How Western Feminism Imposed Itself on the World

First Lady Laura Bush is greeted by girls from the Aschiana School upon her arrival at Kabul University in Kabul on March 30, 2005. Photo: Luke Frazza/AFP via Getty Images

Western mainstream feminism has always elevated white women’s experiences to offer us the road map for equality — even at the cost of ignoring the needs and aspirations of Black and brown women everywhere. In other words, white feminism has been the dominant force for too long, and it’s time we dismantle it, argues civil rights attorney Rafia Zakaria in her new book Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption.

White feminism as a worldview speaks to a set of entrenched assumptions and behaviors that center whiteness and see western values as superior. This universalization of white feminists’ concerns as being those of all feminists has been successfully exported globally, and the consequences have been particularly devastating for women of color around the world — from the daily humiliations that come from tokenistic corporate initiatives in the U.S. to white-savior programs in the Global South that go nowhere.

This is the reality Zakaria is asking us to confront. Through historical and contemporary examples, Against White Feminism deconstructs how, through white feminists’ pursuit of equality, they have also been active participants in advancing white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism. “What has been holding feminism back is the fact we’re not willing to look within ourselves,” Zakaria said. “And how can we demand justice from the larger world if we are not willing to be just within our movement?”

The Cut spoke with Zakaria about the history of white feminism, why it was instrumental in advancing the war in Afghanistan, and what she hopes readers will take away from this book.

What is white feminism?

From the very first page of the book, I felt it was necessary to point out that when I talk about white feminism, I don’t mean it as a racial description, as in any white woman who’s also a feminist. Instead, I mean very particularly white women who are feminists, but who do not want to confront the fact that white racial privilege has infected feminism as we find it today. Essentially, it’s a white woman who could even purport to be an intersectional feminist, who could say all the right things, but who, in practice, is not willing to cede space to women of color. You also can be brown or Black and still be a white feminist, in that you can still be supporting the larger systemic architecture of racism.

The concept of white feminism is one a lot of us have been aware of for a long time, but it’s only recently that it exploded into the mainstream public discourse. For the past year, we’ve debated the way so-called “Karens” weaponize white womanhood and the downfall of girlbosses. Your book is not even the only book that’s come out this year exploring the subject. What do you think changed?

At the beginning of 2019, a book like this just wouldn’t have been published. It was taboo to talk about race within feminism. The kind of pressure from white feminists was so that anybody who wants to talk about race within feminism is automatically against feminist solidarity. The feminist conversation was riddled with holes and obstacles because you weren’t willing to own the elephant in the room. The police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, as well as the pandemic, led to a time when people were in a place where they had stepped back from their usual life and were taking stock of what was happening.

If you are committed to feminism, you need to hold tight and not let go, so the discussion continues. What has been holding feminism back is the fact we’re not willing to look within ourselves. And how can we demand justice from the larger world if we are not willing to be just within our movement?

In my own experience as a journalist, I’ve been in spaces full of presumably well-meaning, liberal white women who identify themselves as feminists. But when I’ve pointed out the limits of their understanding of issues impacting communities of color, well, I’ve seen the white fragility in action. Have you experienced this backlash as well?

I’ve been there. This was my experience when I was on the board of a very large human-rights organization that was very committed to gender equality. If I brought up the particular experience of Muslim women post-9/11, during the war on terror, it was, again, like, “Oh, here she goes.” Until very recently, I did not have the vocabulary to describe the mechanisms through which this happens. You said well-meaning liberal white women. The problem is the well-meaning liberal white women are not malicious in their individual actions. But there’s also no tabulation of the cost of their good intentions, the cost they impose on other women, the space they take up, and the paternalism of the way they want to essentially keep the white feminist savior role for themselves. That looks like a program run in communities of color, but whose board doesn’t have a single person who is of color. That happens all the time, and has a cost. It means money is wasted. It means trust is eviscerated. You have to look critically at the cost of white feminist good intentions.

Throughout the book you trace that cost, going all the way back to the British colonial era, and you show how a lot of the behaviors we see today have deep roots in the past. For example, you write about how British feminists centered themselves when talking about suffrage movements in the Middle East and South Asia, in a way that is very similar to white female journalists in war zones more than a century later. Why do these patterns get repeated?

The reason is that the purpose for which white feminism is being deployed is the same. In the colonial case, they needed a moral argument to justify the plunder and marauding that various colonial powers were doing all over the world. There’s this idea that sending women out to do these little projects where they set up a school, or run a health-care clinic as nurses, would be a moral cover for the fact we’re taking all these people’s resources. We’re not paying them, we’re occupying their land, and we’re setting them up for these sorts of economies that rely on dependency.

And then you had these insane characters, like Gertrude Bell, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Bell goes out to explore the Middle East, high on her white privilege. She gets all the deference and all the privileged treatment. She goes around saying, “I’m a person in this world.” And she is, because she isn’t at home in the U.K. White privilege in these colonies counts for a lot more. She’s able to go out, do archeology. She can take 50 percent of whatever is found on a dig and bring it back as personal property. Back then you had this definition of white women as a means to show what a woman should be — as the ideal woman, the brave woman, the ministering woman.

