Susan Abraham – « Women in their various struggles »

Susan Abraham

«Women in their various struggles: Spiritual Activism as “other” knowledge»

For a while now, feminist theory in Western and Northern Euro-America has been struggling with the impasse accorded by postmodern feminism. The Resist! Conference held on May 27-30, 2019 in Mexico City provided ample evidence for such an assertion. Postmodern feminism, a staple of academic feminism in Northern Euro-America emphasizes culture, discourse and language. It is a very productive engagement, resulting in keen analyses of the ways in which power, knowledge, subjectivity and language intertwine to create matrices of oppression. Here, advocacy for a dissolution of borders for the sake of political work challenges transnational feminism to conceive of resistance as beyond borders. On the one hand, transnational feminism asks women to join forces with each other despite their cultural, racial and nationality differences.

On the other hand, particularly for the women of South America, routinely written out of such analyses, the issue of context and the material reality of bodies feeding Western and Northern Empire is the basis of resistance and the creation of identity. Borders also take on a materiality that have political significance. Drawing on contemporary Chicana scholars’ work on Gloria Anzaldúa’s “spiritual activism,” and in conversation with postcolonial feminist thought, this essay argues that women’s knowledges, in order to become effective at resisting Empire, necessarily requires Anzaldúan relationality of intra-becoming, by recognizing that borders exist. Postcolonial feminist thought conversely, argues that all geo-political identities are the creation of Euro-American colonialism and sustained to create fractures and splits in any form of alliance. Yet, these two perspectives may not be as distinct as one may grasp on a first reading. Teasing out the strands of possible alliance between these two feminist approaches is a goal of this essay.

The roundtable that I participated in was entitled “Patriarchal State and Systemic Violence.” The participants were indigenous activists and community leaders who provided testimony on the many violences faced by women in their contexts. Such a panel was in stark contrast to the many academic conference panels that I otherwise regularly participate in, here in North America. As an “unconference,” that is, a mode of thinking and being with people who do not identify immediately as “academics,” Resist! resisted coercive forms of exclusion by imperial systems of recognizing knowledge. Academics have a way of hanging out with each other, to the exclusion of activists and field workers. We were asked to think about the following questions: What is patriarchy and how does it manifest itself; what is the “Patriarchal State;” what are the characteristics of patriarchal violence; what are the subjectivities that participate in patriarchal violence; how do people resist patriarchy and why are some religious fundamentalisms use gender ideology to discredit movements against patriarchy. In exploring these questions, a number of oppositional sites became evident. One is what is recognized by many as “identity politics.” Another is the split between individual agency/wellbeing/health and survival often opposed to collective agency, health and survival of the many. Another is the academic split between so-called academic knowledge and “non-academic” knowledge. The roundtable dealt with these oppositions by pointing out how these functioned to keep colonial rationalities and power in place.

The roundtable made clear that the ways in which traditional conferences privilege particular forms of knowledge is a form of violence through exclusion. Even panels that are constituted to challenge the status quo function with such violence. The presumed “political expertise” of academics writes out, elides and erases forms of activist and engaged political work that many women with no access to institutional academic structures. In fact, the astonishing fact is that women from other than Euro-America continue to be written out of even feminist knowledge. Audre Lorde, in a poem written in 1989 wrote:

The US and the USSR are the most
powerful countries
in the world
but only 1/8 of the world’s population.
of that, ¼ is Nigerian,
½ of the world’s population is Asian.
½ of that is Chinese.
There are 22 nations in the middle east.
Most people in the world are Yellow, Black, Brown, Poor, Female, Non-Christian
and do not speak English.
By the year 2000 the 20 largest cities in the world will have one thing in common
None of them will be in Europe none in the United States.[1]

And of course, most of the world is excluded from Euro-American academies because they do not mirror the concerns, methodologies and knowledges of the empire. Their entry into these academies are hampered by economic, political and neocolonial policies aimed at sustaining capitalism in the West and grinding poverty elsewhere. Postcolonial feminist scholars have attempted to address such exclusion in various ways. For example, a critical intervention in postcolonial studies by Chandra Talpade Mohanty argued for feminism without borders, in order to decolonize theory and practice solidarity. However, Mohanty’s work, is an example of discursive feminist politics as its focus is the discursive space in which knowledge about “third world women,”[2] circulate. As she emphatically asserts:

