dis/content: a journal of theory and practice December, 2000 Volume 3, Issue 3
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  The Right Kind of Feminists?:
Third-world Women and the Politics of Feminism

Come share with me sister feminist
Let us dance in the movement
Let my blackness catch your feminism
Let your oppression peek at mine
After all
I ain’t the right kind of feminist
I’m just a woman.

 – Cheryl L. West

I urge each one of us to reach down into
that deep place of knowledge inside herself
and touch that terror and loathing of any difference
that lives there.

 – Audre Lorde

Writing about “third-world feminism” – as it has come to be known today – poses a formidable challenge. It also feels somewhat awkward to claim to engage “third-world feminism” in a metropolitan location and an academic setting I have come to inhabit. Born and brought up in one of the oldest colonies in the world – the Third-World Commonwealth of Puerto Rico – I cannot but point out that the very historical-material conditions I have lived continue to prompt my interest and involvement in feminist theory, practice, and praxis in the third world. But then I wonder if I might run the risk of homogenizing feminisms – unwillingly of course – in the third world. My intent, however, is to emphasize the historical specicities of only a few tracks and trajectories of feminism in what is called the “third world.”
    I have noticed in the metropolitan academy a widespread tendency to speak or think of third-world countries as if they were just one undifferentiated mass of people, practices, and discourses. While I was talking about the International Monetary Fund and Structural Adjustment Programs in my class the other day, one of my students told me that he had heard another professor maintain that “people in the third world have no drinking water.” I was not sure if the student was quoting his professor accurately. And, frankly, I wanted to give my colleague – whoever s/he is – some benet of the doubt. Yet I could not just blink at what the student had told me: people in the third world don’t have drinking water! Necessarily? Aijaz Ahmad’s critique of Frederic Jameson’s sweeping homogenization of third world literatures immediately comes to mind. But if I assume that the statement was made in the class, then I cannot but assert that my student – and his professor – were completely missing the point. Rather than making such sweeping and inaccurate statements about the third world, the student and his professor, I thought, should be questioning why third-world subjects lack access to their very own resources as such. I think this is a basic question concerning international political economy, a question about inequality and exploitation, a question that cannot be bypassed.
     Indeed, tendencies to homogenize the third world, its “feminism” included, characterize part of what might be called academic habitus in the United States. I do not have the patience to count how many times I heard such glib phrases as “feminists advocate for...,” or “That is something that feminists criticize,” or better yet, “feminists agree....” I feel exceedingly uncomfortable with this kind of homogenization that perpetrates violence on different histories, locations, and subjectivities. Spivak’s notions of “epistemic violence,” “sanctioned ignorance,” and “sanctioned arrogance” all come to mind.
    It is imperative to question that very violent process of homogenizing the “other” and thereby rendering different experiences, lives, and histories invisible. One needs to understand that their commonalties notwithstanding, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico have different histories and different ways in which they can be seen as third-world countries. Even though they have their “veins open,” different historical-material conditions have differently opened those veins, to paraphrase Eduardo Galeano. So let’s then talk about third-world countries and feminisms.
    Now terms such as “third world” and “feminism,” to begin with, are highly contested. And sometimes they tend to get blurred, while at other times they are masked under euphemistic and less politically-charged rubrics such as “underdeveloped countries” and “gender/women’s issues.” Therefore, I think it is important to explain what I mean by feminism and why I choose to use the term, and also what I mean by the “third world.”

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