Gender studies · International Relations · Third year

Is feminism as an IR theory ethnocentric? Discuss.

Feminism, as well as critical theory, post-structuralism or post-colonialism, is considered in International Relations as an approach rather than a theory. However, all these give different understandings by uncovering power relations and questioning what foundational theories view as certainties in the world (Georgis and Lugosi, 2014, pp.77-78). In order to understand to what extent the current concept of feminist studies is an ethnocentric concept, i.e. emanating from and representing the ‘first world’, the first part will analyse the historical link between Westernised women and mainstream positivist approaches in international politics in general. The second part will argue that only postcolonial feminism takes into account the hidden problems of women in less advantaged or developing countries.



Women’s relationship to institutions as material and symbolic structures was historically constituted on a conflicting and contradictory mode, as if something in the social construction of female subjectivity opposed women to the theoretical practice. The ‘pure’ theory, illustrated by mathematics for example, remained unexplored territory for women for a long time although it is slowly changing. However, the notion of women’s consent is crucial here as it involves legal, symbolic, material and psychic factors in the construction of knowledge (Irigaray, 1985, p.78). The fact is that this problem is linked to women’s ‘right’ to theoretical subjectivity and intellectual rewards, thus civic and symbolic, in a society where such privileges are reserved as a priority to men. The complex relationship between gender and other symbolic structures is the counterpart of the problems caused by the exclusion of women from political and social rights or what is usually meant by ‘power’- i.e. the exclusion from the construction of knowledge is symptomatic of the exclusion from citizenship in general.

The issue of citizenship is a key element because as women are the newcomers in the world of legal and intellectual property rights, they can adopt a more critical perspective. Before becoming citizens of the world, the modes of belonging, commitment and involvement need to be clarified within national cultures. Any discussion on the international dimension of feminism remains incomplete because there is no clear analysis of the national dimension, of the entry in the networks of power and meaning that shape every culture (Brairotti, 1992, p.7). Feminist scholars take the risk of applying an international perspective that would be nothing but, ultimately, a form of supra-nationalism.

The debate on internationalism is particularly important today. Europe as a transnational entity is striving to overcome an obstacle against which feminist scholars have never ceased to stumble: the nation-state. Although the question of the state has always been on the agenda of feminists (Sassoon, 1992), that of the nation has been put aside.  For example, in 1938, Virginia Woolf explicitly emphasised the link between gender and internationalism, stating: ‘As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’ (Woolf, 1939, p.197). She thus affirmed the theme of exile as a paradigm of women. The reflection on citizenship is clearly not only about the question of the vote of women and their involvement in public policy. It also requires an interrogation around female identity as a place of negotiations between the subject and its socio-cultural context. Nevertheless Woolf’s affirmation can be understood differently: women, deprived of citizenship, are all equal. Therefore the lowest common denominator of collective gender identity is the lack of civic and national link. The question remains whether the analysis of the position as national citizens is strong enough to start thinking about global citizenship. The figure of woman as planetary exile raises the role of ethnocentrism and how it reflects the position of white women.

Two more recent figurations of feminist ‘internationalism’ ought to be added to the notion of the exile. The first is that of women as nomads considered as the prototype of the intellectual ‘woman of ideas’ (Braidotti, 1992). Indeed, the conceptual and political structure of the feminist movement itself has always been the result of intense international network and this phenomenon is being intensified with the fast transmission of ideas via the internet. This form of nomadism is implicit in modernity and in intellectual and political movements of our time. Nevertheless, from a feminist perspective, it is important to emphasize that the dispersion and the international spread of heterodox thinking are forms of resistance, a way to preserve the ideas that might otherwise be forgotten or even destroyed in their original contexts.

The second figure of the exile is the migrant woman. Today, in Western Europe the phenomenon of immigration has created local foreign subcultures in which women act as guardians and safeguards (Anthias, 2012, p.106). They must incorporate cultural values so different from the dominant ones that they are almost excluded from debates on international perspectives. It is regrettable that communication networks hardly exist between migrant women and the rest of the feminist movement, and that migration studies fall easily into categorisations (Anthias, 2012, p.107).

