… images such as the veiled women, the powerful mother, the chaste virgin, the obedient wife, and so on… exist in universal, ahistorical splendor, setting in motion a colonialist discourse that exercises a very specific power in defining, coding, and maintaining existing First/Third World connections. (Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders 41)
The universalized representations of Third World women as occupying an ahistorical and homogenous space, representations which arise in Western imperialist culture and are perpetuated by some feminist analysis, fail to account for the particular histories and situations of non-Western women.
What comes to mind, for instance, when you view the above banner image? Silenced Third World women? One of the stereotypes listed above? Or women who are located in a specific historical situation, one that cannot be assumed from the image alone?
These women are in fact Zapatista rebels. The Zapatista women marked the 1996 International Women’s Day by taking to the streets in the thousands “wearing face masks and multicoloured dresses, many carrying children on their backs or in their arms, with signs and slogans, cries, songs and dances” (Gloria Munoz Ramirez, The Fire and the Word 139).
The masks are highly symbolic and practical for the Zapatistas. The Schools for Chiapas explains:
First, the masks represent the need for anonymity among the indigenous people fighting for autonomy and against the injustices inflicted on their people for generations… The masks are a symbol not only of anonymity, but also egalitarianism… by wearing masks, they give up their faces in order to be seen.
Recognizing the particular struggle of the Zapatistas helps to demonstrate the importance of understanding the heterogeneous histories of all women as opposed to monolithic representations of so-called Third World women as silenced and lacking agency, which is constructed by what Gayatri Spivak calls the “Masculine-imperialist ideological formation” and can even influence the “metropolitan intellectual.” Through its critique of Western hegemonic discourse and its associated images, transnational feminism problematizes these constructions.
What is Transnational Feminsim?
If there were ever a moment when interdisciplinary is most needed it is now, but we need a kind of interdisciplinary that fashions simultaneous articulations with radical political movements in ways that bring the necessary complexity to the multiple narratives about how history is made. (M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing 253)
Transnational feminism is a theory and commitment to practice which recognizes differences and borders while building solidarity and transcending those borders. It critiques Western mainstream feminism for using itself as a referent for communities of colour, and calls for a decentering from hegemonic Western discourse. Antiglobalization and anticapitalism are central components of this decentering, decolonizing project.
Transnational feminism requires caution when speaking for others. Speaking, to be understood in a nexus of listening, responding and interpreting, is only available to those who will be heard in institutions of power. Academics and activists must engage in self-conscious discourse and activism which empowers the speaking of the oppressed, recognizes their specific dynamics and histories and creates conditions for their voices to be heard. Otherwise one risks engaging in what Chandra Talpade Mohanty refers to as “discursive colonization.”
Roots in Postcolonial Theory
Transnational Feminsm has roots in Postcolonial theory which was highly influenced by the work of Edward Said. Check out the video below to hear Said speak on history and his foundational theory of Orientalism.
Chimamanda Adichie speaks on “the danger of a single story” as she shares her journey of becoming a novelist in this engaging talk.
The musical documentary We visualizes the words by Arundhati Roy. This video discusses key concepts of transnational feminist discourse – that of “power and powerlessness,” “nationalist and nationalism.”