Zoomcast: Rafia Zakaria Talks to DL’s Vassiki Chauhan

This past summer, we were thrilled to publish an excerpt from Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism, an essential contribution to the discourse about women, race, power and activism. We’re even more thrilled that she agreed to talk to us at length on a Zoomcast, talking with DL contributor and Dartmouth scholar Vassiki Chauhan. We know you’ll find their conversation a refreshing change from DC-centric political chatter we did. — AS for DL

With a global rise in fascism bolstered by a passive and seemingly uncaring political establishment, it is more important than ever for progressive movements to avoid the encroachment of neoliberal ideology—to stay truly radical and maintain their goal of uplifting those who are most marginalized, most threatened by structures of power. It is against this backdrop that Rafia Zakaria wrote Against White Feminism, a radically inclusive and intersectional work documenting the modern feminist movement. An attorney, human rights activist, and author of books such as The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, she published Against White Feminism this August, in conjunction with W.W. Norton. Our interviewer for this episode is academic and Democratic Left contributor Vassiki Chauhan.

Democratic Left: Thank you so much, Rafia, for spending this hour with me. I’m really starstruck and I feel very privileged to be able to talk to the author of a book that I’d have picked up in a bookshop anyway. It really seems like this book was written at a time when a lot of people were feeling these things. And I bet that it took a lot of courage to write, because there’s always the risk of losing friends who you actually built a lot of solidarity with. So, first of all, I’m curious about your process of putting these ideas together and how you were navigating personal relationships and developing these critiques that are at a system level, but also effective very personally.

Rafia Zakaria: First of all, thank you so much. I’m also really looking forward to this conversation. You know, that’s actually a very interesting question. I would say that even a year — so, this book was sold to the publisher in 2019. So even in 2018, I would have said that the possibility of this book probably being published was very slim. I remember being part of panels and talks during that time that were essentially saying white women or white culture or this is a white centered practice, even within academia, which is supposed to be kind of the avant garde of ideas. It was just was not something that I was, you know, privately chastised for even mentioning that word. But at the same time, you know, I had done a report with two of my close friends. One of them is Nimmi Gowrinathan, and she and I, as well as Kate Cronin-Furman, had authored a report called Emissaries of Empowerment, which was just a little report and it had some of the arguments that are presented in the book, particularly the white-centered discourse in development and how it was actually further gendering empowerment, in a sense. And so I had that, but you’re right. I mean, this has been a very, very costly endeavor in terms of my contacts or people who I think will probably never speak to me again.

You know, my agent at the time looked at the proposal and said, absolutely not. He was actually quite angry at the proposal, and, you know, I had expected pushback, but I hadn’t expected such a visceral sort of in-your-face angry reaction. And so I was very cowed by that, I was like, okay, well, I guess  that’s it for this book. And it was only luck that I met some other friends who were able to help me get another agent altogether, and then offer this book. And even since then, I have friends at very major publications who have very pointedly boycotted the book. So there is this cost. Because that is how sort of public discourse censors itself, is that, you know, the people who are in the minority, such as myself, are sort of, I wouldn’t say blackmailed, but they’re definitely intimidated by the possibility of annoying very powerful white women in high places. So yes, that means I definitely dealt with that. And I’m definitely dealing with that right now, as well.

DL: I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m also not surprised. Because you are critiquing not just individuals, obviously — the reason you wrote this book is not to pick a fight, you’re critiquing white supremacy in general, and the vestiges of that on a movement that is supposed to be for all women, and critique all of patriarchy. And you’re in really good company, I think, with scholars like Angela Davis and bell hooks, who have kind of espoused these sorts of ideas, talking about the limitations on conversations around body or autonomy, and how that sort of leaves out reproductive justice, the idea of kinship with your fellow brethren, right? These family structures in which you draw support from not just the gender you identify with, but also family support that you tap into in hard times and economic crises, in situations which alienate you. And I think this idea of rejecting that critique on the basis of what it’s about in name, without opening up the book, and looking at the scope of what you’re really talking about — like garment factories, and how those boycotts work, and, and the nature of financial aid going to the Global South, in terms of the wood stoves, and the vaccinations, and all of that — the scope of your examination is so much beyond a petty reason to just be like, this is going to annoy some white women, right? It seems like such a pity for publishers to take that approach. And I’m wondering about whether some people who were willing to engage with your ideas had interesting questions about this nature of aid to the Global South from a non-academic perspective. Was it eye opening for some people that even good-Samaritan approaches can be limited in scope?

