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Feminism and the Politics of Differencefree

Feminism and the Politics of Differencefree

  • Maria O’ReillyMaria O’ReillySchool of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London


Feminist scholars and practitioners have challenged—and sought to overcome—gendered forms of inequality, subordination, or oppression within a variety of political, economic, and social contexts. However, feminists have been embroiled in profound theoretical disagreements over a variety of issues, including the nature and significance of the relationship between culture and the production of gendered social life, as well as the implications of cultural location for women’s agency, feminist knowledge production, and the possibilities of building cross-cultural feminist coalitions and agendas. Many of the approaches that emerged in the “first” and “second waves” of feminist scholarship and activism were not able to effectively engage with questions of culture. Women of color and ethnicity, postcolonial feminists and poststructural feminists, in addition to the questions and debates raised by liberal feminists (and their critics) on the implications of multiculturalism for feminist goals, have produced scholarship that highlights issues of cultural difference, division, diversity, and differentiation. Their critiques of the “universalism” and “culture-blindness” of second wave theories and practices exposed the hegemonic and exclusionary tendencies of the feminist movement in the global North, and opened up the opportunity to develop intersectional analyses and feminist identity politics, thereby shifting issues of cultural diversity and difference from the margins to the center of international feminism. The debates on cultural difference, division, diversity, and differentiation have enriched feminist scholarship within the discipline of international relations, particularly after 9/11.


  • Politics and Sexuality and Gender


The politics of cultural difference, division, diversity, and differentiation has emerged as one of the most contentious concerns of feminist theory and practice in the late modern era. At least since Simone de Beauvoir (1973:301) famously distinguished (biological) sex from gender by stating that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” feminist scholars and practitioners, of varying ontological, epistemological, and methodological persuasions, have sought to understand the role that cultural beliefs, values, norms, languages, representations, customs, and practices across time and space play in the construction, reproduction, and contestation of gender roles, identities, subjectivities, and structures of power. In doing so, they have aimed to challenge and overcome gendered forms of inequality, subordination, or oppression within a variety of political, economic, and social contexts; to render visible masculinist ideas, meanings, and representations that are often concealed or naturalized as “commonsense” understandings of reality; and to transform power relations and improve the material conditions of women's (and men's) lives.

Nevertheless feminism, as a plural and interdisciplinary field of contesting perspectives rather than a unified body of thought and practice, has been gripped by deep theoretical disagreements over not “only” the nature and significance of the relationship between culture and the production of gendered social life, but also of the implications of cultural location for women's agency, feminist knowledge production, and the possibilities of building cross-cultural feminist coalitions and agendas. Many of the approaches that emerged in the “first” and “second waves” of feminist scholarship and activism failed to effectively engage with questions of culture. Liberal feminists, for example, generally overlooked culture in their analyses or regarded it as a mere obstacle to sexual equality – one which can be overcome through legal and institutional reform and the achievement of full equality with men. Grounded in an individualistic paradigm of rights, equality, autonomy, and rationality, the liberal feminist project is built upon the presumption of sameness between men and women, reflecting a belief in “a fundamentally sexually undifferentiated human nature” (Beasley 1999:52) regardless of spatial or temporal location. Meanwhile, Marxist/socialist feminism's emphasis on social-economic structures (e.g., divisions of labor), and its examination of women's systematic economic and social oppression as the product of a patriarchal and/or capitalist social system (Jackson 2001:284), has tended to downgrade culturally constituted differences between and among men and women (see discussions by Kuhn and Wolpe 1978; Eisenstein 1979; Coward 1983; Barrett 1988). As Scott (1986:1061) points out, “[w]ithin Marxism, the concept of gender has long been treated as the by-product of changing economic structures; gender has had no independent analytic status of its own.” Radical feminist analyses, as epitomized by the work of Mary Daly (1978) and Adrienne Rich (1977, 1979) among others, also suffer from similar deficiencies – their emphasis on women's shared oppression, unique location, and essential “feminine” qualities, their turn to femininity as a basis on which to critique patriarchal culture and (re)imagine a more just society, and their aim of positively redefining “female” virtues and values in reaction to misogyny and sexism, mean that radical feminists not only tend to deny differences among women but also generate homogeneous, essentialist, and ahistorical conceptions of “womanhood” that reflect and contribute to power-laden and damaging cultural stereotypes about women (Young 1985; Alcoff 1988:408–15; see also Echols 1983, 1984; Eisenstein 1983).1 Moreover, feminist standpoint theories – as exemplified in the work of Nancy Hartsock (1983a), and which draw in particular on Nancy Chodorow's (1978) psychoanalytic study on the family and Carol Gilligan's (1982) psychological analysis of male and female moral development – often overstate the commonality of women's experience of material and ideological oppression. Thus, attempts to develop better critical insights into the realities of gendered social relations by “locating knowledge or inquiry in women's standpoint or in women's experience” (Smith 1997:392) and to use these theoretical approaches to transform gender inequalities of power have been faulted for their reliance upon the standpoint of the “generalized,” as opposed to “concrete,” “other” (Benhabib 1986). By falsely assuming that humans are separate and essentially alike, rather than culturally and socially situated individuals “with a concrete history, identity, and affective-emotional constitution” (Benhabib 1986:411), standpoint feminists often erroneously produce universalistic knowledge claims that are asserted to be generalizable to all humans regardless of context (Hutchings 1999).

In response to the perceived “culture-blindness” of many of these feminist approaches, a number of innovative perspectives emerged from a “third wave” of boundary-shifting scholarship and activism that sought to transform understandings of the complex relationship between gender, culture, and the production of feminist knowledge. As this essay will reveal, the work of women of color and ethnicity, postcolonial feminists and poststructural feminists, in addition to the questions and debates raised by liberal feminists (and their critics) on the implications of multiculturalism for feminist goals, have all been instrumental in spotlighting issues of cultural difference, division, diversity, and differentiation. In particular, such works have foregrounded crucial questions regarding the universality/particularity of feminist theories, the importance of spotlighting identity, subjectivity, and agency in feminist scholarship, the politics of cultural representation, and the potential tensions arising between the goals of sexual and cultural equality. As a result of these debates, many feminists within the third wave have highlighted the need to decenter and destabilize the dominating, exclusionary, ethnocentric, elitist, and power-laden discourses and practices of second wave feminism, to recover the “subjugated knowledges” (Foucault 1980, cited in Spivak 1988:272) and agency of those marginalized by feminism's propensity toward “epistemic violence” (Spivak 1988), and to reconstruct feminist scholarship and activism by embracing diversity, complexity, multiplicity, ambiguity, and contradiction (Bailey 1997; Mann and Huffman 2005). In doing so, they have repeatedly spotlighted and broached what Joan Scott has referred to as the “paradox” at the heart of the feminist movement:

Feminism was a protest against women's political exclusion: its goal was to eliminate “sexual difference” in politics, but it had to make its claims on behalf of “women” (who were discursively produced through “sexual difference”). To the extent that it acted for “women,” feminism produced the “sexual difference” it sought to eliminate. This paradox – the need to both accept and to refuse “sexual difference” – was the constitutive condition of feminism as a political movement through its long history.

