By Annie Tran
Having grown up in a non-Western environment, I felt a strange admiration for white feminism (before I recognised its issues and limitations, of course). My younger self would always think "at least those women are speaking on behalf of all women because they can, being where they are.” However, I was in for a rude awakening after hours of scrolling through “feminist” Instagram posts and moving to the West, where I learnt of postcolonialism in my university courses. The classics by Fanon and Said boiled my blood to say the least. However, the literature involving Spivak particularly struck a chord with me because all the women from my upbringing and I were the Self and not the irrelevant Other. We were finally named and acknowledged.
Gayatri Spivak is a professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University whose expertise lies in feminism, postcolonialism, and deconstructivism (Kinnvall 317). Her thoughts on postcolonial feminism focus primarily on women in the global South - the “subaltern,” whose experiences and interests cannot be aligned with what Western
feminists in any remote sense (Kinvall 324). In her essay titled “French Feminism in an International Frame,” Spivak directly addresses that French and Anglo-American feminism often ignore the “colonised woman.” Because of these women’s tendencies to focus only on the (white) Self, they forget to ask themselves who the Other (colonised woman) is, or acknowledge how they are naming her (Spivak 179). Spivak argues that the failure to ask such essential questions leads the colonised women to believe that these different “sweet and sympathetic creatures from another planet” are the only ones capable of giving all women a chance to speak up and to belong to the movement (Spivak 179). The continuation of this process leaves the subaltern female in the dark because it neglects the privilege white women have. When the subaltern are not given the chance to speak for themselves and are overshadowed by white voices, an artificial solidarity is developed, causing factors like race and social class to be dismissed.
In Spivak's arguably most famous work, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, she emphasises that a woman’s resistance is in vain if she “performs an act of resistance without an infrastructure that would make [society] recognise resistance” (qtd. in Kinnvall 326). She mentions that British imperialists often used subaltern women’s suffering and their environment’s sexism to frame imperialism as a civilising mission, and as their way of “speaking on behalf of the subaltern” given that these subaltern women lacked the “infrastructure” to have their voices heard. This demonstrates the unfortunate truth that there remain colonial roots in “resisting the patriarchy.” Western powers exploited and continue to exploit feminism by using it to portray their behavior - imperialism - as a necessity for the subaltern even though they are part of the problem that makes the sought-after “infrastructure” impossible to attain. A modern example would be how subaltern women still encounter misogynistic remarks - such as demands to be more “ladylike” (e.g., a comment to cross one’s legs) - because their environment remains tolerant of patriarchal behaviour. Resistance simply isn’t an option like it is in more liberal societies. Even nowadays, when the white advocate steps in, their first instinct would be to speak on behalf of the oppressed women and be the medium through which their grievances can be expressed. My intention isn’t to dismiss the empathy embedded in such actions, but to encourage an approach that allows the subaltern woman to be her own medium of advocacy because she is clearly more knowledgeable about the environment that contributes to her struggles.
Subaltern voices will not be heard if white feminists speak over them. The colonised woman needs to be named, and there needs to be an awareness of her experiences from her own account. She needs to be the Self telling her own stories because she is more than able to speak for herself. Spivak’s insights aren’t about dismissing feminist solidarity or denying white women the right to take part in feminism; instead, they call for an enhanced awareness of varying levels of oppression. All in all, feminism needs to transcend the bold universalist claims made by the outspoken and become an outlet for all women to narrate their own stories.
Kinnvall, Catarina. “Gayatri Spivak.” Critical Theorists and International Relations, edited by Jenny Edkins and Nick Vaughan-Williams, Routledge, 2009, pp. 317-328.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “French Feminism in an International Frame.” Yale French Studies 62.62 (1981): 154–184. Web.