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The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century

The articles highlight the basic issue that unequal hierarchical relationships didn’t emerge socially over time. In fact, they emerged from brutal political, economic and religious events in history. Being a woman from India, I’ve been brought up in a patriarchal community that teaches girls to be submissive and obedient. My culture portrays a “good girl” to be someone who obeys her parents, gets married and takes care of her children. A good wife is known as someone who generally stays at home and takes good care of her husband and engages in domestic work. Coming from this background, and knowing that my parents have similar expectations, I was really curious to find out whether there was another culture where women aren’t oppressed or where both genders are treated with equality and equity. I was curious as to how did unequal relationships in society emerge? Why has the division between men and female asymmetric? I realized that unequal hierarchical relationships emerged from brutal political, economic and religious events in history.

The 4 genocides of 16th century that created racial and patriarchal power were brutal. The 1st genocide was the conquest of Al-Andalus, which was genocide against Muslims and Jews. Muslims and Jews were either killed or converted. Further, more than 250,000 books of Granada library (Islamic texts) were burnt. During the conquest of Americas, many indigenous populations were killed. Further, thousands of codices (written practice used by Amerindians to archive knowledge) were burned, destroying indigenous knowledge. The 3rd genocide involved massive kidnapping and enslavement of Africans for 300 years. Millions of Africans died in the process of being captured, transported and enslaved in the Americas. Lastly, the 4th genocide was the conquest of Indo-European women where millions of women were burnt alive as they were thought to be witches. Burning of these women was destruction of knowledge because the transmission of knowledge was done orally.

Secondly, these 4 genocides created racial hierarchy via religious discrimination. These genocides weren’t just political- they also had religious motivations. The conquest of Al-Andalus was done under the slogan “purity of blood” and carried out by the catholic monarchy. They wanted ethnic cleansing in the city and believed that Muslim and Jews had the wrong god and wrong religion. The 2end genocide also had religious intensions because indigenous populations in America were killed as Columbus characterized them as people without religion. In Christianity (during that age), not having a religion meant that people don’t have a soul, which further meant that people weren’t humans, they were animal-like. Similarly, enslavement of Africans was religiously racist. Africans were thought to have low IQs because they prayed to the “wrong god”. Europeans discriminated Africans based on religion, which then transformed into racial discrimination. Lastly, millions of women were burnt by Christian-centric patriarchy because they thought that women’s (witches) knowledge of medicine, biology and ethics threatened Christian autonomy and theology. Therefore, these hierarchies between races, gender, global north and global south were all religiously motivated.

Lastly, it was really interesting to read that Indo-European women had mastered knowledge about medicine, biology especially ethics. This reminds me of my own culture. In Indian culture, a lot of mothers are thought of as uneducated and majority of the females still end up being housewives. However, despite this characterization, its always the mother who teaches her children how to respect elders, how to study efficiently, how to eat food with proper manners how to behave in school and work hard (ethical topics). In conclusion, women, who are usually portrayed as uneducated by regressive societies, are often the ones who educate their children on most important life lessons.

The sexual division of labor had patriarchal and political roots. Being an economics student, capitalism was taught to me as a revolutionary system that was efficient. I was always taught that capital and financial markets led to efficient allocation of prices and resources and that even though this system leads to some winner and loser; however, after cost-benefit analysis, there is more good than the bad. Capitalism led to subordination of women. Due to biology of women, they procreated and men worked at the farm but somehow social construction of patriarchal culture looked down upon women’s ability to give birth and praise men for agricultural production. However, Federici’s reading really opened my eyes.

Federici mentions that during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, women “suffered a unique process of social degradation that was fundamental to the accumulation of capital” (75). Patriarchy of wage essentially created the disequilibrium between men and women. Land ownership was allocated to men. Additionally, men were given wage while women were not. In this way, women became dependent on men for basic survival. Further, men appropriated women’s work and bodies. Women themselves became a resource for producing labor (babies) for capitalistic society. Women’s ability to procreate and do domestic work was not considered as productive work that was contributing to the society. It was characterized as unrecognized labor despite that fact that they were contributing to capitalist accumulation.

