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Gender and culture Module 2

course “gender and culture”

module 2 – feminism and knowledge


Introduction and transition from module one


This course, in one sense, revisits the ‘and’ in “gender and culture”, and the overlap of these categories in understanding work for feminism in India. Are these – gender and culture – different standpoints or analytic categories that help us understand work for feminism in India? Do these reside in happy coalition, as the ‘and’ might suggest, or do they speak different, and antagonistic languages? What have been the implications of these two terms/ categories in the various gender-culture debates that have populated the women’s movement and feminist theorizing in India? What have been the overlaps between the terms/ categories? What has been the ‘place of woman’ in theorizations of culture?


To get to this point, we might look at the registers that research into each of these categories has occupied. Culture, in the overarching presence of the colonial ‘then’, and of the ‘global’ now,[1] is a politicized term, with many connotations – Indianness, heterogeneity, niché, locality – to name a few. The work of studying culture – through history, through literature, through the impact of postcolonial work on these and other disciplines – has partly been to mix frankly political terms with those not so obviously part of the political lexicon (like the ‘private sphere’, for instance) and thus to make culture a political term – one constituted through various other entities, gender among them. Some of this work has been detailed in the first module of this course.


Feminism, on the other hand, that undertakes research into issues of gender, has ‘naturally’ stood for the political in the popular consciousness, and, significantly, in intellectual work, including work in women’s studies departments. With specific reference to the Indian context, the feminist slogans - “The personal is the political”, or “Women’s studies is a perspective, not a discipline”, come to mind for the significant ways in which they have shaped feminist thinking and teaching in India. We could see, in a closer examination of these slogans, the ways in which feminism as critique both of mainstream knowledge systems and political narratives gets shaped around such a notion of the ‘naturally’ political. Given this, feminism would make possible a political critique of epistemology, but would not wish to work toward an epistemology of its own.


In centering this module around an ‘ism’ in the shape of feminism, we deliberately take up the political question of gender but differently from the above. In centering this module around an ‘ism’ yet wishing to propose a movement out of ‘isms’, we might actually interrupt the conventional register of the political – a register that recognizes feminism as ‘naturally’, and as only, political. By doing so, this module introduces the question of feminism as knowledge, not in a movement away from politics but more significantly, as a productive and perhaps necessary connection between the political and the epistemological.


Keeping these points in mind, this module seeks to ask the following questions for feminism –


·         Is feminism about producing knowledge, or is feminism about a political critique of universalist knowledge and systems of knowledge? Are the two activities – critique and knowledge-production – separable?

·         In other words, is “feminist knowledge” about pointing to the empirical and conceptual exclusions on which first order theories stand – a more naturally political task – or does it have a ‘positive’ epistemological content of its own? What might that be?

·         Talking more of positive content, if feminist knowledge is a possibility, is it important to ask - “who knows”? Is such a question a sufficient movement away from “universalist knowledge” that presumes there is only one knowledge, one way of getting to it, and that it is true for all as well as for all time?

·         If feminism were to suggest, as an alternative to universalism, ‘situatedness’ as a condition for knowledge, what would be meant by such situatedness?

·         In traditional thinking, a statement is made about a linear relationship between women and feminism. Are women therefore situated knowers? How would we, in the present, respond to such a statement?

·         Would this response be a movement away from older understandings of the political, and of feminism as its natural home? In other words, would this be a movement away from feminism as an ‘ism’ or ideology (“the set of ideas which arise from a given set of material interests” [Williams 1976:128-9])? If so, how?

·         Would culture be such a situation of knowledge-making? Would such a knowledge-making ask questions of culture-as-knowledge?

·         Going back to the first question, if feminism is about critique as well as about knowledge-making, would such knowledge be a liberatory tool, or, Frankenstein-like, carry its own demands of the knower? What would the elements of the knowledge produced through such an understanding look like?



One – introduction – feminism and the political


Both culture and gender have been vantage points for the critique of the universal character granted to knowledge; a specific example of this would be the response to the apparently universalist character of Western science in Indian contexts. In talking about gender as a vantage point, we need to bear in mind how feminism as critique both of mainstream knowledge systems and political narratives gets shaped around a notion of the ‘naturally’ political. To understand this would require an examination of self-perceptions of feminism in various spaces and political contexts. The specific instance of feminism in India will be taken up for discussion in this section – how feminism as the natural home for the ‘political’ begins to be articulated in both feminist activism and intellectualizing in India.




Denise Riley.

Rosemary Tong on an overview of 2nd wave feminism.

Christopher caudwell on a bourgeois philosophy.

Raka Ray – Fields of Protest.


Exercise –


Examine the trajectory of the relationship between “the personal and the political” in Marxist and feminist writing.

A discussion on the two slogans - “The personal is the political”, and “Women’s studies is a perspective, not a discipline”.


