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Colonialism and Modernity:
Feminist Re-presentations of
Women in Non-Western Societies
AIHWA ONG
Who Is the Non-Feminist Other?
In a recent paper, Marilyn Strathern notes that feminists discover themselves by
becoming conscious of oppression from the Other. In order to restore to subjec­
tivity a self dominated by the Other, there can be no shared experience with per­
sons who stand for the Other. Thus, necessary to the construction of the feminist
self is a non-feminist Other . . . generally conceived of as " patriarchy."1 But
Strathern also cautions that if women construct subjectivity for themselves, they
do so strictly within the sociocultural constraints of their own society . 2 This paper
will suggest the problems feminists 3 experience in achieving the separation they
4. desire when it comes to understanding women in the non-Western world
The irony of feminism is twofold : (1) As an oppositional subculture reproduced
within the Western knowledge of the non-Western World, it is a field defined by
historicism . This post-Enlightenment view holds that the world is a complex but
unified unity culminating in the West . Liberal and socialist feminists alike apply
the same incorporating world historical schemes to their understanding of
women and men in the non-Western world . With common roots in the Enlight­
enment, masculinist and feminist perspectives share in the notion that enlight­
ened reason has been a critical force in social emancipation . Western standards
and goals—rationality and individualism—are thereby used to evaluate the cul­
tures and histories of non-Western societies . Feminist voices in the social sciences
unconsciously echo this masculinist will to power in its relation to non-Western
societies. Thus, for feminists looking overseas, the non-feminist Other is not so
much patriarchy as the non-Western woman . (2) Essential to the feminist task,
Strathern argues, is the need to expose and destroy the authority of Others (i .e.
male) to determine feminine experience . Yet, when feminists look overseas, they
frequently seek to establish their authority on the backs of non-Western women,
determining for them the meanings and goals of their lives . If, from the feminist
perspective there can be no shared experience with persons who stand for the
­
Colonialism and Modernity
373
Other, the claim to a common kinship with non-Western women is at best, tenu­
ous, at worst, non-existent.
My concern here is to talk about the intersections between colonial discourse
and feminist representations of non-Western women in what may be called
"women in development " studies . There are different self-styled approaches
within this feminism, linked by a basic concern with problems of sexual
inequality and difference in non-Western societies, problems perceived as the failure to
achieve modernity. The terms " non-Western" and " third World" are used as a
shorthand, and not to imply a monolithic world outside European and American
societies which have collectively maintained hegemony over much of the globe in
recent history.5 By "colonial discourse" I mean different strategies of description
and understanding which were produced out of the historical emergence of this
transnational network of power relations. Historically, distinct strands of colonial
discourse circulating in particular colonial societies were linked to Western impe­
rialist definitions of colonized populations . 6 Although there has been significant
dismantling of this global political structure since the Second World War, neo-co­
lonial preoccupations continue to haunt Western perceptions of ex-colonial
societies . The following discussion suggests that well-known feminist studies on
women in ex-colonial societies have not escaped this hegemonic world view.
Feminist Discursive Power and the Silenced Other
Albert Memmi characterizes the relationship between the colonizer and the
colonized as one of "implacable dependence ." 7 For the privilege of making cultural
judgements which see their way into print, feminists often speak without reduc­
ing the silence of the cultural Other . George Marcus and Michael Fischer have
recommended the repatriation of anthropology in order to defamiliarize the
world view of middle-class Americans . 8 Much recent feminist study of Asian
women already has had this function, producing epistemological and political
gaps between us feminists and them " oppressed " women . I will argue that al­
though some kind of distance is necessary for arriving at a partial understanding
of each other, this is not the kind of separation we should seek . We have to first
divest ourselves of a cultural heritage whereby women in non-Western societies
are fixed as various sexualities and natural capacities.
