Possible Limits of Gender Approaches to European Conquest

1082 words | 4 page(s)

The trend in the academic research of analyzing European colonial practice in terms of themes such as gender roles and cultural exchange seems to represent a break from narratives that treat the topic in terms of conquest and hegemony; however, in a deeper sense, such approaches are merely new ways of looking at the phenomenon of conquest and hegemony. For example, looking at the role of women in the process of Spanish colonialization of the Americas (i.e., Overmeyer-Valasqeuz) and Dutch colonialization of Africa (i.e., Wells) arguably shifts discourses of conquest and hegemony to a place where these phenomena become most explicit: in terms of those most affected by this process, that is, marginalized groups such as women.

Hence, authors such as Overmeyer-Velasquez and Wells research how gender roles were affected by colonialization. Nevertheless, according to these authors’ readings, gender roles become merely something else to be colonialized, that is, controlled and changed: accordingly, gender roles are just another symptom of the greater colonial project of conquest. Such an approach is not, in this light, crucial to understanding the colonial process, but instead becomes one of its manifestations. Understood in this manner, the apparent novelty of this line of research can be called into question, as it only addresses one portion of the colonial venture itself, instead of adequately explaining the phenomenon of colonialization as a whole.

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In her essay, “Christian Morality in New Spain: The Nahua Woman in the Franciscan Imaginary”, Overmeyer-Velazquez endeavors to demonstrate “how crucial gender ideologies – and especially the control of female sexual behavior – were to the colonizing project in New Spain.” (67) In particular, the author wants to show that the Catholic worldview of the colonizers was antagonistic towards females, creating subjugated female gender roles, in comparison to the native culture of the Nahua, which in her view, emphasized “gender parallelism or life in balance.” (81) Overmeyer-Velazquez’s essay therefore endeavors to show the difference between the two world-views, essentially emphasizing the egalitarian ideology of the Nahua and the hierarchical and patriarchal ideology of the Spanish colonizers: the changing status of women thus attest to the difference in these two ideologies.

The problem with such an account, however, is the extent to which it successfully accounts for the phenomenon of colonialization itself. What is implicit in Overmeyer-Velazquez’s account is that a social group that is highly hierarchical in its structure will also exhibit colonial tendencies. Namely, if colonialization is about subjugation and marginalization of others, then the ambition of colonialization is already found in the societies that possess similar ideologies.

What is problematic about this account is that it fails to provide a satisfactory explanation for colonialization itself. Namely, Overmeyer-Velazquez, in her essay, critiques the simplistic “duality” at the heart of the Spanish world view, trying to show the complexity of the Nahuan cosmology. Nevertheless, by taking this approach she presents her own simplistic duality: she reduces the Nahua to a romanticized utopia of equality and the Spanish colonializers to the role of hierarchy. Quick research into Nahua culture demystifies Overmeyer-Velazquez’s account: for example, “Nahua address their parents with kin terms that carry deep cultural meaning and convey their contrasting expectations for males and females.” (Taggart, 708) Furthermore, “Nahuamen express a relational social consciousness more than do their counterparts from Spain.” (Taggart, 716) This is deeply rooted in Nahuan culture: “Nahuat men define themselves as closely connected to other men, particularly their brothers and fathers. In this respect, the contemporary Nahuat resemble the ancient Hauas who told of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl avenging the death of his father and searching for his fatehr’ bones.

Men’s realtioanl social consciousness is apparent in masculine narrative that depict a highly connected universe.” (Taggart, 716) In other words, a key distinction needs to be made: Overmeyer-Velasquez provides a compelling account of how gender ideologies were present in the colonialization process. But Nahua culture also reflects in its own strict gender distinctions. Accordingly, trying to explain the colonialization process cannot be reduced to the gender narrative, since both cultures possessed such forms of gender ideology.

Wells’ article gives us another reason why the gender-colonialization link fails to explain colonialization. She recounts the story of Eva, an African woman who served as an intermediary between the native South African cultures and the Dutch colonialists. What emerges is not a distinct patriarchal or hierarchical distinction, but rather an ambiguous relationship: for example, colonialists “relied on good quality relationships” (Wells, 105); nevertheless, this “gave way to less kind forms of coercion, dominance and dispossession.” (Wells, 105) Wells’ article shows the complexity of gender relations: they were unstable and subject to change, although this change ended in the reestablishment of a hegemonic one-sided relationship, as is consistent with colonialism.

The danger in approaching colonialism from this perspective is thus a type of over-simplification: understanding the idyllic nature of native societies compared to the hegemony of colonial societies. This is not to deny the clearly unethical nature of colonial practice; however, trying to isolate this phenomenon in terms of gender fails to capture the inherent gender divisions that existed in cultures that were colonized (i.e., the caste system of the Hindus). Furthermore, this overlooks the paradox of colonialism: colonialism emerges on a large scale in the period of modernity, at a time when universal values were attempting to be formulated. For example, the expansiveness of the British empire emerged at the same time as the emergence of discourses of parliamentary discourse and individual liberty in British life. One only has to look at the United States to see this contradiction: universal liberties proclaimed in the Constitution, while the U.S. maintained slavery until an embarrassingly late stage in its history. In other words, the hierarchy-colonialism narrative is simply too simplistic to explain the violence colonialism itself, insofar as hierarchy and marginalization along gender, social, racial and ethic roles seems to be inherent to the majority of the world’s historical cultures.

  • Overmeyer-Velazquez, Rebecca. “Christian Morality in New Spain: The Nahua
    Woman in the Franciscan Imaginary.” In T. Ballantyne & A. Burton (eds.)
    Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History. Durham,
    NC: Duke University Press. 68-83.
  • Taggart, James M. “Nahua.” In: C.R. Ember & M. Ember (eds.) Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Men and Women in the World’s Cultures. New York: Springer,
    2003. 708-716.
  • Wells, Julia C. “Eva’s Men: Gender and Power at the Cape of Good Hope.”
    In T. Ballantyne & A. Burton (eds.) Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial
    Encounters in World History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 85-105.

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