Weekly Critique #1

Weekly Critique #2

Weekly Critique #3

Class Discussion Notes

The Library

Collie's Bestiary


Third World Women in Politics

Some of the class papers

Anthropology 194X: Women in Politics: A Third World Perspective
Prof. A. Pandey
Copyright © 1999 B. A. "Collie" Collier

Weekly Readings Critique 01

This week's readings:

  • "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?" by Sherry Ortner
  • "Women in Politics" by Jane Collier
  • Feminism & Anthropology (ch. 1, 2, 5) by Henrietta L. Moore
  • "Cartographies of Struggle" & "Under Western Eyes" by Chandra Mohanty

This week's readings demonstrated (via Ortner's and Collier's writings), then investigated (via the remaining readings), the fallacy of applying universal standards to cultural analysis based on the social definitions of one's native culture.

Much of Ortner's argument seems to be based on a very Western (one might say almost colonial) viewpoint. This can be demonstrated by the 'proofs' she chooses to validate her hypothesis. She isolates three levels at which the "absolute physiological fact" of female devaluation can be discussed. To show the truth of her conclusion at each of these levels, she uses what I would consider highly suspect evidence. For example, she draws many of her conclusions from Chodorow's research, which was done only on Western societies. It is ironic that she points out in a footnote the possible non-universality of one of the social facts she builds her premises upon, then blithely ignores any implications of this by simply stating the social fact is "virtually universal." By apparently subscribing to the sex/gender system in her arguments, Ortner perpetuates the very mind-set she seeks to refute.

In comparing Ortner to both Moore and Mohanty, a rough metaphor could be made to the de Saussureian premise of langue vs. parole. When writing of female devaluation or 'oppression,' Ortner adopts a rather sui generis, structuralist methodology (unconsciously or not), demonstrating a Western-centric viewpoint; she is more interested in the West's synchronic form of female oppression than in defining the langue in which she is metaphorically speaking. Moore is more interested in the parole of 'female oppression;' she examines more ethnographic studies (most of which are, in my personal opinion, of higher quality than those used by Ortner) in seeking to explore the issue and thus effectively devalues Ortner's pan-cultural definitions by demonstrating their Western origin and bias. Her attention is paid to the substance rather than the form in which the issue of 'female oppression' is discussed. She does not make poorly articulated, unfounded generalizations, and ultimately she reclaims the discourse in a counter-hegemonic fashion, effectively critiquing the Ortner piece (as well as several others on similar themes) as oppositionally defining their subjects via Western terminologies in a fashion that is emphatically not pan-cultural.

Collier's piece is of interest for the simple reason that it views women as active participants in the culture, regardless of what their social or symbolic status within that culture may be. In opposition to Ortner's view of the praxis of women as being universally passive, oppressed, and devalued, Collier attempts to see women as equally interested in the quotidian cultural quest for self-determination and individual social power. Personal agency may be limited via the need for a male actor to represent one in the public forum, but this does not negate the ability to define and manipulate one's environment, regardless of one's gender. On the other hand, Collier does in a sense emulate Ortner, in that she also uses the oppositional terms which lock her argument into a Western-biased viewpoint: she suggests a binary definition of women vis a vis the use of Mary-Eve as the sole cultural roles open to women, and she adheres to the public/domestic definition of cultural space.

Finally, Mohanty clearly demonstrates a call for careful self-critique when conducting ethnographic studies and indulging in the (possibly non-useful) process of cross-cultural comparisons. As a self-expressed Third World, Western trained anthropologist, she uses her own experience to exemplify the confining nature of ethnocentric assumptions. She clarifies a possible definition of 'Third World,' noting that it cannot be geographically linked and thus includes certain participants in the Western world (a fact most Westerners conveniently miss); and effectively points out that the Western world runs the danger of discursively appropriating and defining via its own cultural terms the subject it 'views,' in this case the 'Other' of the 'Third World woman.' She critiques methodological universalisms such as Ortner's piece, and reveals in it and other current writings on non-Western women a common thread with the former scholastic codifying of 'knowledge' on the 'subject' of Orientalism. As with Orientalism, the current universalisms attempt to understand a complex, temporally diverse, diachronic subject in a synchronic, often marginalizing, monolithic fashion. Her example is 'the creation of the Third World woman,' and she demonstrates how the Western view marginalizes its subject by limiting both options and agency, constructs a discursive meme that does not really exist, and ultimately speaks more on the Western viewpoint than the subject it purports to study.

