chapter  8
17 Pages

Feminist perspectives on urban poverty: de-essentialising difference

ByANN VARLEY

In their introduction to this book, Peake and Rieker call for a “sustained feminist critique” of the divide between cities of the global south and those of the global north. In doing so, they echo Jennifer Robinson’s postcolonial rebuttal of “assumptions regarding the incommensurability of urban experiences” across this divide (Robinson 2011: 4; 2006). The result is a renewed interest in comparative urbanism as a strategy for postcolonialising urban studies (McFarlane 2010; Robinson 2006, 2011; Ward 2008). As Revathi Krishnaswamy (2008: 4) observes, however, such comparative projects must contend with their predecessors’ compromised history of peddling “Eurocentric provincialisms pretending to be universals”. Consequently, in recent discussions of comparative urbanism a certain tension emerges between the challenge to assumptions of incommensurability, on the one hand, and the simultaneous rejection of assumptions of uniformity or convergence, on the other. How can we take on board the imperative not to assume unbridgeable difference without assuming and valorising sameness? How can we recognise a lack of convergence without either pathologising or fetishising difference? Postcolonial feminism also struggles with “an ongoing tension between the

particular and the universal” (Felski 1997: 11). Such a tension – or perhaps frustration – is evident in Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s (2003b) revisiting of her famous 1984 article “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses”. Mohanty reiterates her opposition to Eurocentric universalisms that assume “universal unity between women” but simultaneously relegate “third world” women to a stable, homogeneous category of backwardness, deprivation, and disadvantage (31, 40). She complains, however, of a persistent misreading by which her opposition to “using the universal to erase the particular, or positing an unbridgeable gulf between the two” is interpreted as “arguing for difference over commonalities” (223, 225). Although she originally prioritised difference, she wants:

to recapture and reiterate its fuller meaning… and that is its connection to the universal.… Differences are never “just” differences. In knowing differences and particularities, we can better see the connections and commonalities.