(Scott 1996:3–4)

While the pervasiveness of women's oppression across cultures requires a distinctly feminist politics of recognition (Baum 2004:1074), the demands for recognition made by women differentiated by race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, nationality etc., has produced, in Henrietta Moore's (2000:1130) words, the “affirmation that women have different contexts and histories, that they have suffered multiple and various forms of subordination and discrimination, and that their situation in the world is the product of differential relations between groups of people – classes, nations, races, ethnic and religious groups, and so on.” This awareness, as Moore notes, results in two fundamental challenges for feminist politics: (1) to reenvision how we recognize difference once we appreciate that “the recognition of difference along one dimension was insufficient;” (2) to appreciate that “the recognition of difference is only a starting point because the purpose of recognition is to transform the context in which differences are lived” (2000:1130–1).

This essay therefore traces the variety of ways in which four significant strands of third wave feminism have engaged with questions of cultural difference, division, diversity, and differentiation, outlining some of the major contributions of each to our understandings of the relationship between culture and gender, and exploring the implications for international feminist scholarship and practice. It first investigates the contributions made by women of color and ethnicity, illustrating how their critiques of the “universalism” and “culture-blindness” of second wave theories and practices exposed the hegemonic and exclusionary tendencies of the feminist movement in the global North, and opened up space for the development of intersectional analyses and feminist identity politics, thereby shifting issues of cultural diversity and difference from the margins to the center of international feminism. Next, the major concerns of postcolonial feminist theory are outlined, noting especially the historical relationship between “Western” feminism and nineteenth-century colonialism and its continuing impact on feminist theorizing and activism, particularly on cross-cultural modes of representation and communication. Third, the essay examines the dilemmas raised by liberal feminists in relation to the issue of multiculturalism, exploring the crucial question of whether promoting respect for and recognition of cultural diversity conflicts with the feminist goal of achieving gender justice and equality. Fourth, the central claims of poststructural feminist theory are explored, noting in particular its rejection of totalizing “metanarratives” and unitary categories, and its celebration of diversity, complexity, multiplicity, and contradiction as a way of ensuring political inclusiveness. Finally, the essay concludes by reflecting on how these debates have enriched feminist scholarship within the discipline of international relations, particularly after 9/11.

Essentially metatheoretical in scope, the essay seeks to critically assess the key conceptual, theoretical, and methodological discourses used to “explain” and “understand” the cultural (and hierarchical) construction of gender – through the complex processes of gender symbolism, gender structure, and individual gender (Harding 1986:17–18) – and to reflect upon the implicit and explicit assumptions upon which feminist theories and activist agendas are built. It is hoped that reading this essay alongside others by Nancy A. Naples and Nikki McGary (“Feminism, Activism, and Scholarship in Global Context”) and by Melinda Adams and Gwynn Thomas (“Transnational Feminist Activism and Globalizing Women's Movements”) in the Compendium series will provide the reader not only with an overview of the key challenges presented by cultural difference for feminist theorizing and praxis, but also of the possibilities for the negotiation and contestation of gender roles, identities, subjectivities, and structures of power.

The “wave” metaphor is employed here to reflect the existence of mass-based feminist movements that, like waves, “ebb and flow, rise and decline, and crest in some concrete, historical accomplishments or defeats” (Mann and Huffman 2005:58) – a “first wave” originating in the nineteenth century that sought formal civic equality for women through political enfranchisement; a “second wave” that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, which focused on explaining the origins and pervasiveness of women's oppression across time and space, on radically questioning and reconstructing gender roles, and on extending the feminist struggle for equal rights (for an excellent overview see Nicholson 1997); and a “third wave” which endeavored to deconstruct and decenter the dominant discourses and practices of second wave feminism and reconstruct feminist scholarship and activism by embracing diversity, complexity, multiplicity, ambiguity, and contradiction (Bailey 1997; Mann and Huffman 2005). In adopting this approach I recognize the danger that dividing up feminisms into discrete strands or “waves” may (1) overstate the common elements that unify each wave; (2) understate the diversity of competing feminisms within each mass movement; and (3) downplay the continuity of earlier and later waves (Guy-Sheftall 1995; Ruth 1998; Springer 2002; Mann and Huffman 2005). The term “wave” was, according to Orr (1997:43), coined in the 1970s to emphasize the contemporary (“second wave”) movement's “connection and indebtedness to the Woman's Rights movement of the nineteenth century” (the “first wave”). However, as Cathryn Bailey (1997:18–19) points out, the second wave was “named primarily as a means of emphasizing continuity with earlier feminist activities and ideas,” while the third wave “seems to identify itself as such largely as a means of distancing itself from earlier feminism, as a means of stressing what are perceived as discontinuities with earlier feminist thought and activity.” This essay outlines some of the major debates and perspectives that have contributed to the emergence of a third wave of feminist theorizing and activism centered upon the recognition of cultural difference and its implications for feminist politics. These alternative trajectories of feminist thought and practice have articulated very different responses to the politics of difference. Liberal feminists, for example, have focused on how multicultural liberal states should best respond to the claims made by minority groups for the recognition of, and respect for, cultural difference, and have sought to mediate between what are often viewed as competing demands for cultural rights and sexual equality (e.g., Deveaux 2006). Feminists of color and ethnicity have embraced identity politics as a source of empowerment, community, and intellectual development, while poststructuralist feminists question the notion of coherent identities and view freedom as resistance to categorization and identity (Coleman 2009:4). Postcolonial feminists, meanwhile, have rejected both the notion of universal “woman” and power-infused discourses of “Third World difference” that construct monolithic representations of women in the global south (Mohanty 1991). Insisting that feminists in the global North shake off orientalist and ethnocentric modes of thought, postcolonial feminists have worked to highlight the historical and cultural specificity of women's lives, to uncover the intersections of race, class, nationality, religion, sexuality, etc. with gendered forms of subordination and inequality, and to contest political, economic, and sociocultural hierarchies of power both locally and globally (Rajan and Park 2000:54).

