Book Review: To make feminism better, make it less White

Against White Feminism,
Photo by: Norton,
Copyright: Handout via The Washington Post Syndicated Service

Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption

By Rafia Zakaria

Norton. 244 pp. $23.95

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‘We knew what she would wear,” essayist Anna Della Subin observed on the London Review of Books blog about the moment Kamala Harris strode onstage in Wilmington, Del., to claim her place as America’s first female vice president-elect last year. Harris’s white pantsuit, Subin noted, was the latest in a long line of pointedly white garments worn by female politicians: suits sported by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro and Shirley Chisholm, and dresses worn by British suffragists before that, leading all the way back to anti-colonial activist Annie Besant, who fashioned herself as a kind of saint, draping a white sari over a white dress. Harris’s crisp white suit was a gesture – signaling power and purity – laden with history.

Feminism itself – or what we understand it to be, at least, in the West – is similarly heavy with historical habits. These habits, particularly as they pertain to race and power, are the focus of a passionate and provocative new book from Pakistani American writer and activist Rafia Zakaria. In “Against White Feminism” – which reads like a series of extended, interconnected essays – what Zakaria is after “is not an elimination of white women from feminism; it is an elimination of ‘whiteness’ from feminism, in the sense that whiteness has been synonymous with domination and with exploitation.” In other words, “Against White Feminism” is primarily concerned with inherited structures of power and what Zakaria sees as the “division between the women who write and speak feminism and the women who live it; the women who have voice versus the women who have experience; the ones who make the theories and policies, and the ones who bear scars and sutures from the fight.”

On the one side she sees largely White and middle-class pundits and experts; on the other side, Black and Brown women, working-class women, immigrants, minorities, Indigenous women and transgender women. There is no shortage of compelling examples of forgotten or overlooked feminists in this second category. Take India’s independence movement, which drew heavily on the civil disobedience of women like poet and activist Sarojini Naidu. Or women like journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, who led anti-rape campaigns a century before the #MeToo movement. Zakaria notes their contributions, but “Against White Feminism” has even more to say about their counterparts – the White feminists who fall short. That is, anyone who “earnestly salutes the precepts of ‘intersectionality’ . . . but fails to cede space.” And there are so, so many listed in these pages.

Among those Zakaria finds guilty of committing White feminism are writer Simone de Beauvoir, Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem, photojournalist Lynsey Addario, reporter Kim Barker, playwright Eve Ensler, philanthropist Melinda Gates, former Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland and filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. Zakaria also targets nongovernmental organizations that fail to take into account the material realities of the women they purport to help; groups like the National Organization for Women, which has seen power struggles over race in its leadership ranks in recent years, and an all-pervasive culture of “sexy corporate feminism.” At times, it’s as if the sins of White feminism – which can be seen in everything from United Nations commitments to “Sex and the City” plotlines to Virginia Slims advertisements – are too vast to number. Unhelpfully, in what looks like a bid for seriousness, Zakaria sometimes resorts to overly academic language, resulting in lines like this: “Corporatized feminism’s project of depoliticizing feminism has been aided by the emergence of strains of feminism that are notjudgmental at all about the substance of women’s decisions.”

Still, the essential tension Zakaria identifies between well-meaning if at times opportunistic career feminists and those with ordinary “lived experience” is an interesting one, in part because she herself straddles that line. Zakaria has worked on the board of Amnesty International USA and as a journalist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and has written extensively about the concerns of women. Her first book, “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan,” used the story of her aunt’s broken marriage in Karachi as a jumping-off point for a wide-ranging exploration of the history of the legal status of women in Pakistan. Her second book, “Veil: Object Lessons,” was a meditation on visibility and exposure. But though she has the credentials of a professional feminist, Zakaria explains that she’s done time in the trenches, too: At 17, she agreed to an ill-fated arranged marriage to a Pakistani American man 13 years her senior because he promised her the opportunity to attend college in the United States. When she left the marriage with her toddler seven years later, her first stop was a domestic violence shelter.

The experience of confronting abuse and navigating the shelter system was formative to her understanding of what it meant for a woman to claim power, Zakaria writes. So, too, was the example of her female Pakistani relatives who weathered personal and political upheavals – migrations, legal discrimination, bad marriages and so on – with steadiness and strength. The problem was that there didn’t seem to be space to bring these lessons into discussions of feminism in Zakaria’s professional life. Moving through the world of academia and nonprofits, she sensed that these aspects of her biography somehow disqualified her, in the eyes of White women, from being a “real” feminist. It was all too much; real feminists needed to be “untrammeled by the shifting burden of messy experience.”

That feeling of exclusion and dissonance is the powerful narrative driver of this book. And particularly instructive are the moments when Zakaria explores her profound discomfort in feminist settings. Something feels off when she finds herself swapping personal stories among “prettily dressed, slightly soused, fashionably woke” White female professional acquaintances at a Manhattan wine bar. How will she tell them about her time in a shelter without ruining the vibe? An extended, competitively performative discussion of sex positivity and sexual conquest at a graduate seminar similarly grates: “Nobody wanted to be ‘not liberated,’ and so everyone shared, or rather overshared, compulsively,” leaving Zakaria feeling alienated. Then there’s the humiliating time when she thought she had been invited to give a talk about women’s rights in Pakistan, but had actually been conscripted to sell trinkets and handicrafts at a “global bazaar” while White attendees sipped wine. When it was over, she sat in her car and cried.

Complacent, well-intentioned feminism isn’t good enough. “Against White Feminism” at times feels too sweeping in its critique to be constructive, but the heart of what this book demands – a feminism that is less self-satisfied and secure in its power, more curious about the differences in women’s experiences, and more generous and expansive in its reach – is worth fighting for.

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Mythili G. Rao is a journalist, audio producer and book critic based in London.



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