Book Review: Against White Feminism

In her new book, Rafia Zakaria argues that white feminists must revise their notions of equality

This story was originally published in India Today.

Among the statement clothing on display at this year’s Met Gala was a gown worn by US Representative Carolyn Maloney, in suffragette colours, festooned with sashes proclaiming ‘Equal Rights for Women’. Maloney tweeted that she had ‘long used fashion as a force 4 change’. As some commentators pointed out, twenty years ago she wore a burqa to a House session to lend ‘feminist’ support for the invasion of Afghanistan, while praising America for ‘balancing war with compassion’ and ‘dropping food as well as bombs.’

The damaging effects of what Rafia Zakaria might a prime example of white feminism can be seen in Afghanistan’s current disarray. Zakaria calls the War on Terror America’s first ‘feminist’ war in her third book, an argument against white feminism, which ‘accepts the benefits conferred by white supremacy at the expense of people of colour, while claiming to support gender equality and solidarity with “all” women.’ Instead, Zakaria advocates for a political movement rooted in the personal, lived experiences of non-white women, and collective action over the ‘cult of individualism’.

With clarity and conviction, Zakaria traces the evolution of white feminism from Simone de Beauvoir to Kate Millett, to the emergence of ‘choice feminism’—today’s depoliticised but dominant ideology, highly susceptible to corporate interests. Zakaria outlines in simple language how the colonial underpinnings of white feminism (including the suffragette movement) are perpetuated through a white saviour industrial complex with many arms: journalism, geopolitics, global aid, and sexual politics that first imposed Victorian ideas of virtue, before demanding western-style sexual liberation.  

Zakaria provides a wealth of specific examples, from the egregious to the seemingly innocuous, touching on everything from Zero Dark Thirty to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the semantic difference between honour killing and domestic violence. She also cites extensively from the work of non-white global feminists, describing how their efforts can often be subverted by even well-meaning white feminism.

Drawing from the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and others, Zakaria also addresses how feminism intersects with  race and class. The latter particularly counts in a highly stratified society like India, where elite feminists may find themselves perpetuating the ‘white’ feminist violence. Calling on white feminists to ‘see beyond their own actions as individuals and recognize the power and privilege of the category they inhabit’, Zakari also asks feminists of colour to ‘reject the temptation to pathologize every flawed interaction.’ The book is ultimately a call to ‘unite behind specific political claims,’ namely ‘that the dominance of capitalism is bad for all women’.

The arguments in Against White Feminism have gained traction in recent years; still the book is a timely reminder that global feminists cannot afford to stay within the realm of recognition, where it is easily subsumed into the ‘white feminist’ celebration of individual accomplishment, but must demand redistribution through collective, politically-charged action.

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