Postcolonial Feminism

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    Postcolonial feminism is like a kaleidoscope through which we can perceive the many ways in which it is possible to be a feminist, accepting that all these ways are valid and worthy of our focus and interest.

    In this article, we're going to find out more about postcolonial feminism; what it stands for and what it aims to do.

    Postcolonial feminism meaning

    Postcolonial feminism is a branch of feminism that developed in the 1980s with the purpose of decolonising feminist activism, highlighting the experiences of individuals who have encountered gender-based discrimination and oppression from the Global South in the feminist discourse.

    Postcolonial feminism encourages us to look beyond whitewashing and consider how the experiences of gender variant individuals and women of colour encounter structural inequality owing to the existence of oppressive structures such as patriarchy, racism and the long-term effects of colonialism.

    Key TermExplanation
    Postcolonial FeminismPostcolonial feminism is a branch of feminism that aims to bring to the surface and include the experiences of individuals from the Global South into the feminist discourse. Their experiences are influenced by lived racism and the impact of colonialism and imperialism.
    RacismPrejudice or discrimination which is based on a person's racial or cultural identity. Racism is a form of injustice which can manifest at an individual level, institutional level or structural level.
    ColonialismRefers to the practice of occupying foreign countries, imposing your language, religion and customs, controlling them politically and exploiting them economically. Colonialism took place in ancient history too, however, the term refers to European colonialism that started in the 15th century.
    ImperialismIs a policy based on extending a country's political power through colonialism, military force and other violent means.
    Global North and Global SouthGlobal North refers to the wealthier, more technologically developed countries in the geopolitical area that includes North America, Europe, Russia, Japan and Australia. Global South refers to the countries, most of which are in the southern hemisphere, which are poorer and more economically dependent on exporting primary sector products. Many of the countries in the Global South were former colonies of countries in the Global North.
    WhitewashingIn history, whitewashing means portraying events in a way that prioritises and highlights the experiences and perspectives of white people at the expense of the experiences and perspectives of people of colour which are minimised, misrepresented and sometimes ignored

    Postcolonial feminism theory

    Postcolonial feminism started with scholars of colour applying a critical lens to “mainstream” feminism, which was often based on the assumption that the movement in the Global North could speak to the experiences of all feminists, everywhere. The theory of postcolonial feminism highlighted the need to include and represent the experiences of women and other marginalised groups from the Global South, who were instead represented through stereotyping or in some cases completely erased from the narrative.

    To better understand this perspective, let's first consider the history of feminism in general.

    History of the feminist movements

    There are three key waves of feminism. The first wave of feminism was a movement originating in the 1900s to gain women access to education and gain the right to vote. This movement was developed by white, middle-class women and often it specifically excluded women of colour. Therefore, even when fighting for the right to vote, it was not for all women but for those who were relatively well off in society. This movement was mainly in the Global North and it was successful with women gaining the right to vote. In some countries, they were also able to change laws relating to marriage and childcare to support women.

    Postcolonial feminism First-wave feminist activists at the entrance of the House of Lords UK on the day all women were granted suffrage StudySmarterFig. 1 First-wave feminist activists at the entrance of the House of Lords UK on the day all women were granted suffrage

    The second wave of feminism was much more encompassing. It included issues relating to reproductive rights for women, and discrimination in the workplace, and led to significant positive change. For example, it was second-wave feminism that was hugely responsible for Equal Pay legislation. However, once again, this failed to consider all the different types of women in society and their experiences. This movement arose in the 1960s, at a critical point when Black women were facing civil rights abuses in the United States. Despite this, the second wave of feminism failed to engage with and act on this injustice felt by Black and minority ethnic groups in the US.

    This is what led to third-wave feminism, which incorporated a much more diverse population of women and which is where postcolonial feminism originates from.

    Postcolonial feminism is directly linked to postcolonialism and looks to consider the complex layers of oppression that can co-exist. Postcolonial feminism arose both as a critique of traditional feminism for not considering the perspectives of individuals from the Global South living in patriarchal structures; and as a critique of postcolonial theory for its failure to adequately examine issues of gender.

    Postcolonial theory or postcolonialism is the study of the economic, political, and social impact of colonialism. Through a broader study of history, culture and literature, postcolonialism challenges the narrative perpetuated by the colonising countries.

    Postcolonial feminism's main goal

    As with feminism in general, postcolonial feminism aims to shine a light on all forms of oppression and marginalisation, so they can be addressed and resolved.

    However, postcolonial feminists argue that to achieve this, it is important to promote a wider viewpoint of the complexity of oppression in society. For example, accounting for how race, religion, class, and gender identity can impact an individual's experience.

    Postcolonial feminism holds that the ideas and goals of the feminism that originated in the Global North cannot simply be exported to the rest of the world. Instead, it tries to incorporate into the global feminist discourse the views and experiences of indigenous communities and feminist perspectives from across the Global South.

    This, very practically, means acknowledging that feminists from the Global South, have different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds. This will mean that what is considered “liberation” will differ from mainstream feminist thought, a form of feminism centred on the perceptions and experiences of the Global North.

    To engage with postcolonial feminism as an ally, feminists from the Global North should learn about and respect and support these differences rather than impose their version of the feminist goals, as if it was the only desirable one. To do anything else would be to perpetuate the patriarchal and racist structures that feminism aims to challenge. Some go as far as to call this attitude “imperial feminism”.

    Ally: someone who joins forces with someone to support them in fighting their fight on their terms knowing that both will benefit from the results.

