Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Entanglements of Transnational Feminism and Area Studies

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Entanglements of Transnational Feminism and Area Studies

Article excerpt

Abstract

In this essay, I consider the relationship between transnational feminism and area studies. I suggest that transnational feminism's long engagement with the difference offers a way in which to address the critiques of area studies which has tended to identify places with particular "traits". I examine how particular strands of western feminism intertwined with the project of area studies by seeking to define, reform, and consolidate places and people within their ambit of power. If we consider area studies to be organized in a horizontal scale focused on large regional spaces defined by "traits", then transnational feminism adds a vertical dimension to the study of area studies with its focus on the intimate spaces of power.

Keywords

Differences, third world, transnational feminisms

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I teach at the City University of New York, one of the largest public institutions in the country, which serves a largely immigrant, working class and people of color population in New York City. It is a wonderfully diverse group; with many students the first among their families to go to college and often first or second generation with at times brutal histories of immigration. For many years, I have taught transnational feminism to these students at both graduate and undergraduate levels. In my classes, I rehearse well-tread arguments about autonomy and the right for people to construct their own destinies while not devolving into cultural relativism. In an effort to demonstrate that intellectual agency is authored in places other than the core with the periphery relegated to offering interesting empirical detail, I expose my students to work from different regions. And yet the project that attempts to displace the manner in which these areas come to be is paradoxically reinforced at the very moment that I am trying to subvert it.

In other words, with some variation, there is stubborn attachment among my students to "places and people" geography. This attachment articulates itself in believing that there is a connection--albeit broad, contradictory, and non-linear--between places and people with particular set of traits or associations. I notice that I am more audible when I speak about cultural and political autonomy of people from "the Third World" risking the ever-present slide of speaking "for" rather than "about". Rather than, when I seek to explain geographical relations by which the prosperity of few is predicated on the systematic disenfranchisement of many. Despite multiple sustained critiques of authenticity, I am located with authorial voice to speak about particular places.

In this brief essay, I want to consider the relationship between transnational feminism and area studies. I suggest that transnational feminism's long engagement with the difference offers a way in which to address the critiques of area studies which has tended to identify places with particular "traits" (Appadurai, 2000). Transnational feminisms attempt to theorizing differences between women that does not fall into the victim/savior frame or is caught in a problematic linear narrative of modernity. It seems to me then that a reconsidered area studies could benefit from the manner in which transnational feminism has navigated and struggled with this problematic of difference and boundaries.

I am aware that transnational feminism is an extremely broad and varied field with multiple and, at times, contradictory feminisms. Here I am specifically interested in tracing feminist discourses emerging from western feminists in the Global North during the height of colonial enterprise in the nineteenth century followed by liberal feminisms of the late twentieth century and finally imperial feminisms into the 21 centuries, which were committed to ongoing western hegemony. Colonial, liberal, and imperial feminisms have faced sustained challenges from feminist movements in the Global North and South. …

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