Chandra Talpade Mohanty is a postcolonial and feminist theorist who fights for a more transnational approach to feminism. Her brand of feminism had been described by as “crystal clear, and clearly radical, and refreshingly rooted in the global south” (Alcoff).
Mohanty was born in Mumbai, India in 1955, and later in life became a U.S. citizen. For her education, she first graduated in 1974 with a B.A. in English from the University of Delhi in India. After this, she earned a Master’s degree in English from the University of Delhi, India in 1967. After transitioning to the U.S., she earned a master’s degree in the Teaching of English, and then a Ph.D. in Education, both from the University of Illinois. Additionally, she hold two honorary Doctorate degrees. As of today, Mohanty is a Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Dean’s Professor of the Humanities at Syracuse University.
As the only one of her immediate or extended family to get a Ph.D., Mohanty states that she is the product of the strong women in her family. In an interview, she details how her mother had gone to night school while working days in order to help put her uncle through school. She says that throughout her career, topics such as power structures, a woman’s place, poverty, gender justice, and economic issues are ones that she has dealt with at length.
Mohanty is most known for her influential essay “Under Western Eyes”, which was originally published in 1986. This essay was then later included in a collection of Mohanty’s work that was published in 2003 that was called Feminism Without Borders. During her studies, Mohanty had noticed that there was very little space for her perspective amidst the wider Western feminist literature, so she began developing the ideas that would later make up “Under Western Eyes”.
In this essay, Mohanty criticizes Western feminism, and it’s view of women in the third world. She claims that there is a tendency of Western feminist writings to create this category of the “Third World Woman”, and views all these women as one, coherent group. She says that, in homogenizing these women as one group erases the historical and geographical differences of these people, thereby robbing them of their identity. She insists that it is key to remember that each individual woman is a real, material subject that is unique in story.
“Quite honestly, looking back, the experience of writing “Under Western Eyes” is key to the development of my understanding of the racialized politics of knowledge and of institutional power in U.S. feminist academic communities. This experience clarified my “outsider” status, simultaneously solidifying my commitment to anti-racist, materialist, anti-imperialist feminist theorizing. If powerful people were telling me to back off, I was of course going to plunge straight in!”
-Chandra Mohanty, Under Western Eyes
Mohanty goes on to criticize how that, in ignoring the diversity of women from the third world, there are two distinct categories that are formed: the Western Woman and Third World Woman. The Western Woman is depicted throughout feminist literature as strong, liberated, educated, having control of their own bodies, and are overall superior. Conversely, the Third World Woman is seen as weak, oppressed, lacking in education, lacking rights, and overall inferior to the Western Woman. Mohanty points out how, this generalization, damaged the solidarity of women as a whole. This division leads to Third World Women being seen as a victimized stereotype. Additionally, this creates the dynamic where the Western feminists can act as saviors for the Third World Women.
Her paper highlights how difficult it can be for feminists from the Third World to be heard in the global feminist debate, and that the imbalances of power resulted from this inequality. To showcase her claims, Mohanty goes on to detail five ways in which women are categorized by Western feminism in five separate articles, of which I have summarized the arguments of three.
First is the category of “Women as Victims of Male Violence”. For this article, Mohanty states that the author claims that violence, specifically sexual violence, is almost always perpetrated in order to assert male dominance and female dependence. Mohanty pushes back against this, and states that male violence must be examined within the specific society, because only then can it be understood and effectively changed, seeing as change is dependent of the society it is enacted within.
Next, “Women and Arab Familial Systems”. Here, Mohanty states that the author claims that women in both Arab and Muslim families are oppressed. Further, that these societies only view women as “sexual-political subjects” and therefore the only way the women in these systems can make their own money is through prostitution. Mohanty points out that this assumption ignores aspects such as class and culture, as well as the histories of these people, in order to homogenize these women into one, oppressed category.
Lastly, the category of “Women as Victims of Development”. Here, Mohanty widens her score, stating that multiple authors claim that what women in the “third world” want is increased training for women, education for women, wider job opportunities, etc. Looking from the Western World to the Third World comparatively, these are all things they seem to lack, so it can be assumed these would all be good things. Mohanty then points out that this can’t possibly be true for all the women of the “third world” countries, because the desires of a middle class Egyptian housewife won’t be the same as even her maid, let alone someone from another country.
“There are abundant opportunities for solidarity between U.S. women of color and women of color from the Global South—but the success of these collaborations and alliances depends on a deep commitment to understanding the differences between our histories and experiences.”
-Chandra Mohanty, Under Western Eyes
Mohanty puts forth the claim that, in trying to create a type of universally shared experience, Western feminism tends to oversimplify situations, leading to a power imbalance. But, Mohanty also recognizes, Western feminism need to be aware of other women and give them their support. She cautions the West to be mindful of their power in the realm of feminism, of their influence on the identities of Third World Women, and to not recreate unequal power dynamics between Western Women and Third World Women
Alcoff, Linda Martin. “Feminists We Love: Chandra Talpade Mohanty.” The Feminist Wire, 3 Oct. 2013, http://www.thefeministwire.com/2013/10/feminists-we-love-chandra-mohanty/.
“Chandra Talpade Mohanty.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Oct. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandra_Talpade_Mohanty.
Shapiro, Julia. “Defining Intersectional Feminism.” Her Campus, 26 Sep. 2017, http://www.hercampus.com/school/bucknell/defining-intersectional-feminism.
Williams, Patrick. “Under Western eyes : feminist scholarship and colonial discourses.” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Print.