Lexicons of Women’s Empowerment Online: Appropriating the Other

Posted: July 30, 2012 in Uncategorized

In this blog I will be discussing the article titled Lexicons of Women’s Empowerment Online: Appropriating the Other written by Radhika Gajjala, Yahui Zhang, and Phyllis Dako-Gyeke. This paper examines the discourses of women’s freedom online as the authors try to illustrate how lexicons of women’s empowerment online are put in an ideological fashion that are in turn harmful in actuality. The authors focus on three differently situated discursive formations to examine the degree in which these lexicons of empowerment occur. One formation examined was websites around female genital mutilation (FGM) in online activism, another was the Americans for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) website, and lastly, the third case was based on work offline and trying to create strategies for online marketing. The authors explained that in each case, the possibilities of articulation are in fact prevented by the discourses that apparently aim to empower individuals. What seemed to be a reoccurring phenomenon in each case was the ways in which such discourses formed this notion and distinction of ‘the West and the Other,’ putting the West in a superior light than those whom were deemed the ‘Other.’

Websites and social networks that create lexicons of supposed women’s empowerment are problematic regardless of whether or not they target groups of lesser economic advantage worldwide as users and as audience. This is because individuals who have little access to computers may be ineffective and unsophisticated in their responses and discussions online where the overall result is not participatory; this maintains a hierarchy that privileges those who designed and produced the content.  Therefore, the individuals that such content is targeted towards-the subaltern Other- are not able to effectively participate, leaving the more privileged to dominate and direct such online environments which may not include accurate representations of such individuals. This results in a monolithic, homogenizing imagery of Third World poverty. A very important factor to keep in mind is that many of these ‘powerless’ Others who such online environments are apparently created for are not even able to access a computer let alone communicate on it, therefore, due to their lack of presence online, individuals who may not even completely understand or grasp their personal experiences are left representing these individuals. I find this to be rather alarming as the focus changes from women’s empowerment to Western women looking like caring saviors that are superior to the South whom need enlightenment and ‘saving.’  A significant point that the authors made in the article was that as long as ‘technology’ is only clearly positioned in a linear narrative of development that is based in colonial discourses about the supposed nontechnological Other, and as long as markets are embedded in such technological narratives, it will be rather challenging to redirect production and consumption in ways to empower these nonvisible populations that liberal feminist websites are apparently helping.

Phyllis Dako-Gyeke analyzes the practice of female genital mutilaton (FGM), which has become a very visible arena in globalized women’s health activism. She explains that the subject of FGM is crucial as it highlights the involvement of the Western world in affairs of the non-Western world in many ways. She argued that starting from the nineteenth century, FGM discourses have constructed the third world woman’s experience as involving female violence and oppression; this in turn called for colonial White man mediation as well as warranted the mediatory role of the Western feminist and third world oppressed ‘Other’ liberated through liberal feminism. The use of new media forms can be rather powerful and in itself oppressive to the woman that it attempts to ‘save.’  Globalized discourses display FGM as the ‘third world’ woman’s issue. Dako-Gyeke specifically looked at two websites that focused on FGM and analyzed how FGM was problematized on these sites by observing some of the terminology that was connected to the practice. Words such as ‘health damage,’ ‘infections,’ and ‘health risks’ were used on the sites as FGM was defined as a health problem. However, as Walley had explained, the attention to such health problems tends to create a divergence and distinction between a ‘rational West and an overly traditional rest.’ The websites also used diagrams to show the parts of female genitalia being removed during the practice which in turn instills fear and grasps the attention of Euro-American audiences.  The practice of FGM has also been associated with victimization and perpetrators as feminist advocates are quick to state that women perform FGM due to their powerlessness in traditional male dominated societies, ‘where women practice FGM to please men.’

A term that I found to be rather significant in the article was the ‘colonial flaw.’ Non-Western feminists argued that despite the diversity, most FGM discourses maintain voices that carry legacies of colonial representations of the ‘third world.’ I think that it is very important to acknowledge that the person or people speaking are rather significant in determining the significance or accuracy of the issue or topic at hand. Concerns about who speaks caused third world women to question the authenticity of the speaking voices as well as oppose the power dynamics characterizing it. Is it fair for individuals outside of culture or experience to represent other individuals who do not even get a chance to represent themselves? Is it okay for such individuals to represent third world women’s experiences, experiences they have not personally faced? Would they even be accurate, and does this help or hurt these individuals in reality? I feel like the views on such online sites may in turn become more ‘Westernized’ than really representative and effective and in turn alienate the people that were supposed to be made visible. The Western gaze is a very important phenomenon that should be acknowledged. There should definitely be a space created within the use of technologies where the third world woman who is underprivileged can use the internet to represent herself rather than having others speak for her. Although highly educated third world women seek to help the underprivileged third world women, they are definitely not representative of such individuals. Yahui Zhang examined the online space called Americans For UNFPA. She is a woman of colour from China but was trained in a privileged environment. She feels that Chinese women and many women outside of the framework of the West have bodies that do not belong to them. Touching on the issue of representation, she finds that the issue is exploited by liberal feminists in an attempt to speak for these women.  She explains that when the website is intertwined with discourses of liberal feminism it reinforces colonial discourses of the oppressed third world woman, a female Other who either needs to be ‘liberated’ through acts of techno-mediation and liberal feminist handouts or has been saved through liberal feminists’ generous acts of consumption and donation. Radhika Gajjala has worked with NGO fieldworkers to understand the process of marketing handloom products in order to ensure continued sustainable livelihoods for weavers in rural South India, she wants to understand how rural women are not empowered through Internet technologies. What I took from this section of the article was the fact that when the suggestion of handloom weavers and indigenous craft communities could benefit from ‘new’ technologies, the ways in which this is possible is through discourses that construct the third world Other as exotic and in need. Therefore, the civilized and rational Western beings are there to save and help such individuals through their ‘generous’ donations. Rather than such items being commodities being sold for the market and so on, this idea of these third world women in need of liberation and development comes to mind and the West ends up being seen as helpful saviors for such ‘backward, uncivilized’ Others.

The notion that internet technologies can set these women free and empower them has been reoccurring however, in each case the civilized West seems to come out on top and be viewed as these helpful, dominant, and gracious beings that will save the uneducated Others from their lifestyles and cultures. Even when ‘saving the others’ is their main concern it becomes rather contradictory as it brings the attention onto the West as they are constructed in a positive and caring light, leaving these ‘deprived women’ with no chance to represent themselves or have agency. The issues at hand are actually put to the side and more attention is directed towards the West or liberal feminists that direct or create these online spaces. In each case, the possibilities for expression end up being constrained by the medium created to empower. In addition to the questions mentioned above, I question whether or not the issues brought up by the West on these women’s bodies acknowledge the interlocking relationships between class, ethnicity and race as each person has their own individual and personal experience. The West in my opinion seems to have grouped the experiences of the ‘Other’ in a fixed and generalized manner which I find to be inaccurate, what do you think? I also encourage everyone to read this particular article as it covered a lot of information and was rather interesting and helpful in understanding the power dynamics that may develop through online discourses. Below I have attached a link that I found to be rather helpful and interesting that discusses orientalism which explains how we as individuals of western society tend to have preconceived notions of people of the Middle East in particular, regardless of whether or not we have actually been there or experienced this type of behavior. I found that this particular video relates to the article in that discourses and representations sent out by the West play a powerful role in shaping how we view the world and other individuals. After viewing this video, how affected to you think you are by discourses present in the media whether it is online or through other sources?


-Mundeep Dhaliwal


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