Hiwar speaker unravels white feminist ideology

October 17, 2021
Rafia Zakaria, a writer, attorney, and human rights activist, discussed the effect of white feminism on the global struggle for women’s rights at Northwestern Qatar’s most recent Hiwar Speaker Series.
In a conversation moderated by Professor Banu Akdenizli, Zakaria discussed her latest book, Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption, and issues of inclusion in contemporary feminism movements. She drew from her experience as a Pakistani-American feminist and scholar to explain how white-centric feminism has contributed to the oppression of women of color around the world and their exclusion from the debates on women’s rights.
Outlining her book’s critique of the white feminism ideology, Zakaria said that colonial and white supremacist ideals have centered white women as the archetype of the feminist movement and perpetuated the stereotype that women in the Global South belong to cultures incapable of embracing feminism. “The book is a call for the elimination of whiteness from feminism and for all women to look at how white racial privilege has seeped into what feminists consider important — their priorities, agenda-setting, policies,” she said.
When asked about the role journalism plays in elevating white feminism, Zakaria pointed at the news media’s framing of the global women’s rights struggle that has been historically informed by white feminist ideology and narratives pushed by Western female reporters exploiting their position as allies to advance their careers. “I want women from the Global South to start looking at how issues of access and sisterhood are essentially exploited to situate the white woman as the central theme of every story,” she added.
Another shortcoming of white feminism, Zakaria noted, is its complicit role in justifying the United States’ global hegemony by providing cover for its interventionist foreign policy in the name of exporting feminism. When examining U.S. wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, Zakaria said a new model of  feminism has emerged, one whose model is “the woman who is aligned with the American hegemony and is willing to propagate throughout the world.”
Zakaria advocates a new approach in the fight for women’s rights centered on the experiences of women of color that is radically inclusive, intersectional, and transnational. She argued that, for a transformative form of feminism to work, it is crucial for feminists to work out solidarities across identities and regions.
Zakaria also called on Northwestern Qatar students to leverage their positions as journalists and storytellers to dislodge and disrupt existing narratives on the region. “This is a moment of a cultural and social transformation, and you are an integral part of this transformation,” said Zakaria. “Every time you write a story, write it from your perspectives and not from one that easily falls in the stereotype of oppressed brown or Back woman.”
Zakaria’s career spans across multiple avenues of civil rights advocacy and includes serving as director of Amnesty International USA and authoring several books on women’s rights, including The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, Veil, and many essays for the Guardian, CNN, and The New York Times Book Review. She is one of several prominent intellectuals and international media experts who have been guest speakers at the school’s Hiwar Speaker Series.