Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism

In her newest book, Against White Feminism (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021), Rafia Zakaria combines lived personal experience with the problematic political realities caused by a particular type of white feminist thought that has dominated the feminist landscape. It is a type of feminism that places whiteness—the ideas and concerns of middle and upper-class privileged white women—at the center rather than the needs of those who are the most marginalized and alienated, typically Black, Brown, Asian, and poor women. As a result, feminism in its current state often promotes racism and inequality because the women who front it refuse to dismantle patriarchal and societal forces that reinforce oppression. Zakaria, a Pakistan-born woman who came to the United States as a young bride in order to go to college to study law, sought refuge in a domestic violence shelter along with her daughter, and went on to work as an attorney with domestic violence shelters for several years. She has also written many essays and articles for publications such as the Guardian, CNN, the New York Times Book Review, Dawn (a Pakistani publication) and the Baffler.

Against White Feminism is an important and much-needed book because it not only diagnoses the problems of white feminism in great detail and honesty, it calls into question the entire system of feminist thought as it actually is: elitist, lacking empathy, and uncritical of patriarchal violence and oppression. Zakaria talks about her personal experiences dealing with white feminists: socializing with them at a wine bar, being misled into giving a talk about Pakistani women’s issues at what actually turned out to be a racist bazaar in Midwestern United States, being a graduate student in a sex-positive feminist theory class where compulsory sexuality was encouraged over more enlightened and inclusive ideas about sex, race, and gender, and working for Amnesty International where racism was still very much entrenched in its policies. She also talks about the major issues of contemporary feminism: how the War on Terror (backed by mainstream feminists) did not improve the lives of Middle Eastern women, how the Aid Industrial Complex disregards the actual needs of Black and Brown women, how sexual liberation is defined by compulsory sexuality rather than a more nuanced, organic form of sexuality, how Cosmo Girl feminism and choice feminism won out over radical feminism in the eighties and nineties which further hindered the movement, how the cult of relatability states that Black and Brown women only matter if their stories are acceptable to white feminist elites, how honor killings and female genital cutting are viewed through a racist lens, and how the blatantly racist and hostile behaviors of white feminist leaders and members within the National Organization of Women (NOW) and the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF)—two major feminist organizations—continue to maintain inequality within their ranks. The book also gives a good historical foundation for many of the racist attitudes of white feminists that stem back to the British Empire and how they oppressed Indian citizens. Because there is so much to unpack within this book, this review will focus on a few key issues brought forth by Zakaria in terms of how white feminism not only controls the feminist movement, but continues to shape it in ways that are problematic for women of color and poor women—and humanity as whole.

To begin, it will be important to give a clear definition of what white feminism is. White feminism essentially draws a line in the sand between women who see themselves as liberated and in charge, who know what is best for all women, who often inhabit positions of power within the feminist movement, and women who are seen as uneducated, oppressed, who are not necessarily part of the “official” feminist movement, but who make choices for themselves based off of survival and common sense. Zakaria talks about how these two groups of women practice two different kinds of feminist thought: rebellion and resilience. The women in the first group encourage rebellion narratives because they believe that liberation can only happen when a woman actively resists the conditions of her environment. Typically, women in the second group practice resilience as a way to function within situations they cannot liberate themselves from because of political forces beyond their control (usually upheld by white feminists). Women who promote the rebellion narrative are the ones who are given (by other feminist and societal leaders) a platform to speak and be heard whereas women who practice resilience are not only shut out of the larger feminist conversation, they are disregarded altogether as nonexistent. Zakaria gives an excellent personal example of what resilience looks like and how it functions as another aspect of feminist thought that is ignored by white feminists:

Growing up in Pakistan, I saw my mother, my grandmother, and my aunts survive terrible suffering of all sorts. They survived migrations, devastating business losses, inept husbands, lost relations, legal discrimination, and so much more, without ever giving in to despair, without ever abandoning those who relied on them, without ever failing to show up. 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. In the value system of white feminism, it is rebellion, rather than resilience, that is seen as the ultimate feminist virtue; my maternal forebears’ endurance is labeled thus a pre-feminist impulse, misguided, unenlightened, and unable to deliver change. No attention can be garnered by Pakistani feminists unless they do something that is recognizable within the white feminist sphere of experience—skateboard while wearing their headscarves, march with placards, write a book about sex, run away to the West. The truth that resilience may be just as much a feminist quality as rebellion is lost in the story of feminism written and populated entirely by white women.

