Zara C. Churri feels that the subalterns today need their own Hercules, if they are to speak

Back in college, when I was on my way to becoming a Gender Studies major (I know, I suffered the consequences soon after), I read something that sort of blew my mind. In her essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak”, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asked a very important question - can the subaltern speak? Okay, so let’s backtrack a little bit folks. Who is the subaltern? In postcolonial theory, the subaltern typically refers to the oppressed social classes, or those who are subject to the mighty power and influence of the elite and the privileged. Over the years, the term was adopted by feminist scholars such as Spivak, who used it to describe the way women from the Third World were viewed and discussed. So, basically, imagine a scenario where a group of white women are trying to protect a bunch of brown women from evil brown men. In this case, the brown women are the subaltern.

Now, according to Spivak, there is something extremely wrong with this whole situation (like duh). I mean, trying to save someone without understanding who they are and where they are coming from is stupid AF, and it’s sort of embarrassing that millions of scholars had to point it out for even a small percentage of the world’s population to get it (I exaggerate, but for good reason). But that’s not what I’m trying to get at. Honestly, I find it very fascinating that the discourse has suddenly shifted from “save the good brown people from the bad brown men” (what the West has been trying to do with ISIS etc.) to “save the good brown people from the bad white men” (what movements like the Women’s March on Washington have been trying to accomplish). Now, personally, I think rising up in protest against the Bannon Parade (i.e. Trump and his crew) is highly commendable. What bugs me is how, in all this mess, the subaltern has remained the damsel in distress. So, how can the subaltern, as a group of people, rise up when the world views it as perpetually oppressed? Do we need a Hercules?

Classical depiction of Herakles, or Hercules
Classical depiction of Herakles,
or Hercules


Arlington, Virginia. 8 p.m. on a Sunday night. It’s a week before Valentine’s Day and Sahar wants to buy herself a nice outfit for date night with her husband, Nadeem.

Sahar: Hey Nadeem, what are you watching?

Nadeem: (pointing to the television screen). Um…The Simpsons.

Sahar: Oh, of course. (In a flirty voice.) So…Valentine’s Day is coming up and I was wondering if you could give me some money to go shopping…you know…so I can look nice for our date night…

Nadeem: (instantly irritated). How much money?

Sahar: I don’t know…just consider it a Valentine’s Day gift na!

Nadeem: I’m spending a ton of money on this stupid date night you’ve been pestering me about. Just take it out of your pocket money and don’t eat out for a week.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's work retains its significance in a wide variety of fields beyond literary theory
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's work retains its significance in a wide variety of fields beyond literary theory

I find it very fascinating that the discourse has suddenly shifted from "save the good brown people from the bad brown men" to "save the good brown people from the bad white men"


According to Spivak, we do need a Hercules (hear me out). Now, Hercules does not need to be the son of Zeus, but he/she/it/they does need to be someone with intellectual authority who can represent the subaltern in front of its elite “saviours” (sounds annoying, but there’s no harm in keeping it real). The subaltern needs someone from within who can communicate effectively with the saviours, so that the they can finally understand that, even though their intentions are good, they are pretty much oppressing the “good brown people” even more by embedding them into a particular identity (that of the oppressed). You know what I mean? Take Trump for example. Now, I absolutely despise Trump, but he did something super clever, and I think that’s what won the sneaky Cheeto his election. Trump created a discourse where he gave White America an identity - the ‘forgotten’ men and women who were ignored by the Democrats i.e. the subaltern. He then showed up and claimed to be the one who would rise up among them from within (I take part in locker room chat just like you, folks), and fight for their rights and values. We can learn something from this.  It is time we focused on carefully electing our own representatives, and on making us stronger, rather than remaining stuck in a place where we will always need to be saved.


Arlington, Virginia. 2 a.m. on a Monday morning. Sahar calls her mother, Mehreen, to complain about Nadeem’s lack of generosity.

Sahar: (weeping). Mama, I can’t believe you got me married to this idiot. He doesn’t give me anything!

Mehreen: What happened, beta? What did he do?

Sahar: Mama, Nadeem makes so much money but he makes me beg for it all the time. Plus, he doesn’t even want me to work. I want to come home!

Mehreen: Can you tell me what happened?

Sahar: (bursting into tears again). I asked him for money to go shopping and he said no! He hardly pays me any attention and doesn’t give me anything!

Mehreen: (not amused). That’s it? Beta, all men are like this. You better make it work. Nobody wants to marry a divorced woman, and anyway, even if you do get married, I doubt your second husband will treat you any better.

Zara C. Churri lives in Lahore