Deconstructing The Myth Of Asianwomenness

When women began to realize that they had been silenced throughout human history, their first question was, Who are WE as women? In the early feminist movement in the west, this 'we-question' was based on the binary nature of 'men—the victimizer' and 'women—the victimized'. It did not take long, however, for them to realize that this 'we-question' was to be connected to the 'I-question'. Feminist women in the west soon realized that the 'we' — as the multiple 'I's — is not one but is divided by social class, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, and religious affiliation, and that the 'We-ness' and 'I-ness' are inseparable. The articulation of the 'we-ness' of women was easily adopted by Asian feminist theologians because most Asian cultures have emphasized the significance of collectivity, the we-ness, rather than individuality, the I-ness. While feminist theologians in the west shifted their emphasis from the unified we-ness to the differentiated I-ness, Asian feminist theologians did not make such a shift.

In most Asian culture, especially Confucian culture, the individual is not central and there is no conception of individuality existing in the sense known to feminists in the west. In Confucian culture, the idea is not individual liberty or equality but order and 'harmony', not individual independence but communal 'harmony'. In this context, woman's claim for individual rights and freedom is against the purpose of society, which is not to preserve and promote individual liberty but to maintain the 'harmony' of the hierarchical and patriarchal order. This culture of patriarchal hierarchy, in the guise of harmony and communitarian virtue, makes it very hard for Asian women to make a shift from the unified, homogenized 'WE' into the multiple, heterogenized 'I's.10

Here I am not trying to perpetuate the stereotyped dichotomy of the individualist West versus communitarian Asia, especially as the very notions

Cf. Louis Henkin, 'The Human Rights Idea in Contemporary China: A Comparative Perspective', in R. Randle Edwards, Louis Henkin and Andrew J. Nathan, Human Rights in Contemporary China (New York: Columbia University Press, i986), pp. 7—40.

of individualism and communitarianism are contested. But it is undeniable, at least from my feminist perspective, that the individuality of Asian woman has been unthinkable, especially under Confucian culture. It is also significant to note that in Confucian practice, the notions of 'harmony' and 'relationality' between the members of the community are themselves very hierarchical in terms of gender, age, social status and familial rank, and are overtly androcentric.

A less visible but more critical problem in the positioning of 'Asian women' in a fixed image is related to the issue of 'representation', which deals with the question of whether Asian feminist theologians can truly represent less privileged Asian women by selecting particular stories of other 'oppressed' Asian women and telling 'their' stories on behalf of them. I agree with what Gayatri Spivak argues: that the authentic feelings of the subaltern once named will be misrepresented,11 because of the multiple mediations of more powerful groups and institutions, both local and global.

If Asian women are portrayed as a unitary entity in Asian feminist theological discourse by feminist theologians both in the west and in Asia, feminist theologians are then repeating the 'misrepresentation' of women that they have criticized in patriarchal discourse, in which women have been named, portrayed as a unified subjecthood, and spoken on behalf of; women are thus misrepresented in their true situation as multiple and hybrid subjects. Women's life stories can be a powerful mechanism to convey authentic experiences and the relationship between the self and others, but only as long as the stories represent a 'process of struggling towards a particular consciousness'12 that both reinterprets and remakes the world.

Asian feminist theology in the past did not succeed in offering theories of language, social location and gender capable of displaying the multiplicities of Asian women's being. Images of Asian women, the characterization of their 'authentic' experiences and the problematization of Asian women's reality as presented by Asian feminist theology in the past have been geographically deterministic and hence culturally essentialist. Hence, the tremendously diverse range of Asian women's experiences and

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 'Can the Subaltern Speak?', in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271—316.

Susan Geiger, 'Women's Life Histories: Method and Content', Signs, 11:2 (1986), 334—51 at 348.

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