The West and the Global South: Lesson and Big Idea

Lesson: The West and the Global South

What does the term “the Global South” mean? It depends on who you ask, which is why it is so important that we pause to discuss what we mean in this course when we talk about “the Global South.”  In a blog post titled, “Global South: What does it mean and why use the term?”, Dr. Marlea Clarke of the University of Victoria identifies three different uses of the term “the Global South”, each of which has political implications.  As Dr. Clarke notes, even though the terms “Global North” and “Global South” imply a clear geographic demarcation, the term “Global South” is not just about geography — rather, it is about power.  

First, some researchers and policymakers use the term to describe low-income countries. This definition of the term, critics argue, oversimplifies similarities between these countries, which have distinct histories and unique political, social, and cultural systems. 

A second use of the term “the Global South” distinguishes between the Global North and Global South as a way of critiquing global power relations, colonialism, and capitalism, which result in a concentration of wealth and power in the Global North. Those who subscribe to this definition of the term note that the distinction between the Global North and the Global South is not strictly about geography or place, even though ‘North’ and ‘South’ imply spatial relations.  Rather, this conception of the Global North and South acknowledges that there is poverty in the Global North and wealth in the Global South. As Clarke writes about defining the Global South:

“The term is not static and does not refer to a specific list of countries, groups or communities: it evokes different meanings and is used both descriptively and analytically. The north-south divide is present and increasing. But this inequality it is not just between countries (if it ever was); inequalities are increasingly marked on a smaller scale, between and within communities” 

Dr. Marlea Clarke, University of Victoria in “Global South: What does it mean and why use the term?”

A third conception of the Global South is rooted in a field called subaltern studies, a branch of postcolonial thought emerging in the 1980s which seeks to emphasize the perspectives, experiences, and knowledges of those who have been oppressed by and are agents of resistance against imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism.  Subaltern studies reject narratives of people from the Global South as helpless victims in need of aid from the Global North; rather, they emphasize that people oppressed by imperialism, colonialism, and global capitalism also have power and agency.  

The terms “Global North” and “Global South” have generally replaced the terms “developed”, “developing”, and “underdeveloped”, and “first world” and “third world”. The terms “developed”, “developing”, and “underdeveloped” emerged from the Global North in the post-war period as a way of categorizing countries based on economic indicators. Critics of the labels “developed”, “developing”, and “underdeveloped” argue that these labels imply a hierarchy based on Western, capitalist conceptions of what constitutes “success” and progress, based primarily on economic indicators.  Further, critics reject the assumption embedded in this classification that “development” — as defined by the West — is desirable for all countries.  The terms “first”, “second”, and “third world” emerged during the Cold War, when power was concentrated in either the first world (the West), the second world (the former Soviet Union), or the third world (the rest of the world).  Today, many scholars prefer the terms Global North and Global South because this distinction does not imply a hierarchy, does not depend on geography, and implies a critique of the role of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism in producing unequal power relations that persist globally.

BIG IDEA: Postcolonial feminism

Postcolonial feminism is a branch of feminist thought and activism emerging from formerly colonized countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.  While the “post” in postcolonialism implies that colonizing relations have come to an end, postcolonial scholars emphasize the ongoing effects of colonialism and imperialism and the inequalities perpetuated by global capitalism. Postcolonial feminists provide powerful critiques of patriarchy within decolonial and nationalist movements and challenge Western feminisms that resort to stereotypes when discussing women and girls in the Global South.  Postcolonial feminists emphasize that colonialism, imperialism, globalization, and decolonization have particular consequences for women, and white, Western feminisms that imagine women and girls from the Global South as helpless victims contribute to unequal gendered power relations.  Postcolonial feminists emphasize that women and girls from the Global South have power and agency. As Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika and Bukola Salami (2018) write, “a postcolonial feminist perspective not only recognizes the resilience and resistance of vulnerable actors but also the need to place their knowledge at the centre of analysis” (94).  

Postcolonial feminists articulate important critiques of nationalist movements in formerly colonized countries.  Postcolonial feminists have theorized, for example, the ways that women take on the role of reproducers of national identity, language, culture, and tradition.  Because of their power and agency in reproducing the nation literally and symbolically, women and their roles are contested in colonial and postcolonial contexts. 

Let’s consider some examples of postcolonial feminist theory. First, Chandra Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes”, first published in 1986, is an important text in the field of postcolonial feminism.  In “Under Western Eyes,” Chandra Mohanty critiqued the tendency of “Western feminist’ scholarship to generalize about the experiences of “Third World” women.  The tendency of white, Western feminism to treat the “Third World Woman” as a singular monolithic subject, she argued, is a form of discursive colonialism; that is, this kind of language functions to disempower “Third World” women.  She argued that feminist scholarship and social movements that seek to traverse different cultural and national contexts must account for both global power relations and local specificities. In a 2002 follow-up to “Under Western Eyes,” Mohanty writes: 

“Eurocentric analytic paradigms continue to flourish, and I remain committed to reengaging in the struggles to criticize openly the effects of discursive colonization on the lives and struggles of marginalized women. My central commitment is to build connections between feminist scholarship and political organizing. My own present-day analytic framework remains very similar to my earliest critique of Eurocentrism. However, I now see the politics and economics of capitalism as a far more urgent locus of struggle. I continue to hold to an analytic framework that is attentive to the micropolitics of everyday life as well as to the macropolitics of global economic and political processes.” (509)

Chandra Mohanty in “Under Western Eyes Revisited” (2002)

Postcolonial feminists have expanded on Mohanty’s work, refining her theory.  Swati Parashar (2016) writes, for example, of the importance of acknowledging differences not just between the West and the Global South but within postcolonial contexts: “As we now know, difference is not just between the West and non-West but within these geographies and temporalities as well and any universalism is discursive violence that writes out histories and mutes voices” (371).

Another example of postcolonial feminist theorizing is Gayatri Spivak’s   “Can the Subaltern Speak?”.  Spivak argues that women in postcolonial contexts occupy the status of the subaltern class — a subordinated or marginalized class.  Famously, Spivak writes in this essay of the ways colonialism often takes the form of “white men saving brown women from brown men.”  In this phrase, Spivak captures the race and gender power dynamics at play in British colonial India, in which British men justified their “civilizing mission” in the name of saving women from what they deemed an inherently patriarchal culture.  Yet, Spivak points out that Indian women’s own voices were excluded from the conversation.  Postcolonial and transnational feminists have applied Spivak’s critical representation of colonialism as “white men saving brown women from brown men” to critique the global “War on Terror,” which Western powers have justified under the sign of liberating women and girls.

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