It persists today. Colonialism has repeated these patterns in Afghanistan, Iraq, all over the world, really. And today it’s still similar to historical, colonial women going out there without knowing anything about the culture or what their purpose is going to be — just going out there because they can. That’s still very much the entrenched status quo.

Speaking of Afghanistan, you dedicate a chapter to white feminism and the war on terror. Tell me about what we’re seeing today and why you called it “the first feminist war.”

It’s the first war specifically undertaken, in the words of Laura Bush, to “liberate Afghan women.” In the 1990s, the Feminist Majority Foundation had a campaign called “The Coalition to End Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan.” At the time, all these big Hollywood mavens found out about it and the campaign took off. Now in 2001, 9/11 happened and the U.S. is looking around for a country to invade because they want this big show of power. They can’t attack Saudi Arabia, which is where the majority of the hijackers were from, but they see Feminist Majority has been running this campaign. And of course it is true the Afghans allowed Osama bin Laden to take refuge there. What they do is call the Feminist Majority leadership and start talking about this issue of Afghan women to the point that when Colin Powell announced the invasion of Afghanistan, the Feminist Majority leaders were present there.

They, along with other prominent feminists such as Gloria Steinem, said they supported the invasion to the extent that this was going to make Afghanistan a democracy and save Afghan women. For the first time, there was direct contact between these top feminists and the war machinery. I think white women really bought wholesale into this idea. It marked a huge and momentous turn in white feminism. During the Vietnam War, for instance, all these same women opposed war, but now that force became kind of an arm of the government, right?

In the book, you cite Lila Abu-Lughod’s theory that this was the beginning of “securofeminism.”

Yes. Essentially the strategic interests of the United States in the war on terror were aligned with the campaigns that international women’s rights organizations were running against terrorism. They both combined to create the securofeminist — a creature where now suddenly white feminist power was not protesting against the state and unjust wars, but it’s rather going down to Baghdad and torturing brown men. That became the image of a strong woman: You were part of the military machinery or the CIA, and you were willing to do what it takes. And what it takes meant waterboarding people and torturing them.

That development has been a development of our time, and it will take a lot of vigilance to undo it. It has seeped into the worldview the U.S. has.

You are pretty explicit about the ways in which white women are instrumental in advancing this narrative. I was pretty young when the war began. Something that has stuck out to me was this idea of, “Well, American women are free, so we should go and liberate all these Afghan women,” which means there was no recognition of the ways in which women of color, immigrant women, poor women, queer women were oppressed then and now at home. It’s very jarring.

It’s extremely jarring. The same technologies of white supremacy are being deployed in both places. But it’s also true that it is a kind of disciplining of Black and brown women at home. The message is, Shut up about your problems because out there it’s a lot crueler than in the United States. Issues like honor killing and female genital cutting — we think those sorts of crimes are particularly attached to a culture.

If you hear of an honor killing happening in Syria or somewhere else, it’s framed as this idea that their culture is so bad, it’s so inherently un-feminist. When a femicide happens here at home, it’s supposed to be an aberration. That’s just an unusual, bad thing that happened. The whole reason that categorization is different is to entrap Black and brown women in the denialism that femicide is not happening here in the United States.

Yes, but here in the U.S., about three women are killed by their intimate partners every day. You have cases like that of Chris Watts, who confessed to killing his pregnant wife Shanann and their two young daughters a few years ago. He had been having an affair, and when he told Shanann he wanted to end their marriage, she responded that he would never see the girls again. So, he killed all of them. I mean, what’s the difference between that and the brutality of honor killings? There is no difference.

There isn’t, that’s exactly right. It’s no different, it’s the male ego that is at the center of this violence. You’re just calling it honor over there and an ego over here, but really, it’s all the male ego. This kind of hierarchy is maintained so the white and western world can maintain a moral supremacy over everybody else. It’s so white feminists can maintain their positions as feminists-in-chief for the whole world, because look, they have been able to free their society and there aren’t things like honor killings! Whereas those brown feminists in other places, their feminism is so weak and useless, because honor killings are still happening.

Your last two chapters are a plea to reimagine what feminism should be, and to really dismantle all the ways in which whiteness has held us back. What do you hope people will take away from the book?

I hope it gives them a kind of framework with which to look at the world around them. If you read this book, you will see hundreds of examples of this all around you. The complicity of white feminists with whiteness will become very obvious to you. I’m not letting myself off the hook, either. I think we all need to examine our nation, our racial privilege, and how it exists in different formats.

Feminism has been reduced to a brand. What I wanted to do is to make feminism a movement again. I could not do that without asking everybody to confront the issue of race within feminism. I suspect there are a lot of women, many white, who also feel feminism has been reduced to a brand and they’re more interested in feminism as a political struggle. We are constantly confronted by the patriarchy, the crimes against women, incel violence. It’s sickening and overwhelming. Pick up any feminist textbook in the United States and it’s going to talk about the waves of feminism, which are all centered around white women, their achievements, and this idea that they were the first one to figure out liberation. That’s absolutely false. The mainstream definition is wrong. If we are starting from that point, how can we then come to something that is just and egalitarian?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How Western Feminism Imposed Itself on the World