Rafia Zakaria: “A lot of white teachers told me to stop” | Company books

RAfia Zakaria’s new book Against white feminism starts with a kind of Gender and the city scene titled “In a wine bar, a group of feminists …” In this one, well-heeled white women gather for a drink in New York. The only dark-haired woman present, Zakaria grimaces and withers under the glare of their innocent questions, as she tries to avoid the answers she tends to get when she tells her true story – those of pity, discomfort and avoidance.

Zakaria was born in Pakistan and at the age of 17 he accepted an arranged marriage with a Pakistani living in the United States. “I had never known freedom, so I gladly gave it up,” she writes. The marriage was unhappy and she left her abusive husband at the age of 25, seeking refuge in a shelter with her toddler. What followed were years of precariousness in the United States.

She tells me, from her home in Indiana, that she wrote the book because “I’m a brunette Muslim from Pakistan, and the assumption when I meet people in the West is that all the oppression that I ever suffered, all the hardships I faced, were back in Pakistan and were a consequence of cultural mores and beliefs. With Against white feminism, she wanted to question this “liberation trajectory” in the history of Muslim women, so that women who live in the West stop thinking “Oh it’s so bad over there -” it must be “so good here “.

In writing the book, Zakaria hopes to decenter white feminism or at least draw attention to the fact that this is a model that does not work for everyone as it is limited in its usefulness by the white supremacy. “A white feminist,” writes Zakaria, “is someone who refuses to consider the role that whiteness and the racial privilege attached to it have played in the universalization of the concerns, agendas and beliefs of white feminists as those of all feminism and all feminists. . “

In the book, Zakaria describes how a unique white feminism has been complicit in the interventionist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, destroying indigenous aid and empowerment structures in low-income countries, and denying the cultural backwardness of societies. Western policies vis-à-vis women’s rights.

His “trauma” is at the heart of his motivations for writing the book. In 2002, when she ran away from her husband with “a baby on her hip,” she had no money, no bank account, or no credit card. She only managed to leave sheltered accommodation when a black woman “picked her up” and offered her an apartment. It was the first time she could “breathe out,” she said. “I had been running for so long. After a few difficult years, she managed to complete her law studies and earn a postgraduate degree in political philosophy. At one point, a stranger paid for her groceries at the supermarket when her daughter brought an unbudgeted bag of popsicles to the checkout. “That moment when I don’t have enough money to pay for your food is really etched in my memory. I felt so much shame, so much absolute disappointment in myself because I had to take charity to feed myself. and feed my child The graduate school, with its subsidized daycare centers and flexible hours, was a safe haven, a place where Zakaria could be “poor and smart”.

“In the case of Afghanistan, the idea was widely held that it was America that brought feminism to Afghan women and freed them from the Taliban.” Photograph: Aref Karimi / AFP / Getty Images

The white women she met along the way, all with seemingly impeccable liberal and feminist credentials, didn’t do much to help him. In law school, “a lot of white professors told me to stop.” When she felt that she had finally found her place in the NGO world, white women “obstructed” and sabotaged her “in any way possible” from doing her job. “Every time I wrote a report there were 10 people tearing it up, telling me I was wrong and failing and I didn’t know this and I didn’t know that. I would come up with a resolution or an idea and there would be a discussion and none of the white women would support me. Basically it was a trap, I was doomed to fail. So you can tell the story that we gave to this or that job and we’re so inclusive, but she decided she didn’t want to do it. Zakaria is gentle and almost academic in her speech, but her tone is sharpened when she lists these slights and humiliations, as she does when she recounts other incidents that have made her feel like some kind of showcase for her. ‘a brunette woman for the benefit of a white audience. “I was never allowed to speak or trapped.”

One of the problems with white feminism according to Zakaria is that it is still linked to patriarchy through the power pool of white men. “This shared culture can be exploited and augmented by ideas such as ‘lean in’ [Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 bestselling book advocated a can-do brand of feminist self-empowerment] that underpin the white feminists you might meet at Google. This model of feminism has “gone far and shattered the ceilings, I won’t lie,” she said. But once white feminists are successful, they amass the booty. “If white men have greeted you in the executive suite, the way you protect your position there is to continue to please the white men. “

What about women of color who reach the top, keep quiet and are therefore also accomplices? “There are many advantages to being the symbolic woman of color. There are doors opening for you, things for you that aren’t available to a brunette feminist like me, because I’m going to ask questions and I’m not going to accept them. But she sees these women as co-opted out of necessity, rather than conscious agreement and shared interest. “I have sympathy for them; for hundreds of years, this was the only way to come close to power. “

Zakaria’s sharpest criticism of white feminism is reserved for white female journalists. “There’s a certain arc that editors want,” she says, which these reporters deliver. “In the case of Afghanistan, the idea was widely held that it was America that brought feminism to Afghan women” and “freed them from the Taliban.” There are colonial precedents for sending women reporters there. These white women are sent as emblems – our women are brave and they take photos and write stories and share your story with the world. But the assumption is that there is no one in Afghanistan who can write in English and tell the stories of Afghanistan to the world.

When it comes to her native Pakistan, a country white feminists believe has been saved, Zakaria has little time for their concerns. When Prime Minister Imran Khan was questioned by PBS’s Judy Woodruff earlier this year over comments he made that appeared to blame women for incidents of rape in Pakistan, Zakaria saw the episode as a manifestation of “a heritage of cultural classification that no one has really taken the trouble to dismantle. This cultural classification says that cultural crimes occur in these places and that this kind of cultural crime does not exist in other places. West. There is no particular British form of violence against women, it is just violence against women.

With his book, Zakaria hopes to console the rebuked and rebuke the comforters. “I don’t think white women are really aware of the embarrassment other women feel, how much they have to edit themselves, how fed up they are.” While she has some hope that white feminists will listen to her advice on how to cede space and examine their biases, she says the real purpose of her work is to comfort women of color who have been “Illuminated”.

“I struggled a lot. I came from a trauma, I entered a trauma. I feel a very strong sense of responsibility towards other women like me who have experienced traumatic marriages, migrations, being a single mother. Women like me never really do it. The odds are so against someone with my background, my racial background, my economic background, to be in the conversation at all. And so ever since I’ve somehow crept into the conversation, I feel a responsibility to other women who are just as smart as I am, just as articulate. Now that I’m here I’m going to say all of these things. I believe you can tear things down when they don’t work and rebuild them. It’s one of my core beliefs, because I did.

Against White Feminism is published by Hamish Hamilton (£ 14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, purchase a copy for £ 13.04 at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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