In the late 19th century, British traveller Isabella Bird passed through the Malay
peninsula and made the following observation:
The people lead strange and uneventful lives . The men are not inclined to much
eortxcpifnshgut,adwerhyposicland,
in
ploughing for
rice . . . . The women were lounging about the house, some cleaning fish, others
pounding rice ; but they do not care for work, and the little money which they need
for buying clothes they can make by selling mats or jungle fruits . . . 9
Not a colonial official hut an " indomitable " explorer of the Eastern world re­
cently brought under Western influence, Isabella Bird had already fixed her mar­
ket lenses on the Malay (lack of) potential as a labor pool .10 There are numerous
374
Aihwa Ong
other examples by less well known British observers in the "tropical dependen­
cies" where natives were constantly evaluated in terms of their "natural" capaci­
1 and then dismissed as "indolent ."
ties
What has this got to do with contemporary feminist perspectives on Asian
women? Since the early 19705, when feminists turned their attention overseas, our
understanding of women and men in the Third World has been framed in essen­
tialist terms: how their statuses may be explained in terms of their labor and re­
productive powers . The Role of Women in Economic Development blazed a trail
which has yet to spend itself. 12 Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, books on nonWestern women emphasized their roles in capitalist development . Let me cite a
few collections : Women and National Development : the Complexities of Change 13 ;
African Women in the Development Process14; Of Marriage and the Market: Wom­
en's Subordination in International Perspective15 ; Women, Men and the Interna
tional Division of Labor 16 ; and Women 's Work. 17 Part of my own training as an an­
thropologist has been influenced by this kind of feminist literature largely shaped
by a political economic perspective . By and large, non-Western women are taken
as an unproblematic universal category ; feminists mainly differ over whether
modernisation of the capitalist or socialist kind will emancipate or reinforce sys
tems of gender inequality found in the Third World . The status of non-Western
women is analyzed and gauged according to a set of legal, political and social
benchmarks that Western feminists consider critical in achieving a power balance
between men and women.
Modernization Discourse on Third World Women
Most of the literature in development studies falls within the framework of the socalled modernization school, as most clearly spelled out by William W . Rostow. 18
Each generation of scholars has reworked this model which opposes Western mo­
dernity to Third World traditionalism . In the 1960s, Raphael Patai in Women in
the Changing World accounted for gender inequalities in terms of the degree to
which "age-old, custom-determining roles " were being broken down by "West­
ernization;" a process seen to favor women's access to wage work and higher social
status. 19 This position was challenged by Laura Bossen who argued that Western
ization has caused women to lose highly variable roles in the traditional economy.
By placing structural limits on women's access to new production activities, the
modernization process has reduced women's status relative to that of men in the
Third World
A recent revival of the modernization theory is expressed by Linda Lim in her
paper on "the dilemma of Third World women workers in multinational facto
ries." 20 She maintains that in societies "where capitalist relations are least
..devlop traditional patriarchy is sufficiently strong to maintain women in an in­
ferior labor market position ."F
21 ollowing from this logic, she maintains that by
providing these women with wage employment, transnational companies con­
tribute to their emancipation. This is an example of linear thinking which ignores
­
Colonialism
and Modernity
375
the multiple and fluid nature of power relations . As my study shows, factory
women freed from some forms of family control come under new systems of
domination such as industrial discipline, social surveillance, and religious vigi­
lance. Patriarchal power is reconstituted in the factory setting and in the
fundamentalist Islamic movement which induce both rebellion and self control on the
part of women workers. 22 By using a traditional/modernity framework, these
feminists view the destruction of "traditional customs" as either a decline of
women's status in a romanticized "natural" economy, or as their liberation by
Western economic rationality. This either/or argument reveals a kind of magical
thinking about modernity which has proliferated in Third World governments,
while confusing and obscuring the social meanings of change for people caught
up in it.
Discourse on Women in Capitalist and Social Transitions
For many socialist feminists, Asian societies are significant to the extent they
possess or lack "patriarchal" traditions which may be reproduced in the transition to
a capitalist or socialist " mode of production ." Women 's Work is based on papers
on the sexual division of labor initially published in Signs (Vol . 7, No. 2, 1981).
