Unruly Differences

Dialogue and Difference: Feminisms Challenge Globalization edited by Marguerite Waller and Sylvia Marcos.  New York:  Palgrave, 2005, 259 pages. $24.95 paperback
Just Advocacy? Women’s Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms, and the Politics of Representation edited by Wendy S. Hesford and Wendy Kozol New Brunswick, NJ:  Rutgers University Press, 2005, 301 pages. $24.95 paperback
Reviewed by Katarzyna Marciniak

    Dialogue and Difference, a collection of essays by international scholars and activists with ties to Asia, Africa, and North America, addresses with passion the issues of difference, corporate globalization, and the ethics of crosscultural dialogue. In Just Advocacy?, humanities and social science scholars analyze human rights rhetoric about women’s various experiences of suffering, privation, and violence.  Both books have in common their engagement with transnational feminist ideas and alliances—as opposed to the much-critiqued “global sisterhood.” Though they have different focuses, both books articulate timely concerns:  How to represent the diversity of women’s experiences globally without being reductive, patronizing, or Western-centric?  How to stretch the very notion of the “global”? How to engage difference without domesticating it?  How to “do” transcultural dialogues and actions? And perhaps most importantly, how to undercut the longstanding, if sometimes unarticulated or even unconscious, belief that theory, knowledge, liberation, justice, and rights need to originate in the West (or the U.S.) in order to be valid and effective?

    The power of Dialogue and Difference comes from its innovative approach to the politics of difference and its critique of Western-based feminist theory. The collection details the difficulties, complexities and risks inherent in communicating across cultural lines.  The editors explain that they choose to use the word “crossings” rather than “intersections” to highlight the idea that people must take action to create “new conceptual spaces”; crossings do not happen by themselves, and the crosser should be willing to accept the challenges and vulnerabilities of not knowing what might happen next. 

    In the Western metaphysical tradition, the ideal of epistemological mastery domesticates “difference” to a principle of sameness or identity. “Difference” needs to be made palatable, safe, and usable for subjects grounded in Western knowledge production. In her essay “Not You/Like You: Postcolonial Women and the Interlocking Questions of Identity and Difference” (The Longman Anthology of Women's Literature, 2001), Trinh Minh-ha aptly characterizes this as an “apartheid type of difference,” based on the logic of segregation, separation, and exclusion. 

    Even progressive feminists have all too often relied upon similarities rather than differences to create crosscultural alliances: the notion of “sisterhood” was rooted in this kind of politics.  In contrast, Dialogue and Difference self-consciously works against any impulse to bury or tame differences. The authors in this collection present differences as unruly, undomesticated, contentious, risky, and often unresolvable. They claim that differences arising from culture, language, race, history, politics, and ideas need not be settled or erased. In fact, they should be foregrounded and respected as powerful philosophical, experiential, and scholarly tools for creating non-Western-centric feminist theories and activism. The authors do not shy away from frictions and conflicts but rather use them as productive, noncolonizing sites of communication.

    The radically different histories of Chinese women living in People’s Republic of China and diasporic Chinese women, for example, raise for author Shu-mei Shih the necessity of thinking in terms of multiple temporalities, narratives, and geographies to arrive at an “ethics” of encounter that catalyzes critical reflections on several different systems and histories at the same time. In “Towards an Ethics of Transnational Encounters, or ‘When Does a ‘Chinese’ Woman Become a ‘Feminist?’” Shih, who describes herself as “a Korean-born, Taiwan- and US-educated ethnic Chinese residing in California,” writes about the cultural and philosophical paradoxes she experienced in China when she accompanied a group of American writers as their translator.  Revealed during the trip was her different Chineseness: she speaks and “looks” Chinese but is not from China; neither is she fully “American.” In the context of uneasy and contentious encounters among Chinese women from China, diasporic Chinese women, and US audiences, she examines the work of the Chinese women’s studies pioneer, Li Xiaojiang.  Li at first embraced Western feminism; however, at a conference on Chinese feminism at Harvard in 1992, she disagreed strongly with assumptions of Western feminism as represented by some of the conference participants. Shih imagines a productive dialogue between Li “who is situated in a postsocialist society, and Chandra Mohanty, who wishes to take a postcapitalist position.” In conclusion, Shih notes that “the Western subject refuses to acknowledge the historical substance that constitutes the Other’s supposed difference.” The differences that emerge during transnational encounters are not fundamental essences but “affective acts” involving structures of feeling and perception and opening possibilities of mutual transformation.

