Rafia Zakaria: ‘A lot of white female professors told me to quit’

Show caption Rafia Zakaria: ‘I am going to ask questions.’ Photograph: AJ Mast/The Guardian Society books Rafia Zakaria: ‘A lot of white female professors told me to quit’ The activist and author discusses why there is no one-size-fits-all feminism and her aim to create work that comforts women of colour who have been ‘gaslit’ Nesrine Malik Sat 28 Aug 2021 11.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Rafia Zakaria’s new book Against White Feminism starts with a sort of Sex and the City scene entitled “At a wine bar, a group of feminists …” In it, some well-heeled white women are gathered for a drink in New York. The only brown woman in attendance, Zakaria winces and wilts under the glare of their innocent questions, as she tries to avoid the responses she tends to receive when she tells her true story – ones of pity, discomfort and avoidance.

Zakaria was born in Pakistan and at the age of 17 agreed to an arranged marriage to a Pakistani man living in the US. “I had never experienced freedom, so I gladly signed it away,” 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 precarity in the US.

She tells me, from her home in Indiana, that she wrote the book because “I am a Muslim brown person from Pakistan, and the assumption when I meet people in the west is that all the oppression I’ve ever faced, all the hardship that I’ve ever faced, were back in Pakistan, and were the consequence of cultural mores and beliefs.” With Against White Feminism, she wanted to challenge that “liberation trajectory” of the Muslim woman’s story, so that women who live in the west stop thinking “Oh it’s so bad over there – ” it must be “so great here”.

Graduate school, with its subsidised childcare, was a refuge, a place where she could be ‘poor and smart’

By writing the book, Zakaria hopes to decentre white feminism or, at least, call attention to the fact that it is a template that does not work for everyone because it is limited in its utility by white supremacy. “A white feminist,” Zakaria writes, “is someone who refuses to consider the role that whiteness and the racial privilege attached to it have played in universalising white feminist concerns, agendas and beliefs as being those of all of feminism and of all of feminists.”

In the book, Zakaria outlines how a one-size-fits-all white feminism has been complicit in interventionist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in destroying native aid and empowerment structures in low income countries, and in denying the cultural backwardness of western societies vis-a-vis women’s rights.

Her “trauma” is central to her motivations for writing the book. In 2002, when she ran away from her husband with “a baby on her hip”, she had no money, bank account or credit card. She managed to leave sheltered accommodation only when a black woman “took her on” and offered her an apartment. It was the first time she could “exhale”, she says. “I had been running for so long.” After a few difficult years, she managed to finish law school and complete 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 till. “That moment of not having enough money to pay for your food is really seared into my memory. I felt so much shame, so much absolute disappointment in myself because I had to take charity to feed myself and my kid.” Graduate school, with its subsidised childcare and flexible hours, was a refuge, a place where Zakaria could be “poor and smart”.

‘In the case of Afghanistan, there was very much an idea that this was America taking feminism to Afghan women and liberating them from the Taliban.’ Photograph: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

The white women she met on the way, all of ostensibly impeccable liberal and feminist credentials, did little to help her. In law school “a lot of white female professors told me to quit”. When she felt she had finally found her place in the NGO world, white women “obstructed” and sabotaged her “in every possible way” from doing her job. “Every time I would write a report there would be 10 people who would shred it, telling me how I was wrong and I was failing and I didn’t know this and I didn’t know that. I would put forward a resolution or an idea and there would be discussion and none of the white woman would support me. Basically it was a trap, I was set up to fail. So then you can tell the story that we gave so and so the job and we’re so inclusive, but she decided she didn’t want to do it.” Zakaria is softly spoken and quasi-academic in her speech, but her tone sharpens when she lists these slights and humiliations, as it does when she recounts other incidents that made her feel like a sort of shop window display of a brown woman for the benefit of a white audience. “I was either never allowed to speak or entrapped.”

One of the problems with white feminism according to Zakaria is that it is still connected to the patriarchy through the power pool of white men. “That shared culture can be drawn on 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 undergird the white feminists you might encounter at Google.” This model of feminism has “gotten far and shattered ceilings, I won’t lie”, she says. But once white feminists succeed, they hoard the spoils. “If white men have welcomed you to the executive suite, the way you protect your position there is you continue to please white men.”

What about the women of colour who get to the top, remain silent and so are also complicit? “There are a lot of benefits in being the token woman of colour. There are doors that open for you, things available to you that are not available to a trouble-making brown feminist like me, because I am going to ask questions and I’m not going to take it.” But she sees these women as co-opted by necessity, rather than by conscious agreement and shared interest. “I have sympathy for them; for literally hundreds of years that has been the only way to get anywhere close to power.”

The sharpest of Zakaria’s criticism of white feminism is reserved for white female journalists. “There’s a certain arc that the editors want,” she says, that these journalists deliver. “In the case of Afghanistan, there was very much an idea that this was America taking feminism to Afghan women,” and “liberating them from the Taliban. There are colonial precedents to sending female reporters out there. These white women are sent in as emblems – our women are brave and they are out taking pictures and writing stories and getting your story out to the world. But the assumption is that there isn’t anyone in Afghanistan who can write in English and tell the stories of Afghanistan to the world.”

Women like me never really make it. The odds are so stacked against someone like me to be in the conversation at all

When it comes to her native Pakistan, a country from which white feminists believe she was saved, Zakaria has little time for their concerns. When Imran Khan, the prime minister, was challenged by Judy Woodruff of PBS earlier this year about comments he made that appeared to blame women for incidents of rape in Pakistan, Zakaria saw the episode as a manifestation of “a legacy of cultural ranking that no one has really bothered to take apart. That cultural ranking says that cultural crimes occur in these places and those sorts of cultural crimes don’t exist in other places in the west. There isn’t some particular British form of violence against women, it’s just violence against women.”

With her book, Zakaria hopes to console the scolded and scold the consolers. “I don’t think white women are truly aware of how uncomfortable other women feel, how much they have to edit themselves, how fed up they are.” While she harbours some hope that white feminists will listen to her advice on how to cede space and examine their prejudices, she says the real goal of her work is to comfort women of colour who have been “gaslit”.

“I struggled very much. I had come from trauma, I went into trauma. I feel a very strong sense of responsibility towards other women like me, who’ve been through traumatic marriages, migration, being a single mother. Women like me never really make it. The odds are so stacked against someone with my experience, my racial background, my economic background, to be in the conversation at all. And so since I’ve somehow slipped into the conversation I feel a responsibility towards other women who are just as smart as me, just as articulate. Now I’m here, I’m going to say all those things. I believe that you can tear things down when they’re not working, and build them up again. That is one of my core beliefs, because I’ve done it.”

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