Postcolonial Studies and Transnational Feminist Practices


Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan

San Francisco State University and University of California--Berkeley

Copyright © 2000 by Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    1. As feminists who have participated in what can be called postcolonial studies since our days in graduate school, for us there has never been any question that the history of modern imperialism bears directly upon the condition of women and relations of gendered power in the modern period. Over the years we have worked with others to imagine how to link the interdisciplinary study of gender to the key concepts we work with: colonialism, modernity, and globalization. Increasingly, we have become convinced that new forms of colonialism pervade the contemporary world and that new forms of feminist theory are required to address these changing conditions.

    2. In the 1980s, we began our scholarly and teaching careers working on what has been called colonial discourse analysis. As feminists we chose to focus on gender and travel in order to study the relations between women from different cultures and nations rather than focus solely on the relations between women and men. As specialists in cultural studies we both saw travel as the perfect site for examining the histories of these encounters. Looking at travel as a leisure activity led us to examine all the other forms of movement and displacement in the modern world such as immigration, forced removals, diasporas, refugee asylum, as well as travel for educational or corporate needs. We have analyzed how inequalities of class, gender, nationality, sexuality, and ethnicity are created through movements over time and space in particular ways. Through this kind of analysis we wanted to break down the disciplinary divides between American studies and Area studies, women's studies and ethnic studies, as well as between studies of high and low culture. For instance, we wanted to participate in the study of race not only in terms of civil rights practices and identity politics but also as a form of discourses with concrete effects within the history of imperialism.

    3. Working together, we decided that we needed a set of critical practices that help us recast and think through these legacies of imperialism that continue within development and modernization projects inside and out of the academy, inside and outside the U.S. In our collaborative work we decided to use the term transnational instead of international in order to reflect our need to destabilize rather than maintain boundaries of nation, race, and gender. Transnational is a term that signals attention to uneven and dissimilar circuits of culture and capital. Through such critical recognition, the links between patriarchies, colonialisms, racisms, and other forms of domination become more apparent and available for critique or appropriation. The history of the term international, on the other hand, is quite different. Internationalism as a concept is based on existing configurations of nation-states as discrete and sovereign entities. While the socialist model of internationalism posited a worker's alliance across the boundaries of nation and state to oppose capitalism, the liberal and conservative versions of internationalism arose after the first World War in an effort to adjudicate and resolve conflicts between nations.

    4. Thus, if we speak of transnational circuits of information, capital, and labor, we critique a system founded on inequality and exploitation. It would be impossible for us to advocate a transnational feminism as an improved or better or cleaned up kind of international or global feminism. Transnational feminism, for example, is not to be celebrated as free of these oppressive conditions. In fact, there IS NO SUCH THING as a feminism free of asymmetrical power relations. Rather, transnational feminist practices, as we call them, involve forms of alliance, subversion, and complicity within which asymmetries and inequalities can be critiqued.

    5. For us, the relationship between postcolonial and transnational studies is one of a specific feminist trajectory that has always focused on the inequalities generated by capitalist patriarchies in various eras of globalization. The theories and methodologies of the so-called "post-colonial" critics have enabled us to study transnationality. For example, notions of "orientalism," "subalternity," "hybridity," "diaspora," "traveling theory," and "border theory" provide feminists with conceptual tools to examine a vast array of representational politics. Emphasis on the history of modern imperialism has helped feminists look at race, sexuality, and class not only as bounded categories but as concepts that "travel" -- that is, circulate and work in different and linked ways in different places and times. Despite the wide applicability of the concepts produced by postcolonial studies, its institutionalization in the U.S. and Europe has been limited to a few fields and a narrow scope. Over the last ten years at least, postcolonial scholars have addressed this problem of institutional practice. Like us, many critics are working beyond what is generally thought to be postcolonial studies without disavowing its powerful explanatory and analytical usefulness.

    6. The shift in our work from postcolonial to transnational studies could not have been accomplished without our continued engagement with postcolonial theories of nation and nationalism. In discussions of globalization in the transnational context, the salience of diverse nationalisms (either state-centered or cultural) remains obvious. While anti-colonial movements used nationalism in order to gain independence from European domination, the current history of nationalism has raised many important concerns about its progressive and reactionary dimensions. As feminist scholars, we see nationalism as a process in which new patriarchal elites gain the power to produce the generic "we" of the nation. The homogenizing project of nationalism draws upon female bodies as the symbol of the nation to generate discourses of rape, motherhood, sexual purity, and heteronormativity.

    7. However, nationalisms are not just patriarchal. In the contemporary study of European women travelers revealed the ways in which Eurocentric discourses about the colonized woman as victim of her culture became widespread, they also suggest that these women travelers were expressing nationalist ideas about the superiority of their country and their capabilities and the inferiority of colonized Others. This explains why, for instance, British women in the late nineteenth century continued to believe that their own countries were havens of freedom when they themselves did not have the vote, and were struggling for their rights. It can also explain why many working-class women in Britain, locked in labor struggles, could still support the project of British colonialism. Nationalism creates these misrecognitions; that is, a deliberate and ideological forgetting, and such practices continue to this day. For instance, women from Islamic countries have obtained refugee asylum in the U.S. because they claim that their patriarchal cultures persecute them, even though the U.S. remains a country with an extremely high rate of domestic violence.

    8. By paying attention to the interactions between women from different nations, we can understand the nature of what are being called "transnational" relations, i.e. relations across national boundaries. By such a transnational analysis, one can get a quite different picture of the relation of feminism to nationalism. This kind of analysis contradicts the popular belief that feminism exists in an antagonistic relation to nationalism. The complexity of nationalism is that although nationalism and feminism are often opposed, such opposition cannot be seen simply as resistance to nationalism because often one cannot exist without the other and often one is constructed only through the other.

    9. To move to this kind of critical approach we need a notion of transnationality to help us differentiate our practices from those of global feminism. Transnational feminist practices refer us to the interdisciplinary study of the relationships between women in diverse parts of the world. These relationships are uneven, often unequal, and complex. They emerge from women's diverse needs and agendas in many cultures and societies. Given a very heterogeneous and multi-faceted world, how do we understand and teach about the condition of women? When we ask this question, relations between women become just as complicated as those between societies or between nations. Rather than simply use the model of information retrieval about a plurality of women around the world, a project that is both endless and arbitrary, we need to tech students how to think about gender in a world whose boundaries have changed. Since recent scholarship has shown us that gender, class, religion, and sexuality produce different kinds of women in relation to different kinds of patriarchies, we must design classes that present a more complex view of how women become "women" (or other kinds of gendered subjects) around the world. In addition, we need to tech about the impact of global forces such as colonialism, modernization, and development on specific and historicized gendering practices that create inequalities and asymmetries.

    10. Without the work of postcolonial studies, how would we even begin to understand the complexity of the relationship between nationalism and feminism? And thus, how would we understand the ways that contemporary racisms, nationalisms, and gendered oppressions have been produced together, not separately? For us, across almost twenty years, postcolonial studies has enabled us to understand globalized histories of gender and power. For instance, as faculty in women's Studies we deal with, on the one hand, the ways in which feminist communities are being produced in cyberspace, and on the other hand, the new female industrial worker in multinational assembly lines, or the increasingly female population in prisons in metropolitan locations. Our challenge is to provide a framework in which to study all of these conditions together rather than ignoring one at the expense of the other. The study of transnational movements in relation to histories of colonialisms and postcoloniality will produce new feminist theories.

    Back to Table of Contents, Vol. 5 Issue 1
    Back to Jouvert Main Page