The relationship between “Woman” (a cultural and ideological composite other constructed through diverse representational discourses—scientific, literary, juridical, linguistic, cinematic, etc.) and “women,” (real, material subjects of their collective histories) is one of the central questions the practice of feminist scholarship seeks to address. This connection between women as historical subjects and the representation of Woman produced by hegemonic discourses is not a relation of direct identity or a relation of correspondence or simple implication. It is an arbitrary relation set up by particular cultures.[3]

Institutional power structures, of church, nation, society and academy circumscribe the lives of Third World women. In making her argument for borderlessness, Mohanty points to the “internationalization of economies and labor forces.”[4]Transnational corporations seek both extractive opportunities in the third world, while also seeking cheap labor to transform extractive raw materials into goods for consumption. These economic policies have redrawn the boundaries of the nation-state in such a way that it is “no longer an appropriate socioeconomic unit for analysis.” In fact, the term “third world” itself has become meaningless, since “systemic socioeconomic and ideological processes position the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, as well as minority populations (people of color) in the United States and Europe” in a third-world like relationship to the state, within these states. Borderless political work is critical if gains are to be made for women in contexts marked by racism, sexist violence, colonialism, imperialism and monopoly capital.

Third-world subjects are particularly impacted by racist citizenship and immigration laws. In her prescient analysis of this idea, Mohanty argues that citizenship and immigration laws are fundamentally about creating insiders and outsiders. In a manner unlike the earlier colonial context, contemporary neoliberal capitalist states “operate through unmarked discourses of citizenship and individual rights.”[5] She identifies a feature of neoliberal violence that is so subtle in its effects, that it remains invisible. As she argues, in colonial contexts it was easy to note the sharp sexual division of labor in which white masculinity and white adventure led to masculine conquest. In contemporary contexts in contrast, an impersonal but highly masculinized bureaucracy organized around themes of rationality, calculation and orderliness once again consolidates patriarchal and masculinist power. Even as such hegemonic masculinity attracts the analytic criticism of Western feminists, missing is the almost invisible creation of the highly racialized interactions of rationality, calculation and orderliness, in which white feminism is implicated. Racism is the ideology that both creates the system of exclusion from which people of color are excluded from the recognized rationalities, calculation and orderliness of the state, and also, the system by which excluded people are automatically judged to be outsiders or “minorities.” 

For transnational feminists, how to do feminism without racism continues to be an enormous challenge. Mohanty’s chapter entitled “The Politics of Experience,” in her book Feminism Without Borders, provides a cogent roadmap.[6]Feminists, in emphasizing the category of “experience,” often falsely universalize women’s experience. There is no “universal” women’s oppression, for example. Women’s oppressions are specific to their historic and cultural locations. Here, more than domestic forms of patriarchy, recurring themes of internationalized economic and cultural forms of exclusion lead to solidarities and collectivities of resistance. Instead of “experience,” often taken to be immediately accessible, understood and named, Mohanty offers another view. Experience for example, cannot be named outside of the frameworks that we use to represent it. Further, “experience” often has the valued position of a psychologized, internal and individualized knowledge that does not need verification. For Mohanty, such appeals to experience do not lead to the overturning of systems of oppression. She writes:

Since experience has a fundamentally psychological status, questions of history and collectivity are formulated on the level of attitude and intention. In effect, the sociality of collective struggles is understood in terms of something like individual group relations, relations that are commonsensically seen as detached from history. If the assumption of the sameness of experience is what ties woman (individual) to women (group), regardless of class, race, nation, and sexualities, the notion of experience is anchored firmly in the notion of the individual self, a determined and specifiable constituent of European modernity. However, this notion of the individual needs to be self-consciously historicized if as feminists we wish to go beyond the limited bourgeois ideology of individualism, especially as we attempt to understand what cross-cultural sisterhood might be made to mean.[7]

Another issue that inhibits the creation of transnational feminism is an overemphasis on locality. This may seem to be a contradictory idea, especially when Mohanty’s emphasis is otherwise on historicized and localized struggles. But Mohanty’s delicate point is that an overemphasis on any particular struggle has the same effect as the overemphasis on the category of experience. Instead, what is important is to focus on the “temporality of struggle,” a focus on time, that is a direct challenge to the idea of temporal “linearity, development and progress that are the hallmarks of European modernity.”[8] The focus on time, which suggests an “insistent, simultaneous, nonsynchronous process characterized by multiple locations, rather than a search for origins and endings” is a far better tactic for transnational feminist coalitions. 

