"This Is Not How It Has to Be" – Rafia Zakaria

The Against White Feminism author discusses passive racism in publishing and rethinking our relationship to literary canons

Photograph by Jeremy Hogan. Courtesy of Penguin General.

As I read Rafia Zakaria’s latest book, Against White Feminism, I took photos of paragraphs and sent them to my brown female friends who, like me, had tried to articulate the discomfort they so often felt in spaces tailored specifically for white women. Sometimes I captioned the passage with an urgent “this!!!” to emphasize how we feel the same, but lack the vocabulary, and sometimes I captioned the photo with a “louder!!!” because we all want to say what she is saying, but are too afraid. Zakaria’s book answers the questions and validates the concerns that so often find their home in our WhatsApp groups and awkwardly-long voice notes. It isn’t a surprise that she, of all people, has written a complex and ambitious critique of feminist historocity and the women of color it forgot. A lawyer, activist and author, she has been in spaces where, in her words, she has been “besieged from all sides.''

When I finally speak to Zakaria, over a phone call, we talk about her book, the biting discomfort of being an outsider, and how to write with authority.

Aliya Shaikh: Your book is filled with moments of realization. It could be at a “global fair” as you like to put it, or a response to a professor's feedback on your graduate paper. The way you start with a personal account and weave in history, academic and journalistic scholarship, all while you’re validating your argument, is brilliant to read. That being said, I want to go back and know the specific moment of your feminist awakening – and then the more complicated awakening within the movement – when you realized that not all feminists are the same, but that you are at a disadvantage because of your race and your religion. Do you remember those instances?

Rafia Zakaria: I have a twin brother and twins are so connected – it’s almost as if you see life through two frames – but you're always competing. I think that definitely played a big role in a very early realization that the rules are different for boys and that my role in life – at least the life that was thought or programmed for me – would be very different from my brother’s. I'm not going to be allowed to ride my bike all over the neighbourhood or go to spaces where different genders come together. Even though I’ve always had a very contrarian and rebellious personality, being the girl of a boy-girl twin definitely set the lens on how I view the world. I mean, it was very self-serving in the beginning, but it’s this idea of justice between the two of us, and eventually, that developed into a much broader sense of purpose.

However, the more intellectual awakening, so to speak, also came early. I was a very avid reader, and growing up in Pakistan, there were many women like Beena Sarwar, who were the older generation of feminists, and were writing about these ideas in periodicals like Herald. In high school, my heroine was Asma Jahangir, who I saw fighting for women, and whose outspokenness, audacity, and strength gave me a role model. I could see a woman who looked like me fighting the system, and who people around me thought was absolutely unassailable.

I definitely had an "aha" moment in law school. I was amazed at the construction of the sexual discrimination law in the United States, because it showed me how different procedural dynamics could help women bring forth claims of sexual discrimination and help adjudicate in situations which definitely are "he said/she said" scenarios. A few years ago, as part of my PhD program in Political Philosophy, I started to look into the different ways political thought can be put together in terms of comparative political theory. Being a Muslim brown woman, I was interested in how those two things fit together in terms of settler discrimination, legal feminist theory, and Muslim feminism.

AS: This brings me to a more important question: what made you write this book? What was that moment of, “okay you know what, this book is necessary?”

RZ: The internal conversations that we have as women of color were precisely the inspiration for writing this book. I wanted to provide the vocabulary that would allow us to articulate the sense of exclusion and condescension that we have to confront in the working world, social media space, and pretty much any dimension or platform of conversation. On the other hand, I wanted to provide the information for white women and give them examples of substantive experiences that women of color go through day after day. I have conversations with women and white allies and it is often difficult to encapsulate the sense of being besieged from all sides where every narrative – the journalistic, nationalist, feminist – have this undercurrent message that the white woman is always right. I really wanted to bring that together so that white women who read the book can say, "Okay now I understand how everything comes together and it's not just just the media, and it’s not just feminist organisations. It's all of this together."

AS: Your previous books, Upstairs Wife and Veil, have been more philosophically investigative and historical in their telling, but this one is in the form of a polemic. Was this deliberate?

RZ: You're absolutely right in saying that this book brings very polemical ideas together. It is different – very different – from Upstairs Wife and Veil. I think the impulse to write a book like this was to try to put my thinking together in a cohesive framework for other people to look at the world, because not everyone sees the world in the same way. It was daunting to think about writing a book like Against White Feminism because it has got a lot of abrasive things in it. But in that sense, I also wanted to create – at least, in terms of the tone of the book –the discomfort that I've always felt as a woman of color. I also wanted to write and structure it in a way so that people understand that white supremacy in the United States is deeply connected to white supremacy everywhere in the world.