RZ: Yeah, I mean, I think the way that some white women have taken this as an offensive argument is because there is a portion of the book that asks white women, white feminists, to examine their own current successes and consider the role that their white racial privilege has played in their successes. And I think white women vis-a-vis white men have always considered themselves victims. And it’s very difficult, I think, for some white women of a certain generation in particular — I would definitely say there’s a generational divide — it’s very difficult for them to even consider, let alone acknowledge that their whiteness has played a part in how they are received by white men. And so, I think for them, it almost seems like it’s a dangerous idea. I think they feel that if they even think it, they might have to acknowledge a different story about themselves than the one that they might have told, in terms of the revelations within the book particularly related to development. You know, from ordinary readers, I’ve seen a considerable degree of surprise, for instance, that hundreds of millions of dollars could be spent providing clean stoves, or rather forcing clean stoves on rural Indian women. And that nobody would have questioned that until literally almost a decade into the program. And if you’re in academia, of course, you’re more or less, you’re somewhat exposed to this literature.

And I knew going in that one of the issues was that a lot of the arguments that I talked about in the book were being made by various academics, but all in different silos, you know, of their own disciplines. And also largely inaccessible to the general public, it’s just not something that is talked about. And the reason, of course, is also in the book, right? Western civilization, particularly neoliberal, political structures, they almost rely on a subtext that the West knows best, right? They might not be as overt about it as in the colonial era, but there is still this subtext, not only that the West knows best, but that only the West is situated in a way that can almost altruistically our benevolently spend this money for the betterment of countries in the Global South. And that belief is what I was trying to get at, this idea that you could even argue that the reason why these stories don’t make it on page one of the New York Times is because even journalism relies on that narrative that the Western foreign correspondent goes in and gets the real story, you know, what’s happening. So when you have so many structures relying on this idea of moral supremacy, then you don’t put all of this together, you don’t want to have, for instance, $400 million spent in Afghanistan, which benefited only three women. To me, that’s the absolutely ghastly statistic. But it’s never sort of presented that way. It’s framed and cushioned and, you know, etc, etc.

So yeah, my effort in the book is to bring together as best as I can all the neocolonial, neoliberal assumptions that are still operative within the world system, that have not ended, and connect them to their colonial forebears or their liberal forebears. So you can see, like, it’s almost like a genealogy of ideas, where you can see this is where this came from. Okay, yeah, British women were going to India and telling Indian women to fight for suffrage like 150 years ago, and now they’re telling them to use this stove instead of that stove. So that, I think, has been surprising to many people. I think it’s starting, I would say, maybe, to get people to think differently about what countries get out of development aid, right? Because the belief is that, oh, we’re so great, we’re gonna go give all this money to Indians, or Afghans, or whatever, just out of the goodness of our hearts. This book dissects that idea.

DL: I think it does so very effectively. And it really gets at that idea by taking this approach of, this is a problem that has been solved in the West, we are going to take this method, and you’re going to take this money, and you’re going to take this to another geographical context and just apply it, it’s just a matter of application. And that hasn’t happened, because resources don’t exist. But the idea that this is a completely different political, social, economic reality, with a completely different history that is very heavy with the impacts of colonialism, if not inequalities that existed in from ancient times, right? And the Global South, there is this assumption that it’s just a problem of a very clear cut nature — it’s about emissions, it’s about a certain disease, and it just needs one intervention, and that will be enough. Whereas, when money is kind of directed to efforts that are humanitarian in nature, within countries where this money is coming as aid to the Global South, and you have to meet a lot of metrics, they have to justify how that money is used. And I’m wondering, given that there is precedent locally for involving communities that are directly affected by whatever cause the financial aid is being routed to, do you have a sort of pipe dream of how people in the Global South might actually be able to have ownership about the problems that these efforts are meant to address in some way, or at least bring some awareness about and shed some light on?

