Feminist solidarity across borders - A reflection on development cooperation inspired by Chandra Talpade Mohanty

by Lena Gruber (VIDC)

© F.T. Reid

The VIDC works together with activists and researchers in the Global South, as well as different diaspora communities in Europe. As an NGO working in the field of development cooperation, we try to analyze and raise awareness towards the circumstances of life and challenges, people in different regions of the world and minority groups in Europe are facing. We are dedicated to work against racisms, sexisms and homophobia. But how can we guarantee for our analysis of race, nation, colonialism, class and gender not to be paternalistic and colonizing? How can we show and live cross-cultural, feminist solidarity? An inspiring personality provides us with some answers, her thoughts and perspectives: Chandra Talpade Mohanty, key figure in feminist anti-colonial activism and research, has been to Vienna for a conversation with Nikita Dhawan initiated by Frauensolidarität in collaboration with VIDC (among other NGOs). We talked to her about social justice and solidarity, as well as her new project “Feminist Freedom Warriors”.

Chandra Talpade Mohanty “has produced an extraordinary body of writings on transnational feminism, radically changing the way we think about such categories as ‘third world women’, ‘women of colour’ and ‘globalisation’” says Angela Y. Davis describes the importance of Mohanty’s work. Her article ‘Under Western Eyes - Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ changed the discourse on global feminism, as well as development. We talked to her about how we, as an NGO in Europe working in the field of development cooperation, can guarantee for our work against racism, nationalism and sexism not to be paternalistic and colonizing itself. On the question of how “those of us sitting in the Global North, having resources and funds, actually work on an equal relationship”, Mohanty makes a clear point: “Equality is very difficult. But, we can work in partnership - so that, in fact, we are not the imperial feminist in relation to women in the Global South.”

On the occasion of presenting her newest book "Feminist Freedom Warriors: Genealogies, Justice, Politics, and Hope" Chandra T. Mohanty visited Austria for the first time. This piece of work is based on a digital video archive Mohanty initiated together with Linda E. Carty. This project documents conversations about justice, politics and hopes with feminist scholars and activists from different regions of the world across generations. In so-called ‘kitchen table conversations’, women talk about how to come to political consciousness and how to think analytically about state violence, patriarchy, capitalism and racism. The talks address economic, anti-racist, social justice, and anti-capitalist issues. Mohanty points out the relevance of seeing the differential impact of patriarchy, capitalism and racism on women in different communities, from different class, cast, religion, race, etc. She criticizes the often assumed homogeneity in ideas of ‘sisterhood’. The project, which so far collected 32 conversations in the last four years, is one way to make multiple stories and genealogies available to a broad audience and create a teaching tool to learn about the lives of women in the Global South and diaspora communities in the Global North. “We feel an urgency to tell these individual and connected/collective stories—to ‘speak what we live’ for ourselves and the generations that will follow us.” On a side note, Mohanty criticizes that the term ‘freedom’ has been taken over and misinterpreted by neoliberal and right-wing politicians and groups, as it can be observed in many European countries. She urges not to give up the term due to its importance and history for feminist anti-colonial movements.

Privilege is invisible for those who have it

© Frauen*solidarität/Petra Pint

Mohanty challenges us to reflect more upon the work we are doing: “Our institutions have not changed in the ways they have to change. We have to decolonialize our knowledges and institutions and our NGOs as well, in order to do the work in an ethical way which is sustainable as well.” She continues that in cross-cultural collaborations across communities, where people have different levels of power, we have to pay attention to the analytical framework. When we discuss development cooperation, “we have to be aware that development is not something, people in the North have achieved and people in the South are working towards. It has to be seen that development cannot be achieved without social justice. And social justice is not only for ‘us’ but for ‘them’ as well.” By that, a framework is created, where people whom we want to support are recognized as knowing what they want, as having a critical analysis of what difficulties they face and what kind of resources they need and what kind of change they want. “Women’s groups in the Global South, in my experience, are enormously savvy about both what they lack and are working towards and what people in the Global North in fact don’t know.” On the power dynamics in North-South-cooperations she makes a very strong point by stating that “privilege works by making itself invisible for those who have it”, but is very visible every day for those it impacts. For development cooperation, that means that we have to pay more attention to what we don’t know and people we are working with in the Global South and within diaspora communities do know, because they have a more accurate read of how power functions.

Solidarity cannot ignore the differences in life realities

© Frauen*solidarität/Petra Pint

It was the calling for a “decolonization of cross-cultural feminist knowledge production”, that made her publish ‘Under Western Eyes’ in 1984. Still, she criticizes the hegemony of knowledge and states that “we have to educate ourselves on the histories, praxis, tactics and politics of people on the ground that are actually working in the very field we want to cooperate with them.” But a main problem is that this knowledge is sometimes not easily available. Knowledge a lot of times is produced by those in power, in formal institutions. “We should not assume that knowledge is only produced in certain spaces”, Mohanty argues. The role of institutions and individuals engaged in solidarity across borders is to find alternative resources of knowledge and listen to those “who seem to be not formally educated”. People on the ground have the experience, knowledge and the critical thinking about what matters in their lives.
Besides challenging the understanding of development and pointing out the importance of gaining “counter-knowledge”, Mohanty stimulates us to reflect upon how we set priorities in cross-cultural, transnational work and that we have to listen more to the priorities that are generated by our partners. She reminds us on the multiple opportunities for solidarity, but that the success of these collaborations depends on a deep commitment to understanding the differences between our histories and experiences.  She concludes that “fortunately in the last 20 to 30 to 40 years, we have made some strides in not seeing feminist struggles as white women’s burden, but in fact thinking through questions of solidarity in much deeper ways. But we still have a long way to go.”
 An inspiring personality provides us with some answers, her thoughts and perspectives: Chandra Talpade Mohanty, key figure in feminist anti-colonial activism and research, has been to Vienna for an event initiated by Frauensolidarität and in collaboration with VIDC (among other NGOs). We talked to her about social justice and solidarity, as well as her new project “Feminist Freedom Warriors”.

Further readings and links

Mohanty, Chandra T. (first published 1984) Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.

Mohanty, Chandra T. and Carty, Linda E. (ed.) (2018) Feminist Freedom Warriors - Genealogies, Justice, Politics, and Hope.

Mohanty, Chandra T. (2003) Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity.

"Feministische Politik braucht keine charismatischen Figuren", interview with Chandra Mohanty by Brigitte Theißl, Der Standard, 28 June 2019

Feminist Freedom Warriors (online project)