Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism begins with a story. She has been invited to a “warm and cheerful” Manhattan wine bar, but worries that the women she is with will find her “uptight” for ordering Diet Coke and declining to partake of their pitcher of sangria. The only woman of colour and the only Muslim at the table, Zakaria announces that she’s “on medications.” Smiling broadly, she assures the other women that ordinarily she’d love a drink.
What she tells the reader is different. She feels discomfort, she writes. The sangria order is, for her, “the first hurdle” of many.
When the bill comes, she is expected to pay an equal share. Nobody remembers that she only had a Diet Coke. Zakaria sees that as a slight. But is there a woman alive who hasn’t good-naturedly split the bill with her slightly plastered pals even though she herself only had a glass of water? Zakaria does not think so. She has dedicated a book to the ways in which white feminists discount and exclude non-western women.
By the end of the first page, Zakaria has cast the other women with her at the bar as well-meaning but insensitive. A “noted feminist author” in the group looks at her “mischievously” and asks “conspiratorially” what her story is—“as if I’ve been hiding some tantalizing mystery.” She lets the reader—but not her interlocutor—know that she hates this question, and believes an honest answer to be “glaringly inappropriate for the wine bar and my prettily dressed, slightly soused, fashionably woke companions.”
In fact, her story is tragically common. At seventeen, in Karachi, she agreed to an arranged marriage with an older man. He “allowed” her to go to college after they moved to the US, but clearly resented her education, wouldn’t let her go on to law school, and later became so abusive that she left for a women’s shelter with only her toddler and a bag of toys.
When, she claims, she has occasionally “told the whole truth” to educated white feminists, they have always reacted with serious, shocked looks and then quickly changed the subject or made a hurried departure. She diagnoses “an aversion to lived trauma” that “permeates white feminism.” But this type of reaction is not unique to white feminism. What Zakaria accurately records is a flawed but frequent human response to tragedy that will be familiar to anyone who has lost a family member. How many well-meaning friends, learning of my husband’s death, clutched my arm, burst into tears and needed me to comfort them? How many, with round scared eyes, said, “You know, we could cry together”? How many simply stared, frozen, so identified with my grief they couldn’t speak? I lost track. It’s not easy for friends to stay calm and say, “Sorry for your loss.” The more they care about you, the more your friends are liable to say the wrong thing.
This is a scholarly book. By page 9, Zakaria is quoting Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s opinions of Europeans, talking about their assumptions about the “other,” describing narratives of “white men saving brown women.” Yet she herself regards the women with whom she went to the wine bar as “other”—but assumes that she knows them.
While Spivak explores “the ways in which colonial populations … are unable in any sense to ‘speak,’” Zakaria is “interested in examining how women of color today are given some chances to speak, but are still not heard.” But Zakaria’s encounter at the wine bar reveals not the other women’s unwillingness to listen but her own unwillingness to speak. She experiences their friendly questions as barbed because she has decided in advance that they will never understand her. She feels her “rising anger” at “having to ‘keep it light’ and accommodate the expectations of people unfamiliar with all the things that can and do go wrong for women like me.” Her anger grows even as she says “breezily” that she married young and that he was “a jerk,” rolling her eyes as she reports that she divorced him and never looked back. When the other women respond with “good for you,” she feels patronized. She assumes that they could never have handled the full story, and blames them for the performance she herself chose to put on, the mistrust that is all her own. She justifies her behaviour by citing Spivak, whose theoretical framework “undergirds much of this book.” Zakaria assumes from the start that the women at the wine bar will never understand her—and that, even if they do, they will simply want to be white saviours.
Her first chapter, entitled, “In the Beginning, There Were White Women,” criticizes the feminist playwright Eve Ensler, of Vagina Monologues fame. Ensler’s sin? In a 2007 article for Glamour, on rape in the Congo, Ensler asks “How do I convey these stories?” Zakaria interprets this as the writer focusing “the attention on herself” and setting herself up as a “white savior,” who presumes to speak for non-white women instead of letting them speak for themselves. By calling attention to their plight, Ensler is simply “virtue signalling.”
In Chapter Two, “Is Solidarity a Lie?” Zakaria complains about a time when she was invited to give a “small talk” at an informal college event. She felt slighted because the white woman organizing the event chided her for arriving late and was disappointed that she was “not in your native clothes” (which—if true—is indeed a tacky comment). The event turned out to be a “free wine” affair, in a hall filled with small tables, each devoted to a different developing country. Attendees drifted from one table to another. Zakaria got her own Pakistan table—but she didn’t get to go up to the podium and deliver her prepared speech.
This must have been very frustrating. But many of us academics have experienced similar bait-and-switches: organizers say they want a prepared speech, but when you get there you’re just expected to chat, eat olives and drink rotgut wine. Nobody is interested in the talk you so carefully prepared; you leave wishing you’d stayed at home with Netflix. But for Zakaria it was traumatic. She recalls sitting in her car weeping and “can still feel the burning shame” she felt that day.
Zakaria defines a white feminist as “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 those of all of feminism and all feminists,” citing as examples Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett and Betty Friedan, who, Zakaria argues, were instrumental in “establishing the white woman as the woman—the universal subject of feminism.”
But Zakaria seems to be confusing western political and social values with white people. For all de Beauvoir’s insights into existential philosophy, de Beauvoir, Zakaria claims, was blind to the concerns of women of colour. She asserts that de Beauvoir’s “belief in Western cultural supremacy and the essentialization of the white woman as the model for all women became baked into the very epistemology of feminism” and that her successors Friedan and Millett understand women to be “[white] women like her.” But de Beauvoir is interested in the universal category of women, which encompasses women of all ethnicities:
Economically, men and women almost form two castes … the former have better jobs, higher wages, and greater chances to succeed … they occupy many more places in industry, in politics, and so forth, and they hold the most important positions. In addition to their concrete power, they are invested with a prestige whose tradition is reinforced by the child’s whole education: the present incorporates the past, and in the past all history was made by males. [Emphasis mine.]