    Also dedicated to developing an ethics of transnational dialogue, Marguerite Waller, in her essay, “‘One Voice Kills Both Our Voices’: ‘First World’ Feminism and Transcultural Feminist Engagement,” discusses a different kind of crossing—a conceptual one. There is plenty of historical evidence that Western-based philosophical paradigms of difference are violently exclusionary and hence ill-equipped to serve as a basis for transcultural dialogue. “[D]iscourses not grounded in ‘Northern,’ Euro-American epistemologies,” Waller says, “are simply not admissible as full dialogical partners in the production of new knowledges.” Western feminists must discard the idea that feminism came into being in the West and that Western feminism is a “measuring stick” against which to assess all other feminist movements. Waller posits “different differences” that lie outside the binaries of Western metaphysics, and she invokes chaos theory as an analogue for the new perceptions of pattern and relationships that emerge from the practice of feminist dialogue.  As exclusionary logics and master narratives give way to fluidity and interaction, the production of “fractal feminist” knowledges will challenge the logic of neocolonial corporate imperialism and suggest new modalities of agency and engagement, such as those currently being practiced by the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico.  

    In her essay “International Conferences as Sites for Transnational Feminist Struggles: The Case of the First International Conference on Women in Africa and the African Diaspora,” Obioma Nnaemeka, a Nigerian-born scholar and activist, analyzes the intense and often brutal confrontations that took place between African American and African women during a conference she organized in Nigeria in 1993. Controversy erupted over issues such as inclusion and exclusion—the African American participants challenged the inclusion of whites and men—and methodological approaches—the African women did not share the Americans’ need for terminological classifications such as “feminism” or “Africana womanism.” In addition, the participants from the African diaspora profoundly misunderstood the local, African context. Nnaemeka argues that only the rigorous and nuanced examination of such conflicts—however painful—can offer a productive way out of the paralysis that results from seemingly irresolvable transcultural differences and the resentments they cause. In the case of the WAAD conference, Nnaemeka was able to shift the terms of the discourse away from race and gender to the Ibo ones of guest and host. The shift enabled participants to understand the history and context in which they found themselves without in any way denying the forces that threatened to destroy the conference.

    Just Advocacy? looks at the post-September 11 “war on terror,” including the bombing of Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and torture at US prisons in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The new climate of fear after the September 11 attacks enabled the US to use the pretext of tightened security to rationalize military interventions that increased its global military dominance. The US media justified the military actions by claiming they would secure democracy and freedom in the US while liberating oppressed and victimized people elsewhere. President George W. Bush summed up this rationale with the slogan, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
Just Advocacy? asks who the “you” and the “us” are in this statement. Editors Wendy S. Hesford and Wendy Kozol explain that feminist discourses, anchored in history, can help people “examine the myriad and troubling ways in which women’s experiences of oppression and the calls for women’s human rights are mobilized by state governments to support military interventions and repressive political ends.” In their sophisticated introduction, they set the stage for the multifocal examinations in the collection. They analyze a highly publicized National Geographic cover image from 1985: an Afghan girl wearing a headscarf looks into the camera with a somber expression.  The aestheticized photograph isolates her face, and her large, green eyes arrest the viewer with their intense gaze.  The editors explain that this image has come to represent the plight of Afghan women and refugees worldwide: “this portrait has functioned as the First World’s Third World Mona Lisa—an exoticized “Other” onto whom the discourse of international human rights has been placed.” Later, in 2002, a National Geographic documentary, The Search for the Afghan Girl, recorded photographer Steve McCurry’s quest to find the “nameless” girl whom he photographed seventeen years previously.  The mission is successful. McCurry shoots the “found” woman; this time, his medium-range photograph shows her entirely hidden under a burqa, holding the picture of herself from 1985.  The image is uncanny. Hesford and Kozol use the film and its juxtaposition of the two photographs to jumpstart a series of queries:  For whom was the Afghan girl “missing”?  For whom was she “nameless”?  What is the purpose of her problematic “discovery”?

