Literary Review of Transnational Feminism and Textual Analysis of Select Third World Women Negotiating Space

Himani Sharma*

Dr Bhavya**

Himani Sharma

Since colonization, the western ideological discourse of feminism dominated the anthropological worldview and negated the nuanced issues of women of colour. To highlight the importance of racial, religious, caste, and class-based prejudices and to understand the social construction of gender, the normative discourse of transnational feminism encompasses multiple feminisms under one roof with a special focus on the cross-border and cross-cultural struggle of women against diverse oppressions. The present research article is an attempt to review the journey of feminism from its initial stage of homogenized policies of western critics to the recognition of the present postmillennial globalized world and its concerns. In this regard, the research paper interrogates the diversified struggle of the select protagonists in the light of the shifting concept of identity propounded by Dr. Bhabha. The textual analysis of Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace and Maria Chaudhuri’s Beloved Strangers demonstrate the nuanced unique space occupied by select Bangla women interpreted as determined and progressive females, capable to rupture the established third world societal norms, crossing national borders, and restructuring a unique third space for themselves.

Keywords: Transnational feminism, Third World Women, Third Space, Hybrid identity.


I Introduction/ Historical Genealogies of Transnational Feminism

The ideological discourse of transnational feminism emerged in the late 20th century rejecting previously defined ideology and as an umbrella term encompassing multiple feminist approaches adopted worldwide in theory as well as in practice. To initiate, it becomes mandatory to briefly analyze the hitherto propounded feminist discourse. In this regard, a brief review demonstrates that since colonization, the western ideological discourse of feminism dominated the anthropological worldview through different waves of western feminism by raising issues related to feminine subjugation in western countries and proposing equal education rights, employment opportunities, property claims, etc. Apart from the demand for educational, professional, and economic equality, these waves aimed to bring a revival in society and eliminate all kinds of discrimination against women. Amidst these waves and movements, Robin Morgan proposed the ideology of ‘global sisterhood’ to universalize feminine suffrage and to develop solidarity. Non-western theorists consider it an intentional attempt to purposely ignore third-world concepts or concerns in the literary world. Consequently, feminists of color (Black, Chicana, and Asian feminists) residing in different western nations started criticizing European feminists’ false universality and attempted to draw attention towards nuanced issues of women of color/third world women and initiated a new school of thought i.e. ‘Third World Feminism’. Chandra Talpade Mohanty in her essay ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ drew attention towards the failure of western feminists’ to incorporate non-western issues, “Homogeneous notion of the oppression of women as a group is assumed, which, in turn, produces the image of an ‘average third world women.’ This average third world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender.” (Mohanty, 1984, pp.337) What the theorist wants to suggest is that western feminists attempted to homogenize female issues based on gender forgetting, “Beyond sisterhood, there is still racism, colonialism, and imperialism.” (348) By this time other third world critics like Rosario Castellano, Gloria Anzaldua, Rey Chow, etc also advocated a transborder and transnational feminist praxis, attempting to combat inequalities among women while being attentive to differences based on social, cultural, and geopolitical locations. Simultaneously, several diverse terms like, ‘multicultural feminism’, ‘multiracial feminism’ etc were being coined, proposed, and promulgated by other theorists. Multiracial feminism can be seen as synonymous with ‘Third-world feminism’, ‘Indigenous feminism’ and ‘multicultural feminism’, “While we adopt the label "multiracial," other terms have been used to describe this broad framework. For example..."U.S. Third World feminisms,"...We use "multiracial" rather than "multicultural" as a way of underscoring race as a power system that interacts with other structured inequalities to shape genders.” (Zinn and Dill, 1996, pp.324)

This conceptual framework of multiracial feminism highlights the importance of race to understand the social construction of gender and specifically focuses on the struggle of women against racial oppression. The concern of European feminism is on equality, whereas multiracial feminism highlights differences based on race, class, caste, social structure, and religion. Multiracial in the context of the U.S feminist study seeks to explore oppression of ‘women of colour’ called ‘outsiders within’ or ‘marginal intellectuals’. The concept of multiracial feminism further proceeded the way of feminists to look for a more encompassing term tending to include multiple feminisms under one roof.