Two – experience and women/ women and feminism– traditional ties.


This section will elaborate on the ways in which feminism as a world-view has been attached to women, and how this tie has contributed to critiques of universalist knowledge. The notions of the everyday/ the personal/ the experiential, which are seen as the world of women in patriarchy, have been re-activated largely in 2nd wave feminism in order to critique dominant knowledge forms. Among the many forms this has taken, two will be discussed – one, feminism as expected to begin from and therefore be representative of women; two, feminism as attached to exploring the ontic question “woman”. Examples of efforts in this direction include on the one hand the movement toward uncovering women [thus bringing women into visibility], on the other hand movements like ecriture feminine or ecofeminism or prakriti [thus activating an alternative symbolic or ‘world’ that may be named feminine]. Thus the effort of feminist work has been to point to the conceptual and empirical exclusions on which first order theories stand. Such work has permeated feminist takes on literature, history, as well as theory.




Margaret Whitford on Irigaray. The Feminine in Philosophy.

Butler – Introduction to Bodies That Matter.

Vandana Shiva.


Possible exercise –


Examine women’s studies publications from an Indian or other university.


Syllabi of gender paper.


Note – the point of this module is not to cut the link between women and feminism but to examine the ways in which it has been established.


Three – feminism and experience – traditional ties


This section will examine roughly three ways in which feminism in India has called upon women’s experience in order to challenge dominant political formations as well as dominant, propositional models of knowledge production culturally embedded in what is called the ‘West’. These ways move from the application of feminism as ideology to critique universalist knowledge systems, to that of women as directly confronting such systems and making their own contingent negotiations with both power and knowledge. This last part of the section actually examines ways in which the women-feminism link was challenged through such work. The three approaches to be discussed are –


-                           The global universalist approach that concerns itself with gender and culture, that wants to work with an attention to women everywhere and from every culture, that believes in “one” knowledge but is concerned with its access by women of all cultures. Martha C. Nussbaum, who sees her work as an example of feminist political philosophy, is the best example of this approach.

-                           The local, soliloquous approach that takes modern science or western forms of knowledge to be by definition violent, reductionist, and capitalist, with an exclusionary attitude to the experiences of women in the third world, and therefore advocates a return to the third world women-nature combine as a response.

-                           Global gender work disdaining the universalist approach - this works toward identifying moments of resistance – arbitrary and non-ideological - in women’s lives. This approach is in alignment with postcolonial thinking that works within a framework of hybridity.




Martha C. Nussbaum.

Cecilia van Hollen.

Vandana Shiva.


Possible exercise –


An examination of posters from the reproductive health movement, available at and to be collected from hospital clinics.


Four – experience and knowledge – traditional binaries


The discussions in the last section bring us to the classical science-experience binary that has been the pillar of most critiques – including feminist – of universalist forms of knowledge. Both gender and culture have been used as the experiential question to the ‘reasonableness’ of western models of knowledge. The work around culture seen in postcolonial writings, and the Marxist legacies of feminist thinking in India, demonstrate this approach. Such a binary, of experience versus knowledge, that informs both culture and gender critiques of western knowledge forms, undergoes further adjectivization – third world experience versus western reason, third world women’s experience versus western reason, and so on, thus assembling gender and culture as similar vantage points for critique – an argument that in itself we might find ourselves in disagreement with. It is such a legacy that ultimately also informs the feminist drawing on women’s experience to counter Reason that has in turn been adjectivized as male. One of the chief areas where Reason is said to underpin language and policy is mainstream development frameworks, and it is here that feminism in India, among other critiques, has made some of its more forceful argument. It says that the underpinning of mainstream development practice is provided by the language and practice of (modern western) science, which assumes the following: knowledge and subsequent use of knowledge is independent of both knower and the user; therefore the object of knowledge is an entity produced in detachment, which is then disseminated through a top-down method. In this frame, questions of context are to be factored in only as empirical criteria, and not as constitutive of the object of knowledge. Of course, this model ignores the contexts that moor its own knowledge frames.[2] An essentialist understanding of “woman” is what feminism seeks to debunk here, when using this critique against western medical texts, for instance.


In the case of culture, critiques of western knowledge frames arising from such a vantage point have often been an accessing of a notion of pre-existing, anterior knowledge system – one that might be called Indian, for instance. Although cultural critiques have also, like feminism, attempted to challenge the Orientalist notions of other locales that infect western knowledge of the same, the critiques themselves fall back, through various means, on such an anterior, timeless context that must needs resist universalist knowledge.


Possible exercise –


1.         Bring to the classroom any instances of your consultations with an allopathic doctor at a clinic.

Discussion based on the same.

2.         Bring to the classroom 2 instances of consultations with a practitioner of any health system other than allopathy.

Discussion based on the same.


Five – relevance of feminism as an ideology to counter universal knowledge?