    Grounded in these questions, the collection takes a fresh look at the vexed rhetoric of women’s rights as human rights by analyzing the politics of representation. First of all, who gets to do it? How can we speak about human rights when we are immersed in traditional narratives of rescue that praise first-world models of liberation, charity, and goodwill, and privilege “Western myths of deserving victims” and “the politics of pity”?  Who can advocate on behalf of whom? How can Western audiences see beyond (selective) media spectacles of violence and victimization—such as Afghan women in burqas—to recognize the subjects’ real pain? How can victims offer honest testimony when their stories of trauma are restricted by the protocols of national and international courts? How can transnational feminists attend to the diverse contexts of trauma when, as the editors contend, “the standards of justice applied by the tribunal are themselves defined within Western legal categories”? As Leigh Gilmore pertinently asks in “Autobiography’s Wounds”:  “How to tell a story of historical trauma when so much of what must be spoken lies with the dead, when speaking for those who cannot speak entails an ethical burden uneasily discharged?” How do we move beyond condescending savior/victim binaries?  How have Western feminists succeeded—and failed—in forging antiviolence coalitions with non-Western women in need of aid (not rescue)?  And finally, what is transnational feminist advocacy, and who can claim truly to be a transnational feminist?
The contributors to Just Advocacy? come from many disciplines and represent diverse feminist perspectives on human rights. Thus their essays will appeal to readers with interests in fields from media, visual culture, literature, legal studies, feminist activism, trauma studies, education, and social work to religion.  The topics include global sex work; antitrafficking campaigns; the politics of race in US trials of au pairs accused of child abuse; the sexual enslavement of Korean “comfort women”; terrorism discourses; the antiviolence activism of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA); the incompatibility of Western human rights laws and Muslim religion; education for women and girls in third world nations; and the feminization of the sexuality discourse about HIV infection.

    Based in the philosophical, artistic, and activist work of women across the globe, the focus on the conceptual and political framework of transnational feminism has been ever more steadily developing since its initial articulation in the early 1990s by such US-based feminists as Gloria Anzaldúa, Chandra Mohanty, Gayatri Spivak, Inderpal Grewal, Caren Kaplan, and Ella Shohat. Both Dialogue and Difference and Just Advocacy? link current feminist theories with transnational perspectives in forceful and systematic ways.  Such perspectives are more and more urgent in the face of a global climate characterized by the increasing visibility of asylum-seekers, migrant domestic workers, trafficked women, refugees and exiles, and by the plight of those who are disenfranchised by the exploitative mechanisms of globalization.  Neither book offers a stable definition of “transnational feminism”; instead both engage its diverse and even contradictory implications. They share the basic transnational position of opposing rhetoric that insists on the privilege of belonging to (and being contained by) one nation. In addition, both collections critique often euphoric visions of contemporary globalization, pointing out that its economic, military, and cultural practices systematically, albeit unevenly, exploit and impoverish women across the globe. Counterattacking fascist notions of national security and sovereignty, transnational feminism promotes nonhierarchical encounters among women to produce new models of knowledge and rights.

Katarzyna Marciniak
is associate professor of transnational studies at Ohio University.  She is the author of Alienhood: Citizenship, Exile, and the Logic of Difference (2006).

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