Contributions by Women of Color and Ethnicity

The scholarship and activism of feminists of color and ethnicity in the global North, as it emerged from the late 1960s, has been paramount in challenging the “hegemonic” (Spivak 1985a:271) or “imperial” feminisms (Amos and Parmar 1984) of the second wave movement. Evolving from “the matrix of the very discourses denying, permitting, and producing difference” (Sandoval 2004:196) and “frequently speaking simultaneously from ‘within and against’ both women's liberation and antiracist movements” (Frankenberg and Mani 1993:302) this strand of third wave feminism played a crucial role exposing the parochial yet falsely universalist nature of Anglo-European feminist analyses as narrowly constructed from the lived experiences of white, middle-class, educated, heterosexual women (Zinn and Dill 1996:321). Variously described as “multicultural feminism” (Jaggar and Rothenberg 1993), “US Third World feminisms” (Sandoval 2004), “black feminism” (Collins 2000), and “multiracial feminism” (Zinn and Dill 1996), the term “women of color and ethnicity” is used to reflect the fact that this strand of feminist theory and activism emerged from the interaction and alliance of women of many races and ethnic backgrounds, from different histories and cultures, within the so-called “Western,” “developed” world, and also underscores the commitment of these women to highlighting “race as a power system that interacts with other structured inequalities to shape genders” (Zinn and Dill 1996:324). Different in race, class, language, ideology, religion, culture, and ethnicity, women of color and ethnicity developed gender analyses that were fundamentally shaped by their unique experiences as “outsiders-within” (Collins 2004). As women who were doubly marginalized as women and as racialized subjects, they have “produce[d] distinctive oppositional knowledges that embrace multiplicity yet remain cognizant of power” (Collins 1998:8) and that therefore situate women and men in multiple systems of oppression and domination (Collins 2004).

The work of women of color and ethnicity has laid bare the racist underpinnings of the feminist movement in the global North (Dubois 1978; Davis 1982; Smith 1982), its historical connections to imperial ideologies, institutions, and practices (Amos and Parmar 1984; Ferguson 1992; Melman 1992; Midgley, 1992, 2007; Ware 1994; Lewis 1996), and its propensity to marginalize, exclude, and erase the experiences and voices of women of color and ethnicity from its theories and practices (hooks 1981, 1984, 1989; Hull et al. 1982; Lorde 1983, 2007; Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983; Amos and Parmar 1984; Anzaldúa 1990). Accordingly, women of color and ethnicity compelled the women's movement in the North to acknowledge and confront the destructive, divisive, and oppressive effects of its “culture-blindness,” obliging feminists to recognize the cultural particularity of their theories and analyses, to make space for the marginalized voices of culturally marginalized groups (Burton 1998:562), and ultimately to destabilize or “decenter” (hooks 1984) the dominant discourses and practices of “hegemonic” feminisms through intersectional analyses focused on critically explored political issues of cultural diversity and differentiation.

Crucially, the feminist movement was exhorted to examine the forms of cultural imperialism, discrimination, and oppression that it had internalized, and to focus on building a movement that embraced difference rather than homogeneity (Mann and Huffman 2005:60). Thus, in their groundbreaking book This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (1983) charted the main foci for a broad-based political movement of women of color and ethnicity in the United States:

(1) how visibility/invisibility as women of color forms our radicalism; (2) the ways in which Third World women derive a feminist political theory specifically from our radical/cultural background and experience; (3) the destructive and demoralizing effects of racism in the women's movement; (4) the cultural, class, and sexuality differences that divide women of color; (5) Third World women's writing as a tool of self-preservation and revolution; and (6) the ways and means of a Third World feminist future.

(Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983:xxiv)

One of the most significant contributions made by this strand of third wave feminism has been its deconstruction of the “essentialist woman” of second wave feminism and of the unitary theories it promotes – e.g., those privileging a single aspect of social relations in the construction and reproduction of gendered identities, such as reproduction (O'Brien 1983), caring (Gilligan 1982), production (Hartsock 1983b), or sexuality (MacKinnon 1989). This assumption of sameness and commonality of oppression (1) ignores or obscures the differences that exist between women, based on nationality, race, class, religion, language, sexual orientation, etc; (2) conceals the significance of such heterogeneity for feminist theory and politics; (3) wrongly regards the lived experiences of white, educated, middle-class, heterosexual women as representative of, and normative for, the experiences of all women (Spelman 1990:ix); and (4) works to enable and maintain the domination of feminisms that are culturally located in white, Eurocentric, and Western political thought (Amos and Parmar 1984). It also reflects and reproduces what Adrienne Rich (1979) calls “white solipsism” – the tendency of much of feminist theory “to think, imagine and speak as if whiteness described the world” (1979:299) and to view social reality with “a tunnel-vision which simply does not see non-white experience or existence as precious and significant, unless in spasmodic, important guilt-reflexes, which have little or no long-term, continuing momentum or political usefulness” (1979:306). The task for feminism, as articulated by women of color and ethnicity, was not only to deconstruct and dismantle the hegemonic and exclusionary theories and practices that had dominated the women's movement, but also to provide space for the formulation and construction of “autonomous, geographically, historically, and culturally grounded feminist concerns and strategies” (Mohanty 1991:51).

The exclusionary manner in which “women's experiences” were being constructed by white, middle-class, heterosexual women prompted black feminist Frances Beale (1970) to warn that second wave feminism was developing into a “white women's movement” by insisting on narrowly organizing along the binary gender division male–female alone (Beale 1970, cited in Sandoval 2004:198). Many feminists in the global North were guilty of sidestepping, rather than confronting head-on, the racism and ethnocentrism at the center of the women's movement, and relegating the ideas and experiences of women of color and ethnicity to the margins of feminist theorizing and activism (hooks 1984). As bell hooks (1984) asserts:

All too frequently in the women's movement it was assumed that one could be free of sexist thinking by simply adopting the appropriate feminist rhetoric; it was further assumed that identifying oneself as oppressed freed one from being an oppressor. To a grave extent such thinking prevented white feminisms from understanding and overcoming their own sexist–racist attitudes toward black women. They could play lip-service to the idea of sisterhood and solidarity between women but at the same time dismiss black women.

(hooks 1984:8–9; cited in McEwan 2003:407)

The feminist movement was therefore challenged by women of color and ethnicity to move “away from the celebration of universality and sameness” and toward the recognition of “the implications of differences among women's experiences and understanding the political factors at work in those differences” (Amos and Parmar 1984:7). On the one hand, feminists were urged to confront the personal prejudices that were dividing the feminist movement – to “reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there” (Lorde 1983:98). The message was that racism, and all other forms of intolerance and prejudice, could no longer be ignored in feminist theory and practice if the feminist movement was not merely to be an exercise in “female self-aggrandizement” but rather a movement committed to a struggle “to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, lesbians, old women – as well as white economically privileged, heterosexual women” (Smith 1982:49). On the other hand, the very phrase “women of color” was redefined not as the negation of whiteness but rather as the acclamation of a positive identity (McCann and Kim 2003:154). Consequently, Collins (2004) celebrates black female intellectuals in the United States for making creative use of their marginality (or “outsider-within” status) to generate a distinctive standpoint on self, family, and society – by affirming the importance of black women's self-definition and self-valuation, drawing attention to the interlocking nature of oppression, and asserting the importance of Afro-American women's culture. Likewise, Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) credits her shifting identity as a Mexican-American lesbian moving through multiple cultures and locations as productive of a “higher” consciousness, a new mestiza consciousness – one that develops “a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity” and which “operates in a pluralistic mode … [so that] nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned” (1987:79). The perception and celebration of differences between groups of women in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, etc., combined with a desire to destabilize the ethnocentrism and heterosexism of predominant feminist assumptions, resulted in moves toward “identity politics” by groups who felt linked by a common culture, experience, or language (Phillips 1993:146–7; Evans 1995:22).