Weekly Readings Critique 02

This week's readings:

  • Parts I, II, V, & VI from Parker, Russo, Sommer, and Yaeger's Nationalisms & Sexualities
  • "'A Great Way to Fly': Nationalism, the State, & the Varieties of Third-World Feminisms" by G. Heng
  • "Post-Third-Worldist Culture: Gender, Nation, and the Cinema" by E. Shohat

This week's readings demonstrated various self-interested uses and abuses by the 'nation,' of feminism and the 'female,' sexuality, gender roles, and the manipulation and creation of both one's own eponymous history, as oppositionally defined by the 'Other,' and the dangerous and nation-threatening 'Other.'

A sadly recurrent theme in these writings (e.g. Heng, Heng & Devan, Katrak, Layoun, and Moghadam) was the use of feminism by incipient nationalist and pre-colonialist forces to unify and mobilize the emerging new nation-state into integrated revolution against its colonizing forces, only to see the implied promise of equal representation in the new post-colonialist state to be betrayed by the very memes of patriarchal and paternal hierarchy which they'd just refused in the presence of the colonizing states. In essence, the recurring theme seems to have been one of newly discovered agency in aid to the developing nation-state denied by the very state which they helped create. The truly insidious nature of this refusal to grant agency to those women who worked so hard for liberation is best demonstrated today in the subtle alliance (as a dangerous and nation-destroying trope that must be stamped out lest the nation falter) of 'feminism' with 'Westernism.' Only without these dangerous memes, or so the socially accepted hegemonic cant goes, will the nation survive and prosper. Phrased another way, the women who have been integral in the creation of the very nation of which they are supposedly an equal part are now refused agency by their own creation, in the name of a nebulously defined and romantically phantasmagoric nationalist history that never existed, but which foretells future prosperity for the nation -- but only if women submit to the same oppressions they 'enjoyed' throughout the colonized periods of their country's existence. Under circumstances such as these, it is not hard to imagine women wondering what all their efforts were for, and why they bothered.

Another fascinating trope examined throughout some of these readings was the uneasy alliance between close male friendships to ensure nation-creation and maintenance, coupled with the overt refusal of homoeroticism, to create a self-replicating and self-confirming ideal standard of nationalism based on the reproduction of an ideal image of its fathers. This is invariably coupled with the rendering invisible, or outright denial of, women and 'non-ideal' men. Predictably writings by these paternalistic individuals (as shown in the readings by Goldberg, Garber, Koven, and Moghadam, to name a few) appropriate sexual politics and imagery for these friendships, even as they deny agency or sexual freedom to undesirables (women, Indians, or Malaysians, for example). Most importantly they overtly refuse homoeroticism as highly inappropriate, even as they both appropriate female imagery to their all-male unity in creating the emerging nation's newly hegemonic beliefs, and often covertly indulge in that very homoeroticism they publicly so vehemently deny. Considering the social pressures this puts on both the males being forced to be somehow larger than life patriarchs and national fathers, as well as those being refused agency (all of whom require close administration, lest they break free of their socially accepted roles and somehow disrupt the entire nation) it is a wonder to me that homoerotic sexuality, as a relief from the above-mentioned pressures, is not more often discovered in such writings and beliefs.

Another recurrent theme in the readings is that of manipulation and creation of the Other in order to oppositionally define the national hegemony. As in the readings by Burton, Cobham, Holland, and Jones & Stallybrass, the nation may appropriate or refute the Other... but it always observes the other through its own social lens, defining and creating the Other as much as the Other oppositionally defines and creates it. It is a sad commentary that even when observing the other, a hegemony seems to always view the female as one step beyond, as the Other's Other. Where can agency be found, if one is supposedly no more than something 'created' by a 'creation'? What has happened to a nation's strength, when all its women are considered no more than economic 'units' or cogs in the machine -- when the hegemonic norm defines itself invariably as patriarchal, paternal, hierarchical... as always and only male? What happened to the glorious promise of emerging liberty for all in the fledgling new nation-states -- nation-states that could not have come into being without the untiring and unflagging work of their women as well as their men?

The final, and to me most quietly tragic theme to emerge from these readings can be summed up loosely as the trope of promise denied. Invariably nations, peoples, even hegemonies, must change in order to continuously grow and prosper. It was this promise of change, of growth and new freedoms, that repeatedly drew women and men alike, as is shown in almost every single reading so far, to struggle against a repressive and exploitative regime imposed from the outside. It is a dismaying and horrible twist of cultural... fate? hegemony? destiny? to see repeated, over and over again, the unification of women and men for the courageous removal of an autocratic and dogmatic paternal regime, only to see another one, equally bad and frequently equally repressive, imposed yet again by the emerging male elite of each fledgling new nation-state.