Having charted the workings of the knowledge-experience binary in feminist critiques in the last section, we come to the question of a certain disaggregation that now takes up the space of critique. Such a disaggregation not only concentrates on the local, the micro, it actually challenges the relevance of a coherent set of interests that may resist a dominant scheme. In other words, does feminism as a coherent ideology make sense any more? This section will discuss ways in which feminism – the naturally political space – began to be countered as the critique of universalist knowledge, being replaced by more ‘micro’, on-the-ground understandings of the political, and of power in general. The third approach brought up in section three – that of global gender work – to women’s experience as critique of universalist knowledge exemplifies this shift, and will be discussed in more detail.


Six - feminism as knowledge – a possible world.


This section takes up three questions. One, if feminist knowledge is a possibility, does that entail a move away from experience? Two, if feminist knowledge is a possibility, and if it is intimately related to the question of critique as well, is it enough to identify “who knows”? What could be more valid criteria for situatedness? Three, if feminist knowledge is a possibility, would such knowledge be liberating or empowering in the ways in which knowledge has traditionally known to be?


The old ideological model of critique was also tied to a model of knowledge, a model that said – I know, you do. For a feminism having drawn from Marxist legacies of politics, this was the model to be adopted, and the politics around women’s lives that gave birth to this entity, feminism, and has nurtured it ever since, definitionally became that benevolent umbrella, that liberatory tool, that protects those lives and inserts itself into them (suggesting that the personal must be politicized). This model called for a feminism that needed only to champion the entry of the empirically excluded – hence the innumerable women-in-science enclaves, the talk of the glass ceiling, the push toward inclusion. Having identified the problems of vanguardism during the post-nationalist, subaltern turn, however, a portion of the rethinking Left and a global, universalist feminism may consider that what remains for us to do or think is a turn to experience. The slogan changed; it became – we all know, together. Nussbaum’s global approach to the local, discussed in section three, takes this position. Both these moves were, however, hyphenated in the premise of ‘one knowledge’. There was another move – critical of ‘one knowledge’, and carrying a different slogan – I know mine, you know yours, there can be no dialogue. For this school, exemplified in ecofeminism discussed in section three, the experience of oppression was necessary, and sufficient, to make this claim. The consciousness of oppression, which was the ex-officio result of belonging to the community, offered knowledge. The community of knowers here was a closed community. Asserting that the ‘one knowledge’ claim rested on the active exclusion of other knowledges, it suggested a remaking of ‘low knowledge’ through the experience of oppression. This is the impulse that starts, and ends, with the embodied insider, speaking with[in] and for itself, a complete closed community. This impulse we have seen with respect to sexual minorities, caste, women, the subaltern – an impulse also tied to the organic or pastoral as opposed to the technological, an impulse sometimes tracing direct connections with a cultural past, and often offering a choice between systems of knowledge.


In the complex of phenomena often referred to by the short-hand ‘globalisation’, a reaction to the ideological has meant a shift from politics to self-help, sometimes from the ideological to the intuitive, where the intuitive is taken as a flat description of immediate reality as experience. While most feminist turns to experience have described this immediate everyday reality as whole, pristine, feminine, and not overdetermined by patriarchal norms, forgetting that this everyday is actually the most powerful site for the operations of the patriarchal, the new gender work does not necessarily rely on organicity, wholeness, or purity. Rather, politics, or the politics of representation, have shifted, as Haraway notes with deadly precision, to a game of simulation in what she calls the “informatics of domination”, and the new gender work is as much part of it as any other (recall Van Hollen’s terms – culture-in-the-making, “processural”, etc). While none of this new critical work addressing development or technology actually denies domination or power, it has contributed to making power so increasingly difficult to define or identify, as to make counter-hegemonic attempts appear very nearly anachronistic.


What, then, of alternatives? After a rejection of those feminist strands that seek to build a common, sometimes homogenous narrative of feminine experience, and of gender work that thrives on the heterogeneity of women’s experiences, but yet agreeing with the need to “speak from somewhere” – through some form of attachment, as against older models of one knowledge that offered a “view from nowhere” – a completely detached view, what could be the nature of this critique?


We could suggest that it will have to be a re-turn to experience, rather than a turn. That we pay attention not only, or not even so much, to the fractured narrative offered by the wide variety or heterogeneity of experience, as to its aporeticity,[3] so as to enact such a re-turn from the perspective of the excluded, aporetic experience as momentary resource – not authentic or originary, but appropriate. This would mean, most importantly for a revised notion of the political, a shift from a politics of marginality to a politics of aporeticity.