The 1980s thus brought a sustained critique of feminist theoretical frameworks grounded solely in the concept of gender, as women of color and ethnicity sought to build feminist theories of differences among women, to consider the ways that women's lives are shaped by the multiple identities that women negotiate in their lives, and to understand the complex relationships that exist between gender domination and other dimensions and modalities of social relations and subject formations, such as nationality, race, class, religion, language, sexual orientation, etc. (Yuval-Davis 1997; Yuval-Davis and Anthias 1989; McCann and Kim 2003:148–9; McCall 2005:1771). Debates emerged regarding whether to interpret these relationships in terms of an additive process, in which each axis of identity or discrimination is distinct and viewed as internally homogeneous, or as a constitutive process, where each social division is viewed as having a different ontological basis and as irreducible to the others (Yuval-Davis 2006; Squires and Weldes 2007:187). The additive model of oppression, which interpreted the combinations of race and gender and other identities/oppressions as productive of a “double-jeopardy” (Beale 1970) or “multiple jeopardy” (King 1988), was critiqued for its tendency to treat each axis as isolated or separable and to obscure the relations between gender and other elements of identity, and between sexism and other forms of oppression (Spelman 1990:115). This model later gave way to the recognition of the simultaneity of systems of oppression and inequality in shaping women's experience and identity, and a theoretical framework of intersectionality (McCann and Kim 2003:150) in which gender is “constructed by a range of interlocking inequalities” (Zinn and Dill 1996: 326) – what Collins (2000:23) terms a “matrix of domination” – and redefined “as a constellation of ideas and social practices that are historically situated within and that mutually construct multiple systems of oppression” (Collins 2000:263). The intersectional framework aims to provide a more thorough understanding of the complexity of women's lives and to destabilize unitary theories and categories of gender through an exploration of the relationality of dominance and subordination and of the relationship between social structure and women's agency. To achieve this it draws upon a wide range of methodological approaches and studies drawn from the lives of diverse groups of women in order to maintain “a creative tension between diversity and universalization” (Zinn and Dill 1996:327–9). Through such analyses, feminists were exhorted “to go beyond a mere recognition of [cultural] diversity and difference among women to examine structures of domination, specifically the importance of race in understanding the social construction of gender” (Zinn and Dill 1996:321).

Contributions of Postcolonial Feminist Theory

Postcolonial feminists, like feminists of color and ethnicity, have also insisted on the vital significance of cultural and historical particularity to understanding gender relations, urging feminists in the global North to abandon hegemonic theories of universality in favor of the recognition of cultural difference and diversity (Jordan and Weedon 1995:185–6). Their work has emerged both from within and against the feminist movement and mainstream postcolonial studies – as a reaction against the universalizing tendencies of “imperial” feminisms and against the neglect of gender analyses by eminent postcolonial theorists (Mills 1998:98) such as Said (1979, 1993), Fanon (1968, 1986), and Bhabha (1994), scholars whose work has been influential in exposing and deconstructing the discursive hierarchies of power and domination through which nineteenth-century imperialism was conceptualized and made possible, and which continue to influence present-day behavior and modes of thought in both former colonial and colonized lands. (See Geeta Chowdhry and L.H.M. Ling's essay “Race(ing) International Relations: A Critical Overview of Postcolonial Feminism in International Relations” in the Compendium for a fuller account of postcolonial feminism in IR and its relationship with both feminist IR and postcolonial studies scholarship.)

Postcolonial feminists have highlighted the gendered and gendering nature of colonial(ist) discourses and practices, uncovering the ways in which colonial(ist) policies and practices relied upon the mobilization of hierarchically ordered gender identities. As McClintock (1995) asserts, “imperialism cannot be understood without a theory of gender power … gender dynamics were, from the outset, fundamental to the securing and maintenance of the imperial enterprise” (cited in Mills 1998:100). Thus, Sharpe has drawn attention to the positioning of white British women in India as passive and “rapeable,” in need of protection against the aggressive “barbarism” and “savagery” of indigenous men, in order to “permit [violent] strategies of counterinsurgency to be recorded as the restoration of moral order” (1993:6). Moreover, Pettman has problematized the infantilizing attitudes of colonizer women, especially missionary women, toward colonized women, arguing that “even where the former saw the latter as sisters, in a precursor to global sisterhood, they retained notions of difference in race and cultural hierarchy that represented ‘other’ women as little sisters or surrogate daughters” (1996:29; see also Ramusack 1990). Colonialist attitudes continue to resonate in contemporary international relations, both within the discipline of IR and within contemporary practices of global politics. For Agathangelou and Ling, the discipline of IR resembles a “colonial household” that arrogantly seeks to impose “order” and establish “civilization” within “a space that is already crowded with local traditions of thinking, doing and being … by appropriating the knowledge, resources, and labor of racialized, sexualized Others for its own benefit and pleasure while announcing itself the sole producer – the father – of our world” (Agathangelou and Ling 2004a:21). Several others have highlighted how policies and practices of international intervention (e.g., of democracy promotion, development, foreign aid, peacekeeping, etc.) by the global North in the global South are conceptualized, legitimized, and made possible through the discursive mobilization of hierarchically ordered and racialized gender identities. Interventionist discourses generally seek to promote the notion that the global North has a duty or moral obligation to “modernize,” “democratize,” and “develop” societies in the global South (Doty 1993, 1996; Orford 1999, 2003; Whitworth 2004; Krasniqi 2007). Whilst the Northern/Western “self” is constructed as “democratic, freedom-loving, and humanitarian” (Doty 1993:125), Southern/non-Western “others” are depicted as “disordered, chaotic, tribal, primitive, pre-capitalist, violent, exclusionary and child-like” (Orford 2003:43), thereby enabling western intervention to be legitimized as benevolent acts of “rescue” and “salvation” rather than manifestations of realpolitik.

