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The Postcoloniality of Gender

This post is part of the Bodies, Gender, and Domination OOPS Series.

To elucidate further the connection among (post)colonialism, gender, and domination, two texts in particular come to mind: Chandra Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” from 1984 and M. Jacqui Alexander’s “Not Just (Any)Body Can Be A Citizen: the Politics of Law, Sexuality and Postcoloniality in Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas” from 1994. Mohanty criticizes the construction of the category “Third-World women” and the universalizing as well as simplifying analysis by Western feminists. Her critique is similar to points, especially the critique of the universalizing discourse of Western feminism, evoked by Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí.

Here, however, I am more interested in another point: Both Oyěwùmí and María Lugones address the role that men who have been racialized as inferior play in the process of dominating women of color. These men, Oyěwùmí and Lugones argue, collaborate with white men while also constructing and using a certain state power. As she notes in “The Coloniality of Gender,” Lugones is especially interested in the “intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality in a way that enables me to understand the indifference that men, but, more importantly to our struggles, men who have been racialized as inferior, exhibit to the systematic violence inflicted upon women of color.”

With the help of Alexander, I would like to highlight some aspects of the postcoloniality of gender that serve to dominate women and queers: namely, the importance of a certain construction of (hetero)sexuality for postcolonial nation-building and as a biopolitical tool to restore black middle-class men’s manhood after colonial domination. Similar to Lugones and Oyěwùmí, Alexander deals with the introduction of a certain sexualization by the colonizers — in this case in Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas — that erased indigenous sexualities (Lucayan, Carib, and Arawak) as well as the parallel process of racialization. Black women’s bodies were constructed as wild and untamed, and black men were to be feared as oversexualized and brutalized. Black men were trained in morality and respectable citizenship by the British, whereas black women were trained at home.

During the process of postcolonial nation-building, some continuities can be observed: a form of nationalism was established where men were to render public service to the nation and to stick to notions of respectability. By contrast, women had to defend the nation by producing and caring for the nuclear family. Alexander then shows how black middle-class men, to restore and strengthen the construction of their manhood, had both to distance themselves from black working-class men and to demonstrate their capabilities to rule especially through forms of paternity. At the same time, women’s labor was and is heavily exploited, mainly as unpaid domestic work and in the tourism sector. Alexander speaks about the “political economy of desire” as tourism in these countries is often based on the sexualization and exotization of the female body to attract transnational capital in neoliberal capitalism.

Alexander argues that homophobic policies and laws in these countries serve not only to police sexuality, but also to construct a certain image of the nation as respectable and ordered. Moreover, bodies that are marked as non-procreative by the state are not deemed to be proper citizens because they refuse to reproduce the nation and serve the nation’s survival. By contrast, forms of morality that are connected to heterosexuality and the monogamous nuclear family are upheld to speak to conservative citizens and to white conservative males as customers in tourism.

It soon becomes clear how long-lasting consequences of colonial constructions of gender and sexuality forced on the population had their impact on the construction of a “respectable” nation and how this works in connection with citizenship, capitalism, and neoliberal globalization. There are continuities in the domination of women by both colonizers and colonized men. The concepts of certain gender hierarchies and heterosexuality have been so successfully introduced that they build a grounding principle of the nation-state and determine who is a legitimate citizen and who gets excluded. This serves as a powerful tool to make female and queer bodies and sexualities compliant to these norms.

Taken together, all these texts paint a complex picture of the intertwining forces of racialization, sexualization, Western universalization of concepts and discourses, and the long-lasting effects of colonialism that construct categories serving the subordination of women. They all emphasize that gender categories and hierarchies are constructed and thus contingent. It was and is an ongoing multilayered process of long duration, but exactly in this construction, all these thinkers see ways to challenge such orders. As one strategy to work against these dominations, Alexander calls for feminist decolonization of the female body: “The work of decolonization consists as well in the decolonization of the body. Women’s bodies have been ideologically dismembered within different discourses: the juridical, profit maximization, religious, and the popular.”

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