Global Feminism: Feminist Theory's Cul-De-Sac

By Chowdhury, Elora Halim | Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Global Feminism: Feminist Theory's Cul-De-Sac


Chowdhury, Elora Halim, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge


This paper uses, as a point of departure, feminist sociologist Marnia Lazreg's article, "Development: Feminist Theory's Cul-de-sac" (2002). There, she makes an astute observation in regard to postmodernist feminist theory's limitations in transcending national, cultural and political boundaries when addressing the issue of 'development' and its 'phenomenological referent' women in non-European/North American contexts. Following her cue, I will explore the trajectory of global feminism--a subset of feminist theory arguably more expansive and subsuming of the issue of development--from the vantage point of the U.S., and its treatment of 'Other Women' in the service of its own hegemonic (re)construction and simultaneous occlusion of multiple feminisms both within and beyond the U.S.

The post 1990s discourse of global feminism, I argue, has to be understood in the conjuncture of three distinctively identified yet interconnected strands of contemporary feminist theorizing. From "sisterhood is global" to U.S. Third World/anti-racist feminisms to transnational feminisms, the landscape of feminist theory has always been expansive in vision, scope and reach. In 1995, published at the cusp of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Amrita Basu's influential anthology The Challenge of Local Feminisms decisively departed from earlier attempts to internationalize feminisms that used the lens of universal patriarchy to foreground sexual rights/violence as the privileged site of its analysis. By pointing to the limitations in the earlier "global sisterhood" model, and its normative liberal and Western subject, Basu's work drew attention to the heterogeneity of women's experiences, and movements around the world. Most importantly, she questioned the analytic frameworks of Eurocentric feminist theory, which portrayed women in non-Western contexts predominantly through the lens of development and modernization.

However, what this collection did not adequately address is hegemonic feminist theory's comparable elision of complexities and multiplicities of women's experiences and histories within the U.S. nation. Nor did it address the further divisions/distinctions between U.S. anti-racist/Third World feminisms and Third World/transnational feminisms. At the heart of this curious distinction, I will argue, lies the problematic and inadequately theorized split between anti-racist and post-colonial feminist pedagogies. At a time of militarized war and U.S. empire building--as Chandra Mohanty (2006) has characterized the contemporary moment--it becomes ever more important to carefully examine the ways in which feminisms are deployed to further different political agendas as well as feminist complicity and dissent to those agendas. The contemporary discourse of global feminism has to be understood at the conjunctures of these three strands--"sisterhood is global," U.S./Third World, and transnational feminisms--and as not only subsuming of them, but also as aiding the consolidation of hegemonic feminism in the service of U.S. imperialism.

In a recent essay, Amy Farrell and Patrice McDermott (2005) noted that the systematic attention to "global feminism" in the U.S. occurred simultaneously, on the one hand, with increasing domestic "backlash" against mainstream feminism and, on the other, with the proliferation of anti-racist, anti-heterosexist, and anti-Eurocentric critiques of normative feminism, which involved systematic attention to intersectional and transnational analysis in women's studies scholarship. Thus, the turn to "global feminism" served to deflect attention from fractures within domestic feminisms across lines of race, class, and sexuality as well as the trenchant critiques of narrowly conceptualized articulations of gender inequality globally. Further, it served to consolidate an imagined unified white/hegemonic U.S. nation in which global feminism is complicit.

Global feminism has been critical of the earlier notion of "global sisterhood" and its uncritical attachment to commonalities of women's oppression around the world. …

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