The problematic history of colonial(ist) intervention on behalf of “other” women, coupled with a concern for the power that colonial(ist) discourses continue to hold over “white feminist” theories and practices, has led postcolonial feminists to spotlight the politics of cultural representation, the ethics of speaking and writing for or on behalf of “others,” and questions of agency within feminist analyses (McEwan 2003:406–10; Wilson 2007:129; see also Alcoff 1991–2). Mohanty famously problematized “the construction of ‘third world women’ as a homogeneous ‘powerless’ group often located as implicit victims of particular socioeconomic systems” in Western feminist discourse rather than as agents (Mohanty 1991:57). She highlights the ways in which feminist scholars in the global North depict the “average third world woman” as someone who “leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and her being ‘third world’ (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc.)” (1991:56). Comparing the self-presentations of “Western” feminists with their representations of women in the “third world,” she asserts that “universal images of ‘the third world Woman’ (the veiled woman, chaste virgin, etc.), images constructed from adding the ‘third world difference’ to ‘sexual difference,’ are predicated upon (and hence obviously bring into sharper focus) assumptions about Western women as secular, liberated and having control over their own lives” (Mohanty 1991:74).

Similarly, Narayan (1998) argues that feminist attempts to avoid gender essentialism, by taking into account issues such as class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., can result in “culturally essentialist” images of differences among women when “[s]eemingly universal essentialist generalizations about ‘all women’ are replaced by culture-specific essentialist generalizations that depend on totalizing categories such as ‘Western culture,’ ‘Non-Western cultures,’ ‘Western women,’ ‘Third World women,’ and so forth” (1998:87). This is, in her view, a form of “‘cultural imperialism’ … [which operates through] an ‘insistence on Difference,’ by a projection of Imaginary ‘differences’ that constitute one's Others as Other” (1998:89), which she traces back to the colonial era. Narayan argues that such constructions are problematic given that they are often used by “traditionalists”/“fundamentalists” in the global South in political movements that are detrimental to women's interests. Consequently, she contends that feminists must adopt a stance of anti-essentialism in relation to both women and culture – by combining “criticisms of the adverse effects of particular ‘traditions’ on women … with a critical stance toward ahistorical and essentialist pictures of those ‘traditions’” (1998:96) and by “pointing to the internal plurality, dissension and contestation over values, and ongoing changes in practices in virtually all communities that comprise modern nation-states” (1998:102).

Postcolonial feminists have also pointed to the need for feminists in the global North to acknowledge the “situatedness” of their knowledges (Haraway 1988) and to appreciate their cultural specificity and partiality (McEwan 2003:409). For Spivak (1990), this entails “unlearning … one's privilege” in relation to the “much larger female constituency in the world” so that:

not only does one become able to listen to that other constituency, but one learns to speak in such a way that one will be taken seriously by that other constituency. And furthermore, to recognize that the position of the speaking subject within theory can be an historically powerful position when it wants the other to be able to answer back.

(Spivak 1990:42)

The scholarship of women of color and ethnicity and of postcolonial feminists has been paramount in gaining greater recognition of the need to decenter the feminisms produced in the global North – “to reorient western feminisms, such that they are perceived no longer as exclusive and dominant but as part of a plurality of feminisms, each with a specific history and set of political objectives” (McEwan 2003:407). Their insights have also led to greater awareness of the diverse histories of women's struggles and feminist activism throughout history and across the globe, drawing attention to a multitude of campaigns, strategies, and forms of organization utilized by women in a variety of historically and locationally specific sociocultural contexts to advance specific interests and improve the circumstances of their lives (Basu 1999). As a result of such analyses, the formation of women's identities and interests within particular structural, political, and cultural contexts has been brought into greater focus – highlighting not only the complex conditions in which women become mobilized but also the temporal and spatial specificity of local discourses and practices of gender which work to obstruct or facilitate women's and feminist movements (Ray and Korteweg 1999).

Contributions of Liberal Feminists: The Politics of Multiculturalism

As noted above, feminists of color and ethnicity have problematized the tendency of second wave theories to deny differences among women in ways that overlook intersecting forms of subordination and discrimination, while postcolonial feminist scholars have critiqued “Western” feminism's propensity to emphasize difference (Jaggar 2005b:187) through practices of knowing, interpreting, and speaking about gendered and racialized “others” in ways that divest (post-)colonial subjects of both subjectivity and agency, thereby perpetuating (neo)colonial forms of domination (Spivak 1988:272). Liberal feminists, on the other hand, have expressed concerns that moves within multicultural liberal states to recognize cultural difference and to formally accommodate the customs, norms, beliefs, and practices of cultural minorities may clash with the goal of achieving gender justice and equality (e.g., Okin 1994, 1995, 1998a, 1998b, 1999, 2005; Shachar 2001). Susan Moller Okin (1999), for example, has argued that multiculturalism may be “bad for women” because the liberal feminist goal of protecting the fundamental rights and freedoms of women is often relegated by liberal states in favor of accommodating the claims of cultural minorities to group rights and protections. She asserts that “group rights are potentially, and in many cases actually, antifeminist” because “they substantially limit the capacities of women and girls of that culture to live with human dignity equal to that of men, and to live as freely chosen lives as [men] can” (1999:12). In her view, those advocating group rights for cultural minorities within liberal states firstly fail to recognize that such groups, like the wider societies in which they exist, “are themselves gendered, with substantial differences in power and advantage between men and women,” and secondly do not pay adequate attention to the forms of gendered inequality and discrimination that emanate from the private sphere of domestic and family life (1999:12), thereby enabling “culturally endorsed practices that are oppressive to women … [to] remain hidden … [and] perceived as private family concerns” (1998b:680). Listing a number of culturally or religiously sanctioned practices such as polygamy, clitoridechtomy, child marriages, and forced marriages (1999:24) which she regards as violations of women's human rights, Okin questions the idea that feminist and multiculturalist goals are compatible. While acknowledging that “Western cultures … still practice many forms of sex discrimination,” and that “virtually all of the world's cultures have distinctly patriarchal pasts,” she nevertheless claims that some, mostly liberal, cultures “have departed far further from [these pasts] than others” (1999:16). Consequently, she asserts that women in “a more patriarchal minority culture” may “be much better off if the culture into which they were born were either to become extinct … or … encouraged to alter itself so as to reinforce the equality of women” (1999:22–3; for critical responses to this controversial claim see in particular Volpp 2001; Benhabib 2002).

