Decolonizing Literacies: Transnational Feminism, Legacies of Coloniality, and Pedagogies of Transformation
Ruddy, Karen Ann
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Since the onset of the U.S.-led Global War on Terror (G.W.O.T.) and Afghan War in 2001, the literacy crisis of Afghan women has been central to the U.S.s counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency doctrines, and to its post-conflict reconstruction efforts in the country. While many aspects of the G.W.O.T. have been subject to critical scrutiny over the last decade, literacy remains curiously absent from such discussions. This silence is primarily due to the widely-accepted views that literacy is a necessary precondition for female empowerment, and that the extension of literacy education to Afghan girls and women is therefore one of the few undisputed successes of the Afghan war. Troubling this conventional wisdom, this dissertation employs an anti-racist transnational feminist framework to argue that the narratives of Afghan womens literacy crisis that have circulated within the Western imaginary since 9/11 are enmeshed in, and are forms of, the epistemic, semiotic, and political-economic violence that characterizes present-day practices of neo-liberal war and dispossession. They have been central to U.S. foreign policy discourse because they install a civilizational divide between the post-feminist, literate West where gender and sexual justice allegedly have been achieved and the racialized and gendered figures of the Afghan woman as an illiterate Third World woman in need of saving from dangerous Muslim men. As such, these narratives have served to legitimate not only the Afghan war, but also the modernization of Afghan women according to a Western neo-liberal agenda and the normalization of a particular image of Western gender and sexual exceptionalism that conceals continuing gender, sexual, colonial, racial, and class disparities at home. This study traces the disavowed and forgotten colonial legacies of this divide between the literate West and the illiterate Other to the colonization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the history of racialized slavery and anti-Black racism in the U.S., and the institutionalization of the literacy/orality divide in mid-twentieth century sociolinguistics and anthropology. Moreover, it explores how such legacies of coloniality are reproduced in the liberal feminist internationalism of Martha Nussbaums capabilities approach to international development which emphasizes female pain and suffering in the global south and some forms of third-wave international feminism which celebrate female empowerment and the pleasures of trans* and gender-variant subjects. Finally, this study contends that feminists committed to the liberatory potential of literacy must grapple with the promises and failures of anti-colonial (Paulo Freire) and postcolonial (Gayatri Spivak) theories of literacy in order to elaborate literacies of decolonization: ways of reading and writing the word and the world that challenge the epistemic domination of subaltern knowledges, while also elaborating alternative political imaginaries and pedagogies of hope and transformation that move beyond the necropolitics of the neo-liberal global order.