Women ' s status worldwide is discussed within "an evolutionary perspective on
the gender division of labor."23 In their critique of Boserup, Lourdes Beneria and
Gita Sen offer a " capital accumulation" model to discuss " the specific ways in
which women are affected by the hierarchical and exploitative structure of
production associated with capitalism's penetration in the Third World?" C
24 apital
ism is personified and differentiated in terms of its varied effects on "domestic
work," production and reproduction, population control and birth control . In
contrast, "women" (in Africa, Latin America and Asia) are differentiated only in
terms of their status as wives and workers in reproduction (i .e . the production of
use values in the household), and production (of commodities) . Beneria and
Sen's claim to "a richly textured understanding" may possibly describe their ab­
stract formulation of "tensions between gender and class," 25 but not their
representation of "women in the Third World ."
This substitution of understanding of women as cultural beings by an elabora­
tion of feminist theory is also found in Women, Men and the International Divi­
sion of Labor. 26 The papers taken as a whole tell us more about Marxist feminist
thinking about the capitalist world system than about the experience of women
and men in the industrializing situation . Eleven papers fall under sections entitled
"global accumulation and the labor process," "production, reproduction, and the
household economy," and "labor flow and capitalist expansion ." Seven essays (
including my own) are "case studies in electronics and textiles ." This organization is
clearly an attempt to discuss changing women's positions in the encounter be­
tween global capitalist forces and the everyday life of paid and unpaid work.
However, a consideration of the latter is subordinated to descriptions of the inter­
sections of patriarchy and capitalism . Indeed, capitalism is delineated as a histori­
376
Aihwa Ong
cally-conditioned, polymorphous system ; it has more contradictions and person­
alities than the women and men who are ostensibly the subjects of the volume . In
most of the papers, the implied message is that even when women constitute the
majority of workers in transnational industries, their practical and theoretical sig­
nificance as " a source of cheap labor " tends to take precedence over a more
carefulonsidthcalmenigsth aveform
.
Except
for
essays by Bolles and Green, discourse on women's position is theoretically derived
from their being acted upon in an unproblematic fashion by patriarchal and capi­
talist relations of domination . Even in the case studies, quotations cited are from
marxist scholars (e .g. Braverman, Wolpe), and femi11ists like Heidi Hartmann are
considered more significant in uncovering the social meanings of work relations
than the words of women on the shop floor. The general effect of these papers is
the fetishization of capital accumulation and the valorization of women and men
as commodities.
By portraying women in non-Western societies as identical and interchange­
able, and more exploited than women in the dominant capitalist societies, liberal
and socialist feminists alike encode a belief in their own cultural superiority . On
the one hand, we have a set of Western standards whereby feminists and other
scholars evaluate the degree of patriarchal oppression inflicted on women as
wives, mothers, and workers in the Third World . For instance, studies on women
in post-1949 China inevitably discuss how they are doubly exploited by the peas­
a11t family and by socialist patriarchy," reflecting the more immediate concerns of
American socialist feminists than perhaps of Chinese women themselves . By
"oaufsitnhcgeClxpdrmywithoen
's
liberation,
these works are part of a whole network of Western academic and policy-making
discourses on the backwardness of the non-Western, non-modern world. There is
a scientific te11dency to treat gender and sexuality as categories that are measur­
able, and to ignore indigenous meanings which may conceive of them as ideas in­
separable from moral values.
On the other hand, feminist approaches which purport to understand indige­
nous traditions and meanings that have persisted over the course of moderniza­
tion often betray a view of no11-Western women as out of time with the West,"
and therefore a vehicle for misplaced Western nostalgia. A recent ethnography,
Geisha," discussed the sexual aesthetics of Japanese women and yet is coy about
their specific intention and techniques . Despite the rich ethnographic details, this
view "into a feminine community that has been the subject of rumor a11d fantasy
for centuries in the West " (dustjacket) has managed to refreeze geishas as objects
in Oriental erotica . Although their subculture is intended to create an illusion of
an earlier time, one wishes the writer had situated her descriptio11 of their images
and working lives more firmly in late 20th-century Japanese society.
