The Imperial Archive
Feminism and post-colonialism
Feminist discourse shares many similarities with post-colonial theory and for this reason the two fields have long been thought of as associative, even complimentary. Firstly, both discourses are predominantly political and concern themselves with the struggle against oppression and injustice. Moreover, both reject the established hierarchical, patriarchal system, which is dominated by the hegemonic white male, and vehemently deny the supposed supremacy of masculine power and authority. Imperialism, like patriarchy, is after all a phallocentric, supremacist ideology that subjugates and dominates its subjects. The oppressed woman is in this sense akin to the colonized subject. Essentially, exponents of post-colonialism are reacting against colonialism in the political and economic sense while feminist theorists are rejecting colonialism of a sexual nature.
Both women and ‘natives' are minority groups who are unfairly defined by the intrusive ‘male gaze' , which is a characteristic of both patriarchy and colonialism. Both peoples have been reduced to stereotypes (virgin, whore, savage, heathen) and denied an identity by the system that entraps them. In recent times, post-colonial studies has reacted to this viewpoint and subsequently involved itself with the issue of gender, questioning to what extent this affects the lives of colonial subjects who also happen to be female, i.e. investigating whether gender or colonial oppression is the more significant political factor in women's lives. To my mind, colonialism is the greater evil, because it automatically entails the threat of misogynistic, patriarchal beliefs, given the fact that imperialism was unequivocally male-centred and euro-centric, thus immediately labelling all foreign women alien subalterns. The obvious fact that colonial oppression affects the lives of women, both socially and economically, has forced post-colonial critics to adopt a keener awareness of gender roles when discussing imperialist exploits.
Similarly, feminism has become much more aware of its post-colonial counterparts in recent times. In the 1980s, feminist critics Hazel Carby and Sara Suleri began to sense that Western feminism was rooted in a bourgeois, euro-centric prejudice that had to be remedied in order to avoid the continued neglect of the so-called 'Third World woman'. Chandra Talpade Mohanty for one is severely critical of regarding all women as a homogeneous group, without taking into account inevitable differences in ethnicity and circumstance. I would agree that this failure to acknowledge historical specificity is as damaging as other assumptions based in chauvinism and ignorance.
Feminists also tend to apply this intolerance of blanket terms to post-colonialism and have subsequently been highly critical of post-colonialists' tendencies to construct a single category of the colonized, thus ignoring the important issue of gender difference. The undeniable fact that colonial oppression affected men and women in different ways should be recognized, as females were often subjected to what has been called a ‘double colonization' , whereby they were discriminated against not only for their position as colonized people but also as women. According to Guyatri Spivak, this differentiation is essential for an exhaustive examination of colonial domination. The result of this treatment is ultimately the formation of the terminologically problematic post-colonial woman.
Even constructions of the pre-colonial are strongly influenced by the phallocentric prejudice that wrongly defines ‘native' women as passive and subsidiary inferiors. In fact, many of the representations of the female ‘native' figure in Western Literature and Art perpetuate the myth of the erotically charged female. Note for example the primitive exoticism and sirenesque danger of Ayesha in H. Rider Haggard's prejudice-strewn 1887 novel She. Indeed, for much of the nineteenth-century, black skin came to depict sexual promiscuity and deviant behaviour. A particularly reprehensible example of the ignorance and prejudice that ‘offensive' foreign sexuality engendered is the infamous case of the Hottentot Venus, which details how British colonial powers transformed one young African woman into an icon for racial inferiority and savage female sexuality. It is the story of Saarti Baartman (1789-1815), a female member of the Khosian tribe of South Africa , who was taken to Britain in 1810 and exhibited as a biological oddity and scientific curiosity due to her pronounced buttocks and genitalia. Her consequent humiliation and degradation illustrate the racist mindset common in 19th Century Europe and her image has become a lasting symbol of Western colonial attitudes towards Africa.