RZ: Yeah, so one of the central precepts that the book criticizes is this idea of essentially trickle-down feminism, right? Where you have a model that was adopted, and that is contested, even by minorities within the United States. Who don’t find this sort of white, middle-class, suburban woman idea of feminism, and what she needs to be empowered, as applicable to them. So this starts within the United States, and with the fact that, for instance, even when the Violence Against Women Act was being passed in the United States in the 80s, early 90s by these very, very famous white feminists, like Catherine MacKinnon, they wanted the state’s protection from domestic violence, right? So they essentially said, okay, well, we want the Violence Against Women Act, and the act had provisions in which it said, oh, well, you know, a police officer called to a scene would have to make an arrest. Now, even at that time, Black and brown women said, this is not good for us, it’s going to lead to mass arrests in our communities, and it’s actually going to disempower Black and brown women who will then not call the police because of this particular clause. Of course, like no one listened to them — they passed the law to a lot of celebration. And, of course, that’s exactly what happened, is that the Black men were arrested at a five times greater rate than white men. The law contributed directly to mass incarceration. And within a year, there were actual increases in the levels of violence that were faced by brown and Black women.

So even domestically, these critiques exist. Now, internationally, my pipe dream would be — for instance, I’ll give you another statistic: of the 15 largest humanitarian NGOs in the world, these are big, the mega NGOs, their governing boards. Only 2% of the people on the governing boards of these organizations actually even belong to a country that has been an aid recipient. So that statistic shows what I would call the incredible whiteness of aid, and these empowerment projects, and it is the incredible whiteness of aid, you know, combined with this white savior, white feminist industrial complex, that allows these things to perpetuate year after year. Otherwise, you would think like, just out of common sense, well, you know, this clean stoves program, maybe someone in year two might say, oh, you know, maybe we need to ask the actual women in this community whether they want these stoves, but there is a sort of turf issue there. And at least that’s what I experienced in my own experience working for a large NGO, there’s definitely a career risk and turf battle there where, you know, the inclusion of community members is looked at as messy. They don’t speak the same professionalized language of metrics and aid programs and empowerment schemes that the other people do. And I’ve actually seen a lot of procedural mechanisms used, and these sorts of language games used, to sort of disempower those people even when they are presented or included. So I think that that’s a huge problem. And it’s a particular problem in terms of empowerment, because the whole industry tries to take politics out of the equation of female empowerment. And the consequence of that is that, for example, you have a program that gives out micro loans, right? And I’ll even grant that, okay, this program is a huge success. And, you know, women are doing much better, and they’ve established some small businesses that add to their income, etc, etc.

The problem is, is that as soon as the existing government or the existing political climate changes, for instance, as it has in Afghanistan, all of those rights are just erased in one fell swoop. And that’s because there’s no concomitant level of political capacity or collective organizing among those women to actually protect any of the economic rights or gains that they might have made. And that’s also something that the book is very critical of, is that I think that politics has been sort of excised from feminism, and you see the downside of that, even here in the United States. In response to what’s happening in Texas, we don’t have a sort of organized collective of women from all different demographics, who can immediately have a political response. I mean, it’s being organized, and there are efforts, I’m sure there will be, but in its current state, they found us flat on our backs. Because there isn’t anything, there’s nothing you can dial into. There’s no already nourished idea of collectivist organizing, political voice. So yeah.

DL: I think the deep politicization, to some extent, also comes from this tendency to play nice and protect property, right? Like a lot of what you’re talking about in terms of who is on a board is about ownership and control. And that is also what defines notions of safety and sets the law for violence against certain communities. And I was really hoping to ask you this question, and I’m glad that the conversation sort of naturally went in this direction: I was wondering, you know, there can be a lot of bad-faith players who will pick up this book and be like, see, even feminists think there is feminist infighting. And women aren’t good at organizing, right? And I was wondering, because I’ve read the book and I’ve seen the arguments that you’ve made, but I really want you to have the floor to get into this idea of moving beyond this term “feminism” and feeling like your entire life is about looking at empowerment, or women’s empowerment or liberation through that lens, but recognizing the power of being galvanized politically, and worker solidarity, and not kind of constituting a critique of white supremacy to be limited to, okay, white people can act in certain ways. And white feminism draws out these flavors of feminism, but recognizing how politically we are actually fighting the same battle and how gains can translate across different groups. I want you to maybe give examples or talk a little bit more about instances in your book where you were able to develop that idea that if you actually get political about solidarity, about workers writes, about feminism, about social reproduction, that there is actually a path to forming bigger coalitions than the ones that are available to us right now.

