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‘Woman’ as theatre

‘Woman’ as theatre
United Nations Conference on Women, Beijing 1995

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak


he United Nations is based on the unacknowledged assumption that ‘the rest
of the world’ is unable to govern itself. In fact, of course, no state is able to
govern itself, in different ways. And, in the current conjuncture, the role of
the state is less and less important. Therefore it is necessary to show, as lavishly as
possible, global national unity.

One is not ‘against’ the UN as such. But the US-controlled Security Council
(which Barbara Crossette of The New York Times has called the ‘Insecurity Council’,
because US control seems to be slipping), and, at the other end, these women’s
conferences, are more problematic. The latter may even be called tremendously wellorganized and broad repressive ideological apparatuses. The thing to show is the unity
of nations, remember. And, just as for capital the use value of labour power is capital
accumulation, so for the United States, and even, mutatis mutandis, the EC,
nationalism is globalization, and that is where the problem lies.

In this perspective, the China-bashing that accompanied the events in Beijing last
autumn was a red herring. Human-rights violations happen only in China, although the
USA is currently decimating welfare and approving mergers that allow Chief
Executive Officers to pull in ‘salaries’ in eight figures? China is blocking a ‘free
exchange of ideas’ and thus re-initiating the Cold War? We do not see free exchange
on the other side. It is a situation of repression versus exploitation. China should
perhaps learn from the ‘free’ world that repressive tolerance is the best ally of

The financialization of the globe must be represented as the North embracing the
South. Women are being used for the representation of this unity – another name for
the profound transnational disunity necessary for globalization. These conferences are
global theatre. There is, of course, no politics which is not theatre. But we are
interested in this global theatre, staged to show participation between the North and
the South, the latter constituted by Northern discursive mechanisms – a Platform of
Action and certain power lines between the UN, the donor consortium, governments
and the elite Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). In fact, the North organizes a
South. People going to these conferences may be struck by the global radical aura. But
if you hang out at the other end, participating day-to-day in the (largely imposed)
politics of how delegations and NGO groups are put together – in Bangladesh, Sri
Lanka or Central Asia, say, to name only the places this writer knows – you would
attest that what is left out is the poorest women of the South as self-conscious critical
agents, who might be able to speak through those very nongovernmental organizations
of the South that are not favoured by these object-constitution policies.

Of course, the constitution of a ‘South’ – and, indeed, of a ‘North’ – doesn’t deal
with the internal division within nations. Yet, one distinction still holds. Poor women


Radical Philosophy 75 (JanlFeb


in the North are being denied access to an existing welfare structure that is being
dismantled; the poorest in the South are at the bottom of a society where a welfare
structure cannot emerge because of globalized exploitation (and, often, state
corruption). The structural disparity is immense. Fertilizer and pharmaceutical
dumping, biodiversity-grabbing, et cetera, affect women in the two sectors in a
discontinuous way. Although in certain areas – as has been pointed out by Swasti
Mitter and others – one cannot endorse a clean North-South divide.

Paradoxically, the distinction is blurred and sharpened in another way, from above:

Southern diasporics, in their nostalgia to be identified with their nations of origin,
come forth to stand in for the South. They are not only not the South, they are not the
South-in-the-North either. Their class alliances are often vertical, their political
concerns modelled, at best, on migrant suffering – a worthy interest, but only
indirectly connected with international exploitation. Class-formation, understood
loosely to take in the demographic effects of global capital in rural areas, is an
important category here. And, with respect, the nationalist blindness of the US Left
(Cornel West in Rethinking Marxism or Stanley Aronowitz in Socialist Review) needs
a shot of vulgar Marxism in order to understand that the USA is not the world.

Some of the blame must be put on the South, of course. The subversion of the
GATT, which could perhaps have secured some positive global checks at a certain
point, is not a little due to the fact that the so-called Third World countries entered into
bilateral agreements with the North and a Southern solidarity could not develop. As a
result, today the World Trade Organization can constantly ruse the performance of
exploitation as the constatation of international economic regulation. The theatre of
Beijing cannot successfully represent the small-scale struggles that daily deconstruct
capital into the social. It is laudable to support small banks that in turn support
women’s small enterprise, as the UN certainly does. But the UN also supports the kind
of women’s development programmes that are nurtured by post-Fordism. Breaking the
radical criticism of conscientized, disempowered, very poor women is thus the
silencing of a cer,tain kind of micro-effort which brings into being the ‘small is
beautiful’ of post-Fordism. They are both small
scale. But one is a small that can resist, build and
work with the big. The post-Fordist small, although
it looks decentred, helps the centralization of

Nationalism and the interest in domestic
redistribution often comprise a different logic or
approach to basic questions which women in the
United States assume to be part of a global agenda.

The 1994 Conference on Population and
Development in Cairo fines sed this by
monolithizing abortion. This brings us back to
object- and subject-constitution. Already in the
document from the 1985 Nairobi conference on
women, one began to see who qualifies as
‘woman’, and what that woman must think in order
to represent the woman who is to be empowered.

And the contemporary discussion as to whether the
term ‘gender’ should be allowed in the document
plays out a peculiarly evolutionist, often irrelevant,
unexamined and wasteful nominalism. In the
context of this, what was the purpose of
complaining constantly about the living conditions,


the site? What connection does it have with the suffering of the world’s women?

We are witnessing the proliferation of feminist apparatchiks who identify
conference organizing with activism as such, who cannot successfully imagine the
lineaments of the space of existence of the Southern grassroots. They have no idea of
the vast difference between the actual bottom and the layer above, of, say, the rural
fieldworkers. They often assume that altogether salutary debate in the conference will
have necessary consequences in the lifeworld of oppressed and super-exploited
women. The connection between state- and local-level implementation and the legal
force of UN documents is a moot issue. If you asked the largest sector of the electorate
in large developing countries where elite NGOs do not often penetrate: what is the
United Nations and what effect will a document framed here have on your daily life,
in terms of primary health care or in terms of your children’s education or in terms of
year-round income?, you wouldn’t get much of a rise.

Again, one is not against the UN effort in principle. One just wishes that so much
time, so many resources, were not spent on it. All over the world, especially in the
developing world, serious activists are staying away more and more, for the real work
may be elsewhere. Yet, unless the mainstream feminist hears responsible critique, the
feminist status quo will continue to provide an alibi for exploitation. The Asian
Women’s Human Rights Coalition recently deplored the fact that the Southern press
was insufficiently subsidized.

At the end of the day, I pose the same question that I put to a group of Bangladeshi
fieldworkers who were about to go to Beijing, and were complaining about their scant
English: Do you have any idea how you will be matronized by white and diasporic
feminists? Can you get behind their herding smiles? And why, in your opinion – with
all your hands-on experience of international exploitation – is it necessary to tabulate
our state and local problems at the UN? Or, to echo a powerful feminist lawyer in
India: How, when domestic feminists cannot (or will not) grasp the complexity of the
last forty years of legal history in India, will the United Nations help in the matter of
the Uniform Civil Code?

University of Essex
centre for european philosophy
Second international philosophy graduate conference

International perspectives on continental philosophy
Saturday 24th February 1996
A conference bringing together graduate students from Europe and North
America, focusing on current trends in research in Continental Philosophy.

Special plenary address by professor Franyoise Dastur (Paris XII): ‘Finitude and

£5.00 unwaged / £12.00 waged (including reception).

Advance registration is recommended (cheques should be made payable to The University of Essex)

For registration and programme information, please contact
Stella Sandford, Department of Philosophy, University of Essex,
Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, C04 3SQ


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