There was control exerted over women through “disciplining” women by controlling reproduction. Women were thought of as “unruly wife” who needed to be tamed. Therefore, reproduction was controlled by penalties on contraception use, surveillance of pregnant women and lastly, punishments for women who showed “little enthusiasm” towards their children. This reading relates to the idea of women and women’s womb to be thought of as vessels. In Indian society, women’s abilities are always undervalued and their abilities are reduced to being vessels of reproduction. Many Indians believe that women’s duty in society is to give birth. Further, a woman is only treated well and with care when she is pregnant however, this care is conditional. This love and care is only given so that the baby growing in the womb is healthy – the focus is never on the soon to be mother. In conclusion, it is interesting to see that the treatment and subjugation of women in India (present day) is similar to the treatment European women faced in 16th century and the roots of this hierarchy boils down to capitalism.

Grosfoguel’s article discusses how Cartesian Philosophy and the conquest of the Americas resulted in epistemic racism and sexism. Through Cartesian philosophy "I think, therefore, I am" and four genocides gave western world (Christians) epistemic superiority, which in turn gave the Europeans the authority to "develop" the third world. In this way, Europe was able to proclaim itself as the birthplace of progress and modernity and global structure of knowledge became highly Eurocentric. As a consequence, few men from Western Europe produce knowledge with regards to Social Sciences and Humanities. Similarly, Federici’s chapter examines how did unequal and hierarchical relationship between men and women originate. Federici explores the transition to capitalism in the 19th century and its impact on Women and enslavement of Native Americans and Africans. She explains that asymmetric division of labor between men and women was result of capitalism. Federici mentions that during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, women “suffered a unique process of social degradation that was fundamental to the accumulation of capital” (75). The degradation of women was done through “disciplining” women by controlling reproduction. The fact that women’s duty is to reproduce and take care of babies was socially constructed. Reproduction was controlled by penalties on contraception use, surveillance of pregnant women and lastly, punishments for women who showed “little enthusiasm” towards their children. In this way, men essentially appropriated women’s bodies - women’s bodies were transformed into a work-machine since they had to produce children in order to create work force. On top of this, women’s ability to procreate and do domestic work was not considered as productive work that was contributing to the society and therefore, they weren’t paid.

Federici’s and Grosfoguel’s article are similar because both papers talk about how historical events such as four genocides, age of exploration, and capitalism resulted in accumulation of differences and division within the working class and hierarchies built upon gender and race. Federici explains that capitalism earlier was always characterized as a moment in history that led to progress and liberation of workers. However, that isn’t the case. Capitalism created more brutal and insidious forms of enslavement and exploitation. Primitive accumulation and patriarchy of wages led to unequal division of labor between men and women. The Plantation system aided capitalist expansion in Americas and strict measures were taken in order to ensure that alliances between whites, blacks and aboriginals didn’t become too strong. Likewise, Grosfoguel talks about how the first genocide religiously discriminated the Muslim and the Jews. The second and the third genocide, conquest of Americas and African enslavement led to racial discrimination of indigenous Americans and African population. Lastly, the fourth genocide, burning of women created epistemic sexism. Thus, all genocides discriminated a certain population based on religion, race, and gender and created epistemic racism and sexism. In conclusion, both readings highlight the historical roots of how hierarchy in race and gender came about. Both authors explain that Capitalism, Cartesian Philosophy and four genocides led to the creation of patriarchal order. Capitalism led to sexual and international division of labor, and the subjugation of women and people of color whereas, the Cartesian Philosophy and four genocides led to epistemic superiority and epistemic inferiority. This led to the global structure of knowledge being highly Eurocentric and the characterization of West being superior to the global South.

The main outcomes that I found relevant are,

  • In order to decolonize epistemic racism and sexism, we need to take initiative and acknowledge more diverse thoughts and concepts. We should acknowledge authors from the Global South and re-define global philosophy.
  • Women need to appropriate their own bodies and try to find our relationship with nature again. This can be only accomplished when we choose our own paths and make our own choices instead of letting regressive societal norms making our choices for us.
  • Lastly, considering the fact that it took 200 years for witch hunters to kill “witches” and discipline women. This shows how resilient women really are. Majority of women in Global South regardless of it being Peru or India, are always undervalued for their hard work in household and domestic work.

Ms Miha Alam
Byrn Mawr College

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