Decolonising Feminism: Reflections on the Encounter with the Western Academy

This reflection begins with the premise that hegemonic feminism is often built on a series of erasures and violences that are the dividends of centring whiteness, upper classness, cisness and upper-castness in its imagination. Decolonising feminist theory then, thinking along with decolonial scholars like Lugones (2016), is to see gender itself as a colonial production, enforced through the modern colonial gender system.  It entails a reckoning with how ‘feminist’ knowledge projects have been used to justify militarised border regimes, to securitise campuses and cities, to embolden and expand the masculinist state and its military and carceral rationalities, rehabilitate or rescue old colonial projects, and advocate for new ones. Decolonising feminist theory means interrogating the assumptions and frames through which institutional feminist knowledge production and imperial ambitions legitimate and co-constitute one another. It means to hold up to scrutiny the evaluative frames we use in the furtherance of ‘feminist’ agendas- of interrogating assumptions around progress and development, imaginations of peace and security, and conversations around proper subjects and objects of feminism, and of study more generally.

But, taking a cue from and extending Mbembe (2016), what happens to aspirations to decolonise feminist theory when they encounter the white neoliberal academy at the helm of former, and in many ways, contemporary empire? Specifically, what does decolonial feminist work look like in the western university, which is above all a terrain for the reproduction of these very hierarchies, for the preservation of an elite class and the broad social consensus that sustains it? Given both decolonial and feminist theory’s insistence on attending to questions of labour and recognition of work, such a reflection must start from the reality that feminist knowledge production does not only, or even mostly, occur within the university. Feminist theory is not born and contested in the classroom alone, it is not the sole preserve of those identified as scholars or students. So many of the stalwarts of feminist thinking to whom we owe tremendous intellectual debts were never of the university at all, and likely never will be. Conversations on labour and recognition must begin, as feminist theory has taught us, with an interrogation of who is seen to be doing the work of knowledge production in the first place.

When we take questions of labour and recognition to the institutionalised academy, we often erase those who not only participate in non-authorised forms of knowledge production, but those whose labour make ‘recognised’ or ‘authorised’ epistemic pursuits possible in the first place. The precarious labouring conditions of those who clean and guard our buildings, nourish and sustain our bodies has been, and must remain at the centre of conversations around decolonising knowledge in the university. The casualisation of their jobs and the constant threats to their right to remain cannot be footnotes to decolonial or feminist projects, they must be at the very heart of our praxis. The gendered and raced dynamics of labour, of who occupies which spaces and in what capacities within UK higher education are glaring, and must be addressed.  

Even those recognised as, and authorised to, contribute to knowledge projects are differently placed within gendered and racialised regimes of power within the university. Ram Bhat has spoken about the disproportioned burden of decolonial labour that falls on women of colour across departments. Especially when the work of decolonisation is carried out by students and early career academics on precarious, zero-hour contracts, a decolonial feminist praxis must to entail using our limited franchise within the system to stop the casualisation and super-extraction of labour in all sectors in the UK and beyond.

Put differently, decolonising feminism from the academy must necessarily and ineluctably mean mounting sustained challenges against the various material barriers of access to epistemic authority: ie recognising that decolonisation is not a metaphor (Tuck and Yang, 2012). It would entail uncompromising conversations around abolishing fees, the conditions of racialised and gendered precarious workers on our campuses, addressing recruitment and attainment gaps- or what Prof Banaji correctly insists we call ‘racist hiring and marking practices’, it means resisting the Hostile Environment and its enforcement through us as agents of the government’s racist regime, and it means transforming the political economy of knowledge production as mediated by journals and publishing houses.

Working to ‘decolonise’ the university in the absence of a materially redistributive agenda runs the risk of a defanged and domensticated decolonisation that would only serve to further legitimate, rather than challenge western epistemic hegemony. While the proliferation of conversations on decolonality in the western academia is often presented as evidence of it ascendant authority, it also signals the deracination of a non-western knowledge project from its radical, redistributive roots, and its rehabilitation within, and occupation through, the western academy.  Thus, decolonizing feminist theory from the western academy is confronted with a series of vexatious questions (some of which I have previously reflected on in more details): how can we ensure that through our negotiations with and capitulations to the neoliberal academy, we are not inadvertently securing the futurity of western academic hegemony, at the explicit cost of decolonial knowledges and practices? How do we ensure that decolonial feminist work does not occlude native hierarchies which often mimic the violent, civilisational and oppressive inclinations of Western coloniality? How can we identify and value insurgent, subaltern forms of knowledge that we in the institutionalised university definitionally do not have access to? How do we ensure attentiveness to a critical politics of location: ie how do we attend to the complex ways in which we inhabit the institutional academy, and it inhabits us?

The litany of constraints and challenges listed in this piece is a chronicle of my own slow and painful awakening to the magnitude and complexity of the commitments that de-colonial work demands of us. Above all, it highlights the impossibility of an ethical encounter with feminist theory in the university without engaging in the messy, arduous, necessarily collective and inevitably adversarial work of decolonising the academy.  The response to these challenges, at least to me, cannot simply be to abandon the content or vocabulary of either decolonisation or feminism/feminist theory- to cede this contested territory to its defanged, domesticated incorporation by the institutionalized academy.

