White Feminism

liberatad_feminist_idiotsFew decades ago, a debate over the credibility of the “universality” of human rights has been raised among Third World legal writers and certain Western legal scholars. Their arguments against the universality of Human Rights have been linked to its origins being mainly written by Western philosophers and the Western natural law writers whose interpretations and understanding of HR don’t necessarily comply with and/or are not applicable to non-Western societies (Barreto, 391). In contrary to the Western view, many non-Western cultures have different understandings of how to secure the dignity of the human being depending on the philosophical and the cultural traditions of each according to their nation’s heritage. These different understandings of human dignity foster a cultural relativism and an arbitrary meaning to enculturation when it comes to creating and applying universal HR believes (Harris-Short, 4). HR’s Western origins made some scholars skeptical of its discourse because of its imperialistic nature wearing the mask of the rights to secure economic interests and resources in the lands of the so-called Third World nations. Makau Mutua argues that the price of European civilization is based on the oppression of the “other”. They have democracy because the “other” has dictators, because European democracy is paid for by the “other” resources. If the “other” has democracy, there won’t be any resources to finance Europe’s democracy. Mutua* draws a triangular analogy called “Savage, Victim and Savior” by which he describes the West taking the role of the “Savior” to rescue “Victims” from the “Savages”. Victims and Saviors are two groups of people who are only defined by the Western’s power to create interpretations and definitions. Borrowing Mutua’s analogy, my argument in this article is that White feminism deploys tactically and consciously the same analogy between Western White Feminism being saviors and non-Western Women being victims.

The term “colonization” has always directed the meaning of political and economic exploitation dragging with it a whole cultural discourse exercised over the colonized to infer its inferiority and its need for a savior. Mutua argues that Europeans perceive the rest of the world as barbaric and victims of their own barbarity, so it’s their own fault to be backward. Actually, the European narrative is based on: you’re only savage because you have to find us, so you have to be savage. Europeans created for themselves the responsibility of defining the “savage” who is there because he/she needs them. Therefore, Europe has had to empower itself with something that makes her looks “good” and better than the “other”. The European man believes in his superiority because he is civilized, so he will dominate the “other” by his own civilized culture. As a result of this, it is the White European man who decides when the “other” is suffering. The European man decides what it means for the non-European to be a victim, but non-White can’t decide when they are suffering; therefore, the “other’s” real suffering is silenced. However, when the White man was performing his colonization mission of civilizing the “other”, he was suppressing claims of feminism on his own land. For example, during the nineteenth century colonization era of Muslim countries, the British white civilized man was condemning practices of Muslim men (the savages) against Muslim women (the victims) describing women as being forced to cover their heads and minds by veiling. Concurrently, “the British Victorian man was creating Victorian theories of the biological inferiority of women and the naturalness of the Victorian ideal of the female role of domesticity”. The Victorian white man established theories that contested all claims of feminism (Ahmed, 151). Today in the 21st century, we can still see whole lists of the privileges of the White man over the White woman.  Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh listed some examples of these privileges such as: “1) My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor, 2)  I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers are, 3)  If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question, and 4)  If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press” (McIntosh).

Accordingly, I’ll argue that colonization created a structural domination of the white man over the white woman and the domination of the white woman over the “other” exotic people of color; men and women. This cultural-social power exercised by the white man to marginalize the white woman and consequently the “other” resulted in a white feminism wave that counters white male dominance, violence and marginalization over her. However, the white feminism wave has failed to consider the intersections of racism, sexism and patriarchy when calling for their rights and the “other” women’s rights just in one “universal” voice. For example, in the context of violence against women, women of color experiences of violence being identified by their race and economic class getting its origins from the structural discourse of the colonization period makes them different from the experiences of the White woman. Therefore, because of this intersectional identity of the “other woman” by being both woman and people of color, white feminism has always tended to marginalize the interest and the experience of the “other” woman as if these different life experiences don’t exist (Crenshaw, 1). In addition, white feminists although it is argued that some feminist schools take account of the “other” women; however, they propose changing the “other” women’s mind in order to reach a common universal call for rights (Engel, 1514). To illustrate more, they direct the “other” woman as the “victim” of the man of color -the savage- and white feminists consider themselves “the savior” of the other woman in the sense that they are civilized. For example, rape and sexual violence are encountered by women of all races, sexualities and classes. However, the inherited antebellum era idea of the hypersexual black male gives a valid explanation for the overrepresentation of black men in American prisons as rapists and savages in the eyes of the white feminists more than considering the black men being treated in an injustice way (Bhander/Da Silva). Therefore, the White Feminist standard of judgment makes no sense to the culture/community they are judging, so their act of judgment is an act of subjugation.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that the non-Western “other” himself/herself sometimes engages and co-opts Western discourses for his/her own purposes, but Mutua didn’t mention this. For example, Leila abu-Lughod argues that the “other” being the subaltern attempts to translate local struggles in the language of Western HR to express his/her plight to the world (Vargas, 2). Another explanation is that some African and Arab women who oppose the practice of genital mutilation encourage Western women to condemn it under the belief that they have the power to force their governments to end it (Engel, 1510). Some would use this argument to confirm the universality of white feminism HR’s claims; however, I’d argue that it’s the “other” woman’s only tool to be listened to. Gayatri Spivak** addresses the “other” woman as the subaltern in an analogy that has three steps to answer the question “Can the privileged listen?” Spivak tries to prove that the subaltern is actually silenced although she still has the right to speak out. She provides three steps to answer this qustion: 1) Can the privileged listen for the voice of subaltern, 2) Can the privileged hear the voice of the subaltern, and 3) Can the privileged listen to the voice of the subaltern? Therefore, in order to listen to the “other” woman, the white feminists choose who they listen to. They listen to those who they share with them the same concerns. For example, in the West, they feel concerned listening to subaltern women who describe their agony -perceiving themselves- as “victims” of the female circumcision. However, the white feminists silence the subaltern women who passed through the experience of female circumcision and still support it, or rather they can just say that these women are brainwashed; silencing them. The “other” women are stating their support but they are not listened to, so they are in step two but they didn’t reach step three. Spivac, also, discussed the symbolic genital mutilation performed by Western women such as plastic surgery as being the normal accession of womanhood, but only accepted because it is exercised by Western feminists. This is exactly Mutua’s argument: although both cultures are arbitrary, the European culture is better than the “other” culture in a certain instance.

