Decolonising Gender: Unveiling the Power of Postcolonial Studies


‘If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as a female is even more deeply in the shadow’ (Spivak 1998: 28).

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her exploration of the subjugation of marginalised voices, poses the question, Can the Subaltern Speak? (Spivak: 1998). Within the framework of colonial production, the response indisputably leans towards the negative, as the subaltern remains constrained in any form of expression unless channelled through the prism of the Western world. More precisely, Spivak’s concern bears a deeper meaning for the muted voice of the colonised woman, a subject of colonialism who is frequently in eclipse. The nexus between postcolonial theory and gender theory deepens comprehension of intersections, elucidating complexities beyond the simplistic dichotomy of colonised/coloniser often presented in theoretical constructs. However, postcolonial thought is characterised by a notable prevalence of male perspectives within its framework. This ascendancy perpetuates the ongoing lack of attention to the subaltern female and the intricate dynamics it introduces within postcolonial studies. Owing to the prevalent hegemony of male perspectives within the discourse, the marginalised woman is ensnared in a dualistic paradigm of subjugation. Her experiences and tribulations are frequently eclipsed, hindering thorough scrutiny. Acknowledging the taboo nature of this subject, the discussion will explore its colonial entanglements, addressing the challenges, narratives and agency of the subaltern woman. Commencing with the works of Fanon and Edward Said to scrutinise the foundations of postcolonial thought, emphasis will be placed on their treatment of colonialism as a homogenous structure. The analysis will then delve into how androcentric perspectives laid the groundwork for subsequent studies, inadvertently exacerbating the isolation of colonised voices. Subsequently, the discussion will spotlight key contributions from female postcolonial theorists, including Spivak, Anne Anlin Cheng, Reina Lewis, Sara Mills and Ien Ang. This aims to amplify women’s perspectives and releasing them from the shadows. Arising from discussion of feminist theory, the discourse will conclude by critiquing how feminist waves and gender theory often label a single identity (the white Western woman) rather than recognising multiple (intersectional) identities.

Discussions on postcolonial understanding are shaped by the work of individuals such as Fanon and Said, whose contributions are regarded as seminal in understanding the divide between the Western world and other regions. Yet, a notable lacuna surfaces in their combined scholarship, as neither Ford nor Said address gender as a central subject of inquiry. The Wretched of the Earth is acclaimed for its portrayal of the psychological and social impacts of colonialisation. However, it can be critiqued for its employment of gendered language that primarily associates the subaltern experience solely with males. Ford’s homogenous thought is evident in the assertion that ‘decolonialisation is quite simply the replacing of a certain “species” of men by another “species” of men’ (Fanon 1963:35). Similarly, when assessing Said’s work on the Orient in Orientalism (Said 1978), a potential criticism emerges due to his oversight in acknowledging how the production of the ‘Orient/Occident’ dichotomy (Said 2010:1786) results in dual subjugation for colonised women. This creates a noticeable impact in the Self/Other, Centre/Margin and Male/Female binary, raising questions about the autonomy of male-centric language compared to the non-autonomous, muted female perspective. It is imperative to acknowledge, before delving into the works of these theorists, that the intention is not to critique their influence on colonial consciousness. This is not to imply that they lack an understanding of colonialism, particularly considering their heritage. Instead, the objective is to dismantle their ideologies to elucidate how social categorised impact the colonised, specifically recognising the dual oppression experienced by women under patriarchy. Post colonialism, as a theoretical paradigm, seeks to elucidate the workings of colonial dominance, recover voices that have been excluded or marginalised, and conceptualise the complex dynamics of identity, national allegiance, and globalisation within colonial, neo-colonial and postcolonial contexts (Vincent et al. 2018:27). A pivotal facet of Fanon’s political analysis pertains to his discernment of the nuanced interconnection between race and class within colonial contexts. Aligned with a Marxist perspective, Fanon posited that class constituted as a determinant in the realms of social, economic and political subjugation in the third world (ibid.:1352). While The Wretched of the Earth, explores these overlapping factors, it falls short in addressing how the intersection of gender can contribute to further subjugation. This lapse is evident in Fanon’s linguistic choices, where the exclusion of the subaltern woman becomes conspicuous through the consistent use of gendered language. Examples include ‘Decolonialisation is the veritable creation of new men’, (Fanon 1963:37), ‘The colonised man is an envious man’ (ibid.:39), ‘He is offered definite values; he is told frequently that decolonialisation need not mean regression’ (ibid.:43). While composed during an era characterised by prevalent linguistic habits, the inquiry arises as to why Fanon opted not to address the female subject individually. Given Fanon’s profound interest in unravelling the intersections of class and race, one may ponder why the intersection of gender did not similarly come under scrutiny. This universal approach possesses the potential to perpetuate established power dynamics, impeding a comprehensive understanding of the intricate and multidimensional nature of oppression. Consequently, this inclination restricts comprehension, leading to a narrative predominantly centred on the male experience.

