstellen and vertreten) in the process of representation by using the Hindu practise of sati, or the self-immolation of widows, to further develop the political thread of the essay. One way to interpret colonial officials' attempts to outlaw the practise of sati is as "white men rescue brown women from brown men," whereas the Indian nativist response was that "the woman truly desired to die." Both viewpoints deny the woman's voice and agency while simultaneously legitimising one another.

Consider Dalit women in a caste culture as an illustration of a comparable dilemma. Dalit women have not yet had a voice in contemporary Indian feminism, which has been championed by urban, upper-caste, educated women. However, there is still a chance that upper-caste feminists are forcing a portrayal on Dalit women when they want to include them in their agenda. Postcolonial feminism in India necessitates an awareness of this paradox if we are to heed Spivak's cautions.

Dilemmas of the Postcolonial Feminist Writer

The Vietnamese feminist writer Trinh T. Minh Ha (1989) puts the paradox differently in her definition of writing as "an on-going practice concerned not with inserting a 'me' into language, but with creating an opening where the 'me' disappears while 'I' endlessly come and go". 

Even as the subordinate woman starts to track her ""Neither black/red/yellow nor woman but poet or writer," but there is no assurance that the voice will be heard rather than just heard. The topic of priorities continues to be quite important for many of us. The status of "a writer" alone has significantly more weight than that of "a woman of colour who writes," without a question. The literary establishment has long used the imputing of race or sex to the creative act to devalue and disparage the accomplishments of non-mainstream women writers.

Writing weaves into language the complex relationships of a subject caught between issues of race and gender, serving as the focal point of cultural consciousness and social change. Literature is also the place where social alienation is specifically addressed in a variety of ways, depending on the context."

Writing from her social location entails "the re-writing of what is private and what is public, the reversal and relocation of the two domains and their conflict," according to Trinh Minh Ha (1989). The privileged (coloniser, man, upper-caste person) may view the othering of the subaltern (colonised subject, woman, Dalit) as an intimate aspect of his personal identity, but its manifestation in the public sphere degrades the former. This public space could be a tea shop in Tamil Nadu where the Dalit are refused entry or served tea in a cracked separate cup, or it could be the publishing industry and literary criticism where a writer like Trinh is devalued. It could also be a women's movement where Dalit women raising their issues is seen as divisive.

The Importance of Oral History

In terms of writing and being a writer, Trinh has a lot to say. But because not all of the ways in which subaltern women in the colonised globe express themselves are through writing, postcolonial feminism also needs to pay attention to oral sources. Oral history techniques have been used and improved by feminist scholarship. One instance is the 2008 book Amhihi Itihas Ghadavala by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon (also known as "We Also Made History"), whose second section features interviews with women who were active in the Amedkar movement in the first half of the 20th century. In her article Against the Madness of Manu (2014), Sharmila Rege makes reference to the songs written and performed by Dalit women on various occasions, such as the anniversary of Ambedkar's birth or the 1980s movement for the renaming of Marathwada University in Aurangabad.

Sojourner Truth's well-known speech from the American fight for equal voting rights, which united white middle-class women and black people, conveys the undervalued contribution of black women to the struggle and has been extensively distributed and turned into a poster. Proverbs and sayings that Dalit women frequently use in conversation have been recorded by Sangita Thosar. These expressions show both awareness of and opposition to the caste-patriarchal system, which is repressive.

The testimonio is a similar idea, and its definition is: "First-person narration of socially significant experiences in which the narrative voice is that of a typical or extraordinary witness or protagonist who metonymically represents others who have experienced similar circumstances." The phrase originally referred to the literary form exemplified by the 1966 autobiography of Cuban author Miguel Barnet, Biografa de un cimarrón, but it is now frequently used in postcolonial feminist studies in Latin America.


This blog provides an overview of the effects of colonialism on theory, perspectives, and the marginalisation of information, as well as an insight into the theoretical viewpoints developed by feminists from various social origins. Scholars like Talpade, Spivak, Rege, and many others who had their understanding of the oppressive nature of knowledge and knowledge creation processes shaped by their own experiences and realities are just a few examples of those whose work is highlighted by post colonial feminist scholarship. These scholars highlight the various and diverse feminisms that were emerging from the ground. Post-colonial feminism emphasises social context and the necessity to acknowledge and highlight knowledge that has previously been marginalised as mundane and unimportantly academic. As a result, this module discusses hegemonic knowledge with the reader and the necessity for feminists to examine it from non-Western as well as patriarchal and power-based perspectives.


  1. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, (1988)“Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” , Feminist Review, No. 30 (Autumn, 1988), 61—88. Boundary 2. 12:3-13:1. pp. 333-358. 
  2. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, (1988) “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture London: Macmillan, 1988 
  3. Trinh T. Minh Ha, (1989)Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, Indiana University Press 
  4. Yúdice, George, (1991,2009) "Testimonio and Postmodernism", Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 3, (Summer, 1991), pp. 15-31. 
  5. Barnet, Miguel(1966), Biography of a Runaway Slave 
  6. Tharu, Susie (1996), “The Impossible Subject: Caste and the Gendered Body”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 31, No. 22 (Jun. 1, 1996), pp. 1311-1315; reproduced in Anupama Rao (ed.) Gender and Caste, Kali for Women. 
  7. Adichie,ChimamandaNgozi, (2014) “We Should All be Feminists”,first presented as a TED Talk given in the United Kingdom at TEDxEuston, in 2012; published 2014 by Vintage Books, a division of Random House LLC, New York, a Penguin Random House company 
  8. Rege, Sharmila. (2014). Against the Madness of Manu


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