          However, by the end of the 20th century, Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan while attempting to dissect ‘international’ or ‘global’ feminism proposed the initiation of transnational feminism. They critiqued the idea of global feminism which rather than exploring feminine experiences based on national, regional, local, cross-cultural intersections attempted to homogenize concepts of hegemonic West and the non-western world (third world countries). Grewal and Kaplan emphasized that in the process of globalization when all notions are displaced and turned transnational, a more inclusive term is required and the notion of transnational feminism as a normative discourse is strongly committed to intersectionality,

 “transnational feminist practices’ as the theoretical practices of the feminist cultural critic who undertakes: ‘to compare multiple, overlapping and discrete oppressions rather than to construct a theory of hegemonic oppression under a unified category gender [...] The question becomes how to link diverse feminisms without requiring either equivalence or a master theory [...] Feminists can begin to map these scattered hegemonies and link diverse local practices to formulate a transnational set of solidarities.” (Grewal and Kaplan, 2002, pp.19)

Here transnational feminism refers to relations, networks, and flows beyond national borders and avoids any claims to the universalism which always accompanies the term ‘global’ and the utopian idea of global sisterhood. Transnational feminism is antithetical to global sisterhood as the latter talks about solidarity whereas the former discusses connections and flows which may result in disparate experiences. Grewal and Kaplan mention that transnational feminism gives importance to, “address the concerns of women around the world in the historicized particularity of their relationship to multiple patriarchies as well as to international economic hegemonies.” (17)  The idea is similar to Third World feminism as it also pays attention to women’s oppression predicated on historical and imperial consequences and at the same time understands the need of the hour to being attentive to, “viewpoints of feminists from various locations around the globe.” (3)

In the same context, Amanda Swarr and Richa Nagar have also attempted to theorize transnational feminism and its collaboration with transnational feminist praxis. Providing a specific definition of transnational feminisms Swarr and Nagar suggest,

“Transnational feminisms are an intersectional set of understandings, tools, and practices that can: (a) attend to racialized, classed, masculinized, and heteronormative logics and practices of globalization and capitalist patriarchies, and the multiple ways in which they (re)structure colonial and neo-colonial relations of domination and subordination.” (Swarr and Nagar, 2010, pp. 4)

One can say that the concept of transnational feminism is proposed to address the asymmetries and diversities of discrete feminisms as one umbrella term to analyze the local and global oppression, struggle, and feminist movement transcending national borders.

The present research paper is an attempt to analyze the historical genealogies of transnational feminism which is reviewed and discussed above. In this regard, the above-mentioned investigation highlights the need for a transnational feminist approach by assessing the prior perspectives. Along with this, the research paper seeks to explore the diversified struggle of third-world women, their resilience and rejection of western codified homogeneity, and their subsequent move towards creating a unique third space for themselves. In the same context, the distinct racial, religious, and familial experiences of third world Bangla women are studied through textual analysis of The Bones of Grace and Beloved Strangers written by Tahmima Anam and Maria Chaudhury respectively. In section II, the research article seeks to establish a connection between the notion of ‘Third Space’ and feminine accomplishment to achieve a hybrid transnational third space by select protagonists. The final section concludes by demonstrating the nuanced unique space occupied by select Bangla women interpreted as determined and progressive females, capable to rupture the established third world societal norms, cross-national border, and restructuring unique third space for themselves.

II Textual Analysis of Select Third World Women Negotiating Space

‘Third space’ or the shifting concept of identity is introduced by Homi K.Bhabha as an attempt to rupture the established predefined identity construct. Departing from hitherto defined notions of ‘static’ & ‘fixed’ labels, Dr. Bhabha seeks to establish the idea of construction and reconstruction of identity which primarily gains prominence due to its nature & negotiation wherein the subject identity is characterized neither ‘this’ nor ‘that’ but appears differently or uniquely leading subject to create oneself an in-between space, “Third is used to denote the place where negotiation takes place, where identity is constructed and re-constructed, where life in all its ambiguity is played out. This term serves as a rebuttal or corrective to regulating views, and highlights a way of seeing things differently.” (English, 2004)

Along with this, Dr. Bhabha introduces the concept of ‘other’ to specifically emphasize the marginalized entities which proceed toward ‘third space’. Bhabha’s concepts discredit societal tendency to mark and essentialize identities through hegemonic traditional, patriarchal, social, and political structures. On the contrary, the ‘third space’ allows the subject to recover, rearrange and restructure identity based on myriad cross-cultural experiences. The mixedness of distinct cultures allows the marginalized ‘other’ subject a unique hybrid space which is accomplished to challenge primitive hegemonic structures when he states, “Beginnings and endings may be the sustaining myths of the middle years; but in the fin de siecle, we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.” (Bhabha, 1994, pp.2)

