Against White Feminism
by Rafia Zakaria (Hamish Hamilton £14.99)
Sunday Times, 12 September 2021
For some time now it has been open season on feminism. It is part of a wider current, driven by identity politics and a willingness to demonise anyone who disagrees. Into this heated atmosphere comes Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria, a lawyer and columnist born in Pakistan but now living in the US.
“White feminism” as a derogatory term, caricaturing it as a movement that imposes its preoccupations on women who are not white or middle class, has been around for a while. People claim it is reflective more of a state of mind than skin colour; even Pragna Patel, a founding member of Southall Black Sisters, has been accused of being a “white feminist”.
However, Zakaria goes for the jugular. Building bridges is definitely not what this book is about, and everywhere she finds feminists who accept “the benefits conferred by white supremacy at the expense of people of colour”. Defining people in terms they would not recognise or accept is a key ploy of identity politics, and feminists are lumped together and traduced throughout.
In Zakaria’s sketchy account, the baddies include the suffragettes, although I
am not convinced that Mary Clarke, who died after being force-fed in prison, benefited from what Zakaria describes as “racial superiority”. She is not a generous interpreter of feminism’s founding texts, wondering whether authors such as Simone de Beauvoir, whom she accuses of “underpinnings of white privilege”, should be “eliminated from the story of feminism altogether”.
The book’s most serious flaw lies in its singularly ill-informed account of modern feminism. If the movement has a single unifying feature it is an analysis of the way oppression of women is linked to female bodies, regardless of race, class, age, religion or sexual orientation. Yet this is precisely what Zakaria denies: “An aversion to acknowledging lived trauma permeates white feminism, which in turn produces a discomfort and alienation from women who have experienced it.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. In this country refuges for victims of domestic and sexual violence were built by feminists who insisted they should be open to all women. But then Zakaria makes the equally bizarre claim that “there is an assumption that the really strong women — the ‘real’ feminists, reared by other white feminists — do not end up in abusive situations.” The experience of abuse is what brings many women to feminism — and brings us together.
Identity politics is rife with such facile judgments, designed to make its advocates feel superior. Zakaria appears to have missed the irony of dismissing every species of feminism but her own in the name of a supposedly more egalitarian politics. But when I see feminists being pitted against each other in this mean-spirited way, I can almost hear the patriarchy laughing.