For de Beauvoir, women are a class, like the proletariat, but one with even deeper historical roots:
There have not always been proletarians: there have always been women; they are women by their physiological structure; as far back as history can be traced, they have always been subordinate to men.
Her focus throughout The Second Sex is on the experiences that all women have in common, by virtue of their shared biology and history of oppression. This takes different forms in different regions of the world and at different times, but shares the same origin in the subordination of one sex to the other.
Zakaria is disturbed by de Beauvoir’s “thoughtless reiterations” of stereotypes about the Orient which de Beauvoir describes as “separate, eccentric, backward, silently indifferent, femininely penetrable.” Alluding to de Beauvoir’s characterization of the history of women in India and China as a “long and unchanging slavery,” Zakaria asks, “Was she not aware that, two years prior to her book’s publication, Indian women had managed to overthrow the British Empire and won the franchise?” But although Indian women did indeed obtain the right to vote in 1947, fewer than 3% of them actually voted.
Other oppressive practices also persisted. Individual cases of sati happened as late as 2008. In China, the practice of foot-binding, though outlawed in 1912, was still occurring the year that de Beauvoir’s book appeared; in rural Chinese villages the practice did not end until the 1950s. A few women with bound feet were still alive in 2016. There was indeed, then—and still is—a tradition of brutality against women in many non-western cultures.
Zakaria rightly points out some policy failures on the part of western feminists working for charities in developing countries—though she is wrong to attribute these to racism. In her third chapter, “The White Savior Industrial Complex and the Ungrateful Brown Feminist,” she relates that would-be do-gooders in India—among them “development professionals, NGOs, and the United Nations”—launched a scheme to eradicate wood-burning stoves and replace them with environmentally friendlier options, such as electrical or gas stoves. “But no one asked the women who did the cooking whether they wanted the new stoves,” Zakaria points out. In fact, the Indian women did not want them, partly because wood-gathering provided them with opportunities to socialise and because they found it difficult to cook certain favourite recipes using the new ovens. (Similar instances are cited in Zakaria’s sixth chapter, “Honour Killings, FGC and White Feminist Supremacy.”) But this isn’t a white saviour problem—it’s a communication problem.
A sense of victimization dominates Zakaria’s book, although, curiously, when she discusses girls subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), she seems to want to minimize the extent of this horrifying practice. Zakaria is right that, in the west, “anyone trying to introduce the complexities of the issue into the debate is discredited as a secret supporter of the practice.” This is clearly illogical. “A small nick or cut for cultural or religious rituals,” while also to be firmly condemned is “not wildly distinct from the traditional practice of a bris for male Jewish infants.” The most common form of FGM, which involves making a small pinprick or nick in the clitoral hood, is less invasive than male circumcision and not, as Zakaria rightly points out, “the moral equivalent of full clitoridectomies.” But she is wrong to insist that only a “tiny percentage” of Arab and African women undergo infant genital cutting. In November 2019, Reuters reported that one in five women aged 15–49 in Kenya had undergone FGM and according to the 2020 Somali Health and Demographic Survey, 99% of women under age 49 in Somalia have been subjected to FGM—most of them at between ages five and nine. In February 2021, the UN Women’s Report revealed that 92% of those Egyptian women aged 15–49 who were or had been married had undergone FGM.
Zakaria is right to suggest that the most lasting cultural changes usually come from within communities, rather than being imposed from outside. Yet the history of sati suggests that this is not always the case. Zakaria argues that, in 1829, when the British criminalised the practice, it was “rare in India … Large parts of the country did not practice the barbaric ritual at all.” But some contemporary estimates put the total number of cases at between 10,000 and 100,000. The scholar Syed Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi that there were around 33,000 incidents in 1810. There was even the high-profile case of Roop Kanwar in 1987, which led the Indian government to enact a new law against the practice.
Zakaria views domestic violence in the west and honour killings in the developing world as comparable:
Honour and ego, no one seems to have noticed, are iterations of the same forces of patriarchal dominance. ‘Honour’ makes sense to those in a collectivist society; ‘ego’ to those who live in an individualistic one.
But there is a significant difference between the contexts in which these two kinds of violence occur. In the west, domestic violence is considered a violation of a woman’s rights and is punishable by law. In many countries in which honour killings occur, they are sanctioned by family, tribe and community and the wishes and rights of individual women are considered irrelevant. Western law may fail to protect women from domestic violence—but in many societies in which honour killings occur, there is not even a credible attempt to prevent these crimes.
Women in such societies who make choices that would be legally protected in the west—to go to college or choose a romantic partner, for instance—may be injured or killed. Zakaria asserts that the definition of honour killing given by Human Rights Watch—“acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members who are perceived to have brought dishonour upon the family”—makes the “implicit white assumption” that such killings are specific to people of colour. But this ignores the fact that these are differences not of skin colour but of political and cultural expectations.
In her conclusion, “On Fear and Futures,” Zakaria expresses “foreboding” about separating women into “white women and women of color.” She is concerned, she writes, that white women might read her words as a personal attack. This white reviewer doesn’t. Many of Zakaria’s vividly told anecdotes ring true. But she is wrong to blame white feminism for much of the oppression women of colour suffer—instead of the oppressive political and cultural beliefs and practices of the societies they come from. She is right that women in the west are not always guaranteed fair treatment either. But the culprit is not whiteness nor are white feminists to blame.