Fanon’s perspectives resonate with Said’s Orientalist framework, particularly in the recurrent emphasis on the dichotomous division between the Western world and ‘the Others’ (ibid.:40). The concept of Otherness is one that Said utilises to establish a comparison between the West and an alternative construct, incorporating elements like ‘image, idea, personality and experience (Said 1978:1-2). This hegemonic structure reinforces the Orient/Occident divide to highlight the segregation of the subaltern world. Within Said’s examination of the Other, a critique emerges regarding his neglect to address the gendered dimensions of Orientalism. This limitation is notable due to his primary focus on the Arab world and experience, overlooking a broader consideration of gender dynamics in the wider regions and external factors. Of particular concern is Said’s reference to colonialism producing the image of Arabians being ‘exotic’ (ibid.), as his failure to recognise how this remains a significant issue for Asianic women, labelled as Oriental and often perceived more as aesthetic entities than as colonised subjects, remains unaddressed. Considerable discourse emerges when contemplating the experiences of women within Oriental societies, given that their roles, identities and subjugation frequently diverge from those of their male counterparts. The ontological and epistemological assumptions tied to the notion of a universally applicable male colonised experience underscore the prioritisation of masculine knowledge and narratives, neglecting the acknowledgment of subaltern female experiences. Consequently, this theoretical framework contributes to the dual colonisation of women by both patriarchal and imperialist factors.

In her book Ornamentalism (Cheng 2019), Cheng critiques Said’s neglect, specifically emphasising the failure of the Oriental construct to address the racialised Asianic feminine image in the Far East. Eroticised within the realms of literature, art and society at large, the Asianic women thus becomes seen solely as an Ornament. Cheng argues that while Saidean theory can help to ‘identify symptoms and locate political culpability’, it cannot address ‘the profound, queasily seductive entanglement between organic corporeality and aesthetic attribution imputed to yellow womanhood’ (Cheng 2019:427). This elucidates neglected nuances or racial and sexual objectification in prior critical discourse, addressing a void in postcolonial discussions. It enhances understandings of the intersections among gender, race and visual aesthetics within the context of stereotypical ideals associated within Asian femininity. Examining the concept of the ‘defiled subject’ trapped in the haunting convergence of aesthetic experience and material abuse, Cheng argues that serving as a conduit for power or its conversion is inadequate (ibid.:419). In response to criticisms regarding Said’s Middle East centric focus, this perspective explores previously overlooked Asian regions, seeking to revive narrative forgotten in the Far East, particularly stories appropriated from Oriental women. This aim is to address the shortcomings of Said’s approach in capturing the profound manifestations of gendered power dynamics within the realm of aesthetic and eroticised fantasies of the Orient. Within this context, the cultural perspectives of the decorative and the Oriental provide insights into how colonial rhetoric distorts representations of Asian femininity in accounts shaped by Western influence. Cheng’s perspective enriches these discussions by scrutinising the pervasive dynamics of male/female dualism in critical discourse, where the domain male voice frequently overshadows and suppresses the forgotten female. In this setting, a compelling narrative thread emerges, woven into power imbalances through the active construction of stereotypes. Consequently, a ‘homogenous notion of the oppression of women as a group is assumed, thereby generating the portrayal of an average woman in the third world’ (Mohanty 2003: 21). This preconception confines the Oriental woman to an aesthetic, marginalised, and outsider voice, deemed unworthy of a narrative in postcolonial discourse due to insufficient study of her oppression.

