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Feminism Without Borders by Chandra Talpade Mohanty (thoughts)

March 27, 2013

Feminism Without Borders
What to write about Feminism Without Borders by Chandra Talpade Mohanty? I picked it up for A Year of Feminist Classics, and thus I read this with the relentless attention of my undergraduate years. However, my background is in international relations, not feminist studies, so a couple of the chapters certainly flexed my brain to its limits. Fun but exhausting is how I’d characterise the book as a whole, and while I highly recommend it to the interested reader, a casual one will likely end up abandoning it (unfortunately, the most challenging chapters are in the front).

I certainly got out of the book as much as I put into it, which is a mark of Mohanty’s excellent writing and scholarship. Essentially, the book calls out Western scholars, including Western feminists, although not all of them, for lumping women of the developing world into generic wholes based on a few examples (in other words, committing an inductive fallacy). This is problematic not merely because it reduces complex human beings to a few generic categories and perpetuates a kind of academic colonialism, but also because it obscures solutions. Presumably, feminists are feminists in part because they are dissatisfied with the status quo and would like to change it. In order to do so, though, they (we) need to be able to see all the factors going on in current patriarchal societies, rather than assuming that all women are automatically united in a struggle or helpless victims. And a part of that is ensuring that the women of the developing world have a voice, are the subjects instead of perpetual objects, by reading their writings and studies, instead of relying primarily on white Western sources.

While I was reading, I couldn’t help thinking about how Mohanty’s arguments related to books aimed at a more popular audience, and indeed at book blogging. I do think there are parallels between academia and the book blogosphere, at least parts of it, and between academic publishing and its general counterpart. I think about books like Baking Cakes in Kigali and The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story “Jumping Monkey Hill” (read it for free right here; go on, I’ll wait). I think about how I browse my library’s mystery section, and every time I find an interesting looking series set in a foreign country with a foreign sleuth, it seems to be authored by a white British man (exhibits a, b, and c). And I think about all of the fascinating international nonfiction I’ve read about countries all around the world, and how much of it was authored by white Western journalists, academics, or authors. Obviously, I did a lot of thinking while reading this book; it truly helped me coalesce various ideas and observations that have been floating around my head over the past couple years.

All in all, Feminism Without Borders is a challenging, thought-provoking read. I wouldn’t recommend it to general readers or those with a passing curiousity, since Mohanty writes on a dense, academic level. But I do highly recommend it to anyone interested in how the dynamics of race and culture play out in academic pursuits who’s willing to put in the work. I’ll certainly be seeking out more of Mohanty.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2013 1:47 pm

    I love Mohanty. I was hoping to reread it for AYOFC, but lately I just haven’t had the time (or mental focus) that the book requires.

  2. March 27, 2013 6:20 pm

    I didn’t rejoin AYOFC this year after I quickly tapered off my participation last year, but I will have to go check out the book list. (Okay – I’m back, and it looks like there’s not a new list this year, lol).

    Have you read Feminism for Real, edited by Jessica Yee? If not, I definitely recommend it. It’s a short collection of contemporary feminist essays, with a focus on North American feminists of color. It’s really excellent. I wrote a few thoughts on it last year: http://wanderinginthestacks.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/feminists-read-this-for-real/

  3. boardinginmyforties permalink
    March 27, 2013 7:26 pm

    This one sounds too academic for me so I will take your advice and assume that this one is probably not for me.

  4. March 27, 2013 7:35 pm

    I was just reading about this very subject recently. I can’t find the article now, but it was good! It was talking about how Western feminism can be really resistant to intersectionality even within Western countries, let alone in other countries where a lot of the feminist issues are (related but) different. And how feminists (like everyone) need to do better listening to the experiences of people in other cultures than their own.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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