    Haunani-Kay Trask is a Hawaiian academic and activist. She was involved in the feminist movement in America in the 1980s and protested against the Vietnam war. When she returned to Hawaii, she realised the feminism she had engaged with in America was limited to the experiences of countries based on the school of thought of individualism. This did not apply to Hawaii, and Haunani-Kay Trask spent a great deal of her life representing and promoting Hawaiian culture and indigenous rights in general.

    Individualism is a school of thought that prioritises the needs of the individual over the needs of the collective.

    Postcolonial feminism features

    So how do we recognise and distinguish postcolonial feminism?

    It can be useful to compare it to the other feminist waves, as postcolonial feminism takes some stances in direct opposition to previous perspectives.

    Unlike second-wave feminism, postcolonial feminism rejects the idea of universal sisterhood. Women are not seen as a homogeneous group.

    So, at the very core of postcolonial feminism is the concept of intersectionality. This is the commitment to considering every aspect of an individual's gender identity to define who they are and what they are fighting for. To make the personal, political.

    Postcolonial feminism takes this commitment one step forward. It wants to bring to the surface the unconscious bias, especially racism, present in women from the Global North. It focuses particularly on eliminating the “white saviour complex”.

    “White saviour complex” is an expression used to define the attitude of fictional characters or real people who assume that white people can somehow rescue and liberate non-white people. By definition, this attitude assumes that “non-white people” (who are thereby defined not by their own characteristics but by how they differ from white people) lack agency and are instead passively eager to be “saved”.

    Postcolonial feminism encourages feminists worldwide, but especially white feminists, to recognise and accept the differences in experiences, perspectives and methods of feminism that are generated through the different cultures, religions and customs. Only through this process of acknowledgement and validation, the feminist commitment to women's emancipation can be reformulated to be much more inclusive.

    Postcolonial feminism example

    Postcolonial feminism was spearheaded by key works by Audre Lorde, Kimberle Crenshaw and Gayatri Spivak.

    Audre Lorde

    Audre Lorde, in her 1984 essay “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House1” inspires white women to recognise their unconscious racism and compares it to the patriarchy as they are both tools of oppression. Lorde encourages women to instead embrace the idiosyncrasies and differences between all women everywhere and see them as the strength and source of unity that can make the feminist movement sustainable.

    It is not our differences that divide us. It is the inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences2

    Kimberlé Crenshaw

    The American civil-rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced and developed the concept of intersectionality.

    Intersectionality is the framework through which a person's experience of prejudice and marginalisation is understood by considering all the elements that constitute their identity such as gender, ethnic background, wealth, class, sexual orientation and presence of a disability.

    The inclusion of the concept of intersectionality into the feminism discourse is a defining feature of third-wave feminism and postcolonial feminism.

    Postcolonial feminism Kimberle Crenshaw giving a speech StudySmarterFig. 2 Kimberle Crenshaw

    Gayatri Spivak

    And lastly, Gayatri Spivak uses her piece, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak3’ to argue that in Western scholarship theory, and much of liberal feminism, the theory is always written for someone who is white or from the Global North. This contributes to the oppression and silencing of minority women. She also criticises liberal feminists for picking and choosing parts of minority women’s struggles to help further their cause without making genuine efforts to include their narratives in feminist theory.

    Postcolonial Feminism - Key takeaways

    • Postcolonial feminism is a branch of feminism that aims to bring to the surface and include the experiences of those who have encountered gender-based discrimination and oppression from the Global South into the feminist discourse.
    • Postcolonial feminism arose as a critique of both postcolonialism for not wholly addressing gender-based marginalisation and early waves of feminism for not considering the perspectives of women from the Global South
    • Postcolonial feminism arose out of the third wave of feminism and shares with it the concept of intersectionality.
    • Postcolonial feminism holds that the only way to break down global patterns of oppression involves incorporating the perspectives of women from the Global South AND bringing to the surface white women's unconscious biases and racism

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    1. Audre Lorde The Master's Tool Will Never Dismantle the Master's House 1984
    2. Audre Lorde Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches 1984
    3. Gayatri Spivak Can The Subaltern Speak 1988
    4. Fig. 1 First-wave feminist activists at the entrance of the House of Lords UK on the day all women were granted suffrage, ( by Welsh Parliament ( licenced by CC-BY-2.0( on Wikimedia Commons
    5. Fig. 2 Kimberle Crenshaw ( by Heinirich-Boll-Stiftung ( licenced by CC-BY-SA-4.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Postcolonial Feminism

    What is postcolonial feminism?

    Postcolonial feminism is a branch of femininist that developed as a response to earlier types of feminism that focused solely on the experiences of women in Western countries and ignores the impact of colonialism and imperialism.

    What is an example for postcolonial feminism?

    An example of a piece of postcolonial feminist work is the piece written by Gayatri Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern speak.’

    What is the main goal of postcolonial feminism?

    The aim is to focus on how gender intersects with race and culture to consider how the experiences of women of colour have differed due to racism and the long-term effects of colonialism. 

    What is the origin of postcolonial feminism?

    Postcolonial feminism arose from third-wave feminism in the 1980s where there was a significant move towards recognising the experiences of all women from the different ethnic, cultural, social and political backgrounds

    What are the issues with postcolonial feminism?

    One of the key issues with postcolonial feminism is that it is considered to be creating divides within the feminist movement. By highlighting differences between the experiences of feminists it becomes difficult to argue as a collective for what it is that feminism wants to achieve. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When did First-wave feminism arise?

    When did second-wave feminism arise?

    Who isn't a key thinker in postcolonial feminism?


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