To conclude, it is necessary to discuss the relationship of women to the nation-state without falling into ethnocentric nationalism. This debate is meant to counter the resurgence of sexism, xenophobia, racism and racial intolerance in Europe. It should be noted that in the past, feminist thought won every success thanks to its active participation in the development of non-racist reflections on citizenship. Nevertheless, all the work on cross-cultural comparison has shown the importance of the national context factor which determines the structure, form and content of feminist studies. Without a clear vision of the links to national models such as provided by postcolonial thinking, the danger of implicit ethnocentrism cannot be avoided.


In IR, postcolonial feminism is seen by many as an extension of standpoint feminism, which argues that reality is perceived differently according to the material situation. Knowledge reflects specific social groups’ interests and values whose construction is affected by a social, political, ideological and historical context (Tickner, 2013, p.17). Postcolonial feminism, which was developed within the discipline of IR in the early 90s, from the experiences of women of colour, either from ethnic minorities, immigrant or so-called Third World countries, has adapted standpoint feminism to the theoretical framework. The use of the term ‘women of colour’ is being questioned, all the more so as it has the effect of making ‘white’ women’s standards and experiences neutral, when being ‘a woman of colour’ depends on the social context (Morone, 2003, p.119). Obviously, feminist movements and writings exist outside the U.S. and European contexts, but these voices are still being marginalized or simply eliminated within Western feminist movements. Therefore the arrival of postcolonial feminism was a decisive turning point in the early 90s.

The term ‘postcolonial’ is somewhat evasive and has several meanings. It refers firstly to an institutional designation, or ‘post-colonialism’, a structure where a former colony breaks free from the domination of the metropolis. Secondly, it refers to a structural location in political economy, more or less confined to the Third World, which acknowledges liberal capitalism’s global hegemony. Finally, a third reading of the term encompasses not only these two macrostructural aspects but also a subjective social, historical and cultural dimension, which includes the identity issue (Ling, 2002, pp.67-68). By integrating these perspectives, postcolonial feminism encompasses several standpoint feminist critics of capitalism and patriarchy by favouring women of colour’s views. However, they are distinguished by adding a particular ideological component which is racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism (or imperialism) as institutions contributing decisively to the oppression of ‘women of colour’ (Peterson and Runyan, 2013, p.172).

For postcolonial feminists, gender is never free from the racial dimension, and vice versa. Therefore, the concepts of international security and power are not that neutral or fundamentally ideological concepts: they are directly embedded in social relations of class, gender and race. Postcolonial feminists also denounce the colonialist practices of several Western feminists, who have a so-called ‘rescue mission to save’ (Mohanty, 2006, p.16) Third World women by presenting them as passive victims of patriarchal traditions (for example Saudi Arabian women were allowed to vote and stand for the election for the first time in 2015) or as women who must be enlightened while masking the part of Western countries’ responsibility in the problems experienced by Third World women (in relation to sex trafficking for instance).

The presumption that Third World women are persecuted by the traditional patriarchal cultural practices is widely found in Western understanding and it masks the fact that many problems of Third World women are anchored in the modernization and global social change, such as those triggered by current economic and development policies. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that these often result in ecological devastation, limited access of women to productive resources such as land and employment, hyper exploitation, and dangerous working conditions on the global production chain (Narayan, 1997, p.60).

The work of postcolonial feminists is mainly centred on the phenomena of culture and globalization, which is the continuation of an economic, cultural and academic process of colonization (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2014). Even within the field of IR, the colonization phenomenon focuses mostly ‘on a certain mode of appropriation and codification of scholarship and knowledge about women in the Third World through the use of particular analytic categories employed in specific writings on the subject that take as their referent feminist interests as they have been articulated in the US and Western Europe’ (Mohanty, 2003, p.17). Postcolonial feminists highlight the overexploitation of labour production and social reproduction of Third World women, needed for the global expansion of capitalism. They also analyse the commercialization of culture and tourism, seen as consumer goods in a homogenized cultural context. Moreover, they expose the local reality of women of colour, but in so doing create a link with wider economic phenomena, and thus challenge the traditional distinction between local and global phenomena (Peterson and Runyan, 2013, p.174).

