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Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism.

Over the past decade, feminist scholarship has been enriched by critiques that have emerged from women's experiences in the Third World. These critiques have been vigorous enough to redefine the theoretical contours of feminist work especially in Western academia. The questioning and debates have emerged from conferences such as the one held in 1983 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign called "Common Differences: Third World Women and Feminist Perspectives" in preparation for the 1985 Nairobi international women's conference. This book is a result of such an attempt to reconfigure the boundaries of feminist scholarship and is a contribution to an ongoing dialogue on Third World women. The chapters and case studies in the book engage with two sets of questions. The first question attempts to provide an expanded definition of the concept of the Third World and the second one is aimed at locating the varied contexts of Third World experiences. As Chandra Mohanty points out in her introduction, these essay are meant to provide directions for future work especially since second wave White Western feminist analysis is under scrutiny from race and post-colonial studies.

The book sets up Third World women as an analytical category although it is recognized to be a contentious one. This analytical category is useful to construct an imagined community to build alliances, collaborations and comradeship among women engaged in oppositional struggles. Mohanty's introductory essay lays out the tasks at hand for feminists. The first is to rethink feminist praxis and the other is to suggest provisional sites for feminist analysis. The chapters that follow explore representations of gender in theory and culture, ideological constructions of gender in state and public policy, nationalism and sexuality, and identity and feminist practice.

The essays in the first section are excellently conceived and persuasive in their arguments about the politics of representations. They pose challenges to conventional theoretical practice, and though the intended audience are feminists, it is relevant as well for critical social science in general. Chandra Mohanty's essay "Under Western Eyes" has become mandatory reading for anyone pursuing comparative research on women in the Third World. It not only challenges assumptions about such comparative research but also explicates how theoretical underpinnings to such research create essentialist and universalist constructions of the category, Woman. But herein lies a paradox between Mohanty's political project and deconstructionist practice, as she wants to hang on to the notion of Woman as an analytical category for political purposes and abandon it for theoretical work. Within such a conception then, feminist praxis becomes a problematical undertaking. Rey Chow's essay titled "Violence in the Other Country" points out that key to pursuing questions of gender is ontology. In trying to come to grips with the Tianemen Square event of 1989 in the People's Republic of China it is not enough to pose the question as: how should we read what is going on in China in terms of gender? but what do the events in China tell us about gender as category especially as it relates to Third World women?

How the Third World is not necessarily a designation of geo-politics, but can also serve as a short-hand term to designate conditions of subordination is brought out in the rest of the chapters. These tend to be uneven in quality, not being very well conceptualized. Besides, the editors could have selected case studies that provide a broader range of cross-cultural examples. However, the chapters in the section on public policy clearly demonstrate how neutral language embodied in state policy is effective in constructing ideologies of gender. Jacqui Alexander's essay shows how the discourse of morality by the state constructs sexual politics. The section on national liberation and sexual politics explores how sexuality is central to nationalism. It is disappointing to note that all three essays in this section are from nations which claim to be Islamic states. In a way this reflects Mohanty's critiques of research on women in the Third World: that women in Islamic states are subject to a higher degree of sexist oppression compared to their Western sisters and hence deserve more analytical scrutiny. How nationalist and gender ideologies intertwine could be better illustrated through the selection of case studies that are not restricted to obvious examples of statebuilding in Islamic nations.

Although published in 1991, this book continues to be a timely critique of social science canon. I would recommend its inclusion in undergraduate classes especially because it is instructive in showing how definitions of the Third World and feminist politics are variegated since they emerge in situations not necessarily confined to certain geographical locations.

MRIDULA UDAYAGIRI University of California, Davis, U.S.A.
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Author:Udayagiri, Mridula
Publication:International Journal of Comparative Sociology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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