Oxford Union: “Feminism has been hijacked by white middle-class women”
This is the transcript of a speech given by Myriam Francois-Cerrah in an Oxford Union debate on 12 Feburary. She was speaking in favour of the successful motion “This House believes that feminism has been hijacked by white middle class women”, alongside Ava Vidal and Linda Bellos OBE. In opposition: Inna Schevchenko from FEMEN, Michael Kaufman and Natalie Bennett (Green Party).
Ladies and Gentleman, it is a pleasure to be here with you this evening.
I know, I know – the apparent irony of my being a white middle class woman who believes feminism has been hijacked by white middle class women will, I’m certain, not be lost on you.
But – it is in many ways a vindication of my case.
After all, I am a minority within my own community – unrepresentative of Muslim women either here or in the global south, in terms of my either socio-economic profile or ethnicity, despite the frequency with which I am called upon to speak from within that subjectivity.
Before attending today, I thought long and hard about whether I should trade my place for one of my many personal heroines, women of colour whose voices are so often overridden not only by a white narrative, but white privilege, which however mitigating my headscarf might be of aspects of it – I nevertheless embody.
I ultimately decided to partake for one central reason and that is to emphasise that critique of white feminism – or white culture more broadly – is not a discussion about race – but of a political category, implying an unequal balance of power between dominant white culture, and subaltern identities.
The term “white people” doesn’t refer to the colour of people’s skin as much as it refers to people’s identification with the dominant power relations which continue to subjugate people of colour to a second class status and relegates women of colour specifically to the bottom of the heap.
I can’t and refuse to speak for Muslim women – I speak only as a feminist Muslim woman whose solidarity lies first and foremost with the global south. And I speak as an intersectional feminist who believes race, class and gender are critical to feminist discussions.
Arundhati Roy once said: “There’s no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard.” When it comes to alternative conceptions of feminism, the feminist movement has been doggedly resistant to including alternative voices. And by including, I don’t mean merely recognising that alternative voices exist on the margins, a benevolent nod to those who don’t quite conform to “our ways”.
Nor do I mean the superficial diversity of different faces – I’m talking about the substantive diversity of different conceptions of female flourishing. I mean accepting that the white liberal secular framework is not the only acceptable lens through which women can articulate their struggles.
Rather than the predominant assumption that alternative feminist voices are playing “catch up” with western feminism, I mean realising that feminism isn’t about “saving” women from the global south, it’s actually about learning from them as true equals in a shared struggle.
Although this recognition is slowly trickling through, it is often too tokenistic and at times deeply patronising.
My PhD research is on Morocco where many of the women I interview identify as committed religious believers – in their society, they are the forefront of struggling for the reinterpretation of religious texts in an egalitarian light, they combat the notion of male supremacy or ultimate authority but they also – in many cases – reject the term “feminism” as a western concept which is ill fitting to their needs as Moroccan Muslim women, an import that one woman described as “another form of cultural imperialism design to alienate native women from the real source of their power” – their own culture.
While as a Muslim feminist, I am well aware of the struggles for equality within my faith, I also recognise that the problem of gender inequality cannot be laid at the feet of religion alone. In fact, poverty and authoritarianism – conditions not unique to the Islamic world, and produced out of global interconnections that implicate the west –are often more decisive.
The feminism I relate to, the feminism I draw on, is the feminism of women resisting imperialism, exploitation, war and patriarchy – it is the feminism of Indian women fighting back against rape culture, Palestinian women resisting Israeli occupation, Bengali women demanding basic safety conditions in sweat factories producing clothes for fake fashion feministas – the innumerable women of the Arab uprisings and their ongoing resistance!
When I say feminism has been hijacked by white women, I mean white culture continues to dominate the narrative in all fields and renders alternative points of view as quaint contributions permitted to confirm the eternal truth of western supremacy.
I mean the instrumentalisation of the Malala Yousafzais of this world, local heroines turned into political pawns to justify ongoing wars and occupations, which ultimately hit women hardest. Women’s education recast as a justifiable motive for western imperialism.
Malala’s example serves only to validate white feminism’s priorities and perceptions of otherised women, as in need of saving, as grateful recipients of foreign interventions.
For all the feminist justifications for the plunder of Afghanistan, its maternal death rate today stands among the highest in the world. A recent UN report blames decades of grinding conflict in addition to repressive attitudes towards women.
The same pattern is replicated elsewhere – when 200 Nigerian schools girls get kidnapped by Boko haram, rather than focus on finding the girls, the story is used to justify the ongoing global war on terror. Which incidentally, still hasn’t appeared to have helped return the girls.
There is plenty of research on the impact of conflict on women, who are among its primary victims, not only in terms of actual casualties of war, but also in their struggle for autonomy because what conflicts actually do, is polarise gender roles: masculinity becomes more aggressive and women are idealised as “the bearers of a cultural identity” – women’s bodies become part of the battle field.
This is as true of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as of Afghanistan.
And this is where white feminism continues to fail the true test of feminist solidarity in taking on-board the critiques coming from the margins. There has been far too little introspection, far too much reticence to question white supremacy
White women were active participants in, proponents of and key beneficiaries of the system of slavery in the US as well as in the colonial empires and arguably continue to be beneficiaries of imperialism and exploitation.
The cheap clothes we buy, the petrol we fill our cars with, the diamonds we covet – they are all tied into the feminist struggle because, to paraphrase bell hooks, if feminism seeks to make women equal to men, then it is impossible because western society does not view all men equally.
There can be no equality between men and women until there is a redress of the global inequities which posit whiteness at the top of human hierarchy and consequently posit white bourgeois women as the benchmark for female emancipation.
And this is where groups like Femen are part of the problem – with statements such as “as a society, we haven’t been able to eradicate our Arab mentality towards women“, because we all know that ALL Arab men hate women right?
In response to a campaign by Muslim women to actively denounce Femen as racist and patronising, Inna Shevchenko – who graces us with her presence tonight, responded “They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me’.” White saviour complex anyone?
This brand of pseudo feminism which confirms the idea of passive, voiceless women of colour who need saving from their men, if not from their own selves, is not one I recognise.
Do women in the global South struggle with issues of patriarchy?
Err – yeah – alongside all the other problems fostered by an unequal capitalist system, they also struggle with local variations on the virtually universal problem of patriarchy.
Those who seek to proclaim a hyper-arching female solidarity need to start by tackling many white women’s ongoing complicity in the broader conditions of subjugation – military and economic – which keep their so-called “sisters” in the global south down.
A South African activist once said: “Come to my space”, “respect the people in that (…)Do not come and project.”
If it takes my white privilege to amplify this message, at least it will have served one positive purpose in the broader struggle for human equality.