Why Western feminism fetishises brown women in miniskirts

Why Western feminism fetishises brown women in miniskirts
4 min read

Tharwa Boulifi

24 April, 2024
Instead of dismantling the patriarchy, Western feminism’s obsession with shallow appearance has shunned women of colour, writes Tharwa Boulifi.
Western feminism's conflation of empowerment with body image has isolated women in the Global South, writes Tharwa Boulifi [photo credit: Getty Images]

While Arabs nervously watched Iranian missiles fly over the Levant, the pro-Israel Twittersphere gazed over another, similarly provocative target: miniskirts in pre-revolution Iran.

In typical tone-deaf fashion, the American and Israeli hasbara machine chose this moment to “show a leg” and flaunt an idealised, white-washed, and highly disingenuous image of Pehlavi-era Iran.

White, liberal feminists were quick to jump on the bandwagon and soon pictures of Westernised Iranian women went viral. As usual, they told Iranian women what they’d lost and what they should do.

Western feminism: Not as innocent as you think

Israel’s obsession with Pehlavi-era Iran is a form of dog-whistling, meant to stoke division in the Iranian diaspora — who have their own grievances with the Iranian regime — and justify the settler colony’s purple-washing to American and European audiences.

We can be trusted to continue the Western liberal project, they say. The others are either opposed to our 'civilising' mission or, in the case of Iran, had their chance and blew it. 

Predictably, most of the comparisons used promiscuity to talk about women’s rights, civil liberties, and societal regression in post-revolution Iran. Equally predictable is the omission of the Shah’s authoritarian fist, rampant corruption, and shallow imposition of “Western values” as a yardstick of progress.

Such shallow perspectives on Western feminism show the ideology’s contradictions. Linking women’s emancipation to dynastic dictatorship is just hypocritical: dictatorship isn’t consistent with democracy and women’s rights aren’t contingent upon “showing a leg”.

Western-centricity only serves to justify the colonisation of indigenous people and give it a supposedly noble purpose, freeing non-white women from their self-oppression and forcing European ideals on them instead.

As a result, Western feminism — meant to free women from male control — loses all sense of purpose and is used by Western governments as a tool to justify its expansionary urges.

We only need to look at Israel’s war on Gaza to expose this double standard. 10,000 Palestinian women, including 6,000 mothers, have been killed since October 7.


All Western feminists have offered so far are condolatory messages saying Palestinian women 'have the right to live'. That same timidness wasn't there when the Western media reported that Hamas-linked fighters had committed sexual violence on October 7.

Let's get things straight. Western feminism isn’t its own entity, it aligns with white men in power. In Iran or Palestine, feminists jump to the ‘but Hamas, but Khomeini’ argument instead of attacking Israel’s indiscriminate, systematic violence on Palestinian women or the Shah’s brutal regime.

Such an approach lays the groundwork for white men in power to give speeches where they piggyback on Western liberalism to justify their violent policies.

The Western feminist activist movement has proved, especially when it comes to non-white indigenous women, that it's only concerned about keeping up appearances: wearing short skirts, showing legs, and removing body hair, not dismantling structural patriarchy.

Western feminists only care about women being killed in war zones if the women look and act like them.

Mainstream feminism needs to embrace women of colour

Progressive ideas regarding body image should be appreciated, but they should not be presented as the only way of defending the feminist cause. Otherwise, all it does is deepen the chasm between white women and women of colour.

For generations, the Western feminist movement led women across the world to dream of a fairer and safer world for women. Many non-Western, non-White girls grew up believing that they could rely on this dream to achieve their goals.

But it’s now apparent that Western feminism is part of white saviourism, instrumentalised by men in Western governments to propagate imperialism in non-white countries.

In addition, many women in the West now use their brand of feminism to justify religious discrimination, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. It’s incredibly discouraging to see that Western feminism, a movement that many women in the Global South looked up to, has been reduced to propaganda.

The rug has well and truly been pulled from under our feet, its intentions have been weaponised, and its activism baseless.

Israel’s war on Gaza and the skirmishes between Israel and Iran should therefore offer an opportunity for us feminists in the Global South to emancipate ourselves from the Western-centric perspective and pave the way towards a world where all women’s safety and well-being matter, regardless of the colour of our skin or the country of our origin.

Tharwa Boulifi is a Tunisian freelancer who writes about feminism, human rights, and social justice. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Newsweek, the New African, African Arguments.

Follow her on Twitter: @TharwaBoulifi

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.