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Feminist Concepts of Oyewumi and Mohanty

1176 words (5 pages) Essay in Sociology

18/05/20 Sociology Reference this

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On November 2016, during the first Constituent Assembly of Italian trans-feminist network “Non una di meno”, a sentence arises in all over the auditorium:

“We are the largest minority in the history, that’s why we can be the catalyst for all liberation struggles”.

 Since the early beginning of their political activism, the feminists of “Non una di meno” stressed the need to explore and perform a “decolonised” feminism, a feminism that has as its primary goal to reach all the minorities of the world: from trans subjectivities to sex workers, from migrant carers to housewives forced to unpaid care work.  Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser’s work – “Femminismo per il 99%. Un Manifesto” – appears to be closely linked to the analysis made by Oyewomi and Mohanty about the ethnocentric universalism created by western scholars (Mohanty, 2003 p.21). Likewise, since the beginning of their work, they ask if the greatest achievement to get for women is to occupy positions of power in the hierarchies of the huge capitalist institutions (Azzurra, Bhattacharya and Fraser’s 2019, p. 4). So, since my personal political experience as a Western trans-feminist activist had already led me to question myself about the limits of the Western-centered view of gender issues, I decided to deepen this analysis through the texts of Oyewumi and Mohanty, which can provide further insights and criticism to this topic.

Before providing a critical analysis of the abovementioned works, it is useful to place them within a historical and descriptive background. On one hand, there is Oyerionke Oyewomi who writes in 1997 and the most important statement of her work is clear since the earliest pages of it, when she claims that “Gender is not only socially constructed, but it is also historically” (Oyewomi, 2002 p.1). On the other, there is Chandra Talpade Mohanty, who writes in 2003 and gives the definition of “ethnocentric universalism”. With that definition, she aims to define the epistemological process through which feminist theories born in the West (specifically in Europe and the USA) become the basis for any study on these topics.

In her work Oyewumi argues that all western feminist theories are “rooted in the nuclear family” and then this kind of feminism is typed by an “anti-family” narrative (Oyewumi, 2002 p. 2). For the latter statement, I think that here there is a lack of historical and law researches. If Oyewumi had better researched the origins of Roman society (and therefore of the entire Western society), it would probably have been clearer to her why the basis of Western feminist practices can only be the deconstruction of the nuclear family. Indeed, the idea of the family as the basis of western society is a concept that sees its origins since the society of the ancient Romans. The “familia” in Roman law was the first brick on which to build the structure of the “Res Publica”. Moreover, Roman law sanctioned the law of “Vitae ac Necis ius”, literally the right of life and death that the father had against his offspring. In Roman society the concept of the family had little to do with the sharing of the same blood, indeed the word “familia” comes from the Latin “fabulus” which means “servant of the pater familia”. (L. Capogrossi 1982, p. 249).  In my opinion, when Oyewumi asserts in her work that “the unit of analysis is the nuclear family household” (Oyewumi 2002, p. 2) she enters herself into the vicious circle of generalization that she criticizes. One question that needs to be asked, however, is whether this mechanism of universalization of experiences can also be observed in the case study provided by the scholar. In describing the experience of the Yuruba families as non-gendered structured, she is universalizing all the African experiences under the same example. In doing so, she arbitrarily decides not to consider all those family structures that instead are close to the concept of the nuclear family, even though the last-mentioned is not characterized by the western typology.

Another line of thought on Western feminist theories and their universalization is offered by Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s work “Under Western Eyes”. Here she critiques homogenous viewpoints and presumptions in Western feminist thoughts on Third World women. However, the crucial point in Mohany’s work is the definition of Third Word Women representations upon an “Ethnocentric Universalism”. Like Oyewumi she talks about sisterhood and she claims that the latter must be established by a common historical background, shared political practices and analysis (Mohanty 2003, p. 24). In her work she declares to proceed with the analysis of the theme with two opposite but parallel methods of investigation: firstly, we have a process of deconstructing and dismantling the hegemonic “western” feminism, secondly there is a method of building and constructing “formulation of autonomous feminist concerns and strategies which are geographically, historically and culturally granted” (Mohany 2003, p. 24).

Unlike what you see in the work previously examined, here the scholar affirms that similar criticism can be directed at those African or Asian academics belonging to the bourgeoisie who investigates the proletariat of their country by taking their bourgeois vision as a common vision. (Mohanty 2003, p. 18). However, Mohanty uses a critical investigation methodology very different from the Oyewumi, providing examples for each of the six different types of analysis in which third world women are studied by Western scholars. Actually, with such an investigation technique, it is difficult to disagree with Mohanty when she states that in portraying third world women as a homogeneous group with a shared dependence there is a reproduction of the same paternalistic system for which women are dependent on men whose responsibility is to protect them because of this so-called powerlessness. In this way, western scholars create a “Third World Women” narratives which portrayed them as “the other”. 

In conclusion, every criticism presented by both scholars within their work is acceptable and also criticizable. What is important to mark is that these works were written well before the so-called “third feminist wave” self-styled intersectional and transnational. In this feminism, which aims to be for the 99%, there is no need to leave space for any kind of over-determinism. Now that the system of liberal values is in crisis and we are experiencing a new wave of transnational feminism, we have the space to create another feminism that must also and above all be anti-capitalist, anti-racist and eco-socialist. 

References:

  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade (2003): “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” in Feminism Without Borders. Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham, London: Duke University.
  • Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónkẹ́ (2002): “Conceptualizing Gender: The Eurocentric Foundations of Feminist Concepts and the Challenge of African Epistemologies”. In: Jenda: a Journal of Culture and African Woman Studies.
  • Luigi Capogrossi Colognesi (1982): “Patria Potesta”. In Enciclopedia del Diritto, V. CCCXII, Milano, Edizioni Giuffrè.
  • Arruzza, Cinzia, Tithi Bhattacharya, Nancy Fraser, and Alberto Prunetti.(2019): Femminismo per Il 99%: Un Manifesto. Bari: Laterza.
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