In order to honour and lend solidarity to the legacies of those who continue to imbue decolonization and feminism with transformative potential, we must remain invested in reclaiming these radical projects from their more questionable avatars and allegiances, and reaffirming their critical political potency. And in doing this we must remain attentive to the contradictions and ambivalences that means for us within the academy- even embrace these tensions, perhaps even see them as generative. After all, the demand of a pure, untainted, uncontaminated politics, for a mastry of thought and praxis is itself a colonial imposition: perhaps we should relinquish attachments to the myth of a perfect and finished project of decolonisation or feminism, especially from within the university. Radical schools of thought and practice have always been, and will always be reformatted in the service of power— part of the project is to use these deployments and appropriations to hold institutions, and ourselves, accountable to the politics we claim in calling ourselves decolonial and/or feminist. What I am saying then, is that despite its obvious and multiple challenges, I remain invested in the possibility of a transformed university as a space for critical, decolonial feminist thought and praxis; for the moment, I remain attached to the idea of a university that is radical despite itself. 


Mbembe, A., 2016. Decolonizing the university: New directions. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education15(1), pp.29-45.

Lugones, M., 2016. The coloniality of gender. In The Palgrave handbook of gender and development (pp. 13-33). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Tuck, E. and Yang, K.W., 2012. Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society1(1).

Disclaimer: The content posted on this blog is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the PGCertHE programme, the Eden Centre for Education Enhancement, or the London School of Economics.


3 thoughts on “Decolonising Feminism: Reflections on the Encounter with the Western Academy

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  1. Real food for thought, Priya!

    I am double-minded about the issue of women of colour and early career academics carrying the decolonising work. On the one hand, there is an obvious ideological problem – when fighting injustice they are not only treated unfairly, but also to be effective they use the Western, neo-liberal university to spread their ideas. On the other hand, the change is happening and it is more a grassroot movement among people of university than an ‘improvement plan’ imposed from above. And, crucially, the movement becomes powerful enough to challenge and question university on daily basis, making it more accessible to international students and also more generally to people with different views about the world. I think there is both injustice and hope here, which creates a weird loop, falling into which may be tempting at times.

    Obviously, for decolonising process to be successful, at least some support from more senior academics is essential. Not only the curriculum needs to change but also the way how lectures and seminars are thought. As MacGregor and Folinazzo (2017) indicate, international students rank insufficient quality of delivery of lectures as the main reasons why they do not understand course material.
    On a slightly different note, as you underline in your post, feminist movement is created largely outside the university, so I think that decolonising work, especially in this field will never be fully finished. Probably, it is actually a good thing.

    MacGregor A. and Folinazzo, G., 2017, Best Practoices in Teaching International Students in Higher Education: Issues and Strategies, TESOL Journal 9, pp. 299-329


  2. I really enjoyed reading this piece!

    My first thought is that I appreciate the way the piece brings up alternative ways of thinking about the term ‘theory’ and what it means. Asking where theory is produced, who produces it, and how so much of this happens outside the academy, also pushes us towards rethinking what we might mean by ‘theory.’ I wonder if there is more space to not only expand theory beyond Eurocentric ideas, but also to take seriously the reality that theory has always existed around the world, and is not simply what we might read in texts.

    My second thought was around how the post beautifully brings up the lifeworld of the university beyond the classroom and the typical lecturer-student dynamic that often comes to mind. This is not just about acknowledging whose labour keeps universities running, but also that everyone within a university, as well as without, has something to contribute to how we understand the world.

    I was left with a question: what do these reflections mean for decolonising a space such as the LSE? Can the material barriers listed be shaken or even removed? And would this mean doing more work to contextualise the LSE within both London—as a postcolonial city—and the UK—as a continuing neo-colonial power? As the piece noted, too often debates around decolonization at UK universities centre on domestic issues, as though they are separate from the position of the LSE and the UK globally. I was left thinking what it would mean to think about decolonization more globally, and whether this means, on one level, going back to the movements for decolonization in the Global South throughout the 20th century, and asking what lessons there might be for us there.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful piece!


  3. Hi Priya,

    Thank you for this very topical and thought-provoking post! First of all, your blog post formalises and sharpens very neatly a worry that many academics working on decolonising the academy share: Is ‘decolonisation’ just going to become another box ticking exercise, so to say a ‘quality seal’ for commercially successful courses and universities, whole its original idea has been diluted beyond any point of recognition? And how do we stop this?
    An inherent reluctance to formalise the structures of decolonising groups and clusters pays testament to this issue and appears to be an intuitively wise stance. Yet, as you correctly say with Ram Bhat, empirically we see the burden of decolonial labour falling on women of colour, and we mostly see early-career academics or PhD students being ‘contracted in’ to decolonise syllabi when school business calms down a bit over summer. “A little extra money for notoriously scarcely resourced academy juniors and a shiny new image at a bargain rate for the university” – this is certainly not what decolonising should, nor wants to look like.

    A second very interesting point you raise is the “myth of a perfect and finished project of decolonisation or feminism”. I had not thought about it this way before but an anti-hegemonic discourse, in assuming hegemony obviously defeats its own purpose. I wonder how this idea can be carved out even further as a tool-kit for contemporary decolonial and feminist praxis? In any case while abolishing the myth of the ‘finished project’ should be kept as the polar star of the undertaking, as you mention yourself in the opening lines of the post, it is still a long way until the current decolonial and feminist agendas might assume a position so hegemonic as to be worrisome.


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