I. The double colonization of African women and the ambivalent position of the black feminists
Feminist theory and postcolonial theory have much in common; women and the colonized races and cultures both share the politics of oppression and repression. Women have always been represented and mis-representated in literary texts, and African literature is no exception. Kirsten in her essay “First Things First” opens her argument with a poem called “letter to a Feminist Friend,” by the Malayan poet Felix Mnthali:
I will not pretend
to see the light
in the rhythm of your paragraphs:
need not contain
My world has been raped
by Europe and America
and I have been scattered
over three continents
to please Europe and America
the women of Europe and America
after drinking and carousing
on my sweat
rise up to castigate
from the cushions of a world
I have built!
Why should they be allowed
to come between us?
You and I were slaves together
uprooted and humiliated together
Rapes and lynchings –
the lash of the overseer
and the lust of the slave-owner
do your friends ‘in the movement’
understand these things?
No, no, my sister,
first things first!
Too many gangsters
still stalk this continent
too many pirates
too many looters
far too many
still stalk this land –
at home and across the seas
is truly free
there will be time for me
and time for you
to share the cooking
and change the nappies –
first things first!
Petersen, Kirsten. “First Things First.” The Post-colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. Pp.252, 253.
Omar Sougou comments on this poem saying that it clearly “puts cultural liberation first and attacks Western feminism. It recalls the rape and looting of Africa by Europe and America, from which Euro-American women have profited. The voice considers Western feminism as synonymous with castration, and laments” (Writing across Cultures, p. 22) While Ogundipe debunks “the male-centered perspective of the poem, which phases women out of the victimization of Africa and black people by Western imperialism, and of the social formation itself.” (ibid)
“Women writers are involved in this process of themselves creating and recreating a history within their communities. They address specific issues pertaining to their own social situation, such as gender politics. In their writing, woman as subject is a focal point, but it is dealt with in conjunction with other problems of national interest. It is a truism that African men and women alike are subjected to imperialism, but women are subjected to male dominance on top of this.” (Writing across Cultures. 2002. P. 21). And here Peterson wonders “which comes first, the fight for female equality or the fight against Western cultural imperialism?”
African and black women carry a doube yoke (23). They are confronted with the implications of their need to liberate themselves from societal structures and of societies grappling with imperialism; which leads to an ambivalent position (24). The blackness of African women writers disturbs the mainstream feminist outlook and look, since blackness has always been associated with inferiority.
Kirsten Holst Petersen’s essay “First Things First” addresses the question from this angle. She criticizes Achebe’s treatment of female characters, “his traditional [Ibo] women are happy, harmonious members of the community, even when they are repeatedly beaten and barred from any say in the communal decision-making process and constantly reviled in sayings and proverbs. It would appear that in traditional wisdom behaving like a woman is to behave like an inferior being.” Petersen, Kirsten. “First Things First.” The Post-colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. P. 253.
Kirsten focuses on Ngugi. This writer earns her approval for his radical view of the position of women, whose exploitation he links to their class or colonial exploitation (Writing across Cultures, p. 21). Kristen states that “Ngugi’s ideological starting point seems to me ideal.” ‘No cultural liberation without women’s liberation’ (Petersen, Kirsten. “First Things First.” The Post-colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. P. 254). She stresses the role of women as active agents in contributing to liberate their society from imperialism, which will, she believes, be fruitful.
II. Spivak’s ‘Critique of Imperialism’ and the notion of ‘feminist individualism’
Imperialism is seen as England’s social mission. And the 19th century British literature plays an effective role in the production of cultural representation and imperial project, which “should not be ignored”, as Spivak states in her essay “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” (1985). Spivak, the postcolonialist and feminist theorist rejects imperialism, because, like patriarchy, is a phallocentric, supremacist ideology that subjugates and dominates its subjects. The oppressed woman is in this sense similar to the colonized subject. She offers sustained intellectual critique against the domination of western colonialist thought and structures.
In the previously mentioned essay, Spivak examines three novels by women: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; basically to reveal the manner in which imperialist ideology structures the expression of 19th century feminist individualism. Spivak argues that the feminist ‘program’ of Jane Eyre, which has become a ‘cult text of feminism’, is also closely allied with imperialist ideology. “Sympathetic U. S. feminists have remarked that I do not do justice to Jane Eyre’s subjectivity. (…) feminist individualism in the age of imperialism, is precisely the making of human beings, the constitution and ‘interpellation’ of the subject not only as individual but as ‘individualist.’” (Spivak, Gayatri. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” 1985, p. 244) “As the female individualist, not-quite/not-male, articulates herself in shifting relationship to what is at stake, the ‘native female’ as such… is excluded from any share in this emerging norm… In a reading such as mine … the effort is to wrench oneself away from the mesmerizing focus… of the female individualist.” (Ibid, pp. 244- 245)
She gives ‘worlding’ as an alternative to the so called ‘the Third World’ which connotes the inferiority of the “native” who is considered as object for enthusiastic information- retrieval and thus denying its own ‘worlding’. The notion of ‘the Third World’ connotes a classification of the world into First, Second and Third, and of course from a Western perspective. She goes further to criticize feminists who reproduce the axioms of imperialism.
“We must rather strategically take shelter in an essentialism which, not wishing to lose the important advantages won by U.S. main-stream feminism, will continue to honor the suspect binary oppositions-book and author, individual and history-and start with an assurance of the following sort: my readings here do not seek to undermine the excellence of the individual artist.” (Spivak, Gayatri. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” 1985, p. 244). Spivak puts the feminist “cannons” into question. They universalize their western feminist experience. They homogenize using ‘WE’!!