Rafia Zakaria’s ‘Against White Feminism’ is a cathartic read for a non-white feminist

But can radical inclusion be accomplished without silencing white feminist allies?

Credit: Garry Knight (CC0 1.0)March4Women in London on March 4, 2018.

I was a first-year student at a prestigious U.S. women’s college, back in 1989, when the college’s alumnae association invited me to speak at a large event about my experience in coming to America. It wasn’t very long into my first semester, and I’d just arrived from Karachi. I was 17 years old.

Karachi had been wracked by ethnic violence for more than a year, with student groups clashing all across the city and the entire province of Sindh.  That was a very frightening time, with the media reporting daily death tolls and the military enforcing 24-hour curfews. It is still fresh in my mind.

There were two other speakers at the event, both women: one was a youth organizer and peace activist in her troubled Black urban community; the other had survived a slave camp in Southeast Asia and had been subsequently adopted by an American family. The audience, however, was composed almost exclusively of white American women, many of them rich, older, well-traveled, and educated. Yet for all their worldliness, they seemed unaware that they had propped us up on a stage as though we were exhibits on display.

The three of us stood and told our stories in turn, while the women in the audience looked sad and sympathetic. I don’t remember much of what I said: I do remember being in tears as I said I wanted to study and to live in peace, but that my city didn’t provide much opportunity for that. Afterward, we joined the audience for dinner. We three speakers were overwhelmed by all the attention from the alums, who came up to us to tell us how “brave” we were. But while I stayed in touch with the other speakers, never again did I hear from any of the alums or from the association.

That I had been asked to perform my story of misery and woe for an audience of white women was a realization that came only years later. Those women meant well and obviously cared about our stories, but they used my life and the lives of my fellow speakers to make themselves feel better about their comfortable American existence. Not only were they more fortunate than a girl from troubled Pakistan, a former child slave from war-torn Southeast Asia, or a Black girl from a rough urban neighborhood, but they were also providing them with a platform to amplify their stories.

Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption reminded me of this uncomfortable experience, now more than 30 years old. Indeed, the author describes an experience that felt remarkably familiar to the one I describe above: in her case, Zakaria believed she had been invited to a 2012 feminist event in the American Midwest as a speaker—only to be told, upon her arrival, to sit at a stall in a “global bazaar” and sell Pakistani trinkets.

It was a cathartic read, which helped me place my experience at the alumnae association against a backdrop of a white feminist agenda that is oftentimes self-serving, and which leaves behind women of other ethnicities, countries, experiences, faiths, and societies. Beyond just leaving us behind, this type of feminist activism uses us in order to leave us behind: by demonstrating the inferiority of our lives, white feminists continue to play the role of “expert” in the gender development establishment.

Zakaria deftly deconstructs the modern conundrums facing mainstream (white) feminism, with insightful examples, such as the lack of inclusivity at the 2017 Women’s March; while the organizers were Black and Brown, the vast majority of attendees were white middle-class women. More broadly, she points to issues of intersectionality and how class and color affect women who struggle to make it out of poverty, but who cannot access essential tools like legal assistance. She also examines the pitfalls of addressing issues like so-called honor killings and female genital cutting/mutilation through a culturally limited white feminist lens.

In the first instance, she draws a parallel between honor killings and “crimes of passion”: while the crimes are similar, she points out, only one serves as an indictment of an entire culture and religion— i.e., Islam, eastern, “foreign.” About female genital cutting, she points out there is no attempt to understand the nuances and complexities of the issue or to distinguish between a ceremonial “nick” and an outright excision of the genitals. Zakaria does not defend honor killings or advocate for FGM. She challenges the idea that there is an innate moral superiority to Western culture, which presents itself as exclusively on the “right” side of these issues.

Zakaria, an attorney and author who lives in Indiana, intersperses these chapters with her own experiences as a young Pakistani-Muslim woman. Born in Pakistan, she consented to an arranged marriage with a Pakistani man in the U.S. when she was 17. It was an unhappy and violent union that she escaped at age 25, fleeing with her toddler to a women’s shelter. She went on to law school and a job with a Black-owned law firm, and to helping immigrant women make their way through the American justice system. With this life story she establishes herself as the opposite of a white feminist, but one who possesses, as the result of her lived experience, a deep understanding of the phenomenon.

Against White Feminism turns middle-class white feminism inside out, like a garment, so that we can view the weaknesses of the seams and the sloppiness of the stitching. It’s eye-opening for anyone who identifies as a feminist but has not thought about how strongly its prevailing principles, tenets, and history are rooted in systemic racism and capitalism.

The book is probably strongest, however, in its analysis of how the U.S. justified its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by claiming they were partly motivated to save women from Taliban oppression. American feminists threw their weight behind the war effort, and the ostensible goal of saving oppressed brown women from oppressive brown men. In doing so, they lent their voices to the American military industrial complex, which visited untold suffering upon Afghan women with bombings, drone attacks, massive displacement, and the destruction and displacement of their families.

