“Pulling the Curtain Back” on White Feminism: a discussion on Rafia Zakaria’s latest book
Yale students and nine panelists came together to discuss Rafia Zakaria’s book, “Against White Feminism,” and the impact that the white feminist movement has had on women around the world.
Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
More than 60 Yalies gathered on Zoom last Thursday to listen to and partake in a discussion on white supremacy in the feminist movement.
On Feb. 24, nine panelists, including Rafia Zakaria, came together to host a symposium centered on Zakaria’s latest book, “Against White Feminism.” Zakaria is an esteemed Pakistani-American attorney, journalist and author, and her latest book addresses white supremacy in the feminist movement. The book is based on Zakaria’s experience living as a Muslim woman both in Pakistan and the United States, her struggles with domestic abuse and the animosity she has faced in the American white feminist movement. At the event, the panelists shared their views on feminism and their experiences with the movement.
“So many times, the real oppression is occurring within the frameworks of ‘saviorism’ within the Western countries we are living in,” Shaezmina Khan ’23, the event’s moderator, told the News. “We do not understand [that] the framework we are working in was built to champion certain women and certain women’s beliefs and backgrounds…while not just undermining the beliefs and backgrounds of other women but really sidelining and shaming [them].”
The event was co-sponsored by the Yale International Relations Association Executive Director Team, Yale Muslim Students Association, Yale Black Men’s Union, Black Student Alliance at Yale, Black Students for Disarmament at Yale, Yale Women’s Leadership Initiative, Yale Women’s Center and Yale Black Women’s Coalition. It was moderated by Khan, who serves as the President of the Yale Muslim Students Association and the executive director of the Yale International Relations Association.
Nadia Ahmad, a visiting professor at Yale Law School and one of the panelists at the symposium, told the News that she found Zakaria’s writing to be “fearless.” She pointed specifically to Zakaria’s experience as an American Muslim woman, a domestic abuse survivor and an attorney. Ahmad said that she appreciated how Zakaria allowed those experiences to impact her writing.
“She’s looking at it from the perspective that upper-middle-class white women are seen as the gatekeepers of feminism,” Ahmad said. “She’s really pulling the curtain back on that and she’s also showing the intersections between different types of feminism. … She doesn’t hold back on anything. That’s really … what we’re missing, not only in journalism but also in academia.”
“Against White Feminism” centers on the role that racial privilege plays in white feminism and the way it fosters the savior complex embedded in white supremacy. Kathleen Cavanaugh, a professor at the University of Chicago and a panelist, said that she tries to weave Zakaria’s experiences into her work. Cavanaugh also worked alongside Zakaria on the board of directors of Amnesty International USA.
As a white woman, Cavanaugh said that the book has served as an important conversation starter for herself and her friends. She noted that grappling with the racism inherent in much of the feminist movement is “a very tricky road,” as it is difficult for many white women to recognize their positions of power and the savior complex that it is easy to fall into.
“[The] multiple voices that Rafia’s talking about are not present in the syllabus that we teach,” Cavanaugh said. “And therefore you’re going to try to bring to light a certain perspective that is only seen through one lens. Her call [is] to…fracture that lens.”
One of the points that Zakaria wants to challenge with her book is the belief that her suffering only happened when she lived in Pakistan and not after she moved to the United States.
Khan said that she similarly sometimes feels that she is not able to partake in discussions on feminism due to these misconceptions about Islam. As a Muslim woman, she feels that her background differs from that of mainstream white feminists, making it difficult at times for her to engage in dialogue.
“[Islam] totally champions women’s rights … it is a religion completely centered around women, and the empowerment and liberation of women … but there are certain topics — when we talk about feminism and liberation — where I cannot sit there and partake in the same way that everyone else can because it is not of my background,” Khan said. “It is not necessarily the way I see things.”
Zakaria’s book highlights the same struggle that Khan talked about, noting the way that the preconceived notions that white women have of feminism can alienate Muslim women and other women of color.
Some panelists as well as online reviews described Zakaria’s book as a “conversation starter.” Her words urge readers to think about how they engage with diversity and reflect on the lens through which they view feminism.
“There is a courage in her writing and a courage in her conviction, and she’s not afraid to actually go into these spaces that are contested and very fragile grounds, and I think a lot of the culmination of the writing she’s done is actually in this book,” Cavanaugh said.
“Against White Feminism” was published in August 2021.