Zakaria’s larger point brilliantly shows how resilience is a feminist concept that women on a historical and global scale have practiced as a means to survive within patriarchy for centuries. Because white feminists, who are Western and privileged, did not come from environments where rebellion meant death, they romanticize it and uplift it as the only means to liberation. It is not to say that rebellion doesn’t have its place, but it is overemphasized in ways that are counterproductive for unprivileged women who still have to live under patriarchy. Zakaria also gives a very good, straightforward definition of white feminism:

A white feminist is someone who refuses to consider the role that whiteness and the racial privilege attached to it have played and continue to play in universalizing white feminist concerns, agendas, and beliefs as being those of all feminism and of all feminists. You do not have to be white to be a white feminist. It is also perfectly possible to be white and feminist and not be a white feminist. The term describes a set of assumptions and behaviors which have been baked into mainstream Western feminism, rather than describing the racial identity of its subjects. At the same time, it is true that most white feminists are indeed white, and that whiteness itself is at the core of white feminism.

This definition makes it very clear that white feminism is about privileging whiteness over the concerns of women of color and that women of any color can be a white feminist—it is a political mindset that prioritizes the status quo of whiteness and the societal benefits that come from it over actually addressing and confronting the problems that persist as a result of white patriarchal dominance. Zakaria goes further:  “White feminists can attend civil rights marches, have Black, Asian, and Brown friends, and in some cases be Black, Asian, and Brown themselves, and yet be devoted to organizational structures or systems of knowledge that ensure that Black, Asian, and Brown women’s experiences, and so their needs and priorities, remain sidelined” (ix). This specific definition is crucial for readers to understand because it sets the scene for how Zakaria analyses and discusses how white feminism operates within the current moment.

The War on Terror is a prime example of how white feminism was one of the ideologies that was utilized to justify the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. This was largely in part due to the Taliban—which came into existence in the mid-nineties after Afghanistan had endured an occupation by the Soviet Union for over a decade and had just come out of a civil war—and white feminists’ sudden desire to liberate women from a country that had been utterly devastated by political violence. The US government established a handful of programs aimed at liberating Middle Eastern women, many of which involved training them to work in counterterrorism:

Millions of dollars were spent on counterterrorism training for women, including at least one elite all-female Yemeni counterterrorism unit and two programs, Sisters of Iraq and Daughters of Fallujah (designed to provide incriminating information on the Brothers of Iraq and the Sons of Fallujah, respectively). These programs were based on the premise that Brown women could be weaponized against the Brown men who were their family and friends—that their intrinsic identification with and loyalty to a Western definition of freedom and feminism would supersede their bonds to their communities.

These programs operate under a new name called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) which is an ironic name given the fact that the very same government that was supposedly liberating these women were bombing their villages and instituting their own form of rule. Zakaria states the fact that “some Americans could be bombing one village in the morning while other Americans inaugurated a school in another in the afternoon” and how this could not “pass unnoticed by Afghan women, on whom the interests and aspirations of white American feminists were inscribed.” White American feminists were very much for the invasion of Afghanistan. In 2002, they collectively sent an open letter to President Bush “asking him to ‘take emergency action to save the lives and secure the future of Afghan women.’” Here are the names of some of the women who signed the letter: “Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Virginia…other notable feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, Meryl Streep, and Susan Sarandon.” Additionally, “The National Organization of Women (NOW) put out statements in support of the war and its allegedly ‘feminist’ objectives. Everyone in the mainstream American and British establishment, including white feminist heroines like eventual Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, signed on wholeheartedly to the cause of fighting the War on Terror via any means that the military, the CIA, or the president thought necessary.” The fact of the matter is that these women who were in support of a patriarchal government asserting its dominance “via any means that the military, the CIA, or the president thought necessary” were supporting a US-bred form of extremism which was concerned with spreading democracy throughout the world. It makes no difference if the intent was “benevolent;” the methods of violently occupying a country in order to force a political ideology on its people (whether democratic or otherwise) is terroristic and antifeminist.

