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Ecofeminism and the politics of identity in the developing world

There has been some reluctance to discuss the effects of modern technologies on the working lives of women, even among activists and scholars in the developing world. The discussion to them seems irrelevant and unproductive, as the technologies themselves are seen as incorporating values and moulding a future that are harmful to poor nations. The inappropriateness of modern western technologies for the third world is powerfully argued by eco-feminists, such as Vandana Shiva. She challenges the claims of the universality of western epistémé: 'Emerging from a dominating and colonizing culture, modern knowledge systems are themselves colonizing' (Shiva, 1993: p. 9). While asserting plurality in the knowledge system, ecofeminists do see the possibility for some common action, shared by women and men of different heritages and backgrounds, but only in drawing up an alternative, community-based economy in opposition to global capitalism. Maria Mies, from Germany, in the same spirit as Vandana Shiva, gives us a vision of this alternative framework, where technology is conceptualized from a perspective of subsistence. This perspective means not only a change in the various accepted social and economic divisions of labour, but also a process of substituting money or commodity relationships by principles such as reciprocity, sharing and caring, and respect for the individual. This subsistence perspective can be realized only within a network of reliable, stable human relations; it is incompatible with the philosophy of the atomized, self-centred individuality of the market economy (Mies and Shiva, 1993: p. 319).

A subsistence perspective demands a shift away from the prevailing instrumentalist, reductionist mode of technology, which, according to ecofeminists, has given rise to and maintained man's domination over nature, women and other peoples. In its place, an ecologically sound, feminist, subsistence science and technology could be developed in participatory action with the people. Such science and technology will not reinforce unequal social relationships and will lead to greater social justice.

As an activist, I admire the inspiring vision of such an ideal society. Yet, as a business economist, I find it difficult to be convinced of its feasibility. For strategic management, I believe, it is incorrect and unsound to set a goal that will lead inevitably to disillusionment. In the visionary ideal of ecofeminism, we are never told how to attain such a utopia without altering the power structure nationally or internationally. For women, for the third world, and for women of the third world, it would be even more difficult to shift the balance of power if they were urged to retreat to indigenous social and knowledge systems, in open opposition to modernization and modern technologies.

As the papers in the anthology demonstrate, women in the third world welcome modernization, as long as they can have some say in the manner in which the technology which is affecting the quality of their working and family lives is adopted. Women usually have insignificant power over decision-making when they are confined by traditions and constrained by the norms of behaviour in their communities. In this anthology, women, understandably, extol the liberating aspect of the information revolution, which, in the right circumstances, has begun to give them economic power, autonomy and the chance to escape the tyrannies of traditional societies. They make concrete demands, such as knowledge of and access to technical know-how and business skills; they welcome an international exchange of experience of organizing, inside and outside trade unions, to counteract the hazards of new technologies.

The critics of modernization, significantly, are themselves products of Enlightenment education and philosophy. Some caution is thus necessary, so that their voice does not muffle the appeals and aspirations of many millions of less privileged women and men, who are 'hungry' for the information revolution and advanced technologies. The word defines the world, and the term 'alternative', which the critics of modernization have so often used to describe their own position or vision, perpetuates, rather than questions, the notion of their own marginality. As Suniti Namjoshi's allegory, 'Dusty Distance' (1990, pp. 196-197), brilliantly suggests, the language of 'difference' and antimodernity, ironically, gives the politics of exclusion and Eurocentrism a new lease of life:

There were landscaped gardens, immaculate woods, and in one of these woods there was a Beautiful Lady [the first world woman] reclining gracefully against a convenient tree trunk. She was reading a book. As the Blue Donkey [the third world woman] approached, the Lady looked up and smiled at her. 'Hello,' said the Blue Donkey. 'What are you reading?' 'Poetry,' sighed the Lady. 'I think poetry is so beautiful. I feel I could live on poetry and fresh air for ever.' The Blue Donkey edged closer. 'Well, as it happens,' she ventured diffidently, 'I am a poet. Perhaps you would like me to recite some of my verse?' 'Oh. Oh no,' the Lady replied hastily, then she recovered herself. 'The fact is" she explained, 'that though I have studied many languages and my French and German are both excellent, I have never mastered Blue Donkese. And though I have no doubt whatsoever that your poems are excellent, I fear they would fall on untutored ears.' 'But please, I speak English.' The Blue Donkey could hear herself sounding plaintive. 'Oh,' murmured the Lady. 'But surely as a Blue Donkey, integrity requires that you paint the world as it appears to you. And consider: what have a lady and a donkey in common?'


1See, for example, International Federation of Information Processing, 1985, 1989, 1991.


Bhaba, Homi K. (1994), The Location of Culture, London and New York, Routledge Cockburn, Cynthia (1985), Machinery of Dominance: Women, Men and Technical Know-how, London, Pluto Press

International Federation of Information Processing (1985, 1989, 1991), Women, Work and Computerization, conference proceedings, Amsterdam, London and New York, North-Holland

Mernissi, Fatima (1994), The Forgotten Queens of Islam, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland, Oxford, Polity Press

Mies, Maria and Vandana Shiva (1993), Ecofeminism, London and New Jersey, Zed Books

Namjoshi, Suniti (1990), 'Dusty Distance', in Lakshmi Holmström (ed.), The Inner Courtyard: Stories by Indian Women, London, Virago Press

Nicholson, Linda J. (ed.) (1990), Feminism/Postmodernism, New York and London, Routledge

Rose, Hilary (1994), Love, Power and Knowledge: Towards a Feminist Transformation of the Sciences, Oxford, Polity Press

Rowbotham, Sheila (1992), Women in Movement: Feminism and Social Action, New York and London, Routledge

Shiva, Vandana (1993), Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology, London and New Jersey, Zed Books, and Third World Network, Penang, Malaysia

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1993), Outside in the Teaching Machine, New York and London, Routledge

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