By Marina Manoukian
Against White Feminism is an informative and thought-provoking read for all feminists.
Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption by Rafia Zakaria. W. W. Norton, 256 pages.
In writing one of her final term papers for graduate school, Rafia Zakaria cited the works of Asifa Quraishi and Amina Wadud, both of whom discuss how Islamic law and religious doctrine can be reframed “as a tool for women’s empowerment rather than oppression.” After reading her essay, her professor was dismayed. None of the Eurocentric readings assigned by the class, which were only concerned with sexual pleasure as liberation, made it into the paper. And that was Zakaria’s point: she was seeking to reject “the premise that sexual pleasure had to be the centerpiece of feminist agitation.” This story is familiar to those who’ve had to navigate the hegemonic grip of white feminism, a feminism that is interested in upholding whiteness, “with all its assumptions of privilege and superiority.” But what brought white feminism to its current state?
Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption is Zakaria’s attempt to answer that question. In it, she interweaves her personal experiences with historical and contemporary examples of feminism that are rooted in colonial mentality. Zakaria’s argument not only calls out the self-involved trajectory of white feminism, but also seeks to decenter the reader’s understanding of “woman” so that it doesn’t refer only to “white woman.” Her critique focuses primarily on white feminism in terms of how it constructs itself in relation to Brown women, but her observations are incredibly relevant regarding any strain of feminist thought that sees itself as “a zero-sum game, with one kind of knowledge supplanting the other.”
White feminism’s collusion with colonialism and imperialism began early. Zakaria underlines how white British women’s “very first experiences of freedom beyond home and hearth were caught up with the experience of imperial superiority.” The “white feminist savior complex” has been with us for a long time, with white feminists quick to take on the self-appointed task of speaking for their “colonized sisters.” This mentality eventually became the farce that was “the women’s liberation portion of the War on Terror.” “White feminists decided that war and occupation were essential to freeing Afghan women,” notes Zakaria in her Nation essay “White Feminists Wanted to Invade,” published as U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021.
In the book, Zakaria lays out an origin story for white feminism, providing numerous examples of white feminism in various contexts. She demonstrates the negative influence it has had on international discussions of gender empowerment. Chapters focus on themes such as global neoliberalism, sexual liberation, and domestic violence. For example, honor killings are compared to “ego killings” and found to be “identical in their motivations to discipline and destroy women.” In another section, Zakaria juxtaposes scenes from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (nicknamed the White City) with a “global bazaar” in the 2000s. Both become spectacles in which stereotypes about Brown or Black women are reaffirmed “and conversation was only occasioned by the possibility of a transaction.”
Given the book’s subtitle, however, questions can arise as to who this book is for, what is being disrupted, and who is meant to be disrupting. In the final section of her text, Zakaria writes of her concern that “many of those whom I love and respect could read my words as an indictment of themselves as ‘white women’ as opposed to as friends, colleagues and family members.” In this light, the text seems to be less on disruption and acts more as a precursor to disruption, serving as a guidebook through both history and the present for those who don’t see a difference between feminism and white feminism. In this final section, Zakaria addresses women of color as well, underlining that “it is easy to be immersed in the paranoia that no sincere solidarity is possible and retreat to our own racial categories; it is much harder to relinquish the sense of being wronged and work towards coming together. I am hoping we can do this.” Unfortunately, there are fewer examples of this in the text. And yet, for those familiar with the concept of white feminism, Zakaria’s text can elicit an expansion of that conversation.
In under 300-pages, Zakaria’s text cannot be expected to thoroughly examine every pernicious aspect of white feminism. Still, there are a couple of noticeable gaps. Zakaria’s investigation of gender and race focuses primarily on Brown women with few nods to how class and economics also have an effect, despite the fact that the text relies on an understanding of intersectionality. This is not to say that economic insecurity and dependencies aren’t mentioned in Against White Feminism: one of the chapters thoughtfully expands on how neoliberalism has coopted the idea of “empowerment” to be synonymous with an “individualistic notion of power.” But it would have been interesting to also have an examination of how women of color uphold white feminism, especially when they do so from a position of financial security.
Also missing in Zakaria’s text is a look at how white feminism slides neatly into TERF-thought. As Professor Sunny Singh has noted, “Imperial white supremacy has always rendered womanhood — and humanity — conditional for all except a very narrow definition of upper/middle class, straight, white, conventionally attractive cis women who can then serve as handmaids to its cisheteropatriarchal regime.” There is a brief mention that transgender individuals existed in India before British colonization, but this occurs in the context of sexual relationships and fails to explore how upholding the gender binary was (and is) integral to colonialism. For example, an acknowledgment of how the lives of India’s hijras were disrupted (via a “a drastic change”) after colonialism began to enforce cisgenderism.
Which brings us back to the question, who is this book for? Against White Feminism doesn’t outline a theoretical framework and Zakaria isn’t out to push for revolutionary action. Instead, the book comes off as an introduction that invites readers to expand their thinking.
However, the missed opportunities of Against White Feminism, rather than detracting from the text, make it the very text it sets out to be; one that invites and provokes critique. This is how it can truly be disruptive. Zakaria’s book doesn’t claim to be the end-all text on white feminism and it openly asserts a desire to inspire conversation. In doing so, Zakaria’s argument actively rejects the white feminist tradition of claiming to know for certain. Zakaria notes “how the subaltern is now given some chances to speak but is not heard because the foundations of white supremacy (best represented by colonialism and neo-colonialism) have not been dismantled.” In a world against white feminism, the feminism of Brown, Black, African, Indigenous, immigrant, and postcolonial women will never be a monolith and, with this volume, Zakaria has made a thoughtful contribution to a conversation that has been on-going for hundreds of years.
Early in the book, Zakaria writes admirably about the women in her family: “Their resilience, their sense of responsibility, their empathy, and their capacity for hope are also feminist qualities, but not ones that the current feminist arithmetic will permit.” Against White Feminism demands readers to think outside the restrictive box that white feminism has prescribed. As Barbara Smith noted in a 1979 speech, “Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.” With this message in mind, Against White Feminism is an informative and thought-provoking read for all feminists.
Marina Manoukian is a writer of the Armenian diaspora. A reader, writer, and collage artist, she currently resides in Berlin, Germany. Her writing has been published with Yes Poetry, Grunge, and Full Stop Review, among others. Find more of her work at marinamanoukian.com or on Twitter/Instagram at @crimeiscommon