RZ: I mean, that is exactly — you really summed it up very well. You know, a few days ago, last week, maybe at this live event that the Guardian had, in which they were interviewing Hillary Clinton, they actually asked her about this book, and they asked her about the divisions within feminism and how she saw them, and she gave what I would consider the classic white feminist answer, which is, look at what’s happening in Texas, we can’t bother with this, we all have to come together to fight the patriarchy. And, you know, I want to reiterate that I’ve never disagreed with that premise that we have to fight the patriarchy. But for too long, white feminists have understood dealing with difference as a handicap, you know, as something that detracts from the collective strength of the feminist movement. And what I’m arguing in the book, as you said, is the exact opposite of that. What I’m trying to show is a feminism that’s afraid of difference. And that’s not creating an environment where we can come together despite difference. It’s a feminism that’s sort of increasingly irrelevant in the world and essentially on life support.

You know, I don’t think that I would describe — at least from my perspective as a brown person, as a brown Muslim woman — I don’t see feminism as being very strong, because I see huge, huge pockets of women who’ve just signed off, and I think they would tell me that this is a lost battle, like feminists have created feminism in their own image to make them feel better about themselves. And that’s as far as they will go. But I guess I believe that there are, especially in emerging generations, there are white women who are feminists, but who are not white feminists, were not invested in whiteness, and who are actually very interested in revitalizing the discourse on the collective power of the movement. And so that’s the key. I think that women of a certain class, white women of a certain class and age and generation, just cannot let go of the idea that there are other people asking for representation and inclusion. And here, it’s very key, I mean, inclusion of the sort that we were just talking about, where they’re actually on the boards, not inclusion of the sort that, oh, I’m having this gala, and I’m going to have an Indian woman and an African woman, and they’ll be dressed in their exotic clothes, and then they’ll tell their story of trauma, and then all the white women will express sympathy.

And in this microcosm, you have the enactment of world dynamics, right? Where you’ve put them in a certain niche, where their role is just to tell stories of trauma, and then white women kind of come in there, and they make the policies and the priorities, and they are what I critique in the book as “professional feminists,” which are women who have never really themselves fought any kind of frontline feminist battle, they’ve been born into upper-middle-class white comfort in the richest country in the world. And then they went to college, and then they discovered feminism, you know, and sort of had this quote-unquote awakening, and then they started to be active in campus politics.

It’s usually a very stereotypical trajectory. And it wouldn’t be problematic, I’m not against inclusion of those voices as well — but the problem right now is, they’re coming at the cost of, say, the international student, whose tuition room and board is paid, so that she has to literally count — I’ve been there — count every dollar to see if she can buy a nice, basic meal out, that’s not covered in the meal plan. And so those sorts of battles, including battles of representation in white culture, like the black girl who is always the black girl in classes full of white students and has to represent all the time. You know, these instances, they’re stressful, and they are sort of frontline things. Not to mention, of course, the single moms, the women who are working in low-paid jobs, the women in unions. As I say, the Women’s March happened, but most of the women who should have been in it were cleaning the rooms of the women who were making who were out at the March. And so these things have to be talked about. And so the discussion of diversity has to be more robust. To women like Hillary Clinton, I say that if we want politically relevant feminism that actually has the power to be kind of a bulwark, or like a force that stands up to these obscurantists and people who want to ban abortion, people want to ban all sorts of rights that are applicable to women who don’t want women of color to have any visibility, who attack them on all different fronts. I mean, I’m not going to argue that the alt right and the far right are not huge political threats to our movement. But I think that it’s important to clean house from the inside. I mean, otherwise, I don’t know if we will even be talking about feminism at all in the next 10-15 years.

DL: I mean, one thing that really comes through very strongly, and I’m curious if it lands with you — I feel like your book is making a really strong case that white women will have to give up their careerism if they want to save feminism. And if they’re not willing to do that, make space for others to share, you know, the resources that they can avail of.

RZ: Yeah, I mean, the book is definitely an argument to think of success in collective terms, which, you know, the lean-in girlboss-type culture has very effectively taken women away from that, so that they cannot imagine, say, in a work setting, how working with other women might actually make them more successful. You know, the attitude is very much that I have to beat every other woman, however I need to do that. And that’s what I mean by careers. I don’t mean that people shouldn’t want success, or they shouldn’t want achievement. But I do think that, to be a good feminist, we owe it to ourselves and to feminism to think about revitalizing feminine collectives, rethinking sisterhood in a way that actually yields benefits to us. And it definitely can; we relied on it for hundreds of years before we got here. But at the moment right now, yes, the models of success that women are being presented and that white women have availed of in particular, they detract from the strength of the feminist movement rather than building it.

Note: This article incorrectly identified Vassiki Chauhan as a member of UpperValley DSA and has been changed to reflect the fact that she was not a member at the time the article was posted. (Ed.)