AS: As a young writer, I am inspired by the confidence with which you discredit the works of fellow journalists and writers for the sake of a more nuanced and just approach to feminism. Did you struggle with authority or was it a long time coming?

RZ: I was inspired by people I do not agree with, but who stylistically use this form really well, like Christoper Hitchens, who turns his gaze on the rest of the world. I wanted to use that very polemical style to critique Western culture and to critique whiteness in general. I mean, I had to wait until I had spent enough time in the US and had written within the US media for a while to get that authority. I think I also felt that I was fine putting myself out there as the punching bag for people, so long as it starts these conversations. So that is very intentional. I don't care what people say about me. That's what I have to offer the world. I don’t get devastated by very nasty things that people say about me or my views. That's something you develop as a columnist. It's inevitable that you're always making people angry. So, I wanted to offer that up to facilitate this feminist conversation that, you know, go ahead and disagree with me, but start talking about this.

AS: Would it have been impossible to write Against White Feminism If you were a young emerging writer?

RZ: Yeah, absolutely. When I started writing as a columnist for Dawn in October 2009, I could not say these things at all. It also took me a while – that is, writing two books – to be comfortable with starting statements with an “I,” or to write about my personal experience. But I don't think a book like this would have come out four or five years ago. Right now, we are in a very particular moment in having these conversations about race. I remember being chastised at a panel at a top university in the US for saying the term “white feminists.” Even when I was thinking about this book, my agent, at the time, completely rejected it. I almost gave up on it. The publishing world is dominated by white women, and though some of them are amenable and interested in reading such critiques, others are not and it becomes what I think is this passive racism: where you don't criticize a book, you don't engage with the ideas, and you just ignore it. But the hope is that there are enough white women out there who are interested in understanding these dynamics and can move beyond gut defensiveness. I hope that brown and black women who read this book will buy extra copies and hand it to each one of their white friends.

AS: All these writers you talk about and critique in your book, Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett, Betty Friedan, women who are synonymous with feminist scholarship – did your relationship with their texts change as you grew more conscious of white privilege or was this something that was glaring at you from the outset?

RZ: I think that it's an evolving relationship. When I first encountered these texts, there was a realisation that they aren't women like me, but I lacked the vocabulary to articulate my discomfort. Of course, as a brown person, I have been schooled as all privileged brown girls are, who from a very young age are used to consuming writing and pop culture which don't include us. In a sense, sometimes that work of rationalizing the actual exclusionary tendencies of particular writers almost becomes instinctual. I wanted to change that. I wanted brown girls to understand that should not be demanded of them as a matter of, “just figure out how this fits into your life.” When you realize that there's a thinker whose work you've admired for a very long time and then you realize that they meant it specifically only for a particular section of readers; that they do not recognize your existence; that the universe of women is constituted of the white woman and the universal woman is, in fact, the white woman. There is definitely a sense of betrayal and deep disappointment. The question then becomes – from a gendered perspective – should we completely discard women who were racist, or should we keep some of their ideas and ignore their racism? Right now, I’m at a point where I feel like if you're talking about certain thinkers, like Simone de Beouvoir, who I discuss in the book, and if she has racist tendencies and views, then it is your duty – if you are committed to gender justice – to articulate and present that to the reader, and then go into a discussion of their ideas. But I think you have to make that explicit, so that it is up to the reader to decide which ideas they would like to keep and how they would accomplish their own sense of intellectual synthesis.

AS: You talk about Jane Austen’s heroines and how we, South Asian feminists, regard them as “models of wit, strength and judgement” but while we do this we are also absorbing imperialist values and placing white women on a pedestal. I must admit, I am guilty of this, and it is only now at the age of 25 that I realize that none of my literary heroines are women of color. There is of course, like you say, something to be said about unwritten history, and an antidote is to start writing genealogies of our lives and of those women before us. Can you recommend any, which you have read, that might be useful and inspiring?

RZ: I think you are undergoing the realization that this is not necessarily how it has to be. You don't always have to read these women and make do with what is widely available or spoken about. It is important to recognize the historicity of those women. It's not like you discard Pride and Prejudice altogether, but you do have to consider that the consequence of all of this has been that all educated women are being taught to think like white women. It's like the white woman is human and real, and the rest are in some unsaid, unspecified, voiceless universe. So that is the huge task before us and this is what I'm advocating for – the separation of feminism and whiteness. Because right now, to be a feminist and to be interested in these ideas of empowerment and self-creation is to act white and think white.

Regarding your question about book recommendations — there are so many! Without a doubt, the translated works of Ismat Chugtai, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mauja Kahf and Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal. Anything by Audre Lorde is excellent and worthwhile reading, and Lila Abu-Lughod is also great.

Aliya Farrukh Shaikh

is a writer and student living in Brooklyn.

All contributions from Aliya Farrukh Shaikh

Latest in Essay