Universality is a tricky concept and a slippery slope, especially when there are hierarchies in place that establish the very same status quo that is essential to dismantle. Author Rafia Zakaria pens down ‘Against White Feminism: Notes On Disruption,’ to create a two-fold layer of comprehension around the same, and she does so in a way that does not hold back, despite its methodical, research-based approach.
First and foremost, Zakaria emphasises upon cultural contextualisation when it comes to global movements like feminism, stressing upon a need for inclusion, not just on the terms of the self-proclaimed faces of the movement that are in the spotlight, but also on the terms of all those the movement wishes to impact. Secondly, she adopts a no-nonsense tone to address how white feminism is not only exclusionary, but also performative in many ways, with a lack of a greater, long-term vision and goal.
Conversing about feminism in Pakistan often feels like asking a die-hard Harry Potter fan to begin worshipping Voldemort at the drop of a hat. Widely misunderstood, and almost always misrepresented, the basic tenets of feminism call for equality amongst all, abolishing the pillars of the patriarchal structures largely at play. In Pakistan, the term itself may be new, but the struggle has existed for a long time, most notably prevalent during General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, where activists took to the streets, bore lashings, and raised their voices against innumerable injustices that continue to plague the nation till date.
Yet, when feminism is discussed in a local context, it is written off as a malicious Western scheme that aims to destroy our culture. By and large, there is little merit to these arguments, considering that the idea of Pakistani culture itself is vague, tainted by its colonial past, and colored by interpretations of religion. However, Zakaria offers insights in her book as to how one can navigate through these allegations, by utilizing the key facets of feminism in a Pakistani context.
A brilliant example of the same is the idea of female liberation in a white feminist context – the birth of the ‘Cosmo Girl,’ as Zakaria puts it. The ‘Cosmo Girl’ embodies many values that would, perhaps, even send reverberations of shock down the spine of an orthodox Western world that is easing into the idea of empowerment. These values are not necessarily ‘wrong,’ given that morality is subjective, and not the issue at hand.
However, Zakaria believes that empowerment is political, as opposed to being commercial, and much of mainstream liberation seeks to fire the flames of capitalism to create a target audience of consumers to whom feminism can be sold. It is this selling of a struggle that becomes the bone of contention, as it caters to a particular profile of women, packaging feminism as a catchy, marketable brand, instead of it being viewed and fathomed as a lived experience. In doing so, inclusivity, and the politicization of feminism for the better take a back seat, and while this advertised feminism is palatable, ‘fun,’ and easy to generate revenue from, it cannot, and should not, double as a universal framework in developing, colonized, or politico-religious systems.
The lack of intersectionality in white feminism thus becomes a marked red flag, where feminists of color are often utilised as tokens – and their contributions overlooked or uncredited – to further the same white-feminist cause, without taking into account any other perspective or context. It is this white feminism that leads to an alarming saviour complex, where ‘poor, destitute, downtrodden’ women lower on the constructed hierarchy must be saved – but only on the terms of white feminists who have little to no understanding of their plight, and offer misguided, often insulting solutions, from a lens that is detached and classist.
Zakaria also highlights the absence of a female-centric goal at the end of the tunnel that is white feminism. She points out how the epitome of white feminism is the embodiment of qualities that would otherwise be seen in a man. Adopting ‘masculine’ traits like aggression, to ‘be the man’ within one’s positionality is posited as a problem in and of itself, given that this further plays into the notion of patriarchy, recruiting women within the very structure against which they aim to rebel. The journey to becoming a ‘girl boss’ doubles as an initiation, where aspects of femininity are shed, and a cloak of problematic masculine elements is donned. This, in turn, creates a racial, class-based divide within those who embody white feminism, and those who do not subscribe to its manifesto, manifesting more difficulty in upward mobility for the latter.
The book begins with an anecdote that Zakaria shares where she is dining with her white friends at a restaurant. The conversation makes her feel out of place – left out, unheard, unseen, and unimportant – and places the onus on her to point out the same, making her bear the cross of being the “killjoy” in an otherwise “friendly” social setting. Through the course of her book, the author then goes on to beautifully illustrate how, if a table that boasts of solidarity does not have a seat for you, it must, by all means, be overturned, and all those in attendance must shift to a bigger table that seats one and all in an equal capacity.
The absolute best part about ‘Against White Feminism’ is its unabashed stance against colonisation and colonial standards that ironically dictate and gatekeep movements that make freedom their ultimate mission. Zakaria calls out racial privilege, and creates necessary discourse around the fact that feminism is not a one-size-fits-all, people-pleasing buzzword. It is, by all means, uncomfortable, disruptive, and thoroughly intersectional.