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In this blog, I talk about some key terms that one would often come across in postcolonial feminist readings.
Before we dive into those key terms, I think it is pertinent to first understand what postcolonial and postcolonial feminism means. As the term ‘post’ indicates, postcolonialism has a chronological meaning which is often interpreted as after being colonized or a post-independence time. The semantics of the term are often debated by scholars, in particular whether it should be used with a hyphen (“-”) as post-colonialism or without one as postcolonialism. I subscribe to the latter, with the former implying the onset of consequences after the end of colonial encounters and the latter implying the ongoing consequences from the onset of colonialism itself. My understanding of postcolonialism, very simply, is contesting the prevalent and persistent hegemony of western discourse on knowledge, culture, and to challenge and deconstruct the power dynamics as a result of these. These power dynamics even today continue to impact social, economic, and political structures. With that sorted, postcolonial feminism challenges “mainstream” feminism which universalizes gender as an experience, rejecting the idea of universal feminism. It acknowledges intersections of gender, race, colonial encounters, and other systems of power in informing the experiences of women and calls for a more inclusive approach towards feminism.
The term subaltern is adopted from the Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s work and used to refer to those groups of people who are subjected to the hegemony of the ruling class in society. In the context of postcolonial feminism, Gayatri Spivak’s seminal work “Can the subaltern speak?” acknowledges the complexity of the representation of the subaltern. In the postcolonial sphere, subaltern can include those people who have been historically marginalized, subjected to colonial oppression, often indigenous populations, lower socio-economic classes, all those who are excluded from dominant systems of knowledge production, governance, and cultural representation.
Binary indicates a duality. A binary system categorizes a society into seemingly two opposites that leave no space for other possible ambiguities between these two opposite categories, simplifying complex realities. It stems from the colonial thought to categorize people and societies in order to maintain and justify cultural hegemony and systems of oppression. For instance, man over woman, white over black, colonizer over colonized, and so on. They are a source of violent hierarchies and the hegemonic position is reproduced in colonial discourse. Postcolonial feminism works towards breaking down these hierarchies and exploring the space between the binaries, acknowledging the fluidity and hybridity of cultures and promoting social justice by challenging the power dynamics inherent to binary systems.
The Other refers to those who exist outside the dominant norms, considered different, often in terms of race, class, religion, gender, ethnicity. In the context of postcolonial feminism, the Other is constructed as the woman who is positioned at the intersections of marginalization by both gender and colonial experience. The Other is often constructed as inferior, exotic, or deviant compared to the dominant binary in order to perpetuate stereotypes and unequal power dynamics. Postcolonial feminism works towards deconstructing this Other and giving voices to marginalized women, critiquing how they are constructed in the dominant narratives.
- Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., & Tiffin, H. (1998). Key concepts in post-colonial studies. Psychology Press.
- Spivak, G. C. (2023). Can the subaltern speak?. In Imperialism (pp. 171-219). Routledge.
- Lewis, R., & Mills, S. (Eds.). (2003). Feminist postcolonial theory: A reader. Routledge.
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