Mohanty’s work represented an early constructive proposal for transnational feminists. Yet, as the Resist! conference also made clear, localized forms of resistance have lessons to teach. Chicana resistances for example, are not single-issue resistances. They respond simultaneously to multiple forms of violence, since oppressions intersect in myriad ways in the lives of South American women. What also became clear is that activists may be sidelining the role of spirituality, especially as it connects with activism. Such spiritual activism was a hallmark of Gloria Anzaldúa’s work, especially in her groundbreaking book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Anzaldúa has inspired a number of transnational thinkers to think beyond the binary of secular and religious, which is another way in which the Euro-American academy constrains transnational feminisms. In an essay detailing similar political insights, Sonya M. Alemán and Flor de Maria Olivo argue that the “Itzpapalotl Spirit” guides a form of resistance writing practice.[9] The authors write:

In particular, we sought to decolonize and reclaim indigenous narratives of indigenous female warriors …especially since Anzaldúa described writing as a form of activism and referred to herself as a “writer-warrior.” Thus we discovered the goddess Itzpapalotl, a female warrior goddess and fertilizing force who served as a caretaker of productive and fruitful realms that generate life, learning and ingenuity….The Aztec goddess Itzpapalotl, more commonly known as the Obsidian Butterfly, is described as the warrior leader or queen of the tzitzimime, or star goddesses, and rules a dominion known as Tamoanchan. A tzitzimime herself, she is depicted by a striking skull appearance and skeletal body with the wings of a silkmoth or butterfly. Given these features, she exists in duality, possibly as both spirit and flesh. Portrayed as a zombie-like figure with eagle talons for fingers and jaguar wrists, she interacts in past, present and future.[10]

The Itzpapalotl spirit provides for the authors a metaphysics of interconnectedness and complex temporality that decolonizes by challenging Euro-American modes of individualist agency and justice, all touchstones for the kind of Northern feminist political thought that erases the complex realities of violences faced by women from the global south. As a form of spirituality that is deliberately challenging to Euro-American theory, theology and spirituality, Itzpapalotl spirituality emphasizes the specificity of localization even as it calls for its transcendence. For example, Itzpapalotl is the “keeper of a creative, fruitful and transformational kingdom,” in which she sustains life-giving knowledge-producing dynamism. Learnedness and existence are intimately related in this view. Writing then is a “site of radicalized knowledge production by Chicanas/os about their marginalization in order to dismantle that disenfranchisement and build solidarity among its readers.”[11]

As a deliberately non-Christian space, Itzpapalotl spirituality is a particular form of Chicana driven activist spirituality. It helps, as Anzaldúa had argued, to displace Western thought. It invokes cultural memories of ancient knowledges and borderland epistemologies to challenge and dislodge the cultural hold of European colonial and North American neocolonial knowledges. These border knowledges however, function in a similar way to the engaged activism of thinkers like Chandra Talpade Mohanty. Whereas Mohanty had argued for transnational feminism without borders and geo-political identities, with the goal of creating spaces that challenge Euro-American hegemonic knowledge production for the political liberation of all women, Alemán and Olivio assert a strategic identity based knowledge than embraces indigenous women’s forms of knowledge as knowledges that lead to survival. Mohanty, Alemán and Olivo all also draw on Anzaldúa in complex ways to counter patriarchal violence and to form communities of active resistance. Another critical idea that these authors share is that of a complex temporality. Complicating time also complicates the spaces we inhabit.

