The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Smashing as Feminist Practice?

April 5, 2010

All of five minutes after I posted thoughts from a conference I am currently at , a “response” (in scare quotes because that’s a charitable characterization) was posted on American Power called “13 year-old smashes post-colonial feminism”. My response here comes little slower (because I value intellectual conversation, and am trying to participate in it both at the conference and in this discussion), but I thought it was important to talk about some of these issues.

As I have to wade through the gender-exploitative pictures on the blog to read the text, I think I’ll start at the end and work my way to the beginning so that those pictures might go away quicker. First, the conference I am at is not, as American Power identifies it, on the “Gendered Consequences of Violence and War on Women’s Health.” It is, instead, about ethical questions about state involvement in women’s health. You can find the program here. I point this out for three reasons: first, to make an intellectual point that this is not a feminist or post-colonial feminist conference explicitly or even largely and not a place where the people critique the idea of women’s rights or even necessarily state involvement in them. As such, the critique on American Power may or may not be appropriately aimed at me, but isn’t at my fellow conference attendees. Second, I thought it was important to value the labor that went into this great gathering by getting its name right. But third, I figure there’s a level of imprecision in the post that is reflected in failing to appropriately copy the title. At least, I’m going to assume it is imprecision rather than disrespect and disregard.

Even if American Power had the name of the conference I am at right, the post is … well, ridiculous. I’ll put aside for now several issues that would take up more time and space than I’ll be able to hold people’s attention (for example, the irony of gendered discursive violence in rhetoric intended to trivialize gender scholarship; that Charli Carpenter and I are, of course, not the same person, intellectually or personally; and that the 13-year-old kid American Power quotes could teach the blogger a fair amount about polite, respectful critique and perhaps even grammar).

Even if this critique is misplaced here, poorly presented, and intentionally insulting, I think it is important to address the content. To the extent that I identify as a post-colonial feminist, I will make the disclaimer that I don’t speak for the field as a whole. Still, I think I am pretty safe in saying that post-colonial feminists do not hate women, desire their suffering, or oppose their access to basic needs and physical security. There is much more to this ….

This is not to take anything away from the very bright, very passionate “little woman” whose blog post was appropriated on American Power. Her passionate writing is clearly intelligent, well beyond her years, and a valid and important point of view.

That said, it is, of course, not all there is to the issue. One cannot expect someone who has not yet had a college education to dig through decades and even centuries of theorizing and empirical work on gender relations in political and social life, and certainly activism on behalf of women, in whatever form, is far preferable to the sort of apathy that seems to be largely endemic in younger people now.

But when one has intellectual and practical access to those resources (as I am assuming the blogger who appropriated this passage does), there comes with that a responsibility to see complexity and contingency when it exists. And this is a place where it clearly does. I have not yet had the chance to read the Master’s Thesis from UBC by Melanie Butler, but, before going further, want to point out that it is really crappy pedagogical practice to viciously attack a Master’s Candidate like American Power does (citing another attack by Terry Glavin), given that a Master’s Candidate is not, as American Power claims, “a political scientist,” but a student writing a paper to learn the field and demonstrate a knowledge of it.

Whatever is in Melanie Butler’s Masters Thesis (which, however excellent it might be, is not “the” statement of postcolonial feminism), it remains, in my opinion, crucially important to look at the complexities of providing aid, generally and in this specific case, especially as relates to the power relationship between the “aid givers” and those who are “aided.” In fact, I don’t know why it is so hard for us to envision that sometimes people offer people “help” they do not want and do not see as helpful (christian evangelism, anyone?). Post-colonial feminism (largely) does NOT argue that one should not respond to requests for help, but does argue that there are dangers in essentialisms (like claiming that all Afghan women want x or y) and insensitivity to power differentials, our tendencies to project our needs, desires, and passions on others, and governments’ tendencies to use women’s rights instrumentally to their own (non-feminist) policy ends.

So, the span of a blog post is not enough space to explain and defend the nuances of post-colonial feminism. But I’d urge our readers that, if you’d like to know what it is you are “smashing” or launching ad hominem attacks against (which, ironically, the kid in this discussion does a better job of than any of her supporters), here’s some fairly accessible things to read:

Chandra Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders

Geeta Chowdhry and Sheila Nair, Power, Postcolonialism, and International Relations: Reading Race, Gender, and Class

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.