This question of how feminists in the global North should respond to cases where the claims of cultural minorities to recognition and protection conflict with the liberal feminist principle of gender equality has generated a substantial level of debate (for critiques of Okin see especially Norton 2001; Shachar 2001; Volpp 2001; Benhabib 2002). Many feminists would endorse Okin's view that “we need to strive toward … a form of multiculturalism that gives the issues of gender and other intragroup inequalities their due – that is to say, a multiculturalism that effectively treats all persons as each other's moral equals” (Okin, quoted in Phillips 2010:2). However, diverging opinions have surfaced regarding the most appropriate strategies for feminists to adopt. One strategy has been to identify certain nonnegotiable rights or equalities that must be upheld and which set limits to the claims that can rightly be accommodated within multicultural societies (Phillips 2010:2–3). In this vein, Martha Nussbaum (2002), drawing on the work of Amartya Sen, has advocated a “capabilities approach” to gender justice, outlining “basic constitutional principles that should be respected and implemented by the governments of all nations, as a bare minimum of what respect for human dignity requires” (2002:49). She identifies a list of “necessary elements of truly human functioning” (2002:59) that are cross-culturally applicable, including:




bodily health;


bodily integrity;


ability to use the senses, imagination, to think and reason;


emotional development;


practical reason;


the ability to engage in a variety of forms of affiliation, whether social or political;


the ability to live with concern for and in relation to other species;


the ability to play and enjoy recreational activities; and


the ability to exert control over one's political and material environment (2002:60–2; see also Nussbaum 1988, 1992, 1995, 1997, 2000; Nussbaum and Sen 1993; Nussbaum and Glover 1995).

Nussbaum deploys the concept of capabilities to counter the “politically correct,” anti-essentialist strands of feminism which in her view rationalize “ancient religious taboos, the luxury of the pampered husband, ill health, ignorance, and death” and other forms of injustice experienced by women across the globe (Nussbaum, quoted in Jaggar 2005a:58). Similarly, Anne Phillips has identified three guiding principles which can help societies to classify cultural practices as in accordance with or violation of principles of gender equality. Practices are not defensible when they (1) inflict grievous and irreversible harms to a person's well-being or self-esteem; (2) violate the principle of equality, e.g., by discriminating against women; and (3) do not provide individuals with the substantive conditions (political and civil freedoms, educational and employment opportunities) required for genuine consent.

Another approach is to divide jurisdictional authority for contested issues (such as family law) between national governments and cultural minorities in order to balance respect for cultural difference with the protection of individual rights, and to force both states and minority groups to compete for women's allegiance by promoting policies and practices geared toward gender equality (Phillips 2010:4; Shachar 2001). Ayelet Shachar (2001), for example, advocates a system of “joint governance” to foster “ongoing interactions between different sources of authority, as a means of eventually improving the situation of traditionally vulnerable insiders, without forcing them into an ‘either/or’ choice between their culture and their rights” (2001:13). She promotes transformative accommodation as the “most optimistically practical” form of joint governance because it aims “to encourage group authorities themselves to reduce discriminatory internal restrictions” on the choices and actions of group members (2001:14) by convincing them to enact three principles: (1) the allocation of jurisdictional authority along the lines of “sub-matters,” e.g., separable legal components such as education, family law, immigration (119–20); (2) the “no monopoly rule” which states that neither the state nor the minority can acquire exclusive authority over a contested issue that affects individuals both as citizens and as group members (120–2); and (3) the establishment of clearly delineated options which allow individuals to choose between the jurisdiction of the state and the group (122–6).

A third approach is to look to democratic deliberation and intercultural dialogue to resolve conflicts between multicultural and feminist goals (Phillips 2010:4; for examples see Young 2000; Benhabib 2002; Deveaux 2006; Song 2007). Accordingly, Seyla Benhabib has proposed a “complex multicultural dialogue” (2002:101) that enables individuals to engage in “processes of cultural communication, contestation, and resignification … within civil society” (2002:81). Similarly, Monique Deveaux has argued for a deliberative democratic approach which ensures that women from cultural minorities “have a voice in evaluating and deciding the fate of their communities' customs, both by including women in formal decision-making processes and developing new, more inclusive, forums for mediating cultural disputes” (2006:5). In addition, Nancy Fraser's “critical theory of recognition, one that identifies and defends only those versions of the cultural politics of difference that can be coherently combined with the social politics of equality” (1997:12), highlights the importance of public contestation and deliberation, and promotes the idea that all affected parties should be enabled to fully and freely participate in public debate on questions of justice (Fraser and Honneth 2003:43). The recognition of cultural difference, in Fraser's view, should be treated as an issue of social status where “what requires recognition is not group-specific identity but the status of individual group members as full partners in social interaction” (2000:113). Fraser's conception of justice thus centers on the principle of “participatory parity” – a norm of social justice that “requires social arrangements that permit all (adult) members of society to interact with one another as peers” (Fraser and Honneth 2003:36). Participatory parity depends on two conditions: the “objective condition” of a distribution of material resources such as to ensure “participants' independence and ‘voice’;” and the “intersubjective condition” of “institutionalized patterns of cultural value [which] express equal respect … and ensure equal opportunity for achieving social esteem” (2003:36). This norm provides a justificatory standard against which claims by individuals and groups for recognition and/or redistribution, as well as the proposed remedies for injustice, can be evaluated at both the intergroup and intragroup levels. By requiring that claimants in struggles for cultural recognition demonstrate not only that present economic arrangements and/or institutionalized patterns of cultural value prevent them from participating on a par with others in social life, but also that the social changes they advocate will promote rather than impede parity of participation, legitimate claims and remedies can be distinguished from false or pernicious ones (2003:38–42).

This stress on using democratic deliberation and intercultural dialogue to resolve conflicts of “multiculturalism vs. feminism” (Okin 1998b) or “multicultural accommodation vs. women's rights” (Shachar 2001) contrasts with Okin's investment in John Rawls's (1999, 2001) concept of the “original position” in which individuals engage in hypothetical dialogue behind a “veil of ignorance” in order to formulate rational and objective principles of justice within society. Okin worries that “interactive” or “dialogical” approaches may not be up to the task of achieving gender justice because, in her view, many oppressed people internalize their oppression and are “likely to rationalize the cruelties” they suffer, meaning that “committed outsiders can often be better analysts and critics of social injustice than those who live within the relevant culture” (1994:19). Yet speaking for others in this way is dangerous. As Linda Alcoff notes, it entails “the possibility of misrepresentation, expanding one's own authority and privilege, and a generally imperialist speaking ritual,” dangers that may be reduced by instead speaking with and to others (Alcoff 1991–2:23). In an era in which debates on women's rights are often used to reinforce cultural stereotypes (e.g., the idea that certain cultural minorities are particularly prone to sexism), to construct hierarchical binaries between “Western” and “non-Western” values (e.g., rational/irrational, traditional/modern, backward/progressive, civilized/barbaric), and to rationalize and make possible the global “war on/of terror” (Masters 2009; see also Ferguson 2005; Hunt and Rygiel 2006; Nayak 2006; Shepherd 2006), speaking for others may reinforce rather than challenge racialized orders (both global and local) in which proclamations of adherence to “progressive” and “liberal” policies on gender equality and the treatment of women have become both markers and sources of superiority, domination, and privilege (Phillips 2010:3–4, 14). Moreover, the exclusive attention paid to the oppression suffered by women in the global South or by female members of cultural minorities in the global North also deflects attention from the fact that women in the most “developed,” “progressive” societies continue to be politically, economically, and socially marginalized, and suffer from myriad forms of gender-based violence and discrimination (Phillips 2010:25; Volpp 2001). A myopic focus on “cultural” explanations for the suffering experienced only by “Third World” and “minority” women is problematic because it not only masks the relevance of culture in explaining/understanding the violence and injustice experienced by “Western” and “majority” women, but also obscures the ways in which “Third World” and “minority” women articulate agency and subjectivity even in the most constraining and coercive circumstances (Volpp 2001), e.g., by depicting them in dehumanizing and infantilized terms as objects at risk of “death by culture” (Narayan 1997). It also blinds us to the ways in which citizens in the global North are implicated in many of the injustices suffered by Southern and minority women, for example due to the legacies of Western colonialism, or contemporary forms of injustice generated by neoliberal globalization (Jaggar 2005a, 2005b).

