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Feminist as Tourist

Feminist as Tourist

Sixteen years after the publication of “Under Western Eyes”, Chandra Mohanty responds to the criticisms made about her initial article, clarifying misunderstandings and updating her argument to current conditions, commencing her essay with a careful contextualization, one that includes both her geographical and ideological constraints and does not neglect “the intellectual, political, and institutional” positioning of her central arguments. Mohanty warns against the dangerous rise of transnational organizations due to their fundamental role in pushing forward a globalized and capitalist agenda. While she believes that present-day feminist scholarship is moving towards useful and important directions in terms of a critique of “global restructuring” and the culture of globalization, she nonetheless criticizes the predominant pedagogical approach to teaching about issues of women and development, identified as the “Feminist as Tourist” model.

This essay will demonstrate how theories taught in university classrooms go beyond the structural confinements of the institution to reach the practical world, in having tangible and negative consequences on development approaches in the global south. Furthermore, it will argue that the “Feminist as Tourist” model serves as a reinforcer to the neoliberal approach to women in development, ultimately benefiting corporate needs and furthering academics’ personal career goals.

The “Feminist as Tourist” model, more casually identified as the “white woman’s burden” or the “feminist as international consumer” model, is a predominant pedagogical approach to teaching topics around women and development. This strategy entails maintaining the syllabus as a primarily euro-American narrative, while simultaneously supplementing it with a few non-western or “third world” publications, while relying on a modernist paradigm:

"The effects of this strategy are that students and teachers are left with a clear sense of the difference and distance between the local (defined as self, nation, and Western) and the global (defined as other, non-Western, and transnational). Thus, the local is always grounded in nationalist assumptions—the United States or Western European nation-state provides a normative context. This strategy leaves power relations and hierarchies untouched since ideas about center and margin are reproduced along Eurocentric lines."

The “Feminist as Tourist” model operates from within a liberal paradigm, and is informed by Eurocentric ideals. Correspondingly, students and teachers both utilize it as a fixed reference point to juxtapose non-western texts, instead of understanding them in their separate cultural and historical contexts, as “brief forays are made into non-Euro-American cultures, and particular sexist cultural practices addressed from an otherwise Eurocentric women’s studies gaze” rendering the approach colonial at heart.

Furthermore, the particular liberal paradigm that sustains the “Feminist as Tourist” model places a heavy emphasis not solely on globalization, but also on economic development, portraying them as the clear and adequate answer to the question of global south women’s emancipation, as it is clear from the following description of a “Gender and Economic Development in the Third World course” course which states that:

"Since the early 1980s economic globalization has been achieved on the basis of a common set of macroeconomic policies pursued in industrial and developing countries alike. These policies frame both the gender-differentiated impacts of policy and the initiatives that are implemented to reduce inequalities between men and women. This course will examine the impact of these policies on men and women in the global South (a.k.a. developing countries) on gender inequalities and to evaluate the policies/strategies for reducing gender inequalities and promoting the well-being of all people."

It is clear from Mohanty’s description of the “Feminist as Tourist”, a primarily euro-American narrative, that this curriculum is constructed and implemented to work hand-in-hand with a capitalist agenda, one that continuously strives to uncover new and unexplorable markets in order to gain profit. The interest in women’s issues, as reflected in the “Feminist as Tourist” curriculum, arises from a primarily economical apprehension. It is thus not surprising that Ester Boserup 1970’s study on women’s role in economic development, was accepted as the foundation the Women in Development’s framework and the crafting of their agenda. The adoption of a liberal outline and its perfect alignment with a capitalist agenda is anything but arbitrary. By identifying women’s subordination to be rooted in their economic marginalization in the global south, corporations’ penetration of these areas can become justified and even masked by a false interest in advancing a feminist cause.  Author Sydney Calkin, who raises the question of “Why does neoliberalism evince concern for gender inequality as a form of inequality if it is broadly concerned with individual subjects?” argues that neoliberalism exploits certain aspects of feminism insofar as it represents gender inequality as “a site of accumulation and mechanism for legitimising the increased power accorded to the private sector in development governance.” Accordingly, questions about women’s role in the economy, a predominantly Eurocentric narrative preserved by the “Feminist as Tourist” syllabus, have acquired prominence in curriculums of universities of the global north, because of their potential to function both as an opportunity for profit-making and as a façade for the increasing corporate power in programs and plans for development:

"The Nike Foundation’s emphasis on the empowerment of adolescent girls reflects efforts to erase brand associations between Nike and child labour, while the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women initiative sought to draw attention to Goldman’s socially responsible endeavours in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis in which it was considered a major wrongdoer."

