The feminism of academia is a far cry from the feminism of the real world, as writer Rafia Zakaria points out in her new book Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption. In one chapter, titled “Sexual Liberation Is Women’s Empowerment,” Zakaria writes, “The question of how and when sexual liberation had become not simply the centerpiece but the entire sum of liberation for a graduate seminar on feminist theory never came up, nor did any discussion of sexual identity or radial politics.” She describes what feels like a universal experience for an entire generation of people who studied a white-washed feminist theory, capturing lightning in a bottle and wielding it in every sentence. Against White Feminism is a book animated by the slow simmering rage of feminists of color who have been meticulously erased from the hallowed halls of academia.
Zakaria’s book belongs on every person’s bookshelf. But it also belongs on a syllabus and to be seared into the minds of students learning about the historic implications and monumental failings of westernized white-washed feminism. The book isn’t just an educational tome—Zakaria deftly weaves in personal stories to make Against White Feminism extremely readable and at times heart-wrenching.
We spoke to Zakaria spoke about her new work and broke down why this book is so vital and why she hopes white feminists will give it a chance. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: How would you describe this book to people who haven’t read it yet?
RAFIA ZAKARIA: I would describe this book as presenting a new frame to view the world and particularly at gender and race relations so that they can see how the inequalities caused in particular by gender and race have seeped into every aspect of our society. I wanted people to be able to give this book to my white friends and to my BIPOC friends, for different purposes. For white women, in particular, I wanted them to understand how besieged BIPOC women feel from all sides in terms of all these different cultural forces, political forces, etc., pushing up against them. And I wanted BIPOC women who have had their own experiences but don’t necessarily put them together or collate them in this way to be able to see that their experience of white supremacy is often repeated in the same pattern and often by the same perpetrators in [places like] Afghanistan and Iraq, in Pakistan and many other neocolonial endeavors.
Let’s get into some of the themes you touch on in the book. In chapter five, titled “Sexual Liberation Is Women’s Empowerment,” you talk about your first experience in a feminist theory class and as I was reading I almost had a sort of epiphany that was like, “Wow, this is exactly the kind of class I was sitting in when I was in school where women of color just don’t get included in the syllabus or in the discussion.”
As you can see in the book, I had a lot of sort of front lines, or say experiences. I was a single mother. I had to stay in a shelter. I had to really kind of put together an existence. But then when I went to graduate school, my naive assumption was that this is a place where I’ll get to understand what has happened to me and how it connects with the larger world. I wanted to have conversations about gender equality, gender discrimination, and neocolonialism.
There was a war going on in Afghanistan [at the time I was taking this class] that was allegedly meant to liberate Afghan women and I expected that sort of thing to be talked about in this particular seminar. So it was a moment of kind of deep disappointment when I experienced the narrowness of that conversation and the inability to really connect the feminist struggle to women who have fought frontline battles against sexism, against abuse, and—I expected at least a little bit of those things. I expected that there wouldn’t be this kind of rote acceptance atmosphere where we just talk about kink and everything was about Sex and the City. Not that those things should not be discussed in feminist theory courses, but it’s just that they shouldn’t be the only things that are discussed. I felt that this idea of sexual liberation being the sum total of empowerment was never questioned.
This was something you brought up in that chapter that really resonated with me as a person who converted to Islam in college. You mentioned that you were expected to perform a certain degree of sexual liberation as a Muslim woman in a way that was more palatable to Western ideals. Do you think those expectations still exist for Muslim women in America?
One hundred percent. All the time. Because I don’t wear hijab it’s assumed that I score higher on the sexual liberation spectrum but if I do wear it, obviously I score lower. My feminist leanings were questionable to other people because of whether or not I’m choosing to wear the hijab and these were definitely the sort of significant and deep influences that went into writing this book. I was fed up with having to perform all the time and fed up with the very intrusive questions that were directed at me and I’d just have to be like, yeah we Muslims date all the time.
I don’t personally have a position on whether Muslims should or should not date. I think that those are individual concerns. But the point being is that in order to belong [in certain feminist spaces] you’re supposed to perform sexual liberation. And if you don’t, then you are sort of almost instantly excluded from the conversation. It’s either that or the reverse where the hijab is fetishized in a way so that, you know, you’re not considered really Muslim if you’re not wearing it.
There are all these ways in which whiteness understands and sort of constrains Muslim women in engagement with the world. And it got to the point where I was not considered credible as someone who could critique the idea that sexual liberation is the sum total of empowerment because I was Muslim. I was inherently suspect on that issue and it drove me crazy.
You also at some point get into the idea of “sexy feminism” and the rise of Cosmopolitan and the ubiquitous Cosmo Girl. How large of a role did the magazine play in changing the trajectory of American feminism?
It has and continues to play such an incredibly large role. And a powerful role too. In the book I talk about, for instance, this moment where it almost seemed like there was a bifurcation of the serious feminist, [which included lesbians] and then you had women like Helen Gurley Brown, who set about putting Cosmo together. She was a scrappy woman who definitely was a self-made woman but she looked at [feminism] as, you know, the liberated girl who was sext and flirty. And of course, the sexy, flirty, liberated girl was much more capitalism friendly than the political lesbian who believed that every interaction with men was inflected by the inherent inequality of gender politics. Eventually, the brand of feminism that won out, in the end, was that of Brown. Does that make sense?
It does and you know the more I think about it as we’re talking it’s really incredible how that messaging is so in our faces every day but it’s also incredibly subtle in what it’s trying to sell.
You know, the subtlety is the basis on which it wins. Because it’s subtle, the sort of brute power behind it, which is the power of capitalism [is disguised]. They’re selling this idea that if you get a job, earn your own money, and have sex with whoever you want that’s how you truly become liberated. Part of the package of liberation is economic empowerment and sexual liberation but what you’ve left out of that recipe is a political struggle and the fact that feminist choices are political choices. Any attempt to safeguard any advances that women make is meaningless unless there is a political structure that allows the maintenance of those advances.
How do you imagine this book will be received by white feminists?
In the book, I’m very, very careful to underscore that white feminism is not just a white woman who is a feminist. White feminism is a woman who is white and who is feminist but who is uninterested in exploring her own complicity or the role whiteness has played in centering her as the ultimate feminist and woman. It’s that refusal to investigate one’s own role in racial oppression.
And I realize that that’s a very uncomfortable thing to ask of people. But at the same time, I don’t think that even white feminists are necessarily motivated by malicious intent. For instance, however misguided the Clean Stoves Program might be, I don’t think that any white feminist who supported it necessarily wanted to go waste all this money. So I feel like because there are good intentions involved, a lot of good can be done if we have this conversation between white feminists and BIPOC feminists and address the elephant in the room which is race.
This is something nobody has really talked about because the fear is that the mere mention of race is going to dissolve the feminist movement altogether. But the real truth is that the refusal to talk about race is what is dissolving the feminist movement. So I do think that women who recognize that and women who are authentic in their desire to be allies, will, I hope find the book engaging and concrete in showing them both how this happens and also what they can do to ensure that it doesn’t happen anymore.