Other lives and other sisters

Re-Orienting Western Feminisms
September 10, 1999

Chilla Bulbeck's wide-ranging study of differing approaches to feminisms is among the few books written by white women to support women of colour who have for more than a decade contested the mainstream analysis of feminist discourse. As women's studies continues to flourish and students continue to address the question "What is feminism?" it is useful to have a volume written by a western scholar who is willing to problematise the normative position taken by white feminist authors.

Bulbeck supports the view that feminism can claim any real universality only when western feminists understand the demands and the experiences of non-western women. To recognise the divide is not to undermine solidarity, but rather to enable women to find ways of bridging national and cultural gaps and to recognise the problems they have in common as well as the diverse approaches they have in dealing with them.

Bulbeck presents a historical overview of colonialism and its impact on imposing uniform policies for women in countries such as China, India and much of the Middle East. Inherent in these have been legal and economic definitions that have separated women as individuals with individual human rights and political and economic demands.

Colonialism paved the way for capitalism and its construction of individuals as active participants in the processes of production. Bulbeck quotes extensively from non-western literature that contests these notions of individuality as eroding the core of communalism that in much of the world has defined rights and obligations in the wider context of kinship. Here motherhood is not necessarily seen as an oppressive burden but has connotations of success, achievement and matriarchal control.

Bulbeck also contests the gendered identifications of heterosexuality rooted in the West and argues that there are many societies where "humans are more spirit than matter", where women are not merely valued for their physical youth or beauty. Bulbeck concludes that the spread of western definitions of femininity in terms of female sexuality combined with the globalised media has resulted in a new definitions of femininity worldwide. This in turn has led to an intense exploitation of the bodies of women in many third-world countries and a growing international traffic in women.

Having reviewed much of the literature produced by non-white women, Bulbeck accepts the position taken by feminists such as Mary Maynard that feminism must now problematise the colour white and analyse the many ways racism within white feminist academia has hindered universal solidarity. This is not to say that there is a single non-white line drawn in opposition. Rather, the suggestion is to allow women of diverse backgrounds and diverse cultures to adapt and adopt their many and varied identities "in response to those changing others with whom we are in dialogue".

In a rapidly changing world, women of colour no longer hold a single feminist line; they are diverse and construct theiridentities in a "fluid manner". To recognise these diversities is to open the way for feminism and its different strategies. It is not a sign of defeat, but rather the best means of building alliances across the international divides.

Haleh Afshar is reader in politics and women's studies, University of York.

Re-Orienting Western Feminisms: Women's Diversity in a Postcolonial World

Author - Chilla Bulbeck
ISBN - 0 521 58030 7 and 58975 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 225

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