Indeed, such was Anzaldua’s original contribution: spiritual activism was grounded in “her understanding of a metaphysical network of interconnections between all living things, rather than rooted in an organized religion’s worship of a monotheistic god. Spiritual activism is a state of conocimiento that emerges after crisis, conflict, or tensions between the self and the world have triggered a shifting perspective to one that eschews socially constructed divisions based on identity politics; restructures the fractured mind, body and spirit; and catalyzes a desire to pursue social, economic and political justice for all.”[12] Alemán and Olivio’s view coincides perfectly with Mohanty’s impetus to decolonize feminism. Mohanty asserts that the most important feminist work that needed to be done is the work of decolonizing feminism, because feminism under Western eyes simply reinscribed Western values of self and identity, creating the untenable framework of identity politics. Conversely, a politics of identity looks at how patriarchy, the patriarchal state, neocolonial globalized capitalism and Western colonialism create the conditions of fracturing alliances and coalitions because of identity politics. 

Feminist solidarity then can draw on both models. In the case of an Anzaldúan form of spiritual activism, it can emphasize the work that has to be done with special attention to identity at the border. The border, precisely because it stands for so many exclusions and divisions becomes the site of resistances. It decolonizes by drawing on the wisdom of indigenous traditions, many of them predating the conquest of the Americas. It insists on the life-world of all creatures and beings, arguing for an interconnected spirituality of life and existence. In a different way, postcolonial feminism argues that feminists cannot be subservient to borders and identities and need to frame agency and resistance across the borders of nation and cultures. Its form of engaged activism does not focus on spirituality, but understands the interconnectedness of feminist resistance. It does so because it believes in the flourishing of women everywhere. Resistance then, in the immortal words of Anzaldúa is:

Una lucha de fronteras/A Struggle of Borders
Because I, a mestiza,
continually walk out of one culture
and into another,
because I am in all cultures at the same time,
alma entre dos mundos, tres, cuatro,
me zumba la cabeza con lo contradictorio.
Estoy norteada por todas las voces que me hablan


[1] Excerpted from epigraph to “Cartographies of Struggle: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism” in Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003), 43. Anzaldúa was mostly correct in her assessment. A simple internet search on the 20 largest cities in the world as of 2018 reveals that New York city and Los Angeles are among the top twenty, while 14 of the largest cities in the world are in Asia alone. See

[2] While this nomenclature has fallen out of favor in Euro-American academic contexts, both Anzaldúa and Mohanty use it as a short-form for the material context in which the excluded woman is reproduced.

[3] Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” in Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003), 19.

[4] Mohanty, “Cartographies of Struggle,” in Feminism Without Borders, 44.

[5] Mohanty, “Cartographies of Struggle, in Feminism Without Borders, 64.

[6] Mohanty, “The Politics of Experience,” in Feminism Without Borders, 106-123.

[7] Mohanty, “The Politics of Experience,” in Feminism Without Borders, 115.

[8] Mohanty, “The Politics of Experience,” in Feminism Without Borders, 120.

[9] Sonya M. Alemán and Flor de María Olivo, “Guided by the Itzpapalotl Spirit: Chicana Editors practice a form of Spiritual Activism,” Frontiers: A journal of Women’s Studies, Volume 40, Number 1, 2019, pp. 245-271.

[10] Sonya M. Alemán and Flor de Maria Olivo, “Guided by the Itzpapalotl Spirit: Chicana Editors practice a form of Spiritual Activism” in Frontiers: A journal of Women’s Studies, Volume 40, Number 1, 2019, 263.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sonya M. Alemán and Flor de Maria Olivo, “Guided by the Itzpapalotl Spirit: Chicana Editors practice a form of Spiritual Activism,” Frontiers: A journal of Women’s Studies, Volume 40, Number 1, 2019, 253.

[13] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute, 1987), 76.


Susan Abraham is Professor of Theology and Postcolonial Cultures, VP of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty at Pacific School of Religion. Ongoing research projects include issues in theological education and formation, interfaith and interreligious initiatives for social transformation, theology and political theory, religion and media, global Catholicism, and Christianity between colonialism and postcolonialism.

Dirección: Pacific School of Religion, 1798 Scenic Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709.