Another modernist mode for treating exotic women out of their time context is
presented in Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kling Woman.30 This book has become
a popular text for introductory anthropology courses. Here is a feminist confron­
tation with a non-Western woman as an " individual, i .e. someone seen as auton­
omous, in the moral sense of our modern (individualist) ideology. It seems inevi­
Colonialism and Modernity
377
table that Nisa's life is represented as a sexual discourse that "we" can
appropriate for our post-modern consumption.
Modern Posturings with Nonmodern Images
Dumont defines modern ideology as that which is characterized by a valorization
of the individual as an autonomous moral being . and neglects, or subordinates
the social whole ." The feminist works cited above seek a modern form of
indvualfreomthinysfgedrlationh-Wesrwold
.
There
is insufficient attention to nonmodern social values which do not conceptualize
gender relations in those terms (of individualism) . Furthermore, "the non-West­
ern woman " as a trope of feminist discourse is either nonmodern or modern ; she
is seldom perceived as living in a situation where there is deeply felt tension be­
tween tradition and modernity . Two analytical strategies emerge in the feminist
discourses discussed . First, even when, like Nisa, the non-Western woman speaks,
she is wrenched out of the context of her society and inscribed within the
concerns of Western feminist scholars. Secondly, however, well-intended in their goal
of exposing the oppression of Third World women, feminist scholars have a
tendency to proceed by reversal : non-Western women are what we are not . These
tendencies of projection and reversal situate non-Western women in a subordi­
nate position within feminist theoretical and textual productions . These self-vali­
dating exercises affirm our feminist subjectivity while denying those of nonWestern women.
What is peculiarly colonial in those feminist perspectives is the assumption thai
Western standards and feelings take precedence over those of their Third World
subjects. In their naturalistic conceptualizations of non-Western women as labor
power or sexuality, there is little interest (except in Dalby) about indigenous con­
structions of gender and sexuality. We miss the dense network of cultural politics
that we demand of a study of women and men in Western societies . Thus, al­
though a common past may be claimed by feminists, Third World women are of­
ten represented as mired in it, ever arriving at modernity when Western feminists
are already adrift in postmodernism.
Modest Goals and Partial Understandings
Despite my critical remarks, I remain convinced that feminists, because of their
privileged positions as members of hegemonic powers, should speak out against
female oppression at home and overseas . Surely an element of the current back­
lash against social science research by Third World governments32 their protests
against our cultural assumptions and conceptual language ." Political elites in the
Third World have their own representations and discourses which do not
necsarilyftonwhme'srlo-caint
.
However, this does
not mean that the prescriptions of sympathetic Western feminists are inevitably
more aligned with the ideas and values of Third World women . I mentioned ear­
lier our need to maintain a respectful distance, not in order to see ourselves more
clearly (the only possible goal, as Marcus and Fischer seem to think), but to leave
37e
Aihwa Ong
open the possibilities for an understanding not overly constructed by our own
preoccupations . This " privilege of distantiation"34 also helps us accept that cul
tural struggles in the Third World may be for social and sexual destinies different
from Western (male-dominated or feminist) visions.
I can suggest a few tentative leads for recognizing a mutuality of discourse in
our encounter with women in non-Western societies . We can resist the tendency
to write our subjectively-defined world onto art Other that lies outside it . As the
above review shows, feminist scholarship tends to be riddled with natural, sexual,
political, and social categories when it comes to re-presenting the Other . When we
jettison our conceptual baggage, we open up the possibilities for mutual but par­
tial, and ambiguous, exchange . With lames Clifford, I am doubtful that we can
achieve more than partial understandings . However, the multivocal ethnographic
texts he would have anthropologists produce must also disclose a riot of social
meanings embedded in the confrontation between tradition and modernity in
Third World societies. Below, I attempt to show how cultural analysis in
anthropology can produce an understanding of gender as constructed by, and
contingent upon, the play of power relations in a cultural context.
