Asdiscourse As A Discursive Ground Reconsidered

That she is herself

Is more difficult than water is water

Kora Kumiko16

Universality and particularity have been primary issues that feminist theories and practices have wrestled with from their inception. Feminists

Mary John Mananzan and Sun Ai Park, 'Emerging Spirituality of Asian Women', in Fabella and Oduyoye (eds.), With Passion and Compassion, p. 79 (my italics). Chung, Struggle to be the Sun Again, p. 24 (my italics).

Cf. Laura E. Donaldson, Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender and Empire-Building (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992), p. 15.

Cited in Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi (eds.), Women Poets of Japan (New York: New Directions Books, 1977), p. 123.

have emphasized the universality of women's victimization by patriarchy on the one hand, and the particularity of women, who are essentially distinctive from men on the other. Common ground among women and a universal sisterhood erupted in the late 1960s. In order to speak of women as victims of patriarchy, as being discriminated against on account of their biology, a woman has to be socially identifiable 'as-a-woman'. The underlying presupposition of this as-discourse is that underneath the possible differences among women there must be some shared experience and identity 'as-women' in a patriarchal world. The as-discourse appeared especially as a political pre-requisite for a coalition of the marginalized such as women. This as-discourse made women a collective entity 'as-victims' of patriarchy and 'as-sisters' in a universally patriarchal world. Feminist searching for a 'universal sisterhood' in the 1970s was therefore based either on a biological essentialism or on the social victimization of women under patriarchy.

But criticism emerged within the feminist circle, mostly on the part of black feminists who claimed that feminist searching for a universal sisterhood was in fact grounded on the experience of 'white' women and excluded the experience of 'non-white' women who suffer from racism and classism as well. In this regard, 'Black women are not white women with color.'17 It is hard to deny that the search for the universal sisterhood in the 1970s tended to be race-less and class-less, as if the differences among women were threatening to the irrefutable fact that all women are somehow women, whereas racism and classism still overshadowed the everyday lives of the majority of women in the USA in particular and on the globe in general. Many began to call into question those feminisms that reduce domination to a single cause, focus exclusively on sexual difference and ignore women's differences as they intersect across other vectors of power, particularly with regards to race and class.18 Non-white women began to raise their racial/ethnic voices using the same set of as-discourse but with a different focus - discourses of 'as-Asian', 'as-black' or 'as-Mujerista'.

The question of how to redefine difference for all women, which was raised in 1980 by Audre Lorde, came to the fore in feminist theological discourse. Lorde states that 'it is not our differences which separate women, but our reluctance to recognize those differences'.19 Feminist difference

Barbara Omolade, 'Black Women and Feminism', in Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine (eds.), !8 The Future of Difference (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1985), pp. 247-57 at p. 248. bell hooks, Talking Back (Boston: South End Press, 1989), p. 23.

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg: Crossing Press, 1984), p. 122.

discourse emerging in the 1980s was twofold: women's difference from men, primarily based on biological essentialism, and the difference among women, primarily based on race and class. Multiple voices within the feminist theological discourse have been raised: feminist, womanist/black feminist, mujerista or Asian feminist theology.

The question of why racially white people, both men and women, do not use the discourse of 'as-white' even when white women express their victimization by sexism 'as-women', is very easy to answer: it is due to the mainstream-ness of their race in a national, regional and global level, even in the midst of the marginal-ness of their sex. It is like men not adopting the discourse of 'as-men'. What is it then to think of woman 'as-a-woman'? Is it really possible for us to think of woman's 'woman-ness' without taking her living in the US, France, Bangladesh, Korea, Kenya, Fiji, Britain or Palestine into our consideration? Or her being middle-upper class in Uganda or lower class in Germany? Any and all women can be identified 'as-women' but they can be identified also 'as' yellow, brown, white, black, professor, politician, housewife, actress, married, single, the first lady, factory worker, Queen, eastern, western, straight or lesbian and so on.

In this complexity around the discourse of as-women, justifying the claim in any particular case that it is sexism that has harmed a woman the most requires proving that the harm comes to her because she is a woman and not because of some other fact about her — her race or class, marital status, religious affiliation, cultural heritage, sexual orientation or physical disability. Moreover, even if a woman is oppressed by sexism, and even if we say that all women are victimized by sexism, we cannot automatically conclude that all discrimination and oppression by sexism is the same. It needs to be elaborated in detail what one's oppression 'as-a-woman' means in each case. In this context, producing an accurate picture of Asian women's lives and experiences requires not only reference to their identity as-women but also to other multiple factors which are deeply interlinked with one another.

Asian feminist theology has also started with 'as-discourse', like feminist theology in the west, but the as-discourse has dimensions unlike those of feminist theology in the west: 'as-woman' and 'as-Asian'.

We belong to different Christian denominations; we come from diverse and complex cultures and backgrounds, but we experience a common bond and a common bondage — as Asians and as women.20

Fabella and Oduyoye (eds.), With Passion and Compassion, p. 118 (my italics).

