OPINION: The hypocrisy of white feminism

SD presents award to Madeleine Albright
Former U.S. Secretary of State and Scripps College’s 2016 commencement speaker Madeleine Albright refused to acknowledge the Rwandan genocide and said that U.S. sanctions on Iraq resulting in the deaths of approximately 500,000 children were “worth it.” (Courtesy: Ash Carter via Wikimedia Commons)

Feminism is supposed to be an ideology rooted in equality and inclusivity. But growing up, I never identified with mainstream feminism because it seemed to only center one type of woman: a white, upper or middle class, able-bodied, straight woman. 

As a young Muslim girl growing up in the wake of 9/11, I always felt at odds with mainstream feminism as those around me suggested that Islam was contradictory to feminism. We are all familiar with the stereotypes that saturate popular media depicting Muslim women as oppressed, and without agency over what they wear or any other aspect of their lives. 

It wasn’t until years later that I began to understand how U.S. imperialism and military involvement in predominantly Muslim countries shaped the West’s reductive perceptions of Muslim women. Soon after, it became clearer how Western feminism has been repeatedly weaponized to further Western imperialism across the Global South. 

Mainstream Western feminism is often deeply hypocritical and centers white, affluent women. Not only does this feminism exclude those outside of the racial and class hegemony, but it also has been historically employed to justify colonial and imperial rule by using rhetoric about “liberating” or “saving” women in the Global South. One of the earliest examples of this was in colonial India, when British feminists claimed they were “saving” Indian women from practices such as child marriage by colonizing the country.

British feminists relied on a popular colonial concept: “the white man’s burden,” or the idea that it is the white man’s obligation to civilize brown and Black populations through colonization. British feminists saw Indian women as victims who needed saving from their religious and cultural practices. Though these ideas and rhetoric seem antiquated, this is the same rhetoric that was used by Laura Bush in 2001 to justify the U.S. invasion in Afghanistan. 

In a 2001 speech, Laura Bush said, “Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror … Because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan … Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes … The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” In this speech, Bush draws on the colonial discourse of the West’s obligation to “civilize” non-white people.

In both the case of British feminists in colonial India and American feminists in the 21st century claiming to liberate Muslim women in the Middle East, white women position themselves as the saviors of women in the Global South, furthering imperialism without considering the agency of the women they claim to be “liberating.” War, occupation and military violence perpetuate the very violence these white women claim they are liberating other women from. 

Another woman who embodies the hypocrisy of white, mainstream feminism is Madeleine Albright. Albright is celebrated as the first woman Secretary of State and a feminist icon. She was even the commencement speaker at Scripps College’s 2016 graduation

Albright was also the U.S. representative on the U.N. Security Council during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 that tragically took about 800,000 lives. During the genocide, Albright refused to recognize the situation as a genocide, preventing U.N. peacekeeping forces from being deployed to the region. The genocide of Rwanda was one of the bloodiest atrocities of the late 20th century. Rwandan women faced the brunt of much of this violence, with around 250,000 women experiencing rape and sexual violence.

The bloody genocide in Rwanda went on for 100 days, and evidence shows that the U.S. was aware of the violence that was occurring and could have taken action to prevent it. However, U.S. politicians such as Albright refused to even acknowledge the genocide. This led to an innumerable loss of lives. It is puzzling why the U.S. and other Western countries were aware of a genocide occurring and had the resources to intervene, but made no effort to do so. Stopping the genocide in Rwanda did not serve the interests of Western powers, and U.S. foreign policy has repeatedly shown us that the lives of Black and brown people are valued less than those of white people.

During Albright’s time as Secretary of State, the U.S. also imposed economic sanctions on Iraq that were said to have caused the death of approximately 500,000 children. When asked in an interview with “60 Minutes” if the sanctions were worth the deaths, Albright responded, “We think the price is worth it.” 

It is deeply disturbing to know that Albright is celebrated as a feminist icon while her inaction allowed a genocide to occur in Rwanda and the sanctions that she implemented in Iraq cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. It is yet another indicator of how feminism is only employed when it is convenient to imperial or colonial powers, often at the expense of women and children in the Global South. 

These contradictory elements of feminism abound in contemporary mainstream feminism as well. Priyanka Chopra epitomizes the hypocrisy that embodies mainstream white feminism. Although Chopra is a woman of color, she continuously aligns herself with whiteness, even modeling in advertisements for several skin lightening products

She also capitalizes from the exploitation of the most disenfranchised of her Indian community. While claiming to champion women’s rights, Chopra is a vocal supporter of Narendra Modi, who she even invited to her lavish wedding with Nick Jonas. 

Modi is the current prime minister of India and has been complicit in the massacre of Muslim Indians in Gujrat. His political platform is rooted in hate of Muslims and Dalits, or individuals who exist outside of the established caste hierarchy in India. Modi has embraced and perpetuated Hindutva, or the ideology that Indian nationality should be tied to Hindu identity. Furthermore, his Citizenship Amendment Act came under global scrutiny earlier this year for creating a national registry that would expedite citizenship to Hindu Indians while targeting Muslim and Dalit Indians, effectively making it harder for Indians from disenfranchised backgrounds to gain citizenship. 

By endorsing a violent and Islamophobic political figure, Chopra chooses to be a “feminist” only when it is convenient to her own interests. Modi’s Hindu nationalist party is the ruling party of India, and it is growing in popularity in the U.S. diaspora, as Hindu nationalists have been some of the biggest supporters of Trump. Chopra has benefitted from aligning herself with this ideology. Her so-called “feminism” exists at the expense of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in the Indian community. 

Feminism has the capacity to be a liberatory ideology that advances equality for all women. But the mainstream idea of feminism only centers white Western women and advances the agenda of imperial powers. This is apparent from when feminism was used as a justification for colonization, to the employment of feminism as a justification for the U.S.’s military actions in the Global South. We must continue to critically examine how mainstream feminism is functioning and who it is serving.

Sofia Ahmed SC ’21 is a politics major from Arizona. She is passionate about storytelling and enjoys writing as a form of healing and processing her experiences.

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