Cheng’s investigation disrupts the established hierarchy of male authorship within the prevailing framework, serving as a formidable precursor. Subsequent discussions will build upon this foundation to advance the argument and delve more deeply into the portrayal of the subaltern woman in Spivak’s writings. Within the realm of ‘critical historiography’ characterised by minority-focused, feminist, and anti-colonial perspectives, Pandey examines the mutual reinforcement of the term’s ‘subaltern’ and ‘subalternity’ (Pandey 2006:4736). As an inherently political category, the subaltern denotes a relational position within the conceptual framework of power- an indistinct terrain characterised by a lack of clear identity (ibid.:4735). Pandey’s examination of these terms is not merely descriptive but laden with

significant implications within the power dynamics of historical representation. This direction of the discussion toward Spivak’s essay Can the Subaltern Speak explores the inherent drawbacks and ambiguities associated with articulating the voices of the subaltern within the intricate dynamics of power relations, agency and the domains of postcolonial studies and feminist theory. These terms cohesively align with the enduring objective within historiography, an ongoing endeavour to revitalise possibilities and political narratives that are suspectable to erasure, distortion, marginalisation and oblivion. This emphasises the significance of words in continuous efforts to address historical gaps and biases. It raises a crucial concern: the attempt to articulate the collective voice of the subaltern group might unintentionally foster a reliance on intellectuals to represent the subaltern condition, thereby hindering the autonomy of subaltern individuals to express their own experiences. Spivak illustrates how this leads to ‘the figure of the woman dissolving, not into a pure emptiness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the ‘third-world woman’ (Spivak 1998:102). This prompts considerations regarding power dynamics, cultural biases and the intricacies inherent in representations. It also draws attention to the efforts of Western intellectuals in advocating for and depicting the subaltern. Considering the heightened challenges faced by subaltern voices and their vulnerability to pervasive influence of dominant discourse, Spivak underscores the formidable challenge they confront in attaining genuine and truthful representation. This challenge becomes more pronounced when considering the intersection of gender, specifically as women find themselves positioned beneath the overarching dominance of patriarchy. Cornell explains how ‘women outside of the mode of production narrative’ introduces instances where comprehension of history and the dynamics between the colonised and coloniser becomes ambiguous (Cornell 2010:100). The post-colonialist mode of production framework accentuates the exclusion or oversight of the subjugated woman, presenting a significant challenge for her integration into broader narratives. Considering this, the suppression of women unveils the forgotten existence of the subaltern woman, entwined within a narrative predominantly articulated by male voices. Within this male narrative, a dilemma arises as the effort to account for the silence of oppressed subjects becomes entangled in contradiction, echoing the sentiment that ‘the subaltern female cannot be heard or read’ (Spivak 1998:104). This concern illuminates the necessity for agency among marginalised groups, highlighting the challenging conditions under which subaltern voices can be heard or represented. It emphasises the inherent difficulty in giving voice to individuals who have endured historical oppression. In closing, Spivak states that ‘both as object of colonialist historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant’ (ibid.:828). Male dominance persists within the binary structure that Said sought to deconstruct, introducing an added layer beyond the traditional Orient/Occident binary when intersected with the pervasive male/female binary within it. Despite insurgencies disrupting colonial systems, the enduring gender ideologies that uphold male dominance persist. Consequently, despite benevolent intentions, endeavours to represent the marginalised may unintentionally reinforce existing power structures and perpetuate perspectives centred on the Western paradigm.

To resituate the interplay between feminism and postcolonial theory, the ensuing discussion will examine Reina Lewis and Sara Mills contributions. This exploration aims to argue that postcolonialism, initially perceived as a movement ‘challenging existing boundaries’, has gradually developed its own established ‘lines of legitimacy’ exerting formations of power over knowledge (Lewis and Mills 2003:1). Their work begins with Spivak as a foundational reference point, aiming to reconstruct the evolution of feminist activity and thought within the context of prominent postcolonial theory. Thus, offering a unique genealogy for modern perspectives on imperial dominance and the aftermath of decolonisation rather than to establish an ‘alternative orthodoxy’ (ibid.:2). This theory challenges the prevailing influence of Eurocentrism in critical discourse by redirecting attention from the presumed norm of a white and/or male subject. In their critique of Said’s Orientalism, the theorists emphasise a notable limitation in Said’s approach to colonialism, specifically in treating it as a homogenous structure and neglecting the aspect of intersectionality. Said’s focus on male authorship neglects to adequately consider ‘female agency ‘and the contributions of female writers in that context (ibid.2). This critique highlights the propensity to generalise colonised people’s experience as universally singular, overlooking gendered nuances. It highlights the necessity of intersectional considerations in the development of Orientalist narratives and opposes the inclination to depict colonised people in a gender-neutral manner. Within its focus on gender theory, the discussion proceeds to examine the impact of white thought on feminism, particularly its alignment with the Western world.

