“Postcolonial feminist theory highlights the diversity of histories, cultures, and circumstances of migration among the participants in our study. It also emphasizes some commonalities in indigenous systems as well as those resulting from the restructuring of African societies, social relations, and gender roles through Western colonization and capitalist expansion”Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika and Bukola Salami (2018)
Postcolonial feminism is a branch of feminist thought and activism emerging from formerly colonized countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. While the “post” in postcolonialism implies that colonizing relations have come to an end, postcolonial scholars emphasize the ways colonialism and imperialism are ongoing in the form of unequal relations between the Global North and South, and in the form of inequalities perpetuated by global capitalism. Postcolonial feminists critique patriarchy in their own national context, challenging women’s subordination in decolonial and nationalist movements. They emphasize that colonialism, imperialism, globalization, and decolonization have particular consequences for women and girls. Yet, postcolonial feminists also provide important critiques of Western liberal feminisms that resort to stereotypes when discussing women and girls in the Global South. Western feminisms that imagine women and girls from the Global South as helpless victims contribute to unequal gendered power relations. Postcolonial feminists emphasize that women and girls from the Global South have power and agency. As Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika and Bukola Salami (2018) write:
“a postcolonial feminist perspective not only recognizes the resilience and resistance of vulnerable actors but also the need to place their knowledge at the centre of analysis”Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika and Bukola Salami (2018, 94)
Let’s consider some examples of postcolonial feminist theory.
First, Chandra Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes”, first published in 1986, is an important text in the field of postcolonial feminism. In “Under Western Eyes,” Chandra Mohanty critiques the tendency of “Western feminist’ scholarship to generalize about the experiences of “Third World” women. The tendency of white, Western feminism to treat the “Third World Woman” as a monolithic subject, she argued, is a form of discursive colonialism; that is, this kind of language functions to disempower “Third World” women. She argued that feminist scholarship and social movements that seek to traverse different cultural and national contexts must account for both global power relations and local specificities. In a 2002 follow up to “Under Western Eyes,” Mohanty writes:
“Eurocentric analytic paradigms continue to flourish, and I remain committed to reengaging in the struggles to criticize openly the effects of discursive colonization on the lives and struggles of marginalized women. My central commitment is to build connections between feminist scholarship and political organizing. My own present-day analytic framework remains very similar to my earliest critique of Eurocentrism. However, I now see the politics and economics of capitalism as a far more urgent locus of struggle. I continue to hold to an analytic framework that is attentive to the micropolitics of everyday life as well as to the macropolitics of global economic and political processes.”Chandra Mohanty in “Under Western Eyes Revisited” (2002, 509)
Postcolonial feminists have expanded on Mohanty’s work, refining her theory. Swati Parashar (2016) writes, for example, of the importance of acknowledging difference not just between the West and the Global South, but within postcolonial contexts:
“As we now know, difference is not just between the West and non-West but within these geographies and temporalities as well and any universalism is discursive violence that writes out histories and mutes voices”.Swati Parashar (2016, 371)
Another example of postcolonial feminist theorizing is Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. Spivak argues that women in postcolonial contexts occupy the status of the subaltern class — a subordinated or marginalized class. Famously, Spivak writes in this essay of the ways colonialism often takes the form of “white men saving brown women from brown men”. In this phrase, Spivak captures the race and gender power dynamics at play in British colonial India, in which British men justified their “civilizing mission” on the basis of saving women from what they deemed an inherently patriarchal culture. Yet, Spivak points out that Indian women’s own voices were excluded from the conversation. Postcolonial and transnational feminists have applied Spivak’s theorization of colonialism as “white men saving brown women from brown men” to critique the global “War on Terror”, which Western powers have justified on the basis of liberating women and girls.
