Tuesday, August 16

Rafia Zakaria: ‘Many white teachers told me to quit’ | Society books

Rnew book by afia Zakaria Against white feminism starts with a kind of Sex and the city scene titled “In a wine bar, a group of feminists …” In it, wealthy white women gather for a drink in New York. Zakaria, the only dark-haired woman to attend, flinches and flinches at the gaze of her innocent questions, as she tries to avoid the answers she often receives when she tells her true story: pity, awkwardness, and avoidance.

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

She tells me, from her home in Indiana, that she wrote the book because “I am a brunette Muslim from Pakistan, and the assumption when I meet people in the west is that all the oppression that I have faced, all the difficulties that I have ever faced, I was back in Pakistan and they were the consequence of cultural beliefs and customs. ” Against white feminism, I wanted to challenge that “trajectory of liberation” in the history of Muslim women, so that women living in the west stop thinking “Oh, it’s so bad there”, it must be “so great here.”

In writing the book, Zakaria hopes to de-center white feminism, or at least draw attention to the fact that it is a template that doesn’t work for everyone because it has limited utility by white supremacy. “A white feminist,” Zakaria writes, “is someone who refuses to consider the role that whiteness and the racial privilege attributed to her have played in universalizing the concerns, agendas, and beliefs of white feminists as belonging to all. feminists and all feminists. . “

In the book, Zakaria describes how a one-size-fits-all white feminism has been complicit in the interventionist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in destroying native aid and empowerment structures in low-income countries, and in denying backwardness. Western societies face to face with women’s rights.

His “trauma” is central to 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, and no credit card. She managed to get out of sheltered accommodation only when a black woman “hired” her and offered her an apartment. It was the first time he was able to “breathe out,” he says. “He had been running for so long.” After a few difficult years, he managed to finish law school and pursue a postgraduate degree in political philosophy. At one point, a stranger paid for her grocery shopping when her daughter brought an unbudgeted bag of popsicles to the checkout. “That moment of not having enough money to pay for food is really etched in my memory. I was so ashamed, so utterly disappointed in myself because I had to take charity to feed myself and my son. “Grad school, with its subsidized child care and flexible hours, was a refuge, a place where Zakaria could be“ poor and intelligent”.

“In the case of Afghanistan, there was a great idea that the United States was bringing feminism to Afghan women and freeing them from the Taliban.” Photograph: Aref Karimi / AFP / Getty Images

The white women he met along the way, all of seemingly impeccable liberal and feminist credentials, did little to help her. In law school, “a lot of white teachers told me to quit.” When she felt that 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 wrote a report, there were 10 people tearing it up, telling me that I was wrong and that I was failing and that 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. It was basically a trap, he was set to fail. So you can tell the story we gave to such and such a job and we are so inclusive, but she decided she didn’t want to do it. “Zakaria speaks quietly and is almost academic in her speech, but her tone sharpens when she lists these slights and put-downs. , as she does when recounting other incidents that made her feel like a kind of showcase for a dark-haired woman for the benefit of a white audience. “They never allowed me to speak or they caught me.”

One of the problems with white feminism according to Zakaria is that it is still connected to patriarchy through the white male power group. “That shared culture can be harnessed and augmented with ideas like ‘lean in’ [Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 bestselling book advocated a can-do brand of feminist self-empowerment] that endorse white feminists that you can find on Google. “This model of feminism” has gone far and broken ceilings, I’m not going to lie, “she says. But once white feminists are successful, they take the loot.” Yes white men have welcomed you to the executive suite, the way you protect your position there is that you continue to please white men. “

What about women of color who rise to the top, are silent and that is why they are also accomplices? “There are many benefits to being the symbolic woman of color. There are doors that open for you, things available to you that are not available to a troubled brunette feminist like me, because I am going to ask questions and I am not going to accept them ”. But she sees these women as co-opted out of necessity, rather than out of conscious agreement and shared interest. “I feel sympathy for them; for literally hundreds of years, that has been the only way to come close to power. “

Zakaria’s sharpest critique of white feminism is reserved for white journalists. “There is a certain arc that editors want,” he says, that these journalists fulfill. “In the case of Afghanistan, there was a great idea that the United States was bringing feminism to Afghan women” and “freeing them from the Taliban. There are colonial precedents for sending female journalists there. These white women are sent as emblems: our women are brave and they are taking pictures and writing stories and making their story known to 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 from which white feminists believe she was saved, Zakaria has little time for her worries. When Imran Khan, the prime minister, was challenged by PBS’s Judy Woodruff earlier this year over comments he made that appeared to blame women for rape incidents in Pakistan, Zakaria saw the episode as a manifestation of “a legacy of cultural classification that no one has really bothered to dismantle. That cultural ranking says that cultural crimes happen in these places and that kind of cultural crimes don’t exist in other places in the west. There is no particular British form of violence against women, it is just violence against women. “

With her book, Zakaria hopes to comfort the scolded and scold the comforters. “I don’t think white women are really aware of how uncomfortable 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 giving way and examining her biases, she says the real goal of her work is to comfort women of color who have been “gas lit”.

“I fought a lot. It came from a trauma, I went into trauma. I feel a strong sense of responsibility towards other women like me, who have been through traumatic marriages, migration, being a single mother. Women like me never make it. The odds are against someone with my background, my racial background, my economic background, to be in the conversation. And since somehow I got into the conversation, I feel a responsibility towards other women who are as smart as I am, so eloquent. Now that I’m here, I’m going to say all those things. I think you can tear things down when they don’t work and rebuild them again. That’s one of my core beliefs, because I’ve done it. “

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


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