A Feminist Critique of Cultural Essentialism: Essence of Cultures and a Sense of History: Uma Narayan


Narayan (2003: 486) starts her article off by making two claims; namely (i) that gender should be viewed in relation to other issues such as race and sexual orientation, and (ii) differences amongst women should be theorized and understood “in order to avoid essentialist generalizations about ‘women’s problems’.” Her article addresses these issues or tries to work through them. The problem, she states, with essentialism in relation to feminism is that western women’s issues becomes the paradigmatic example of “women’s issues”. However, she warns that in trying to resolve this problem, one should not fall into “cultural essentialism”. She states that the

“feminist injunction to attend to ‘differences among women’ sometimes takes questionable forms […and] that feminist efforts to avoid gender essentialism sometimes result in pictures of cultural differences among women that constitute what I shall call ‘cultural essentialism’” (Narayan 2003: 487).

Her main argument in the essay is that essentialist notions of culture poses particular problems for the Third World feminist agendas. She breaks the article into 4 sections in which she deals with this problem systematically. In part one, she discusses the problematic similarities between gender essentialism and cultural essentialism and why the attempt to avoid the former subscribes one to cultural essentialism. In part two, she discusses feminist challenges to cultural essentialism. In part three, she critically engages with these challenges. And in part four, she discusses implications of her critique of cultural essentialism of cultural relativism.



Part one: Gender essentialism and Cultural essentialism

The problem of cultural difference essentialism surfaces when the feminist tries to avoid gender essentialism: it replicates colonialist assumptions. In other words, by actively trying to avoid the trap of universal and essentialist notions of “all women” cultural essentialist notions such as “Western culture” and “non-Western culture” are adopted. The problem is that by trying to avoid the former the latter reinforces the former. In other words, by trying not to essentialize women, the feminist might adopt cultural essentialism which then essentializes women. What happens is that the adoption of say “African women”, “Indian women” or “Western women” remains fundamentally essentialist; there is merely a shift from “women” to, say, “Indian women”. There is still an essentialist notion of what it is to be a woman. Narayan (2003: 488) states further that this notion assumes that women has a coherent group identity within said culture. There is a mistaken cultural coherence.

There are, amongst others, two similarities of gender essentialism and cultural essentialism which she highlights. Firstly, there are often sharply drawn distinctions or binaries (for example, man vs. woman or African vs. Western). This might help structure the self-understanding of those in whichever culture it appears. Narayan (2003: 488) states that:

“With both gender essentialism and cultural essentialism, discourses about ‘difference’ often operate to conceal their role in the production and reproduction of such ‘differences’, presenting these differences as something pre-given and prediscursively ‘real’ that the discourses of difference merely describe rather than help construct and perpetuate.”

Secondly, both assimilate socially or culturally dominant norms as norms or issues of particular women in said cultures. Narayan gives the example of Sati amongst the Indian women. This became an essentialist image of “Indian culture” even though not everyone practiced it. She asks:

“Why is it that attempts to avoid gender essentialism sometimes generate rather than deter cultural essentialism? I believe that part of the explanation lies in the prevalence of an incomplete understanding of the relationship between ‘gender essentialism’ and ‘cultural imperialism’” (Narayan 2003: 488).

She states that the reason for this might lie in cultural imperialism, those who are relatively privileged “construct” an image of the “cultural other” who needs help, saving or liberation from their own image or perspective. In other words, there is no communication with the Other, there is merely the construction from the privileged person’s own image what the Other wants. Narayan (2003: 489) states that:

“A postcolonial feminist perspective that strives to be attentive to differences among women without replicating such essentialist notions of cultural differences needs to acknowledge the degree to which the colonial encounter depended on an ‘insistence of Difference’; on sharp, virtually absolute, contrasts between Western culture’ and ‘Other cultures’.”


The insistent contrast between Western and non-Western cultures is, according to her, a colonial construct which is used to enforce onto others that “liberty” and “equality” is paradigmatic “Western” values. But at the same time those who promote these values or liberty and equality enslaved and colonized the other. The implication of this is that non-Western cultures adopted “false” cultures, such as Indian Sati, to differentiate itself from the colonizer and Western culture. She states that:

“often as a result of the prejudiced and ideologically motivated stereotypes held by Western colonizers but also as a result of anti-colonial nationalist movements embracing and trying to revalue the imputed facets of their own ‘culture’ embedded in these stereotypes” (Narayan 2003: 489).