On postcolonial and transnational feminist approaches:
“The former exposes the indigenous, colonial, as well as racialized roots of the women’s experiences. The latter emphasizes the heavily gendered content of conflict, migration, and the transition to life straddled between two homelands”Sophie Yohani and Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika
In their article, “What is the Transnational in Transnational Feminist Research?“, Anneth Kaur Hundle et al. (2019) explain that transnational feminist scholarship builds upon postcolonial feminist theory to challenge Western hegemony in feminist scholarship, emphasizing global gendered relations. Transnational feminism, they write, is both a theoretical approach and an activist project influenced by postcolonial and women-of-colour feminists. In their words:
“Transnational feminisms extend postcolonial feminist criticism to focus on the situations of women in multiple geographic contexts in feminist theories and activist practice, through the decentring of both national and imperialist/neocolonial power structures.”Anneeth Kaur Hundle, Ioana Szeman, and Joanna Pares Hoare (2019)
Transnational feminist approaches foreground the ways global migration shapes women’s lives and knowledges, and emphasizes women’s connections to their homelands even in the post-migration context. Indeed, migration does not sever women’s connections to their homes; rather, those connections continue to influence their experiences of migration. These connections across borders, transnational feminists argue, can enable scholarship and activism that accounts for women’s complex experiences of migration. In this way, transnational feminism enables:
“an ability to speak to connections and inequalities between the Global North and South; to confront histories and contemporary practices of imperialism, colonialism, and nationalism and their effects on women, gender and sexuality issues; and to displace Eurocentric and liberal feminist theories and ideologies.”Anneeth Kaur Hundle, Ioana Szeman, and Joanna Pares Hoare (2019, 120)
Transnational feminist scholars utilize intersectional feminist theory. Black feminist legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw defined the concept of intersectionality in her 1989 article, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine,” in which she examined the ways law failed to account for Black women’s experiences of “double-discrimination — the combined effects of practices which discriminate on the bases of race, and on the bases of sex” (149). Black women’s experiences, Crenshaw explains, are unique from Black men, who experience racism, and Black women, who experience racism and sexism. The American feminist and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s, Crenshaw explains, did not account for Black women’s experiences. Rather, these movements articulated anti-racist and feminist demands for change as if all Black people were men- in the case of the civil rights movement, and all women were white, in the case of the women’s movement (Crenshaw 1989, 139).
Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality builds upon at least a century of Black feminist theory. For example, Crenshaw’s 1989 article references Sojourner Truth’s speech to the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. In response to white men who gathered to heckle women’s rights activists, arguing that they were naturally inferior to men — too weak for the manly world of politics — Truth rose to challenge them. Truth was an abolitionist, born into slavery and bought and sold by white slave owners as a child. Like many Black women of her time, Truth escaped slavery in 1826 and by 1844 she began a career as an advocate for women’s rights and abolition, arguing that abolitionist and civil rights movements must attend to Black women’s rights. When Truth rose to give her speech in 1851, white women tried to silence her — they worried that Truth’s speech would focus on slavery instead of women’s rights. You can read Truth’s full speech here. Kimberle Crenshaw explains that the power of Truth’s speech lies in her rejection not only of sexism, but of white feminist notions of an ‘essential’ womanhood which subordinated Black women in the struggle for women’s rights. It is ironic, Crenshaw writes, that ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ has come to stand in for all women’s experiences when, in fact, it speaks to Black women’s experiences in particular. In her 1989 article, Crenshaw urges Black women to challenge feminist theory that claims to speak for all women without including Black women by asking “‘Ain’t We Women?’” (154)
Patricia Hill Collins is another important Black feminist scholar who adopts an intersectional lens. While Hill Collins rejects a definition of Black feminism that assumes that all Black women are Black feminists, she maintains that it is important to emphasize “the special angle of vision that Black women bring to the knowledge production process”. Learn more about “Defining Black Feminist Thought” by Patricia Hill Collins.
In the video below, Crenshaw applies the concept of intersectionality to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, a movement against police violence. Crenshaw makes the point that many Americans know the names of Black men killed by police in the United States, but they do not know the names of Black women who have been victimized by police. Next, Crenshaw provides a discussion of her 1989 article, in which she defines the concept of intersectionality.
As you learn about feminist research on migration, consider how an intersectional feminist framework enables an analysis of Black women’s experiences of migration.