Contributions of Poststructural Feminist Theory

The process of destabilizing the universalizing claims and unitary concepts of “second wave” feminisms has been a key concern of poststructural feminism – also termed postmodernist, deconstructionist, linguistic, or French theory – as articulated by scholars such as Cixous, Kristeva, and Irigary, and influenced by the psychoanalytic and linguistic theories of male writers such as Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan. However, in contrast to the theories and practices promoted by women of color and ethnicity, poststructural feminists, like postcolonial feminists, call into question attempts to mobilize around unitary categories such as race, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation, arguing that identity groups are made up of individuals with heterogeneous rather than shared or essential experiences (Mann and Huffman 2005:62). Rejecting “metanarratives” or all-encompassing theories that claim to be capable of explaining women's subordination or oppression across historical and geographical contexts, poststructural feminists have problematized feminist attempts to build theories about “woman”/“women,” arguing that when women are defined, characterized, or “spoken for” they continue to be naturalized, essentialized, or normalized as a category, thereby reinvoking a key mechanism of gender oppression (Alcoff 1988). The task, as Alcoff asserts, is to replace theories of gender or sexual difference with “a plurality of difference where gender loses its position of significance” (Alcoff 1988:407). Non-universalist feminist theories have therefore been proposed which are inimical to essentialism through their unequivocal insistence of historical and cultural specificity – as such poststructural feminists “replace unitary notions of ‘woman’ and ‘feminine gender identity’ with plural and complexly constructed conceptions of social identity, treating gender as one relevant strand among others, attending also to class, race, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation” (Fraser and Nicholson 1989:101). In doing so, poststructural feminists strive to uphold an ideal of political inclusiveness, rejecting any search for first principles or ultimate causes of women's oppression as totalizing and dangerously prone to marginalizing women whose perspectives and experiences differ from our own (Flax 1990). As Gayatri Spivak (1990) has argued, “We cannot but narrate … [but] when a narrative is constructed, something is left out. When an end is defined, other ends are rejected, and one might not know what those ends are” (18–19).

A key focus of poststructural feminist theorizing is on the processes of gendered subjectification – the “historically [and culturally] specific processes whereby one is subjected to the discursive regimes and regulatory frameworks [and] through which gendered individuals and their social contexts are … constructed” (Davies and Gannon 2005:318; see also Foucault 1980; Butler 1990, 1992, 1993). The subject is conceived in these analyses not as transcendental (as a stable, coherent self that exists before and beyond the social realm) but rather as culturally constituted and discursively produced by “relations of power” (Foucault 1980:118) within a given society. As Mouffe (1992) asserts, the subject is:

constituted by an ensemble of “subject positions” that can never be totally fixed in a closed system of differences, constructed by a diversity of discourses among which there is no necessary relation but a constant movement of overdetermination and displacement. The identity of such a multiple and contradictory subject is therefore always contingent and precarious, temporarily fixed at the intersection of those subject positions and dependent on specific forms of identification. (1992:372; my emphasis)

This “multiply constituted subject” is understood as having multiple identities which are constituted through discourse in relation to difference and achieved “through the inscription of boundaries that serve to demarcate an ‘inside’ from an ‘outside,’ a ‘self’ from an ‘other,’ a ‘domestic’ from a ‘foreign’” (Campbell 1998:9) As Connolly argues, “identity is established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognized … [and] are essential to its being … its distinctiveness and solidity” (2002:64). Consequently, poststructural feminists have noted the importance of oppositional binarisms in the construction and reproduction of gender identities – masculinity as a fluid, relational, and contextualized construction is defined in binary opposition to femininity, with connections to other modern dichotomies such as rationality/emotion, active/passive, war/peace, culture/nature, objective/subjective, competitive/caring, and order/anarchy, and with the first “masculine” term in each pair often being valued above the second “feminine” term (Hooper 1998:31–2). These “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics play a crucial regulatory and disciplinary role – they denote an “ideal” or “hegemonic” type of masculinity or femininity which not only defines what men and women ought to be, but also supports male power and female subordination and reinforces the power of dominant groups due to the hierarchy of masculinities in which gender interacts with race, class, and other social divisions (Tickner 2001:16; Connell 1995; Hooper 1998; Schippers 2007). As a result, the multiple models of masculinity and femininity that exist across time and space do so in relations of hierarchy, hegemony, and exclusion (Connell 2001:57; see also Cornwall and Lindisfarne 1994; Hooper 1998; Lloyd 1999; Kimmel and Messner 2001; Whitehead and Barrett 2001; Schippers 2007).

An appreciation of the diversity, complexity, and multiplicity of gender identity, together with a more complex understanding of power has led poststructural feminists to challenge long-standing assumptions that sex is a stable category upon which gendered identities are constructed (Squires and Weldes 2007:186). Butler's extension of the Foucauldian notion of power as performative, for example, leads her to argue that gender is both a material effect of the way in which power takes hold of the body, and an ideological effect of the way power “conditions” the mind (Squires and Weldes 2007:187). Gender is thus not something humans acquire, but something we do (Lloyd 1999:195; Butler 1990, 1992, 1993); it exists only so far as it is ritualistically and repetitively performed “through a stylized repetition of acts” (Butler 1990:140; see also Stone 2005). The performative nature of gender leads Butler to argue that

[g]ender ought not to be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pre-given sex; gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established. As a result, gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or a “natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture.

