Effects of whiteness on feminism

June 5, 2022

How to deconstruct the ideals of Western feminists by providing an alternative analysis of non-Western cultures

Effects of whiteness on feminism


ew things in the world would be considered a greater anathema to the ‘societal norms’ than feminism. Many believe that Pakistanis take their diction and dictation from the West to express or challenge their own beliefs about identity, nationalism and gender. Digressions from the path laid down by the colonial authority are rare and seldom. Rafia Zakria aims to challenge the notion in her latest book, Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption.

Zakaria is a lawyer who has worked her way up in the US. Having been married off at the age of seventeen, she had to fend for herself and her daughter. Her book draws analogies between colonialism and its neoliberal counterparts. It is divided into eight chapters.

Zakaria defines a white feminist as, “someone who refuses to consider the role that whiteness and the racial privilege attached to it have played, and continue to play in universalising white feminist concerns, agendas and beliefs as those of all of feminism and feminists.” One can thus be white and not a white feminist; a person of colour and a white feminist. The book suggests that colonialism, and the core Western construct of the white saviour complex closes off opportunities for many women.

Against White Feminism deconstructs the ideals of some famous Western feminists by providing an alternative analysis of local or non-Western cultures, often classified as “others.” Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Jessica Chastain and Melinda Gates are discussed. Zakaria discusses how post 9/11, white feminism was curated to protect American interventionism, disguised as “feminist wars.” Zakaria goes on to elaborate on the global tenet of corporate feminism, the notion that non-governmental organisations and policy-based solutions offered by white women can bring about real change. She describes how colonial societies were fairly ‘progressive’ and accommodated nearly all sexual identities that were later castrated and given the necessary exotic treatment in accordance with the Victorian norms. The former colonies are now being tested for being too restrictive for women. Hence, the Western standards are the yardstick again.

Zakaria has managed to get space in the largely white, publishing world, to articulate the concerns of the women of colour. For her, indigenous cultures and patriarchy alone are not the causes of the marginalisation of women of colour. Rather, it is the non-approachable nature, restricted inaction, tacit disapproval and constant reiteration of the lived experience and trauma of the women of colour that is demanded by white feminism.

Whilst Zakaria’s ambition is noble, there are a few arguments or suggestions in the book that somehow do not deal with patriarchy found in indigenous societies and cultures.

Whilst Zakaria’s purpose is noble, some arguments and suggestions in the book somehow do not deal with patriarchy found in the indigenous societies and cultures. For example, in the chapter on sexual liberation, Zakaria writes, “There were Hindu sects in which women had multiple partners, as well as Muslim men who married multiple women for life or even contracted temporary marriages for short-lived dalliances.” Here, although she aims to focus on the hypocritical heteronormative ideals of the British society that were forced upon the local cultures, this also shows the patriarchal nature of Islam. The concept of nikah mut’ah and the often discussed matter of four wives are not viable arguments to showcase liberal values espoused by (Muslim) Indian men or women of that time. They do not establish the propensity or practicality of the religion as it allowed one gender what it denied to the other.

Zakaria then makes a compelling case, showing Western hypocrisy or double standards on female genital mutilation and honour killing. While discussing honour killing she says, “The label ‘honour killing’ would never be attached to any of the thousands of white-on-white cases of intimate partner violence.” Even if the racial identity offsets the labelling, partner violence and honour carry different etymologies. Honour, particularly is associated with shame in some cultures whereas, partner violence has narcissistic and psychological tendencies. She associates the latter with ego, which may or may not be part of the whole construct of honour.

She then goes on to deconstruct the Western discrimination against female genital mutilation, “Nor is the epidemic of self-harm among Western teenaged girls who cut themselves generally seen as a symptom of a barbaric culture in the same way.” She substantiates her argument with research data. Considering the reasoning that she has presented, her argument falters in that she does not suggest a local solution to mitigate the practices; equates the behaviour with mental health problems and highlights only one gender.

The argument does not recognise that what is done to women of colour is a reaffirmation of patriarchy and that what any teenager would do may be an act of depression. In an attempt to provide a critique of the Western feminist canon, she overlooks the treatment of women of colour at the hands of patriarchy and religion.

In providing a critique of Western feminism, Zakaria does not mention any Pakistani author and the strides made in the local feminist movement. The book is a compact and caustic answer to years of cultural neglect wrought upon women of colour by their white counterparts. However, she does not acknowledge the varying types of feminism and keeps her focus mostly on neo-liberalism. She rarely mentions the brown lookalikes of neoliberal or corporate feminism, which have been churning out hollow victories in Pakistan and elsewhere. Zakaria does not broach topics like Islamic and secular strands of feminism in Pakistan. She does succinctly discuss Hudood Ordinance but does not delve into the contemporary feminist movement in Pakistan. Women in Pakistan have to navigate a free and safe space and bodily autonomy. Against White Feminism at times feels like speaking to an American audience. It dissects several Western feminist writers and can help us understand the academic biases in feminist theory but it seldom presents a way forward.

Against White Feminism

Notes on Disruption

Author: Rafia Zakaria

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Pages: 208

Price: Rs 2,495

The reviewer is a Lahore-based educationist and researcher

Effects of whiteness on feminism