In my study of Malay factory women, gender is revealed as a symbolic system
not separable from domains such as the family, the economy, and politics, but as
embedded in discourses and images marking social boundaries and self-reflective
identities . Foucault has noted that modern power is productive, rather than re­
pressive . 35 In sexual discourses, for instance, new techniques and regulations are
generated for controlling social activity and perceptions . These in turn induce an­
other scheme of power relations, i .e. techniques of self-management by people
subjected to control. 36 The fluid and multiple nature of power relations becomes
a part of the everyday life of young peasant women working in transnational fac­
tories. This making of a female labor force has been accompanied by an
inflatoryceshialmngofedrsxuality
:
these are negotiated
and contested in relation to other discourses about social difference and
.dominatMlysoce I identify at least four overlapping sets of discourses
about factory women : corporate, political, Islamic, and personal . Corporate
discourse elaborated on the "natural" accommodation of " oriental female" fingers,
eyes, and passivity to low-skilled assembly work . This instrumental-biological
representation of women is part of the neo-colonial attitude towards
development in Third World societies perceived as an international reservoir of cheap la­
bor. Secondly, the emergence of a Malay female industrial labor force has
produced a public debate over their sexuality, as expressed in individualistic ideas,
behavior, and modern forms of consumption . The "electronics woman" becomes
a symbol of sexual threat to Malay culture and of working class defiance. Islamic
pronouncements about factory women's morality betrays an anxiety over their
crossing of social boundaries, and their flirtation with secularism and
.indvuhalstcef-y emand a greater religious vigilance to bring Malay
Td
work-inmebacthfoldIsmiwanh In this explosion of sexual
.
discourses, many factory women internalize the cautionary tales and are induced
to discipline themselves as Muslims and as workers. Others see themselves as
Colonialism and Modernity
379
modern women, and throwing caution to the winds, embrace Western images of
sexual liberation . By looking at the politics of sexuality, I discovered conflicting
sets-of genders, and their embeddedness in political struggles over cultural
identyahrsoindutalmerzo In their own words and
.
actions, which I cannot reproduce here, we see how meanings attached to gender
can generate deep divisions, confusion, and unresolved tensions between
tradition and modernity.
Like Malay factory women, government bureaucrats, and religious zealots, we
may wish to deconstruct colonial categories and problematize modernization . By
giving up our accustomed ways of looking at non-Western women, we may begin
to understand better . We may come to accept their living according to their own
cultural interpretations of a changing world, and not simply acted upon by inher­
ited traditions and modernization projects . They may not seek our secular goal of
individual autonomy, nor renounce the bonds of family and community . Albert
Memmi observes that in passionately repossessing themselves, the colonized will
be nationalistic, not internationalistic (i .e . under Western hegemony) . Many in
the Third World, including Malaysians, seek a separate destiny in Islamic
fundamentalism, itself a historical force against the global domination by Western im­
perialism . Edward Said has suggested that a new way of transnational solidarity is
not through assimilating the Rest into a common unity, but by renouncing our
utopian, libertarian vision ." It seems to me that as feminists, we need to take into
account the changing world community, and recognize the limits of our own tra­
ditions and explanations. We begin a dialogue when we recognize other forms of
gender- and culture-based subjectivities, and accept that others often choose to
conduct their lives separate front our particular vision of the future.
Notes
1 . Marilyn Strathern, "An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropol
ogy," Signs 12 ( Winter 1987) p. 288.
2. Ibid., p. 291.
3. By " feminists" I do not merely mean white women but also persons of different
nationalities (myself included) engaged in the field of Anglophone feminism, an area overly
determined by Western interests.
4 . I will confine my discussion to studies dealing with women in Asian societies, although
my remarks may apply to feminist endeavors in other parts of the non-Western worts].
5. By the same token, "Western " is taken as a problematic construct, and is by no means
used to suggest an undifferentiated and congealed form of global dominance . Since we are
discussing texts in the English language, " Western " is here taken to include European
societies under prewar British and postwar American hegemonic leadership.
6. This definition of colonial discourse is thus broader than that used by Lata Mani in
" Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India," Cultural Critique? (Fall
198 7), pp. 119-156.