Certainly, the situation of some Afghan women—i.e., those in urban areas—improved immeasurably after the coalition forces routed the Taliban. Over the past 20 years, a whole generation of women attended university and built careers. But with the Taliban now back in power and female journalists, teachers, artists, and activists having fled or gone into hiding, the long war seems futile. With reports in The New Yorker and from the Brookings Institution showing that the U.S. presence made rural Afghan women’s lives a hell, white feminists are now forced to confront the limitations of their support for the 20 year Afghan project and the putative gains in women’s empowerment that it touted.

A debacle like the invasion and withdrawal from Afghanistan does not happen without important historical context. Zakaria looks at the British suffragist movement of the early twentieth century, pointing out that the women who fought for the right to vote ignored the suffering caused by their country’s colonialism and imperialism in places like India. Zakaria also examines how contemporary white feminists engaged in “development” work abroad design aid programs that ignore activists on the ground who would provide crucial cultural and sociological moorings to any program for lasting, deep-rooted change.

The result of this failure to include local activists: campaigns and interventions that are myopic and deeply racist, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation program that gave sewing machines and chickens to poor women in the Global South. These programs endow women with the white feminist’s fantasy of what a simple livelihood in undeveloped countries looks like, instead of envisioning creative solutions that enable women to access complicated and complex power, as well as agency and respect in their communities.

For the most part Zakaria makes her arguments lucidly; at other times, however, they are a stretch. For example, she dismisses Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom’s attempt to introduce feminist foreign policy as empty promises from a disingenuous white feminist.  The truth is more nuanced than that: Wallstrom tried very hard to stop Sweden from selling arms to Saudi Arabia because of its poor record on women’s rights, but her government, influenced by powerful arms traders in the Swedish military-industrial complex, overrode her efforts. Zakaria glosses over these facts, perhaps trying too hard to find case studies that conform to her arguments.

In another section of the book, Zakaria refers to a letter signed by Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep in favor of the invasion of Afghanistan back in 2002. However, the source for this claim is a 2015 article that Zakaria wrote for Aeon, in which she made the same claim. The original article on the Aeon website does not have a source, and there is no trace of the open letter anywhere on the internet. This, I suspect, is a consequence of sloppiness rather than malice, but it does not serve the book well in its call for a higher kind of feminist ethics.

Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming, however, is Zakaria’s failure to offer a proper definition of the term “white feminism” until close to the end of the book; she should have laid it out at the beginning, since her entire argument is a response to white feminism. Zakaria describes it as a system that excludes the needs, voices, and expertise of brown and Black women, “a set of practices and ideas that have emerged from the bedrock of white supremacy, itself the legacy of empire and slavery.” But there is a danger in using “white feminism” as a shorthand for the entire system Zakaria is calling out. Pitting brown and Black feminists, a minority in America (the book is written very much for an American audience, which is an unavoidable shortcoming), against the “white” feminist majority is momentarily empowering, but, in the long term, dispiriting and exhausting. It can leave everyone feeling like there’s no point in trying to come together because the gap created by past divisions is too vast to bridge.

Zakaria’s indignant refusal to make excuses for white feminists is satisfying, but it leaves very little room for allies among white women. It also leaves little room for brown and Black women who want to work in solidarity with white women, or for those who want to access the networks and power structures that white feminists have benefited from for decades. Instead, Zakaria advocates a further splintering of the feminist movement into “Black feminisms, Muslim feminisms, queer feminisms.” Will this breakdown into feminist specializations lead to a more effective global feminism— one that accomplishes the goals of women’s equality? Zakaria does not say.

It’s important to point out the injustices and weaknesses of the dominant feminist movement vis-a-vis women of color. It’s certainly not the job of non-white women to provide the roadmap to reconciliation, and there is nothing in Against White Feminism to make white feminists feel more comfortable—rightly so. But the balkanization of feminism is hardly a movement from which women of the world, brown and Black, can achieve true gains. Power-sharing between all women, white, brown, and Black, under the current system, seems impossible if we are to take Zakaria’s perspective to heart. Surely we can envision a system where no woman has to step down in order for everyone to step up, together.

Bina Shah

Bina Shah is a Karachi-based author of five novels and two collections of short stories. Her latest novel, Before She Sleeps, was published by Delphinium Books in August 2018. A regular contributor to The New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, and a frequent guest on the BBC, she has contributed essays and op-eds to Granta, The Independent, and The Guardian, and writes a regular op-ed column for Dawn, Pakistan’s biggest English-language newspaper. Sheworks on issues of women’s rights and female empowerment in Pakistan and across Muslim countries. In 2020 she was awarded the rank of Chevalier in the Ordre des arts et des lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. On Twitter: @BinaShah.

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