Rafia Zakaria has followed a life path that may seem unusual for an American feminist: born and raised in Pakistan, she seized the opportunity to emigrate to the United States at age 17 through an arranged marriage.
“One night after dinner, sitting on the edge of my bed in mid-1990s Karachi, I agreed to an arranged marriage,” she wrote in the opening pages of her book, “Against White Feminism.” His motives? She wanted to go to college.
“Until then, my life had been restricted in all sorts of ways, barely extending beyond the walls that surrounded our home. I had never known freedom, and so I willingly gave it up,” she continued.
Zakaria begins her famous book with this confession before recounting how she pursued her law studies against her husband’s wishes. She eventually left him and became an expert in immigration law.
But this is the context of the main story: how Western feminism is shaped by the dominant priorities of white women.
What is “white” feminism?
In the life of Rafia Zakaria, feminism is not an abstract theory but a pure necessity. If there hadn’t been any women’s shelters, she might not have been able to leave her husband. If women still had no access to universities, they might not have been able to study law.
But while the book praises the achievements of feminism, her personal experiences also reveal the failures of her adopted home.
‘Against White Feminism’ is now also available in German
Zakaria says she was invited to give a lecture on the status of women in Pakistan. When she arrives, she learns that it’s not about standing on a stage in front of a microphone, but behind a table with printed photos of Pakistani rural women in traditional dress and a table of small handicrafts – which could be purchased to raise funds for overseas projects.
The organizer was dismayed, she said, when Zakaria did not show up in her “traditional” attire like other Nepalese women in attendance. Zakaria says she felt like an animal in a zoo.
Her argument is that white, affluent, often college-educated women determine what feminism should be — and its political goals. Black women, on the other hand, should appear only as victims, cowering in women’s shelters or working in factories.
She says some white feminists cannot conceive of women of color having different political goals than white women.
“Feminism as cover”
Zakaria cites the example of a Western NGO encouraging rural Indian women – so that they have more time to seek paid work outside the home – to use more efficient “clean cookstoves”, which they do not didn’t need or want, partly because they couldn’t fix the stoves locally.
The author writes that many women “have rejected the idea that the path to empowerment is to make themselves available for wage labor”.
She also draws attention to how white feminists co-opted the war in Afghanistan in the name of feminism following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. American feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Hollywood actors Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep signed letters promising to free Afghan women from the Taliban.
The consequences, Zakaria says, can be seen in Afghanistan today.
“The United States used feminism as a cover when it invaded Afghanistan, so women’s rights in Afghanistan are no longer seen as legitimate but as a sign of pro-Western collaborators,” he said. she told DW. “It saddens me deeply.”
The United States knew from the start that it would leave the country again, she added, but did nothing to protect the women afterwards.
Zakaria notes that as early as the 19th century, British suffragettes demanded that women in colonial India campaign for women’s suffrage. When Indian feminists did not comply, white suffragettes wanted to fight for Indian women’s suffrage but did not attempt to free them from colonial subjugation.
“Indian women wanted to vote, but in a country that was no longer under British colonial rule,” Zakaria writes. “What power had a vote in an enslaved country? »
Rights to political organization
Ciani-Sophia Hoeder, journalist and author of the book “Wut und Böse” (Rage and Evil), published in 2021, says the feminist movement in Germany is also shaped by the opinions of white women.
She references white feminism’s “exclusion criteria” and says she isn’t drawn to “feminist issues that don’t fit into my everyday life,” Hoeder told DW.
Questions on women’s work almost never refer to the precarious work of migrant women. “German feminism was about advancing white, affluent women,” she said.
But Rafia Zakaria says she is optimistic about the future: she believes in the power of feminism.
What matters now, she says, is to listen to yourself and get involved politically. “It’s good to have rights,” Zakaria said. “But we can’t keep our rights if we don’t organize politically, otherwise our rights will be taken away again by new governments.”
This article was originally written in German.