There are a significant number of literary texts that are written from both a feminist and post-colonial standpoint. These texts often share views on the individuality and disparity of the subject, as well as agreeing on shared strategies of resistance against dictatorial external forces. For example, Bill Ashcroft in Key concepts in post-colonial studies likens ‘writing the body' in feminism to ‘writing place' in post-colonial theory. This suggests that the colonised space in feminist discourse is the vulnerable female body, thus reflecting the fertile, productive nature of both body and place, which has the power to yield crop but also to destroy it. Both are capable of ruthlessness if forced to it, as is the case in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, where the ex-slave Sethe is forced to commit infanticide, in order to save her child from the untold horrors of colonialism.
One text which deals explicitly with the ‘double colonization' of women by both their male counterparts and the dominant colonial powers is Caryl Churchill's controversial 1979 play Cloud Nine. Essentially a gendered critique of familial and sexual roles in Victorian colonial society, the play comically utilises cross-dressing and role-doubling to explore the relationship between colonial and sexual oppression throughout history. Act I occurs in a British colony in Africa where Clive, the racist, sexist colonial administrator, imposes his stringent ideals on his family and the African natives. As the superior white male, he determines the roles the women and natives must play. Betty is his doting, self-effacing wife who chirrups: “I am a man's creation as you see, And what men want is what I want to be.” Gender boundaries are crossed as Betty is played by a man, thus foregrounding her gender as a fiction constructed by the ‘male gaze'. Clive and his patriarchal society cannot envision women's identity therefore Betty must be played by a male actor. Through the character of Betty, Churchill satirises the traditionally subordinate role of women in history, forcing us to recognise that female identity is a historical and cultural construction.
Likewise, Joshua the black servant is what the colonizers want him to be and is therefore played by a white man. This also symbolizes the way in which our imperial, racist heritage reduces African identity to the construction of white, Western assumptions. Betty is a consequence of patriarchal structuring just as Joshua is the product of imperial advancement. Betty fails to value herself as a woman nor does Joshua as a black and they are consequently replaced by white men. The clear absence of the female and the native here highlights the sense of a continual struggle to maintain individuality against the odds, and shows how images and stereotypes can acquire a depressive power over people. Yet Churchill moves beyond stereotypes to investigate the very movements which brought those stereotypes to prominence. She is concerned with depicting how colonialism perpetuates itself; instilling fear into its subjects through vicious beatings, the castigation of women and the repression of sexual freedom.
Both women and natives in Cloud Nine are depicted as wild, evil, dangerous creatures. Clive believes “You can tame a wild animal only so far. They revert to their true nature and savage your hand.” This statement reflects how anything ‘other', i.e. not white, heterosexual, Western and male, is regarded warily as a potential threat to the established order. Sexuality is regarded as being of particular danger and Betty's sexual awakening with Harry is likened to exploring the dark, unknown jungles; “When I'm near you it's like going out into the jungle. It's like going up the river on the raft. It's like going out into the dark.” Betty calls her sexual desire “my wickedness” and Clive labels it “the weakness of your sex”, warning his demure wife “We must resist this dark female lust, Betty, or it will swallow us up.” There are obvious parallels here between sexual and colonial oppression which Jean Genet has called the colonial or feminine mentality of interiorised repression.
Churchill, like other feminist writers, blames patriarchy for the victimization of women and the destruction of any female sense of selfhood. We must recognize that imperialism is also essentially a form of patriarchy that diminishes any opportunity for identity formation in its subjects. As regards the question of whether patriarchy or colonialism is more detrimental to its subjects, I would select the latter. Racial otherness is arguably more damaging because while it is acceptable to be a woman, (provided it is the right type of woman) it is never acceptable to be a ‘savage native'. This critical approach would suggest that gender is often overridden by racial status and consequently becomes largely inconsequential, thus reflecting one of the central debates presently raging in feminist and post-colonial studies.
• McClintock, Anne. Imperial leather: race, gender, and sexuality in the colonial contest. New York: Routledge, 1995.
• Blunt, Alison. Rose, Gillian. Writing women and space: colonial and postcolonial geographies. New York: Guilford Press, 1994.
• Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A critique of postcolonial reason: toward a history of the vanishing present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
This page was written by Sinead Caslin. Email me with your comments.
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