Furthermore, the reliance on a purely neoliberal framework results in a fundamental indifference towards the intertwined nature of social and political situations that inform women’s actual situations in global south nations. By focusing on women’s penetration of the marketplace, a dangerous assumption of equating women’s financial advancement with their complete emancipation from a subordinate status is made. Not only is this equivalence false, it is also inherently sexist. For instance, the United States’ Agency for International Development (USAID) Gender-Responsive Economic Actions for the Transformation of (GREAT) Women program, encourages women in the Philippines to improve a certain set of skills in order to compete with men in the market place. Contrary to what the title might suggest, this program is in fact reactionary, for its normalization of male privilege:

"The Gender-Responsive Economic Actions for the Transformation of Women, or GREAT Women, provides an exemplary platform for asserting women’s critical role in propelling enterprise and expanding job opportunities. GREAT Women, in partnership with designers and retailers, assists disadvantaged women producers and entrepreneurs to create better products, reach new markets, procure better and more inexpensive supplies, and sustainably manage business operations. All these ultimately lead to higher incomes for women entrepreneurs."

The phrase “women entrepreneurs” is intended to invoke feelings of empowerment, strength, and dominance. It is also synonymous with financial solidity and stability, rendering it effortlessly parallel with a liberal and masculinist understanding of power, one that perceives the latter as a resource, or a tangible possession. It calls for women to act as more efficient, more productive, and more profitable economic agents. This precisely the philosophy that informs the USAID GREAT women program, a philosophy that entails that the distribution of power will inevitably result in the establishment of an equal status between men and women:

"Take the case of 120 embroiderers who are part of the Rural Improvement Club in Baao, Camarines Sur. GREAT Women helped the embroiderers enhance their products and gain access to markets. As a result, these women now earn between 3 to 6 dollars per day, compared to just 1 dollar a day they earned previously."

In accordance with Iris Marion Young, this “distributive model of power” fails to highlight the broader social and political structures that shape the individuals’ relationship to power, and limits it to an inadequate dyadic understanding of this relationship. Young, while assuming a Foucauldian standpoint, argues that the neoliberal model of power, guarantees the highly problematic appropriation of power by a selected few. Nevertheless, the failure to illuminate a more comprehensive context of power relations, and instead concentrating on a statistical and economic framework can be regarded as a deliberate strategy to overlook the fundamental failings of the neoliberal system. Through the teaching of a dominant global north narrative that does not explore alternative approaches for development nor examine and reflect on its fundamental shortcomings, a neoliberal approach to women in development becomes accepted as a standard, and trusted as an adequate one.

By extension, Calkin writes that gender has become a “headlining buzzword” in narratives surrounding development and gender equality for its role in economic advancement by the public and private sectors alike, as “the equation of women’s empowerment with national growth and poverty eradication has been embraced, for example, by USAID and the US State Department as an especially important theme Hillary Clinton’s time as Secretary of State” Still, the ability for gender to be integrated in plans for development remains constrained in its compulsory tie to economic development. Furthermore, it has now become dependent “on the extent to which the goals of gender equality can be re-imagined as profitable and strategic investments for businesses,” as reports from The Association of Women in Development indicate a remarkable increase in private donors in the current funding landscape for projects involving women in development.

In her revisited publication of Under Western Eyes, Chandra Mohanty writes in solidarity with critics of Eurocentric humanism in favor of a non-colonizing feminist project across borders. She additionally identifies neoliberalism and fundamentalism “as co-existing forces that shift both culture and politics towards conservatism”. The complex nature of the relation between neoliberalism and fundamentalism, gives birth to agents such as transnational organizations, which serve as “processes of re-colonization of the culture and identities of people across the globe”. In the USAID GREAT women initiative, an idea that consists of Filipino women establishing and running their own businesses, it is implied that this western understanding of modernity is not solely beneficial, but also inevitable. By imposing a capitalist vision of accomplishment, this approach to development overlooks the complex and rich cultures and histories that countries of the global south possess. Instead, it proceeds to operate in a top-down approach, that sees the global north as a superior influencer and producer of knowledge whilst the global south as a passive recipient and mere beneficiary of that knowledge. Even the terms “developed” and “under-developed” underline the blatant hierarchy between the global north and the global south. Besides, this reinforcement of differences contributes to a further widening of the gap that separates “the west” (the global north) from “the rest” (the global south), and it is at the very core of the “Feminist as Tourist” pedagogical model, as explicated by Mohanty.

While Mohanty explicates the immediate consequences of the “Feminist as Tourist” model on students and teachers alike, from its prioritizing of the global north feminist agendas to its culturally reductionist methodology that limits students and teachers’ abilities to think outside of their local geographical boundaries, her analysis does not delve into the detriment of this pedagogy on the quality of academic research produced within this paradigm.  It has been argued that due to an upsurge in the institutionalization of feminist academic research, academic feminists have become the sole beneficiaries of their research. Instead of calling for transformative and revolutionary social change, academic feminism, especially one that is informed by a liberal framework, has become a profitable segue to assisting individual women’s careers: “the academic feminist label, for many  activist organizations, now has the baggage of careerism, of maintaining the status quo, and of rising to the top rather than aiming for transformation.”