The notion of ‘Third Space’ to understand feminine identity is analyzed keeping in view the dynamic vision of transnational feminism which strives to diverge from the predefined identity of third world women as universal sufferers due to feminine gender construct. The western marking & coding of third-world women as oriental, submissive, weak, and subservient is interpreted in the light of third space cultural theory wherein the static identity of these women is destabilized. It is observed that as per normative social structure, feminine identity is dichotomized into essential binary conventions explaining her status as to ‘what she is’ within pre-defined confines and ‘what she ought to be’ during interim departure. However, the select protagonists appear to challenge and deconstruct normative discourses moving towards reconstructing their feminine agency and culturally assimilated hybrid space. One can see that both Tahmima and Maria, the contemporary female writers, presently residing in distinct Western locations can artistically narrate the complex tales of indigenous Bangla women. The authors are very well aware of the complex feminine realities migrating from home to host nation with a desire to define them and create self space far away from oppressive social politics. Consequently, the protagonists do not appear as static fixed identities rather we find them in a continuous ‘act of becoming’.  Therefore, Bhaba’s discourse of hybridity becomes essential to analyze individual protagonists’ cultural interactions within distinct transnational spaces wherein they seem to possess fluid identity which leads to construct self-liberating Third Space. It is engrossing to witness how both the protagonists i.e. Zubaida and Maria encounter myriad complexities during the journey towards third space and emancipation.

The Bones of Grace (2016), the last narrative of Anam’s trilogy unfolds Zubaida’s quest of belonging with a backdrop of her academic pursuit to reveal Diana, a walking whale’s process of evolution which emerged from the sea, explored the earth, and ultimately submerged in the ocean. Zubaida, an orphan, adopted by elite Maya Haque and her husband never felt at home in Bangladesh, “my heart is a nomad, still after so many years of being in this country, child of these parents.” (Anam, 2016, pp.84) Though physically present in Bangladesh, she constantly remains absorbed in Elijah’s world, an American whom she met during a concert and immediately felt connected for the rest of life. Her transnational expedition to Pakistan as well as the shift in a location within her home nation contribute massively to her progress towards creating a unique third space for herself beyond familial and social insistence. She not only succeeds in locating her biological birth grounds but also receives breakthrough research findings through her transnational connections.

Maria Chauduri’s debut writing attempt i.e. memoir-based novel Beloved Strangers (2014) narrates the bildungsroman tale of a young Bengali author, her coming of age, and emotional exploration in entirely two different continents. Maria’s longing to escape her religious but emotionally distant family members turns to be an utter failure when she gets involved in a loveless marital relation with Tanjania born Muslim Yameen in the United States. The author’s sense of rootlessness within her home nation as well as in foreign land wherein she experiences social isolation, depression and marital wreck paves the way to create an assimilated third space for herself.

In the first place, it seems evident that both protagonists undergo undesirable familial and social pressures which ignite a spark within their hearts to abandon indigenous patriarchal values and explore transnational academic possibilities directing them towards unique hybrid subjectivity. Zubaida, a paleontologist, in The Bones of Grace, comes to know about her adoption on the occasion of her ninth birthday. During the narrative, one can recognize her uneasiness within the family wherein she feels constantly alienated both by her foster mother and husband who seem to remind her about her mysterious biological identity. She could sense that Rashid is admired even by her foster parents due to his dignified family lineage which exaggerates her anxiety and inadequate social space. Her inclination towards pursuing a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology seems to cater to the needs of chasing her biological parentage, “I experience a piercing loneliness, the loneliness of being the sole inhabitant of my body.” (Anam, 2016, pp.8) Alike her academic project, Zubaida endeavors hard to unfold the layers of her birth story. Her determination is worth appreciating when despite her mother-in-law’s accusations about her parentage belongingness calling it ‘bad background’ she succeeds in revealing the secret and also creates a self-fluid identity. On a similar note, Maria fabricates the poignant status of three-generational women through her memoir cum fictional work where we find deceased great grandmother Mehrunessa, grandmother Saira and her mother entangled in the web of marital and familial responsibilities. The geographical placement of these Bangla women prohibits them to pursue their own desired goals. Maria’s great-grandmother got married at the age of thirteen, lost her husband when she was seventeen and was pregnant with a fourth child. Mehrunessa, distraught and demented, found herself fastened with chains when declared insane by everyone.  However, Maria deconstructs the familial tradition by not only selecting her spouse but also by taking the crucial decision of renouncing marital ties on her terms. Maria opposes family traditions that enforced grandmother and mother to surrender to family pressure and marital laws. On the contrary, her decisions are not guided, influenced, or dictated by parental or patriarchal codes. She rejects to obey or subjugate any family, societal or marital expectations and structurally established code of conduct. This depicts her capability to achieve a space of triumph.