Not only did this extremist view of liberating Afghan women reshape feminism as an ethos for privileged female warmongers to justify their decisions about how the world should operate, it created a new type of feminism called securo-feminism which Zakaria discusses at length. This type of feminism makes the claim that since terrorism seeks to oppress women, women should fight terrorism. This line of thinking led to reshaping US policy in terms of how women could be incorporated into its war activities in an ideological way. White Western women now had a reason to support war because it could be utilized as a tool for women’s liberation throughout the world. However, the counterterrorism programs were meant to target Middle Eastern women and train them to do the dirty work of eradicating terrorism by turning on their own people and operating as spies—which is incredibly dangerous work. In this sense, white women could support war without having to get their own hands dirty or risk their own lives to fight terrorism. This also set up a very black-and-white dynamic between Western white women and women of color: “…if women were unwilling to accept the American assumption that most of their young men were terrorists, and to collaborate with American forces in interrogating, imprisoning, or killing them, then it must be assumed they were also against women’s empowerment. In this way, supporting America’s foreign-policy interests had become synonymous with feminism.” This meant that Middle Eastern women who chose not to fight Islamic terrorism, but instead, chose to stand by their communities in opposition to US terrorism were dismissed as antifeminist.

Another way in which the War on Terror affected Middle Eastern women negatively was through the capture of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. The CIA and the US military worked with a charity called Save the Children in order to set up a fake Hepatitis B vaccination program so they could gain access to bin Laden’s compound. Although the end result, which was the capture and killing of bin Laden, was realized, it came at a major cost. According to Zakaria:

The CIA managed to get their guy, but when the Pakistanis, irate at not having been told about the raid, expelled the U.S. military trainers from Islamabad, they were immediately threatened with a cut of the $800 million aid package that the U.S. had promised, thus exposing yet again the coercive power that aid wields. The loss of aid money was not, however, the worst impact of the tragedy. As the British medical journal The Lancet reported, the unintended victims of the tragedy were the millions of Pakistani children whose parents now refused to have them vaccinated amidst rising rates of polio, a disease that vaccination had essentially extinguished in Western countries by the mid-twentieth century. In their view, if the CIA could hire a doctor to run a fake vaccine program, then the whole premise of vaccinations became untrustworthy. Within a few years of the raid, Pakistan had 60 percent of all the world’s confirmed polio cases.

Having no concern for the consequences of implementing a fake vaccination program, the US government is directly responsible for the massive rise of polio cases in Pakistan as well as taking away $800 million that could have been utilized to aid the health issues of the Pakistani people. Unfortunately, the situation only worsened. Because the US government chose the health sector as a way to implement their plan to capture and kill bin Laden, a major health program run by Pakistani women called the Pakistani’s Lady Health Worker Program became vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Zakaria gives an overview of the health program:

Developed in 1994, the program trains Pakistani women in basic healthcare. In a country that is struggling to give its women a voice, the program represents a bold woman-centered step forward that has actually increased the availability of healthcare for millions of Pakistani women who would otherwise have none. The health workers go from house to house, covering both remote rural areas and overpopulated urban ones (both constituencies in desperate need of better healthcare provision), disbursing basic preventative and clinical care, including prenatal and postnatal support and, of course, vaccinations.

The Pakistani women who run this program are now continually targeted by Pakistani terrorist groups:

When vaccinations became suspect, so too did these health workers; their vans and convoys were attacked by terrorist groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which was running its own antivaccination/intimidation campaign. On November 26, 2014, four vaccinators were gunned down in Baluchistan, Pakistan. Earlier that same year a health worker named Salma Farooqi was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. The killings have continued, the latest occurring in April 2019, when women were shot at and one killed, finally leading to the suspension of Pakistan’s anti-polio vaccination drive.

Zakaria wonderfully points out that the women running the Pakistani’s Lady Health Worker Program are the true feminists due to the fact that they are not only a woman-centered group that has been serving their country’s health needs since the mid-nineties, they continue to do so even at great risk to their lives, whereas the white feminists who supported The War on Terror by any means necessary indirectly contributed to the terrorist attacks that threaten the lives of actual feminists: “The question that it poses is whether it is the lady health workers of Pakistan, meeting their community’s needs even under the threat of their own lives, or the torture-happy women of the CIA, who are the real feminist heroines of the bin Laden story.”

