Against the white feminism of Rafia Zakaria – experience rather than empathy

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that of Rafia Zakaria Against white feminism opens with a scene in a Manhattan wine bar with a group of five women – writers, reporters and editors – that could be taken directly from the script of the television hit of the 1990s-2000s Sex and the city.

With the exception of Zakaria, an American-Pakistani author and activist, the women are all white. When a companion asks her what her “story” is, Zakaria remembers the painful performative act of “relativity” that she perfected to ensure her acceptance in an environment of professional feminists “nicely dressed, slightly drunk. , awakened in fashion ”.

The author fears being questioned for not drinking (“they know I’m a Muslim”) and refrains from sharing the domestic violence she suffered after arriving in the United States as a newlywed in age 17, before fleeing with her young daughter to a domestic violence shelter. years later.

“There is a division within feminism. . . between the women who write and speak feminism and the women who live it, the women who have a voice against the women who have experience, ”she writes.

The discomfort of Zakaria’s wine bar is one of the many jarring personal anecdotes intertwined throughout Against white feminism, a dazzling revolutionary leaflet which seeks to erase the whiteness of the feminist movement.

The author aims for a hyper-individualized approach Sex in the city brand of feminism that dominates Western discourse and has pushed the voices and lived experience of women of color to the margins.

Against white feminism draws on recent work that questions the omnipresence of white women in the canon of feminist heroines, such as Kyla Schuller’s “counter-history” of feminism, The problem with white women.

Zakaria wants to force account among white feminists – some of whom are friends – on the racial privilege they enjoy. In doing so, her goal is to dismantle a structure that has depoliticized the struggle for equality by focusing on how women can “lean” on themselves to succeed in a man’s world, and where emancipation is largely a reality. assimilated to sexual liberation.

Her use of the term “white feminism” has become a lightning rod for critics who accuse Zakaria of sowing division rather than building bridges between her fellow activists. But the wording is substantial rather than simply descriptive. As she has said in the past, “You don’t have to be white to be a white feminist.

Criticism ranges from the author’s experience working in American nonprofit organizations to a chronicle of the feminist ideologies that supported European imperial structures. It is most powerful in diagnosing contemporary moral failings of the feminist movement. The main one is the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States in 2001.

The figure of the Afghan woman veiled and oppressed by the Taliban has been brandished by a coalition of American women’s organizations and prominent women journalists to encourage the invasion in the aftermath of September 11. It was a quintessential neo-imperialist mission to save, as the author puts it, “brown women from brown men”.

Two decades later, the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan this summer has shown how little that distorted narrative has changed. Western media coverage and political criticism of withdrawal follies have largely focused on the moral responsibility that Allied forces bear for the plight of Afghan women. “The little case of the devastating bombs [in 2001] which killed thousands and others with disabilities, forever shattering families and destroying livelihoods, was a necessary means to achieve this brilliant feminist end, ”writes Zakaria.

Zakaria’s relentless and ruthless excoriation against white intellectuals, activists and journalists will make reading uncomfortable for many well-meaning women. The author admits that her clear call for a more inclusive feminism will isolate her fellow activists and lose her friends.

Its solutions call on white women to cede space to women of color, to pay more attention to the class and economic barriers that prevent women of color from entering feminist discourse, and older feminists to ” abandon their paranoid belief that racial equality within the movement is some kind of surreptitious strategy to displace them ”. It is a leaflet which will polarize opinion but which it is impossible to ignore.

Against white feminism by Rafia Zakaria, Hamish Hamilton £ 14.99, 208 pages

Mehreen Khan is the EU correspondent for FT

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