I’m not white. Applied to me, non-white is a meaningless descriptor, but it’s also a very obvious one. My complexion makes it difficult for this fact to go unnoticed, especially in my home country of Sweden, where I stand out quite a bit. So, I was a bit shocked when I was called a white feminist—by a white feminist.
The term white feminism is used to describe feminism that focuses on the struggles of white women and ignores other forms of oppression faced by non-white women. It is the opposite of intersectional feminism, which, at its best, is an acknowledgment that different women have different struggles, and, at its worst, a form of victim Olympics. But, since I was the only non-white person in the room, the irony of calling me a white feminist soon dawned on my accuser and she tried to explain: you know, you’re a liberal feminist.
I sport the term liberal feminist with pride and, for me, it has nothing to do with white feminism. My liberal perspective on gender equality is intersectional: i.e. I acknowledge that women in different cultures face different challenges in the struggle for female liberation. My work against honour culture, religious oppression and patriarchal rhetoric is the opposite of white feminism. The exchange with my accuser reveals how badly many western university students understand both international women’s struggles and the western world’s role in them.
Feminism is important to me because I grew up in a patriarchal Arab environment. Throughout my life, those closest to me have made it clear that—while I can study and work—my end goal should be to become a wife and bear children. While the rest of Swedish society disagrees with this mind-set, the segregated area in which I grew up strongly reflects this norm. When we visited relatives, the women would be stuck in the kitchen working, while the men ate. It was always made clear that it is the man’s job to provide and that everything a woman earns is secondary to that. And many of my female friends and classmates also had to endure religious oppression and honour culture. In my life, it’s always been provocative and controversial to refuse gender norms and openly criticize honour culture and religious oppression and such a stance has met with clear social sanctions.
But my situation is better than that of most people in the world right now. I live in one of the most egalitarian countries on Earth. I can therefore see how much better the situation of western women is than that of eastern woman—thanks to liberalism. Whenever I see a Western woman fight against injustices that could be considered trivialities in the east, I feel pride. It shows how far they have come in their battle for equality. Equality is a constant struggle: if we were to stop fighting for it, it would be taken away from us. That is a lesson I have learned from the history of countries like Iran. That is why I consider my feminism to be intersectional—even though western feminists often tell me I’m mistaken about how to liberate eastern women.
To me, arranged marriages are wrong, no matter what culture they are part of. Female genital mutilation is wrong, no matter where it occurs. Strict gender roles are wrong, no matter what culture they are part of. But, to many, this mind-set makes me a white feminist. My strict interpretation of equality strikes many as Eurocentric. They forget that women from many different places and many ethnic groups are fighting for their freedoms. They forget that, in Eastern Europe, basic female rights, such as access to safe abortion, are under threat. I, as a non-white woman, am still much more privileged than many white women in the same continent as me. The pejorative term white feminist destroys any real conversation about diversity in feminism.
My issue is not that a white woman said this to me. Anyone of any skin colour who lives in the west—including me—has access to a degree of equality of which many other women cannot even dream. The issue is that the term implies that feminism is about race and that liberalism is a western invention that shouldn’t be adopted by other cultures.
Those who use the term white feminist demonstrate that they are not intersectional, since the differences in women’s experiences are due not to race, but to their economic and social situations. A woman of Asian or African descent can have just as privileged a view of equality as a so-called white woman. A poor white woman might face many of the challenges usually faced by minorities. And, as the world has shown time and time again, economic and social rights are not dependent on the presence of white people, but on liberal values.
Liberal feminism takes an unapologetic stand in favour of women’s liberation. It acknowledges that different parts of the world will reach that goal differently, but that the end goal is the same. Arranged marriage, honour culture and religious oppression were not feminist in the west during the middle ages, and they are not feminist in the rest of the world now.
Political terms should provide a way to explain your position as honestly as possible, but recently there has been a shift towards using such terms as pejoratives, rendering them useless for communication. This is also true of terms like social justice warrior, which is often taken to mean crazy woman; liberal, which is often misunderstood as socialist and white male, which is used to mean a very privileged person. But, until this trend reverses, I will be a proud non-white white feminist.