Feminism Without Borders by Chandra Talpade Mohanty (thoughts)
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.