In discourses pertaining to feminist theory, there exists an imperative to engage and rectify the prevailing Eurocentric perspective. White feminism, in instances where it lacks intersectionality and posits sexual imbalances as a universal experience, stands vulnerable to inadvertent perpetuating power imbalanced by reinforcing racial and class hierarchies. This inadvertent reinforcement leads to the alienation of women of colour, hindering collective efforts to address overarching concerns in gender-based discrimination. The Combahee River Collective asserts that ‘sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in black women’s lives as are the politics of class and race’ (Eistenstein 1979:362). Emphasising the difficulty of separating race, class and sex oppression as these experiences are often intertwined and simultaneously felt. The existence of racialised and sexualised oppression cannot be exclusively categorised as either purely racial or solely sexual (ibid.). This observation underscores the inseparability of racial and sexual dimensions in the context of oppression, revealing the mutually reinforcing nature of these aspects. Contrasting with the historical focus of feminism being solely a white issue, Ien Ang argues that the intersection of race, ethnicity and feminism has caused a significant ‘crisis’, causing feminism to function akin to a nation (Ang 2003:190). As a result, voices are frequently marginalised within white-centric ideologies. In these instances, subaltern women in Western societies often experience displacement. Ang characterised this phenomenon as an ‘Im a feminist but…’ situation, wherein the very essence and meaning of feminism becomes problematic (ibid.). This supports the notion of rejecting the concept of feminism as a unified entity within feminist discourse, analogous to the androcentrism accepted in postcolonial thought that dominates its theory. By proposing an embracing of a ‘self-conscious’ politics of partiality, where feminism acknowledges its limitations, allowing space for ‘ambiguity’ (Lewis and Mills 2003:191), feminists can value diverse identities without imposing predefined categories. In this envisioned framework, deconstructing whiteness becomes crucial for understanding the variations in experiences among individuals. Accentuating this perspective underscores that white authorship may impede a comprehensive understanding of the experiences of colonised women. Drawing a parallel, just as a man cannot universally articulate the colonial experience and encounters challenges in understanding gender-related issues, white feminists face limitations in addressing the experiences of women universally. This is due to the challenge of navigating narrative appropriation and the dual subjugation of colonisation, which cannot be fully comprehended without experiencing its confines. Concealed within the historical framework of white-centric feminism and post-colonial theory, latent elements now emerge, demanding an immediate reassessment of the established narrative landscape.

Concluding this discussion reveals that the domains of femininity and postcolonialism face contamination from masculine and/or Eurocentric perspectives, diminishing their shared experiences of adversity as universally applicable. The prevailing dominance of masculinity in the theoretical realm gives rise to substantive concerns. It posits a potential risk of diminishing the complexity inherent in all lived experiences by promoting homogeneity. By diverting this attention, the undertaking aims not to establish an alternative orthodoxy but, instead, to unravel the intricate construction of national subjectivity. Thus, challenging the ingrained notion of masculinity as the embodiment of the nation. Recognising the foundational contributions of Fanon and Said to post-colonial thought emphaises their pivotal role in shaping discourse on colonialism, class, identity and power. Yet, a noteworthy limitation arises from their essentialist thinking, unveiling a conspicuous oversight of gender-related intersections. To refine and expand this framework to incorporate the perspectives of contemporary female thinks, efforts have been undertaken to emancipate the narratives of oppressed native women from the historical constraints they endured. This discourse does not negate the substantial contributions of all individuals identified as white and/or male within the postcolonial and feminist domains, nor does it intend to demean their knowledge. Instead, it emphasises that the inherent privileged can be harnessed to redirect attention towards marginalised voices that have long been overlooked. In this contemplative space, the subaltern woman, once confined to obscurity, is now positioned to articulate her narrative, voice her history and emancipate herself from the silent shadows that once obscured her existence.

Lola Rose, February, 2024.

(Image attribution: <a href=””>Emile Baes</a> Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lola Rose: Religion vs. Nature in Things Fall Apart & Parable of the Sower: A Comparative Analysis

This section: Lola Rose: aspiring writer

Written by :

Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

Comments are closed.

Copyright Glasgow Westend 2009 thru 2017

Contact Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End | About Pat Byrne | Privacy Policy | Design by Jim Byrne Website Design