Furthermore, when contemporary feminists address the concerns, they reinforce cultural essentialism. What happens is that Western women might be perceived as educated and owning their own bodies. Third world women might be perceived as poor and uneducated and not owning their own bodies. Consequently, feminists can actually reinforce the exploitation, marginalization and domination of women because of cultural essentialism, for example, when non-Western culture is seen as in need of protection or preservation. Narayan (2003: 489) states that:

“Given that essentialist definitions of culture are often deployed in ways that are detrimental to the interests of many members of the national community, including various groups of women, I would argue that feminists have a serious stake in challenging such definitions. Viable post-colonial feminist perspectives need to engage in rethinking the prevailing portraits of ‘Western culture’ and of different Third World cultures, rather than assisting in their replication and reification by conflating political resistance to Western domination and intrusion with essentialist notions of ‘cultural difference’ and ‘cultural preservation’.”

Part two: Culturally Essentialist Manoeuvres and Feminist Challenges


There are two aims in this section. Firstly, to discuss the “moves” from fundamentalists which reinforce the cultural essentialist image, which is detrimental to women, and, secondly, to rather promote an anti-essentialist view of “cultural differences”.

The problem with essentialist views are that they view cultures as if they are “natural givens” but the implication of this is that it “tends to erase the reality that the ‘boundaries’ between ‘cultures’ are human constructs” (Narayan 2003: 491). Furthermore, it forgets that these boundaries are also historical constructs and that it changes over time. Anti-essentialist feminists can counter this by “insisting on a historical understanding of the contexts in which what are currently taken to be ‘particular cultures’ came to be seen and defined as such” (Narayan 2003: 491). Additionally, these “neatly defined labels” which “pick out” cultures are arbitrary and, as noted, constantly shifts. Narayan gives a concrete example of this. Why if only few Indian communities practiced Sati, is it seen as a “cultural Indian tradition”? She states because it was seen as a symbol of the “ideal Indian womanhood”, “indicating a feminine nobility and devotion to family deemed uncharacteristic of western women” (Narayan 2003: 493). There is also a colonial and historic understanding. Narayan (2003: 493) states:

“However, this colonial history also operated in a manner that obscured and concealed its role in the production of sati as a ‘Central Indian Tradition’. It operated so as to ‘naturalize’ the status of sati as a ‘core Indian Tradition’, implying that this status was obvious and pregiven and that the discursive colonial contestation only described and confirmed its status rather than created it. What resulted was an uncritical acceptance of sati as an ‘Authentic Indian Good Tradition’”.

Another problem of the historically essentialist picture of cultures is that cultures are thus seen as “unchangeable givens”. However, Narayan (2003: 493) believes “that a historically informed and anti-essentialist feminist vision requires that we learn to see cultures as less rigid and more suffused by change than they are often depicted.” Changes in culture is sometimes accepted because it does not challenge the dominant members of a cultures but once it poses a threat to their power or control, they resist this change. She calls this “selective labelling”.


“Feminist attention to ‘selective labelling’ can help underscore that those with social power often abandon or modify traditions when it suits them, and often do so in a manner that leaves these modifications unmarked as instances of ‘cultural change’ and insulated from social debates about ‘Westernization’ or ‘cultural preservation’, but where continuing adherence to female genital mutilation is represented as crucial to ‘preserving culture’. Similar arbitrariness is displayed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is obsessed with forcing women back to their ‘traditional place’ but appears to have no qualms about the cultural effects of its massive reliance on foreign or Western-produced armaments to maintain state power” (Narayan 2003: 494).

Part three: Progressive Versions of Cultural Essentialism

Narayan (2003: 495) notes importantly that this cultural essentialism is not restricted to non-Westerners. She states that “feminist discourses that have asserted women’s equality’ to be a ‘Western value’ whose extension to Third World contexts is ‘a culturally imperialist theme imposed by the first World’, risk replicating essentialist notions of ‘culture’” (Narayan 2003: 495). Furthermore, claiming that human rights are a Western concept is even more problematic due to its colonialist history. “It is only as a result of political struggles by these various excluded groups in both Western and Non-Western contexts that doctrines of equality and rights have slowly come to be perceived as applicable to them, too” (Narayan 2003: 495). Consequently, one might rather state that these values entered because of resistance and struggles against Western imperialism. A further risk of equating “equality” and “rights” with Western values is that one risks echoing the “rhetoric of two groups of people who despite their other differences, share the characteristics of being no friends of feminist agendas” (Narayan 2003: 496).