Asian feminist theology has dealt with the 'as-discourse' as a form of difference-discourse in four ways: difference from men as-women, difference from western feminists as-Asian-feminists, difference from the western as-Asian, and difference from the other religions as-Christians in a religiously pluralist world. How then feminists, in Asia and other parts of the world, can relate to one another across difference, or despite difference, becomes one of the urgent issues that feminist theologians wrestle with.

There are of course political reasons for speaking about the shared experience of 'as-women' being oppressed by sexism, which can be the solid ground for a women's movement. However, speaking from and holding on to the perspective of as-discourse of Asian women continuously is politically dangerous because it can only lead to an ongoing 'balkanization' of feminist theological discourse.21 If the coherency required for any political movement to get heard and to cause change requires a group to speak in a single voice of 'as-discourse', how will a single voice be shaped from the multiplicity of voices, and whose voice will predominate? Who has the rights, authority or ability to find a single voice from many as-women, as-Asians or as-Asian-women? Although they criticize the homogenized version of white women's experience as universal women's experience propagated by western feminists, Asian feminists tend to homogenize their own version of Asian women based on the same logic of 'as-discourse'. There is, naturally, always a danger in overemphasizing the difference:

The very theme of difference, whatever the differences are represented to be, is useful to the oppressing group ... [A]ny allegedly natural feature attributed to an oppressed group is used to imprison this group within the boundaries of a Nature which, since the group is oppressed, ideological confusion labels 'nature of oppressed person'... [T]o demand the right to Difference without analyzing its social character is to give back the enemy an effective weapon.22

'As-discourse' in Asian feminist theological discourse has tended to claim essential female-and-ethnic-difference and to produce a standardization of the 'authentic' Asian women, wittingly or unwittingly. I would argue that the 'as-discourse' should be shifted to a 'with-discourse' and that the firm ground of 'with-discourse' is the radical realization of the interconnectedness

Cf. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (ed.), Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Introduction (New York: 22 Crossroad, 1995), p. 17.

E. Marks and I. De Courtivon (eds.), New French Feminism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts

of our lives across gender, race, region and class, and of the need for solidarity for the common good. I would also go on to argue that Asian feminist theology needs to make a shift from a politics of identity to a politics of solidarity. For an exclusive focus on the difference between identities based on culture, geopolitics or other factors of women's lives tends to overlook the interactive mediations between differences, and obscure the overlapping and hybridizing that takes place in the contact space in between differences. As a starting point, 'difference' means essentially 'division' in the understanding of many, and 'difference' can be no more than a tool of either self-defence or conquest. Minh-ha Trinh eloquently points out the problem of as-discourse of difference:

We (with capital W) sometimes include(s), other times exclude(s) me. You and I are close, we intertwine; you may stand on the other side of the hill once in a while, but you may also be me, while remaining what you are and what I am not ... 'I' is, therefore, not a unified subject, a fixed identity, or that solid mass covered with layers of superficialities one has gradually to peel off before one can see its true face. 'I' is, itself, infinite layers.23

Special identity as-Asian-women, which has been portrayed in Asian feminist theological discourse both by Asian and western feminists, is both limiting and in a way deceiving. If my identity as Asian woman, for instance, refers to the whole pattern of sameness within my life as Asian woman, how am I to lose, maintain or gain my identity as Asian-woman? Asian women can never be defined. Not every Asian woman can be a real and authentic Asian woman. 'As-discourse' in Asian feminist theology should be used only when understood socio-politically as a subversive force, not as a portrayal only as pure-victims. Otherwise Asian feminist theologians are contributing to their own homogenizing, romanticizing and stereotyping. In order to avoid this, we Asian feminist theologians should persistently wrestle with the following questions: How can we articulate Asian women's difference without having that difference turned into a cultural ghettoization of Asian women? How can Asian women 'speak'?

It is also important to note that Asian women are not inherently more life-affirming, nurturing, caring or non-violent than Asian man, as they are often portrayed as being in Asian feminist theological discourse. This is a very dangerous perspective because it leads to a focus on women's

3 T. Minh-ha Trinh, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), pp. 90 and 94.

biology and tends to reinforce the patriarchal notion that to be a woman means to be a mother as nurturer and care-giver. Asian women have not initiated wars simply because of our material and socio-political circumstances and not because we are 'innately' more moral and life-affirming than men. It is very clear that women's work, in either the private or public sectors, supports both war and peace activities. The socialization of Asian women and Asian men complements the needs of the culture in which they live, which is still very much patriarchal. As Gerda Lerner rightly points out, '[t]he system of patriarchy can function only with the co-option of women'.24 A perpetuation of 'as-discourse' in Asian feminist theology is more constraining than empowering and weakens solidarity amongst feminists in the world. 'As-discourse' is needed only as a means of resistance but not as an end. The identity of as-Asian-women in Asian feminist theological discourse will have to be created through the action of resistance to any form of power that limits, exploits, distorts and degrades the lives of women and the marginalized.

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