A critical analysis of Zubaida and Maria’s resistance to post-divorce complicated situations within home nations prove their dismissal of oriental and western label i.e. ‘victim’ when proves their willingness to relinquish traditional societal space and openness to embrace fluid Third Space. They shun male presence in their life to be sole identity demarcation and do not bother even if their non-conformist approach to adopting western-style sexual relationship disturb the designated normative space reserved for South Asian daughters, wives, and mothers. Their comprehensive growth as cognizant, self-sufficient female entities is far beyond traditional feminist self-awareness. These multiracial women question fixed established notions, challenge patriarchal codes and dismiss labeled identity. Rather they reach to occupy transnational hybrid Third Space achieved through self-liberating narrative.

It is also observed that during their transnational academic and professional pursuits, these protagonists encounter expulsion from a particular location due to their regional and racial belonging. Zubaida and her teammates are forced to depart from Pakistan without even collecting extracted skeletons of the whale because of political reasons and their suspicious transnational belonging. Maria also experiences racial humiliation due to her third-world belonging twice. Her western professional establishment refuses job and visa extension by making insignificant excuses. On another occasion, Maria is run by a frantic American woman who chastises her because of her oriental identity. Both protagonists seem to be affected by professional disasters initially but soon not only recover the damage but also establish a significant connection. Zubaida settles at the western location and we find her working in well-equipped labs to finalize the whale’s skeleton for display in the museum whereas Maria joyfully enters the institution of marriage and settles at another western location.

One can perceive that both protagonists refuse the stereotype religious, regional identity imposed onto them and reinvent their claim as self-sufficient progressive women by detaching themselves from predefined roles of womanhood. Choosing the path beyond predefined structure, they inhabit a new and challenging third space which shows their ability to negotiate circumstances & move tacitly and skilfully from one space to the other. Amidst complicated and suffocating social constructs this move is both challenging & unique.

III Conclusion

It is observed that distinct and diverse experiences, as well as realities of South Asian women, get influenced by myriad factors including historical background, geographical identity, race, ethnicity, political structure, sexual orientation, etc. In this regard, Western feminists’ assumption about these women’s experiences labeled as ‘similar/alike’ needs to be broadened as ‘us/them’ by considering and negotiating both aspects i.e. affinity as well as difference. Because ultimately the multiple subject positions occupied by these women undergo numerous encounters during cross-cultural interaction which further engenders unique aspirations and alternative space.

IV Works Cited

Anam, Tahmima. The Bones of Grace: A Novel. England: Penguin Books, 2016.        

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Newyork: Routledge, 1994

Chaudhuri, Maria. Beloved Strangers. Delhi: Bloomsbury Publications, 2014.

English, Leona (2004). “Feminist Identities: Negotiations in the Third Space.” Feminist Theology, Vol 13, No1, 2004. ISSN 0966-7350.

Grewal, Inderpal, Caren Kaplan(2002). “Introduction: Transnational Feminist Practices and Questions of Postmodernity”. Scattered Hegemonies. Ed. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan. London: University of Minnesota Press.

Mohanty, Talpade Chandra (1984). “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses”. On Humanism and the University I: The Discourse of Humanism: 12:3, 333-358 <> Web 7 Dec 2018

Swarr, Amanda L., Richa Nagar(2010). “Introduction: Theorizing Transnational Feminist Praxis”. Critical Transnational Feminist Praxis. Ed. Amanda L. Swarr and Richa Nagar. USA: State University of New York, 2010

Zinn, Baca Maxine., Dill Thornton Bonnie (1996). “Theorizing Difference from Multiracial Feminism.” Feminist Studies: 22:2, 321-331 < > Web 12Dec 2018


*First & Corresponding Author: Himani Sharma, PhD Research Scholar, Department of Applied Sciences and Humanities, Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women, Delhi, India., Phone: 9971276172

**Second Author: Dr Bhavya, Assistant Professor, English and Communication Studies, Department of Applied Sciences and Humanities, Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women, Delhi, India.

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