(Butler 1997, cited in Squires and Weldes 2007:187)

As a result, essentialist appeals to the existence of a true gender identity can be viewed as part of the strategy that conceals gender's performative character and the result of regulatory practices that seek not only to render gender identity uniform through compulsory heterosexuality, but to restrict performative possibilities for alternative gender configurations (Butler 1990; Kantola 2007:278). Furthermore, understanding how the category of “woman”/“women” is produced and restrained through structures of power, using methods such as genealogy, deconstruction, intertextual readings, and the exploration of “subjugated knowledges,” allows for the possibility of subversive agency through which gender norms can be transgressed (Stone 2005). As Scott (2005) argues, treating subjects as discursively constituted does not result in linguistic determinism, given that there are contradictions within and among discursive systems and a multitude of possible meanings for the subject positions they deploy (2005:212). Indeed, the “subject is neither a ground nor a product, but the permanent possibility of a certain resignifying process” (Butler 1992:13). Nor does rejecting Enlightenment conceptions of subjects as stable, autonomous individuals exercising free will deprive individuals of agency. Rather, their agency is “created through situations and statuses conferred upon them” (Scott 2005:212). As Butler asserts, “the constituted character of the subject is the very precondition of its agency” (1992:12). Consequently, poststructural feminist analyses explore how individuals negotiate, resist, embrace, and potentially transform the multiple and conflicting discourses through which they are constituted as subjects and subjected to relations of power, noting the ways in which agency is articulated vis-à-vis discourses of enablement and constraint.


The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon, and the subsequent US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have thrown debates on cultural difference, division, diversity, and differentiation into sharp relief (Brah and Phoenix 2004). In the aftermath of 9/11, many policy makers and ordinary citizens alike turned to Samuel Huntington's (1996) “clash of civilisations” thesis to make sense of the traumatic events, interpreting the attacks in essentialist terms as a clash between Islamic and Western cultures, and as proof of Huntington's claim that “the most pervasive, important and dangerous conflicts will not be between social classes, rich and poor, or other economically defined groups, but between people belonging to different cultural entities” (1996:28). The wars that followed have posed grave dilemmas for feminist scholars and activists who found feminist discourse on women's human rights being strategically coopted by the Bush administration to legitimize violence directed at racialized “others” in Afghanistan and Iraq (Ferguson 2005; Moghadam 2009) with disastrous effects on the well-being of many women, men, and children living in these societies (see Al-Ali and Pratt 2009). The conceptual frameworks and methodological tools provided by women of color and ethnicity, by postcolonial feminists, and by poststructural feminists, and the debates between liberal feminists and their critics on the gender politics of multiculturalism have helped feminist IR scholars to untangle and problematize the ways in which discourses of gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture are part a product of and part productive of these practices of violence. By pointing to historical and contemporary connections between the “woman question” and (neo)colonialism, highlighting the intersection of gender with other constructions of identity, spotlighting the role of language and representational practices in constructing “self” and “others” in orientalist terms and the politics of speaking for and claiming rights on behalf of others, adopting a skeptical stance vis-à-vis totalizing metanarratives of “civilization,” “progress,” and “development,” and by recovering the agency and subjectivity of those marginalized and/or oppressed (see Agathangelou and Ling 2004b; Farrell and McDermott 2005; Ferguson 2005; Hunt and Rygiel 2006; Nayak 2006; Shepherd 2006), feminists have worked to contest the depoliticizing discourses of “muscular humanitarianism” (Orford 1999). One of the greatest challenges for feminists, as Vivienne Jabri (2004) asserts, is to “reclaim the political in feminism” in resistance to “a hegemonic neoliberal order and a matrix of war” – by adopting a feminism of “dissension and contestation” rather than “complicity … [or] cooptation into the discourses of the powerful” (2004: 265; see also Jabri 1999). The conceptual, theoretical, and methodological tools deployed by third wave feminists to highlight the politics of difference provide, in my view, an excellent starting point for problematizing the seductively liberal theories and policies of academic and policy-making elites and for reinvigorating the feminist movement's sustained campaign for gender justice and positive peace.


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Links to Digital Materials

African Feminist Forum (AFF). At, accessed October 2011. AFF is a biennial conference that draws together African feminists to discuss key issues affecting the advancement of women's rights on the African continent.

Amnesty International (AI) – Stop Violence Against Women Campaign. At, accessed October 2011. AI is an international human rights organization. AI campaigns to end violence against women, to remove laws that discriminate against women, and to push for the enactment and implementation of laws that protect women's human rights and guarantee women access to justice and services for survivors of gender-based violence.

Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID). At, accessed October 2011. AWID is an international feminist organization composed of researchers, academics, students, educators, activists, policy makers, development practitioners, donors, and others. It aims to advance gender equality, sustainable development, and women's human rights around the world. One of its key initiatives focuses on resisting and challenging religious fundamentalisms and their impact on women's rights across regions and religions.

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). At, accessed October 2011. CEDAW is the body of independent experts on women's rights that monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights. At, accessed October 2011. The Consortium specializes in building knowledge of gender, conflict, and security, and aims to contribute toward ending violent conflict and building sustainable peace. The website includes a bibliography of feminist academic work in international relations.

Human Rights Watch (HRW). At, accessed October 2011. HRW focuses on defending and protecting human rights around the world, including women's rights and LGBT rights.

OpenDemocracy. At, accessed October 2011. “The Dignity of Women” section of openDemocracy publishes articles highlighting the voices of women working to end violence against women in the Arab region and to promote women's rights. At, accessed October 2011. The “Religion Gender Politics” section examines the prospects for gender equality and women's human rights in the context of a resurgence of religion in public life across the world and multiculturalist claims to difference. At, accessed October 2011.

United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). At, accessed October 2011. UN Women was created by the UN General Assembly in July 2010. UN Women promotes the elimination of discrimination against women and girls, the empowerment of women and gender equality via development, human rights, humanitarian action, and peace and security interventions.

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). At, accessed October 2011. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights appointed in March 1994 a Special Rapporteur on violence against women, including its causes and consequences.

Violence is Not Our Culture (VNC). At, accessed October 2011. VNC is a global campaign to stop violence against women that is justified in the name of culture or religion. Arguing that violence against women manifests itself in all cultures in diverse forms, the campaign challenges and opposes the legitimacy given to legal, religious, and cultural systems that promote or aid discrimination and violence against women and girls.

Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRDIC). At, accessed October 2011. WHRDIC is an international resource and advocacy network that provides protection and support to women human rights defenders worldwide, including women activists, men who defend women's rights, and LGBT defenders and groups committed to the advancement of women's human rights.


Research for this essay was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant number ES/G013993/1). Thanks are due to Laura Sjoberg and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments, and to Vivienne Jabri for encouraging the author to take on this essay. All errors, of course, remain the author's sole responsibility.


  • 1. Alcoff cites Mary Daly (1978) and Adrienne Rich (1977, 1979) as influential proponents of radical (or “cultural”) feminism given their tendency to invoke universalizing and essentialist conceptions of “woman.” Echols also names Susan Griffin, Kathleen Barry, Janice Raymond, Florence Rush, Susan Brownmiller, and Robin Morgan.