DeAnna Cooper WMST-399-01 Professor Dietzel Short Paper #2 April 7, 1999

Redefining Identity and Third-World Feminism

In this paper, I would like to explore Uma Narayan’s article “Contesting Cultures, ‘Westernization,’ Respect for Cultures, and Third-World Feminists,” especially focusing on the ways in which Narayan’s article parallels the definitions of identity described by the Third-World Feminists in Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures. Narayan uses her own cultural experiences as the basis for her feminist identity as well as her identity as an Indian woman. She then makes use of this definition of identity as a support for the existence of her Third-World Feminism as unique and separate from that of Western Feminism.

The basis of Third-World Feminism in personal experience compliments the realist theory of identity expressed by Paula M.L. Moya in her article, “Postmodernism, ‘Realism,’ and the Politics of Identity: Cherríe Moraga and Chicana Feminism.” Moya explains how, “…Moraga understands ‘identity’ as relational and grounded in the historically produced social facts which constitute social locations” (Feminist Genealogies, 127). This conceptualization of identity corrects the mistake of “…assuming that…we are either completely fixed and unitary or unstable and fragmented selves.” It “…allows for an acknowledgement of how the social facts…function in individual lives without reducing individuals to those social determinants” (Feminist Genealogies, 136). Therefore, Narayan’s identity as woman and Indian, both fixed concepts, is not negated by the reality of her feminist political self, one that has been discovered over the course of her life. She is all of these things.

In detailing the reasons for her label as a Third-World feminist, Narayan cites the ways her reality and consciousness is shaped by her Third-World nationality. In the same way, Moya’s realist theory of identity asserts that the individual’s experiences affect her cultural identity. Narayan attempts to trace how her feminism is in response to the problems and history of her culture. She rejects the notion that her politics are copies of Western feminism. Geraldine Heng, in her article “A Great Way to Fly,” notes how “…historically, the ‘modern’ and the ‘Western’ have been conflated and offered as synonymous.” Accusations such as ‘modern’ or ‘foreign’ have been directed towards feminism in Third-World countries so that, “Western-provenance or influence, when directed at a social movement, has been sufficient for the movement’s delegitimization” (Feminist Genealogies, 33). In the same way, women of color in the United States have felt both alienated by the women’s movement because of its exclusivity and a reluctance to join the movement because of the a misconception which correlates turning to women for support while turning away from their heritage. This problem is specifically seen in African American women and their only recent inclusion in the movement. In this way, Third-World women and First-World women of color can relate to one another, and unite in theorization and action.

Finally, Narayan defends the label of Third-World feminist by stating that all of her “…identities are not simple givens, but open to complex ways of being inhabited…” (The Second Wave, 397). The realist identity, too, maintains that, “…different people’s interpretations of the same kind of experience will differ” (Feminist Genealogies, 137). This can explain why not all Indian women see the issues Narayan raises as problems and why they may not see feminism as the solution. As Narayan says, she is, “…not just a feminist, but a different kind of Indian” (The Second Wave, 410).

Narayan’s term “politics of home” is useful because it helps trace cultural experience as the basis for a political standpoint. Her identification with and vision of her mother and the issues raised during her childhood shaped the person she is today. This personal context as a clarification of her way of seeing, the questions she asks, and the conclusions she makes has a direct correlation with the anthropological method of historization, in which anthropologists maintain a heightened awareness of their own personal background and how this affects the conclusions they make about other cultures. This theory of identity can be traced back to identity politics advocated by many feminists outside the traditionally white, middle class feminist movement. Narayan’s realization of the problems affecting her mother’s life lead directly to the issues she wishes to change in her own life. As a result, she is extremely frustrated when mother discourages these changes. Instead her mother encourages a quiet, innocent, and passive image of an Indian daughter that is seen as the national ideal. Why is this image of the Indian woman propagated?

Narayan’s mother encourages this image in an attempt for social acceptance for both herself and her daughter. The identity of woman as defined by the state is one that is very different from that defined by Third-World feminists. According to the state, the woman exemplifies the essence of the nation. As Heng points out, this is evident in the terms “motherland” and “mother tongue” (Feminist Genealogies, 31). This may be because of the cross-cultural image of woman as the nurturing child-bearer. In this way “mother” is associated with the reproduction of the nation, and consequently, the nation itself. This idealization of woman allows the state to emphasize the importance of a traditional feminine role: reproducer, supporter, and complacent victim. Narayan sees Third-World feminists’ task as “…to redefine notions of cultural loyalty, betrayal, and respect in ways that do not privilege the experiences of men” (The Second Wave, 400). Similarly, the Chicana feminists face this problem: “The potential accusation of ‘traitor’ or ‘vendida’ is what hangs above the heads and beats in the hearts of most Chicanas seeking to develop our own autonomous sense of ourselves…” (Feminist Genealogies, 131).

It is this double bind of Third-World feminists that is most problematic for their assertion of identity as both feminists and member of Third-World nations. Their marginalization by Western feminism, which does not attempt to understand or acknowledge difference, and also by their own countries, which seek to maintain a idolized and restricting form of femininity that “…equates respect for a culture with blindness to its problems,” cannot allow women to develop a sense of self (The Second Wave, 412). It is because of these conditions that the struggle for identity in Third-World feminism is so integral to both the Third-World feminists themselves and the feminist movement in its entirety. Women of color in the United States and Third-World women need to interact and share knowledge in order to build a stronger feminist movement. As we educate ourselves more fully about difference, we come closer to a feminist truth that dismantles forms of oppression. The realist identity of Third-World feminist must be used to aid in the further understanding of difference.