7. Albert Memmi, The Colorized and the Colonizer (Boston : Beacon press, 1965).
8. George Marcus and Michael Fischer, Anthropology as Culture (Critique (Chicago: Chi­
cago University p ress, 1986) .
380
Aihwa Ong
9. Isabella Bird, The Golden Chersonese (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1967)
(1886).
10. Isabella Bird's writings on her travels to the corners of the British empire and beyond
have recently been printed in the United Stales because of the American market for " travel
literature ." See her The Yangze Valley and Beyond (New York : Beacon Press, 1987) and
Unbeaten Tracks in japan (New York : Beacon Press,1987).
11.For a discussion of colonial discourse in the Malay world, see S . Hussein Alatas, The
Myth of the Lazy Native (London: Frank Cass, 1977).
12. Ester Boserup, Women's Role in Economic Development (London : St. Martin's Press,
1970)
13.Wellesley Editorial Board, " Women and National Development : the Complexity of
Change." Special issue of Signs, 1977.
14.Nici Nelson, ed ., African Women in the Development Process (London : Routledge and
Kegan Paul, 1981).
15.Kate Young, Carol Wolkowitz, and Roslyn McCullagh, eds ., Of Marriage and the Mar­
ket: Women 's Subordination in Lnternational Perspectives (London : CSE Books, 1981).
16. June Nash and Maria Patricia Fernandez Kelly, eds ., Women, Mcn and the Interna
tional Division of Labor (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1983).
17.Eleanor Leacock and Helen Safa . eds ., Women 's Work: Development and the Division of
Labor by Gender (Mass . : Bergin and Garvey).
18.W. W. Rostow, Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (New York:
Free Press, 196o).
19.Raphael Patia, Women in the Changing World(New York : Free Press, 1967).
20. Linda Lim, " Capitalism, Imperialism, and Patriarchy : The Dilemma of Third World
Women Workers in Multinational Factories," in Women . Men, and she International Divi­
sion ofLabor. tune Nash and Maria Patricia Fernandez Kelly, eds ., op . cit.
21..79 Ibid ., p.
22.Aihwa Ong, Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia
(New York: State University of New York, 1987).
23.Leacock and Safa, op. at.
24. Lourdes Beneria and Gita Sen, 1986, p. 15o.
25. ibid., 156.
26. June Nash and Maria Patricia Fernandez Kelly, eds ., Women, Men and the
International Division of Labor (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983).
27. See Molyneux, 1981; Kay A . Johnson, Women : Family and the Peasant Revolution in
China (Chicago : Chicago University Press, 1982) ; Judith Stacey, Socialism and Patriarchy in
China (Berkeley : University of California Press . )983) ; Margery Wolf, Revolution Postponed:
Women and Socialism in China (Stanford : Stanford University Press . 1986).
28. On circumventing " coevalness" in ethnographies, see Johannes Fabian, Time and the
Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press,1983).
29. Lisa Dalby, Geisha (Stanford : Stanford University Press, 1983).
30. Marjorie Shostak, Nisa: The Life and Words of a !King Woman (Cambridge, Mass .:
Harvard University Press, 1983).
31.Louis Dumont, Essays on Individualism : Modern Ideology in Anthropological
Perspective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp .279-80
32. Cheryl Benard, " Women' s Anthropology Takes the Chador " Partisan Review 2, 1986.
.
PP. 275-84
33. Some feminists have criticized feminist categories projected onto non-Western
Women and men in the representation of indigenous meaning and experience (see Marilyn
Colonialism and Modernity
381
Strathern, "Culture in a Netbag," Man (n .s .) 16, December 1981, pp . 165—88 ; and Deborah
Gordon, " Feminist Anthropology and the Invention of American Female Identities, " paper
presented at the 86th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Chi­
cago, November 1987).
34. Dumont, op. Cit.
35. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan
Sheridan, (New York: Vintage, 1977).
36. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction, translated by
Robert Hurley, (New York: Vintage . 1978).
37. Edward Said, "Orientalism Reconsidered," Race and Class a, Vol . 27, No. 23 (1985) PP­
1-15 .
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