Against White Feminism: Redefining the heroines of feminism
Is the late Queen Elizabeth II, inheritor of the British imperial monarchy, a feminist icon?
The question of what denotes a feminist is apt as the world revisits the long life of this monarch. While many are lauding her achievements and spiritedness, others are challenging her dubious role.
In the face of her death, books like Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria are revelatory and redefine the truth of feminism and its history.
"The book [Against White Feminism] is a conglomeration of 8 essays that explores the ramifications that imperialism, settler-colonialism, capitalism, neo-colonialism, and late capitalism have had on current feminist discourses and practices"
Against White Feminism is a calm, salient and methodical analysis of white feminism and a call to dismantle it urgently.
Rafia Zakaria, a Pakistani civil rights attorney, presents her argument with brilliant clarity using personal vignettes, historical deep dives, and cross-cultural analyses. Her solemn introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book as she says:
“This is not a book of feminist theory but of feminist practice and its problematic genealogies, the problems of the past, and the new forms they have taken in our present.”
The book is a conglomeration of 8 essays that explores the ramifications that imperialism, settler-colonialism, capitalism, neo-colonialism, and late capitalism have had on current feminist discourses and practices.
It is an intimate and educational experience as Zakaria interweaves her complex experiences as a brown woman, ex-pat, survivor, and accomplished lawyer, with historical and contemporary examples.
She evocatively illustrates the centuries of trauma endured at the hands of white-centric feminism. Without any qualms, she forces the reader to accept the reality that mainstream western feminism is in service to white women and white agendas.
Mainstream feminism demands that all women accept a subset of values and denies the nuanced experiences of brown women. Thus, Zakaria defines a white feminist as someone who simply 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.
Recently we have been confronted with the death of Queen Elizabeth II and her colonial legacy.
Her death has ignited emphatic discourse surrounding British colonial history and her arbitrary delineation as a feminist icon. The conversations kindled by her death make Against White Feminism a felicitous read.
It forces us to stand alongside Zakaria and question the sort of feminism that truly dominates our media and politics and what this means for the realities of brown women.
According to Zakaria, the notion that both white women and women of colour suffer the same disadvantages as men are flawed.
While white women enjoy white racial privilege, women of colour are affected not simply by gender inequality but also by racial disparities. This then reminds us of the implications colour-blind feminism has on the experiences and political realities of women of colour.
Racial identity is not the issue but rather the set of behaviours, assumptions, and values that inform white feminism. She argues that these values and behaviours have entrenched systemic racism into our daily lives, politics, and institutions purported to serve justice.
"True feminism amplifies the rights and voices of a collective society and goes beyond sex-positive feminism and capricious claims of liberation. Zakaria reiterates that she is not calling to eliminate white people from feminism but rather, the whiteness from the movement"
The forced reverence for the British monarchy is a stark example of Zakaria’s arguments. When Queen Elizabeth was crowned in 1952, more than a quarter of the world’s population remained under British rule.
Even though over 20 countries gained independence during her reign, her lack of contrition for her predecessor's crimes makes her complicit. The empire she ruled, if only as a figurehead, was built upon slavery, the pillaging and looting of African and Asian countries, and utter destruction.
The jewels on her crown were stolen from formerly colonized nations with no sign of reparations. While critics claim she was merely a dwindling token of British glory and held no real political power, she had a voice.
A voice that never uttered a syllable’s worth of apologies or action towards ameliorating generations of British oppression. Regardless, the accolades resound, and her status as a feminist icon remains.
The praise for Queen Elizabeth and the deliberate obscuring of British colonial history is only a partial fragment of a more extensive system that thrives on universalizing white privilege and racism. Through her impassioned prose, Zakaria trenchantly exposes the institutions and history that have enabled this to continue, specifically in the feminist movement.
It begins with our education, where gender studies courses rarely mention the contributions of black, brown, and Muslim feminists. This sets the stage for the values that define one as a feminist and paves the path toward equality through a white-tinged lens.
One of the most notable examples shared is that of “civilized” white women travelling to colonized countries under the guise of saving the brown woman. The white feminist saviour complex, she says, took shape in the colonial era.
White women felt constrained by their 19th-century gender roles in their home countries and turned to rescue the women of the colonies. Still subordinate to white men, they were nevertheless considered superior by virtue of race to the colonized “subjects.” Onward, the devastating implications of the war on terror and U.S military action continue to be championed by white women who believe that Middle Eastern women need liberating.
Beyond this, she unapologetically dissects a range of inextricably linked current and historical events. But the crux of her book is that there is a profound failure to support marginalized people and women on a global scale.
True feminism amplifies the rights and voices of a collective society and goes beyond sex-positive feminism and capricious claims of liberation. Zakaria reiterates that she is not calling to eliminate white people from feminism but rather, the whiteness from the movement. In doing so, we transform society and eliminate a hierarchy that favours gender, class, race, and status.
She calls for a redistribution of resources, such as government welfare programs, legal assistance for women of colour, and representation in the political sphere beyond identity politics and ongoing dialogues. Zakaria’s bold and vibrant analysis underscores that the history of systemic racism within feminism needs to be revisited and investigated today. Her words are explicit, arresting, and rich.
The shocking veracity of the colonial underpinnings of the feminist movement feels disorienting as our current headlines label colonist puppets like Queen Elizabeth II as feminist icons.
Zakaria’s call to action and the death of a British monarch leave us ruminating on these concluding sentiments, “Whiteness is not construed as a biological category but as a set of practices and ideas that have emerged from the bedrock of white supremacy, itself the legacy of empire and slavery.”
Noshin Bokth has over 6 years of experience as a freelance writer. She has covered a wide range of topics and issues including covering the implications of the Trump administration on Muslims, the Black Lives Matters Movement, travel reviews, book reviews, and op-eds. She is the former Editor in Chief of Ramadan Legacy and former North American Regional Editor of the Muslim Vibe.
Follow her on Twitter: @BokthNoshin