"In other words, while academic feminists conducting research in the global South with women’s organizations may have little to give beyond academic knowledge and skill training, it has to be recognized that they are often more likely to benefit professionally  from the research conducted in terms of furthering their academic careers, increasing their number of publications, training graduate students, providing a research environment that will lead to the awarding of graduate degrees, and benefiting more  financially, while utilizing the knowledge base of grassroots women in order to do so."

The institutionalization of universities is key in understanding the inability or reluctance from the part of academics to practice instead of merely theorizing about issues concerning women and development. The particular practice of institutionalization in the global north renders the universities an agent of the state, that must strictly follow and adhere to its master narrative. Consequently, these sites of knowledge production transform into a collective perpetuator of said narrative. In the case of women in development, the “Feminist as Tourist” model’s superficial take on women in the global south and its overall detachment from the global south in its emphasis on the parameters, geographical and otherwise, that separate the west from the rest, all contribute into the lack of thorough and comprehensive analyses. Due to the manner through which policies that govern the global north are incessantly utilized as a reference point, countries that constitute the global south are not regarded as autonomous entities with distinct social, historical, and cultural frameworks, but simply as entities that aspire to transition into what has been standardized as modern and developed by the global north’s liberal take on development.

Additionally, many feminist academics’ desire to further their careers and publish their work, results in an obligatory alignment with the accepted narrative. This creates a situation where these feminist academics continue to produce knowledge that tends to fit into and is suitable with the liberal paradigm, reinforcing its position as a reliable reference, instead of producing knowledge that challenges and exposes its flaws. A dangerous homogenization of academic research around women and development is thus sustained, and consequently the status quo is maintained via this vicious cycle of eurocentrism that nourishes an archaic nature of hierarchical scholarship:

"Although today’s world is much more complicated than any disinterested methodology can explain, it is the myth of untainted knowledge that continues to predominate in academe. No piece of scholarship has ever been nonaligned. It is a matter of whether a piece of scholarship is aligned with the right set of politics that determines whether or not it achieves the exalted status of objective and nonpolitical. The default position of state power as a coded synecdoche of responsible scholarship is constantly reinvented as normative by those who seek to uphold what they conceptualize as timeless standards of objective inquiry."

Academic knowledge acquired inside the classroom, notwithstanding how broad and theoretical it might appear to be, proves to possess tangible effects on the world beyond the structural confinements of the classroom. These effects, in the case of the “Feminist as Tourist” pedagogical model, can be disadvantageous to women in the global south, in the ways they inform or ill-inform policies around development. They can also be manipulated and exploited as marketing strategies to create profit by ill-reputed corporations, as well as perpetuated by academics to further their personal careers by sustaining the master narrative. Nevertheless, this model can yield results that are not always entirely detrimental to global south women. In the example of the USAID Gender-Responsive Economic Actions for the Transformation of Women initiative, the women enrolled in this program achieved concrete benefits in the way they were enabled to further their economic status and improve their livelihood. Most importantly, USAID (supposed) pledge to protect their intellectual property rights, which subsequently helps the women feel more autonomous by acquiring a solid sovereignty over the fruits of their own labor. In spite of the advantages that a development model informed by a capitalist agenda can bear, the fixation on economic advancement simply cannot be dismissed and considered entirely without cynicism. It’s clear that corporate giants see feminism as an excellent niche for expansion.


Works Cited

Calkin, Sydney1. "Disrupting Disempowerment: Feminism, Cooptation, and the Privatised Governance of Gender and Development." New Formations, no. 91, July 2017, pp. 69-86. EBSCOhost, doi:10.398/NEWF:91.04.2017.

Gender and Economic Development in the Third World. (2017). [PDF] Diksha Arora. Available at: http://economics.utah.edu/class-syllabi/syllabus_spring2016.pdf [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

Imperial University : Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, edited by Piya Chatterjee, and Sunaina Maira, University of Minnesota Press, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/aup/detail.action?docID=1693973.

Lincoln, L. (2017). Women, Empowerment, and Development.

Mohanty, C. (2003). “Under Western Eyes” Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(2), pp.499-535

Swarr, Amanda Lock and Richa Nagar. Critical Transnational Feminist Praxis. State University of New York Press, 2010. SUNY Series, Praxis: Theory in Action. EBSCOhost, proxy.aup.fr/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=306680&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Usaid.gov. (2017). Gender Equality and Female Empowerment. [online] Available at: https://www.usaid.gov/asia-regional/gender-equality-and-female-empowerment [Accessed 27 Nov. 2017].

Young, I. and Allen, D. (2011). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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