The recent forms of feminisms promote intersectionality, or the mixture of gender, class and race considerations in order to reflect a particular standpoint. The main challenge here is to reflect both the diversity of women’s experiences and a common knowledge ground to justify a ‘feminine’ position that gives feminism its politically active dimension. Some postcolonial feminists thus claim that feminist struggles of women from various parts of the world lie in their voluntary adherence to the engagement in an anti-capitalist, anti-militarist and anti-imperialist struggle (Mohanty, 2003, pp.8-9) rather than in their being women.

The issue of the formation of identity and collective consciousness remains widely debated. In addition, despite the fact that some critics have questioned the assumption that standpoint feminism as a Marxist legacy necessarily brings social progress (Harding, 2004), it provokes an original and fundamental questioning on several issues and challenges, such as for example the possibility to compare the issue of the practice of sati and murders linked to women’s dowry in India with domestic violence in the US. Some postcolonial feminists thus challenge the attitudes of many white Western feminists who talk about practices such as sati (immolation of Indian widows) as the exemplification of a patriarchal culture. This position, according to Narayan, denotes a colonialist attitude in which the word ‘tradition’ is synonymous to ‘backward’. By comparison, the author notes how the problems of domestic violence in the US are often depicted in individual cases and contextualized, while sati and killings related to dowry issues are presented as the result of retrograde and well established patriarchal traditions. Narayan analyses representational practices in feminist discourse and suggests that domestic violence in the US as well as sati in India should be considered as cultural practices of violence and complex social institutions (Narayan, 1997, p.85). Finally, standpoint and postcolonial feminisms relevantly question the impact of IMF microcredit initiatives applications in several African countries on African women.



To conclude, postcolonial feminism criticises the ethnocentric tendency of the IR discipline and shows that the exploitation and oppression persist. This situation is made possible by on the one hand, the constant division of the world between those who are ‘developed’ and no longer need education, those who ‘grow’ and still need education, and those who are ‘underdeveloped’ and justify more control and external management, and by, on the other hand, ‘the production of ideas that explain and justify this division through the institutionalization of (Western, white, colonial) laws, rules, and ideas’ (Agathangelou and Ling, 2004, p.31). Ethnocentrism, as the process of universalising aspects instead of contextualising them, is at the centre of divisions within feminism as an IR theory.

Reference list


Agathangelou A. and Ling L. (2004) ‘The House of IR: From Family Power Politics to the Poisies of Worldism’, International Studies Review, vol.6 (4), p. 21-50.

Anthias, F. (2012) ‘Transnational mobilities, migration research and intersectionality: Towards a translocational frame’. Nordic Journal of Migration Research, vol.2 (2), pp.102-110.

Braidotti R. (1992) ‘The exile, the nomad, and the migrant: Reflections on international feminism’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 1992, Vol.15 (1), pp.7-10.

Georgis M. and Lugosi N. (2014) ‘(Re)inserting race and indigeneity in international relations theory: a post-colonial approach’. Global Change, Peace & Security, vol.26 (1), pp.71-83.

Harding, S. (ed.) (2004) The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. Psychology Press.

Irigaray L. (1985) This Sex Which Is Not One. Cornell University Press.

Ling L. (2002) Postcolonial International Relations. Houndmills, Palgrave.

Mohanty C. (2003) Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, Durham. Duke University Press.

Mohanty C. (2006) ‘US Empire and the Project of Women’s Studies: Stories of citizenship, complicity and dissent’. Gender, Place & Culture. Vol.13 (1), pp.7-20.

Morone, J. (2003) Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History. Yale University Press.

Narayan, U. (1997) Dis/locating Cultures/Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism. New York, Routledge.

Peterson V. and Runyan A. (2013) Global Gender Issues in the New Millenium. Boulder, Westview Press, 4th ed.

Sassoon, A. (ed.) (1992) Women and the state. London: Routledge.

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2014) Feminist Perspectives on Globalization. Available at: (Accessed: 23/12/15).

Tickner, J. (2013) Gendering World Politics: Issues and Approaches in the Post-Cold War Era. New York, Columbia University Press.

Woolf V. (1938) The Three Guineas. London: Hogarth Press.


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