Perspective, here, would take on the connotations of the fantastic spur within the dominant, not as equal to individual taste or possession of an identity, but as a moment of seeing, of ‘possession’, that may be lost in the looking. Here we might find useful, as a beginning, the model of the excluded available within feminist standpoint theory, of the woman as ‘outsider within’ (Collins 2004).[4] While this formulation evokes a degree of unease about whether this social location can be enough as a starting point (whether women then always have to be the outsiders within to be able to speak from this space), it offers, perhaps, valuable clues to work toward a possible model of feminist critique. To understand this, we need to understand, also, that the point here is not only of pointing to hierarchies of power, nor is it a stand-alone system of knowledge that may be called feminist. Perspective would be that moment of possession that not only gives a completely different picture of things, it also gives a picture not available from anywhere else – that makes visible the dominant as that which had rendered invalid other possibilities.


The notion of standpoint would be then the act of interpretation, not a place already defined; this process involves the production of an attached model of knowledge that begins from perspective, one that requires a speaking from somewhere.


Such a speaking from somewhere obviously requires a conceptualization of this ‘somewhere’; in other words, a fidelity to context. Here context is not (only) about date-time-place, such that a concept of ‘one knowledge’ can be critiqued from a situation. It is most importantly about relationality, the space between you and me, both intra-community and inter-community. Once we take cognizance of this, we realize that that space does many things – it induces a porosity of boundaries (body, community), it creates attachment, it also creates separation. With this in mind, we then have to talk of building a story from perspective, where it is the turning from within outward (from attachment to separation) that does the work of building the story. Such a standpoint ‘is’ only in the constant interrogation of both dominant discourse – masculinist Marxist discourse - and of the category of resistance – feminism – within which it may be named. If this has a mutually constitutive rather than a representative relationship with perspective, it will also mean a separation from both old vanguardist methodologies and newer calls to experience.


What may be most important here is the recognition of the fantastic perspective as a visual tool.  Perspectives are made fantastic by their positioning in an imbrication of power and meaning; and unless the position is required to be static through any counter-hegemonic exercise, they cannot be the source of a permanent identity, nor an alternative system. We may present women’s experiences, then, in a different detail and from a different perspective than as a lesson to be learnt from different women, or indeed from an essentially feminine perspective. What we might call the allegory of women’s lived experience serves more as a test case, an example of the fantastic perspective that both helps provide a different picture of the dominant, and a glimpse of other possible worlds.


Such a fantastic perspective, moreover, would change radically our cognition of feminism itself. Feminism as that liberatory, shade-giving mother, that warm place of refuge, is not a workable thesis in this frame, and the question then is – was it ever? Or is feminism that monster, that unhappy moment of possession (not of an identity but by a vision) that grows larger and larger, demands more and more, not simply of the dominant but of the interrogator of the dominant? Does this not render unstable each time what had seemed the ultimately radical, interrupt each time a consolidation of identity under its own name, so that in response to the rhetorical question – “Who’s afraid of feminism?” the feminist’s answer would be – “I am”? Such a re-cognition of feminism is where we are at today, and that might begin to inform what we call feminist knowledge.


[this section will require more delineation, can actually be done only in the teaching perhaps …]


Possible exercise –


A writing up of experiences in the class where use of alternative systems of medicine have come up in their families, the conversations around those, and the status accorded to them.



[1] I would suggest that the ‘then’ and ‘now’ are both in the present; put differently, there are heterogenous time frames at work in any particular space.

[2] The “female body”, for instance, is the site for the understandings of as well as operations of Science (with its invisible qualifier western). In its project of defining the form and delineating the workings of the female body, this form of knowledge has approached the status of a value-neutral, objective method that purportedly bases itself on solid empirical evidence to produce impartial knowledge. In the case of the female body, it would then appear that Science has found it exclusively and powerfully fashioned by nature to bear and nourish children; in the event, all it is doing is putting the facts before us.[2]

[3] The aporia is the logically insoluble theoretical difficulty, i.e. the seemingly fantastic perspective.

[4] FST talks of the possibility of a situated, perspectival form of knowing, of such a knowing as necessarily a communal project, and of this knowing as one where the community of knowers is necessarily shifting and overlapping with other communities. While Haraway would speak of ‘situated knowledges’ as against the ‘God trick’, as she calls it, of seeing from nowhere – a neutral perspective (Haraway 1992), Sandra Harding would go on, however, to propose a version of strong objectivity – a less false rather than a more true view; this, Harding would suggest, can come only from the viewpoint of particular communities, sometimes the marginalized, sometimes women. This is where Harding’s version of standpoint epistemology is still grappling with the question of whether the experience of oppression is a necessary route to knowledge. (Harding deals with this with this by treating women’s lives as resource to maximise objectivity, Haraway by treating these women as ironic subjects, and seeing from below as only a visual tool) A related question is whether the very notion of standpoint epistemology requires a version, albeit a more robust one than in place now, of systems of domination, and it is here that a productive dialogue could be begun between Haraway’s more experimental version of “seeing from below” and Harding’s notion of strong objectivity.

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