Weekly Readings Critique 03

This week's readings:

  • chapters 1-5, 7, 10, Appropriating Gender, eds. P. Jeffery & A. Basu

The readings of Appropriating Gender were a wide-ranging collection, but all previewed, to one degree or another, the use and manipulations of the notion of the 'proper' woman as perceived through various cultural lenses. In every case it is interesting to note the preponderance of the hegemonic concept of the necessity of control over women in order to assure a right and appropriate nation, as well as the lack of agency offered to the women being so defined. It is not men who are the 'keepers' of tradition and nationalism in any of these cases - but it is invariably men who are almost the sole recipients of the benefits of citizenship in the nation's body. Nor are women being asked about this 'keeping,' or being allowed to interpret what traditions the nation should observe, or to guide the concept of what the nation is. Instead, like the narrowly bounded roles their society has already determined for them, it is being handed to them as 'common sense' - as the already pre-defined hegemonic norms culturally created by those in power to justify and expand said power.

This constant need to see the body national somehow mirror the ruling clique's personal cultural views and physical characteristics, with all others being somehow 'not-people,' appears to be the basis of much of the current national use and abuse of both women and the concept of gender. This hegemonic desire is certainly not confined only to the Third World, although our readings concerned themselves with Third World countries only. Women are not what is ordinarily thought of when one attempts to visualize the leaders of any of these countries - it is men who come to mind. Indeed, even when women are the nation's leaders, they invariably and only manage this social 'flip-flop' due to an always temporary substitution of them for a deceased male relative. Ordinarily things are not so ordered -- concepts of the nation are loaded onto concepts of the 'good' woman, and 'bad' women are invariably heavily socially punished, sometimes more horrifically than men who do not meet the hegemonic cultural norm. How do these men accomplish this? The apparent normative interpretative standard being used by the cultures mentioned within the readings is religion, recast through an alienly modern (and personally disgusting) lens so that it becomes no more than a tool of politicians and those seeking power to justify the imposition of powerlessness upon others - all in the name of that country's 'sacred' tradition and some mythical 'golden age' that never truly existed.

I find it nothing short of amazing, therefore, that even under such a staggering amount of cultural pressure, women still somehow find and express personal agency. I may or may not agree with how they wield such agency, I may find their goals reprehensible or inspiring, but I invariably find myself impressed with the creative and often surprisingly non-culturally threatening means in which women become active and participating members in their own hegemonies. The Hindu women of India, going out as mothers and wives of their nation in order to support and protect their men in their perceived religious duties; the constant personal struggles of the 'abducted' women from Pakistan to return to their new families; the 'good' Islamic women of the Tablighi Jama'at quietly and determinedly observing their religious beliefs; all are only a few examples of the creative uses of socially determined gender roles in order to gain agency by these women. The wide variety of means in which the roles of mother, daughter, sister, and wife are constantly (re)interpreted in order to promote activism and (re)gain agency, is nothing short of an astonishing testament to the inventiveness of women within the strictures of a strictly binding social system, who wish both to act and to maintain hegemonically proper behavior.

Notes used to lead a class discussion

  • Jane's Women Leaders in South Asia
  • Anderson's "Benazir Bhutto and Dynastic Politics"
  • Everett's "Indira Gandhi and the Exercise of Power"
  • Col's "Corazon C. Aquino, President of the Philippines" fr. Genovese's Women as National Leaders
  • Kuram's "From Chipko to Sati: The Contemporary Women's Movement in India"

Summary of Women Leaders in South Asia (for leading a class discussion):

The women of the study lacked official political experience before being elected to national office, but women leaders of the free world did not.

Women of South Asia often come from restrictive social systems (previously colonized) with strict behavior codes established within the social system and heavily influenced by religion and tradition. It is uncommon for women of the socially restrictive societies to pursue public careers.

Women leaders in South Asia were enabled to pursue public office due to their association with a deceased male relative. Also, each came from a political family with a history of involvement (affording them socialization into the world of politics), and sufficient economic affluence to pursue education (giving her the ability to step out of the stereotypical South Asian female role). Possibly they are seen as less deviating from the stereotype due to close association with the deceased male relative.

As with males, women have used family connections as stepping stones to political power.

Possible Questions:

  • What status-linked female social 'characteristics' (eg. veiling, the 'sacred mother') might be successfully exploited in the West by female leaders? Are there any?
  • What was the Bhuttos' charisma? How is it learned? Passed on? Why wasn't Benazir able to institute any progressive policies?
  • How might more women or families be encouraged to become part of their nation's political process, assuring genealogies that would expose women to such empowering characteristics and learning?
  • What personal 'censorship' might have been put into the thesis for it to be acceptable to the cultural expectations of the thesis committee?
  • Why is personal tragedy such a requisite for female participation in positions of leadership, at least in South Asia? Is this a requisite for female leadership elsewhere also?
  • What 'act' did Ms. Gandhi need to clean up? What caused the corruption and instability that marked Ms. Gandhi's later rule?
  • What kind of female leaders might be possible if they had the option of learning the political process first?

Last Updated: Mon, March 27, 2000