Another way that white feminism negatively affects the lives of women of color is through the Aid Industrial Complex, which consists of a variety of entities (governments, organizations, and philanthropists) who supposedly provide aid to Black and Brown women in order to empower them. One such significant example was a program called PROMOTE that the US Aid and International Development Agency (USAID) implemented after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. According to Zakaria: “Touted as ‘the world’s biggest program ever designed purely for female empowerment,’ PROMOTE was intended to help 75,000 Afghan women get jobs, internships, and promotions. They would be given training in conducting advocacy and encouraged to set up civil organizations, gaining the leadership skills necessary for Afghanistan’s bright new future.” However, the program, which costed $280 million dollars to run, was a complete and total failure:

…the metrics of evaluation were continually adjusted to make the program look like a success. In some cases, women who attended a single workshop on women’s leadership were counted as having benefited from the program, without any follow-up on how the training had helped their long-term prospects. Elsewhere, metrics of “deliverables” were lowered, such that only 20 women out of 3,000 receiving employment and leadership training would have had to find a job with the Afghan Civil Service for the job-training component of the program to be considered a success. But even that number was not “delivered.” In the end, the SIGAR [Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction] report noted, only 55 women could have been said to have benefited from the program, a far cry from the 75,000 target.

These are the types of programs white feminists supported when they joined forces with the US government to fight The War on Terror. Although PROMOTE continues to make the erroneous claim that it “directly benefited 50,000 Afghan women with the training and support they need to engage in advocacy for women’s issues, enter the work force and start their own businesses,” it did no such thing, which further encourages the lies white feminists tell themselves (that democracy equals liberation, that the US government is a benevolent force) as they continue to support governmental foreign policy programs that supposedly empower and uplift women of color. According to the New York Times report published in September 2018 that announced the failure of PROMOTE, out of the $280 million that was meant to directly aid Afghan women in their liberation, most of the funds were “allotted to administrative costs and payments to U.S. contractors.” Afghan women saw very little of the aid money that was meant to free them from oppression and terrorism.

However, the US government is not solely responsible for the catastrophic impact these types of programs have on women of color. The Aid Industrial Complex is a vast network of entities that pour large amounts of money into programs that don’t actually benefit women of color at all, and typically these programs are supported by white feminists who believe they know what’s best for oppressed women. Zakaria gives a good overview of how The Aid Industrial Complex operates:

The aid industrial complex is a massive part of the global economy, estimated to be worth more than $130 billion per annum. This is money that is funneled through to governments, aid agencies, transnational NGOs, and the thousands of people that work for them. The leadership of this massive system comprises mostly white and Western development professionals, charged with formulating the programs and policies of how aid will be disbursed. The image of the white Westerner as savior, then, is not only a pervasive stereotype, it is built into the organizational and policy-making architecture of the aid industrial complex.

Another program Zakaria describes in detail was started by the Gates Foundation in 2015 in cooperation with Heifer International which provided 100,000 chickens to women in impoverished countries, “estimating that a woman with five chickens could make $1,000 a year from selling the eggs, use the profits to buy more chickens, and hence grow her own business.” This program was also an immense failure and Zakaria explains why:

Yet even while Bill Gates was touting the program’s benefits, researchers had already pointed out that there was no evidence that chickens provided long-term economic advancement, let alone the empowerment of half of the population. In Mozambique, where the idea had already been tried out, researchers found that while women could make some money in the short term, they were unable to make the chickens a successful commercial venture because large chicken producers with their economies of scale were able to produce cheaper eggs. This meant the women could make at best $100 a year.

One of the major problems with programs like these is that they don’t take into account the political implications involved in the condition of women’s lives in these countries. They do not account for how patriarchal attitudes combined with capitalism are the actual perpetrators of women’s oppression. To be more specific:

…these sorts of allegedly empowering interventions conveniently delink the current condition of women from colonial histories, global capital expansion, transnational investment, and the continued exploitation of feminine labor. Women, it is assumed, are poor because of their culture or their lack of agency or even feminist consciousness, not ever because colonial plunder depleted resources or because current capitalist investment interests calculate their value based on the lowest wage they can be paid to make T-shirts or jeans.

Additionally, the problems of racism also contribute to the failure of these programs because they assume that women of color should be able to benefit from a one-size-fits-all solution, which is completely erroneous. Zakaria explains why:

Imagine: what if, in the poorest and urban parts of the United States, where surely “development” assistance is needed, white feminists created a blanket plan to foster gender equality and empowerment by giving every woman a chicken or a sewing machine or a microloan? It is amazing what you can get away with, in defiance of basic logic about how the modern world works, if you’re “helping Africa,” or other parts of the global south. White and Western women are seen as participants in complex modern societies; their problems cannot be solved with a single neat gift. Women of color are imagined as existing in a much simpler world, held back from success by very basic issues that have very basic solutions.