She introduces two groups: (i) “Western cultural supremacists” who tries to prove the West’s moral and political superiority, (ii) and “Third world fundamentalists” who share this view and who states that all such values are “Western ideas”. However, she does not agree that third world fundamentalists should hold this view. There are dangers in holding such views. The first group’s misunderstanding or lack of understanding of the second group’s context and circumstances leads to the view that feminism is Western and part of a “commodity economy” with no relevance to them. This is the classic example of when those in the West proclaim to know what is the best for those who are non-Western. She states that:

“Post-colonial feminists have good reason to oppose many of the legacies of colonialism, as well as ongoing forms of economic exploitation and political domination by Western nations at the international level. However, I do not think such an agenda is well served either by uncritically denigrating values and practices that appear to be in some sense ‘Western’ or by indiscriminately valorizing values and practices that appear ‘Non-Western’. […] Political rhetoric that polarizes ‘Western’ and ‘Non-Western’ values is dangerous in Third World contexts in which progressive and feminist agendas often contest policies that are backed not only by Western powers but by local elites and nation-states. Feminists must keep in mind that a value or practice’s being ‘Non-Western’ (either in terms of its origin or its context of prevalence) does not mean that it is anti-imperialist or anti-colonial, let alone compatible with feminist agendas.” (Narayan 2003: 497).


Part four: Cultural Relativism and Cultural Essentialism

Narayan (2003: 497) states that feminists have a temptation to use relativism because they think it is preferable to imperialism and also to use it against “affirmations of universal sameness”. She states that:

“Once it is recognized that ‘assumptions of difference’ have been deployed for cultural imperialist ends no less expeditiously that ‘assumptions of sameness’, the temptation to relativism that is motivated by a desire to avoid cultural imperialism ought, I believe, to considerably weaken. An ‘insistence on cultural difference’ was even more characteristic of the colonial project than gestures towards ‘sameness’, an insistence that helped to cover over the sad similarities of ethnocentrism, androcentrism, classism, heterosexism, and other objectionable ‘centrisms’ that often pervaded both sides of this reiterated ‘contrast’ between ‘Western culture’ and its several ‘Others’” (Narayan 2003: 498).

Relativism becomes dangerous; this is thus in contrast to the initial positive attitude feminists adopted it with. Emphasis on differences can be as dangerous as emphasis on sameness, the picture of cultures on which the relativist relies on is where the problem is. Narayan (2003: 498) states this wrongly accepted picture as:

“a picture of ‘cultures’ that I previously criticized as culturally essentialist, a picture in which cultures appear neatly, prediscursively, individuated from each other; in which the insistence on ‘Difference’ that accompanies the ‘production’ of distinct ‘cultures’ appears unproblematic; and the central or constitutive components of a ‘culture’ are assumed to be ‘unchanging givens’.”

This picture is empirically inaccurate and harmful to the interests of the post-colonial feminist. She states that:

“Rather than embracing relativism, anti-imperialist post-colonial feminism is better served by critically interrogating scripts of ‘cultural difference’ that set up sharp binaries between ‘Western’ and various ‘Nonwestern’ cultures. Such interrogation will reveal both sides of the binary to be, in large measure, totalizing idealizations, whose Imaginary status has been concealed by a colonial and post-colonial history of ideological deployments of this binary” (Narayan 2003: 499).

Furthermore, there should not be an endorsement of cultural relativism, but the feminist should resist the “various forms of cultural essentialism”. This relativism should be via the “pointing to the internal plurality, dissension and contestation over values, and ongoing changes in practices in virtually all communities that comprise modern nation-states” (Narayan 2003: 499). This view rejects, say, Indian or African or Western culture (or essentialist views of it) and it challenges the relativists view of neatly packaged “different cultures”. Her position does not deny “cultural differences”, rather, it denies that “actual cultural differences” has neat packages to which it corresponds as cultures. And more importantly, it denies cultures to have “authentic representatives”. It suggests a wariness of “essential differences”, but she remains agnostic about the philosophical problem of relativism.



I conclude with her own words, which sums up her project:

“Given the significant dangers that varieties of cultural essentialism pose to feminist agendas, I believe that the development of a feminist perspective that is committed to anti-essentialism both about ‘women’ and about ‘cultures’ is an urgent and important task for a post-colonial feminist perspective. Such a perspective must distinguish and extricate feminist projects of attending to differences among women from problematically essentialist colonial and post-colonial understandings of ‘cultural differences’ between Western culture and its ‘Others’. This essay is a contribution to the project of thinking about how contemporary feminists can resist reified and essentialist pictures of ‘cultures’ and of ‘cultural contrasts’ between ‘Western culture’ and ‘Third World cultures’, and submit them to critical interrogation” (Narayan 2003: 501).


Narayan, U. 2003. Essence of Cultures and a Sense of History: A Feminist Critique of Cultural Essentialism, in P.H. Coetzee & A.P.J. Roux (eds). The African Philosophy Reader: A text with readings. Second Edition. New York: Routledge.

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