Feminism 101: What is Postcolonial Feminism?

Illustration by Tina Duong

In the Euro-American lens, women in the “East” are often perceived as victims of “backwards” religious and patriarchal structures, helpless and unenlightened about the gravity of their plight. These women outside of Euro-America are imagined to be in desperate need of the so-called civilizing forces of “equality,” “rights,” and “secularism” we so proudly embrace in liberal Euro-American cultures.

Postcolonial feminism was born as a response to colonialism, imperialism, and Euro-American feminists’ emphasis on sisterhood, which is one way Euro-American values are imperialistically imposed on other cultures. Postcolonial feminism is an intervention into such problematic frames of thought in hegemonic Euro-American feminism. The theory resists Euro-American feminists’ tendency to universalize the forms of oppression they face in their own lives, a tendency which ignores the crucial differences in the way women from various national, ethnic and religious backgrounds experience gender.

Postcolonial feminism reminds us “equality” looks different for, say, a white, middle-class woman in the U.S. and a Muslim woman in Iran, and it denies the idea of universal oppressions. If Euro-American feminist movements focus on the gender pay gap, unpaid domestic labor, or the dehumanizing aspects of pornography, these forms of oppressions and subsequent resistance is not necessarily useful for women outside of Euro-America. Therefore, postcolonial feminism goes beyond Euro-American ideals about what gender equality looks like, depending on the social, political, and historical context of the country to which the discussion is based around. In this capacity, postcolonial feminism is a branch of intersectional feminist thought.

The postcolonial feminist lens calls particular attention to the ongoing damage Euro-American imperialism and global capitalism has inflicted on people in “Eastern” countries, and the resulting violent exploitation of women outside Euro-America.

Postcolonial feminism provides a similar critique of white Euro-American attempts to “save” women outside Euro-America, often called the “white savior complex.” This complex plays dangerously into the historical rationale for the colonization of “Eastern” lands, i.e. educating “barbarians” or Anglicizing native languages. Postcolonial feminists believe feminisms should emerge locally from regional knowledge instead of being imposed by Euro-America.

The white savior complex is used by Euro-American politicians through the trope of the “third world woman,” who is oppressed by a supposedly backward regime, as justification for war and occupation in non Euro-American countries, as the Bush administration did in regard to Afghanistan.

One custom often appropriated as a sensational symbol of women’s “oppression” outside of Euro-American countries is the veil. Although there is room for nuanced discussion about the patriarchal implications of mandatory veiling in Saudi Arabia and Iran among women within these cultures, it is problematic to frame the hijab as inherently oppressive or incompatible with equality. Islamic feminists, for example, strive for an equality that encompasses ritual modesty as a way to feel empowered and closer to God.

Postcolonial feminism embraces the potential for diverse, organic feminisms that seek to end the ramifications of sexism, racism, capitalism and imperialism in their totality. It reminds us the united front of “sisterhood” is less in the spirit of feminism than are solidarity and awareness of the multitude of global experiences that comprise womanhood.

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