White feminism, which operates here as trickle-down feminism, assumes that these types of programs will do the simple work of bringing Black and Brown women into empowerment, that giving them a way to make money is the solution, rather than addressing the systemic forces at play that keep them in an oppressed state. This ensures that white feminists never have to actually confront the complexities of political oppression but instead continue to reinforce the narrative that all these entities that bring programs and aid are truly benevolent, democratic, and uplifting because they have the “resources” to empower women. It is not about resources; it is about condescending and racist attitudes toward women of color that perpetuate the belief that giving them chickens or giving them free training courses will do the trick of getting them out of poverty. If white feminists were presented with the same types of programs, they would be utterly insulted, but they fail to recognize how offering such paltry solutions to women who live in deplorable conditions is equally, if not more, insulting to them, because it is in utter denial of the realities of political oppression.

This is where it is important for readers to understand that the biggest issue white feminism faces is the fact that it is not aligned with the true aims of feminism, which is meant to uplift all women. True feminism should place the most oppressed women at the center of the conversation and actually deal with the entities that reinforce their oppressed condition: patriarchy, capitalism, and racism in particular. A really good example of how white feminists are completely out of sync with the actual feminist movement can be seen from the recent tragedy involving immigrant women detainees being given forced hysterectomies at the Irwin Correctional Facility in Ocilla, Georgia. “The procedures were allegedly performed outside the facility, at the nearby Irwin County Hospital, on immigrant women, many of them unable to speak any English, who did not authorize their surgeries with proper informed consent; rather, they were treated as if communication was unnecessary.” These forced hysterectomies were reported by a whistleblower in 2020 who notified the Department of Homeland Security, ICE, and the warden of the Irwin County Detention Center. Although an independent medical board investigated the issue and confirmed that the forced hysterectomies were happening, ICE “has set about deporting the women who have made complaints in an effort to delegitimize their claims. After all, if the women are not able to provide interviews and participate in the court process, ICE can proceed with their cover-up.” Interestingly enough, “According to a Columbia law professor working on the issue, the speed of deportations has increased following Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, and ICE is actively destroying evidence so that its illegal procedures are not questioned.” It is important to make note of the fact that after Trump was elected, it became the goal of white feminism to remove him from office due to his racist and sexist behavior and principles. However, when it comes to actually dismantling the programs that affect women of color in the worst ways, white feminism is nowhere to be found:

The story about forced hysterectomies at the Irwin County Detention Center broke the week before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg on September 18, 2020. While the death of the justice provoked debate among white feminists about the future of reproductive rights in the United States, almost none connected feminist organizing around reproductive rights to the forced hysterectomies allegedly being carried out at the behest of the American state on minority women in captivity. Amid all the discussion about bodily freedoms, the use of state power to prevent women of color from reproducing was somehow lost.

White feminism fails because it is not aligned with the actual needs of women, like the poor immigrant women detainees above who were violently forced to give up their reproductive rights. White feminism fails because it refuses to confront and fight the actual forces at play that harm, traumatize, and continue to oppress Black and Brown women. White feminism fails because it is out of touch with reality and preoccupied with its own privileged concerns.

Although Zakaria spends most of her time diagnosing and analyzing the problems of white feminism, she does give a few solutions: that white feminists recognize their role in perpetuating political violence and oppression on the very women they claim to want to liberate, that all traces of white superiority in feminism be removed (including throwing out any “important” figures and texts that are problematic), and to encourage women of color to uplift their own stories as a means to enact real change, to construct their own feminist genealogies and feminist canons in order to create a healthier, more functional type of feminism. However, the most important solution she puts forth is that fact that all feminists need to realize that it is not enough to place women of color in leadership roles, it is crucial to confront the political realities that rely on oppression to function so that the conditions of all women can change for the better.

Against White Feminism is an excellent book for readers who want to understand the actual issues feminism faces in the current moment. Feminism is overrun by white feminists with racist, privileged mindsets that make it difficult for the movement to make any serious headway in terms of liberating women from patriarchal and capitalistic forces that seek to dominate humanity on a global scale. This book provides a springboard for those who would like to take up feminism by showing them where to start (what problems still need to be tackled) and what not to do (behave with a privileged attitude). This book is not only a vital feminist text, it is enlightening in how it goes about showing how white feminism has always dominated the feminist movement and continues to do so with the aid of governments, philanthropists, and programs that refuse to address the actual issues of oppression. With many of the problems of white feminism exposed, this book can help readers achieve a new perspective on how to engage and/or participate in feminism that is inclusive and humanist so that actual work can start to take place that uplifts all women.

March 28, 2022