However, it is still worth noting that there are many different white feminist schools that possess different approaches when it comes to discussing the “other” women’s experiences and engagements in the feminism movements. For example, 1) liberal feminists are the most committed movement to the legal doctrine of HR that goes against female circumcision; however, they are the least likely to recognize any differences among women of different cultures and backgrounds. They don’t consider any opposing voice to the call of “eliminating female circumcision practices”. 2) Radical feminists, on the other hand, are the most critical on international HR being “maleness” based and created. Therefore, they are able to recognize differences between women; however, they don’t acknowledge the presence of the “other” woman (Engel, 1512). Karen Engel*** argues that the reason behind this is that radical feminist’s focus on the dichotomy of HR between male and female more than identifying the existence of the “other” or her different struggles or suggestions. 3) A third example – I would say moderate- is the doctrinal advocates who take into account the existence of the “other” woman; however, they don’t really engage her. Actually, the doctrinalists when faced with the example of female circumcision, they attempt to change the “other” woman’s mind about the practice rather than respecting her decision of doing it. They rather make her “choose a doctrinal position with which she might agree” (Engel, 1512). Therefore, they succeed to put the “other” woman in the category of the “victim” that Mutua mentioned. In fact, doctrinalists recognize the difficulty of enforcing a particular HR law on all women especially with the example of female circumcision because of cultural relativism; however, they still argue for a universal HRs.

They believe that they can remove the obstacle in front of the idea of universality by convincing the “other” with changing her mind. “Doctrinalists, therefore, deal with the tension between cultures by acknowledging the tension and then working around it” (Engel, 1513/1514). In conclusion, the three schools imagine –create a picture- of the “other” woman in their minds without real understand of her approach, which in turn makes the “other” woman not understanding the white feminist approach and just perceive it as more dominance and intervention beside that of the man. Accordingly, Mutua argues that the West tries to draw lines for others’ culture validity, while these lines are arbitrary. Therefore, drawing lines according to the West preferences is invalidated. For example, the concept of harm is relative. There is nothing as “objective harm”; instead there are objective alterations (changes) which we -most of the time- see as harm. However, are they really harmful? If we take the example of female circumcision trying to draw the lines for its validity, these lines are arbitrary. Therefore, individual choices to things the West disagree with are invalidated.

The White feminist movements don’t consider in their imagination of the “other” woman the cultural relativism and accumulative experiences of the “other” heritage. Actually, the Third World women have always been seen as a contribution of cheap labor for industries, agriculture and domestic services, especially when men get recruited to work away from their families. This tradition was rooted and kept working since the legacy of the colonial rule that made local women even become providers of sex industry not only cheap labor(Charlesworth, 620). “To local men, the position of their women was symbolic of and mirrored their own domination: while colonialism meant allowing the colonial power to abuse colonized women, resistance to colonialism encompassed reasserting the colonized males’ power over their women” (Charlesworth, 621). These circumstances have never been included in the history of HR nor in the White feminist imagination of the “other” woman. Meanwhile, in European countries women of color employment experience has multiple dimensions that result from the interaction of race and gender. They are burdened with childcare responsibilities, lack of job skills and poverty as a result of class and gender oppressions, racial discriminatory selections and unfair housing practices because of their color. Therefore, observable class differences are noted between white women and women of color because of distribution of social resources according to their race and gender. As a result, women of color are usually vulnerable to spousal violence as many of them depend on their husbands for living and because they fear threats of deportation. Likewise, immigrant women of color bear domestic violence and battering because of their dependence on men to provide them with information regarding their legal status. Women of color are unfairly situated in the economic, political and social worlds, so when White feminism efforts are taken on behalf of them calling for their rights, they are least likely to gain their needs of equality compared to women who are racially privileged. To sum up, “the failure of feminism to interrogate race means that the resistance strategies of feminism will often replicate and reinforce the subordination of people of color, and the failure of antiracism to interrogate patriarchy means that antiracism will frequently reproduce the subordination of women” (Crenshaw, 2/3/4/5).

Some critiques against Mutua and the inability of White feminism argued that even if the origins of HR are basically from the West and even if they don’t include all cultures, it is the only single paramount virtue to pay homage for people in the world. Besides, Human Rights can originally be Western but still there are some norms that societies can still agree on despite disagreements on its metaphysical origins. They say it’s better to be realistic rather than being metaphysical (Shemtob, 4). Others just disagree with the whole issue of Westernization, capitalism and imperialism, and say that Mutua and his school of followers are just socialist-unrealistic debaters against HR. Some legal writers criticize Mutua for saying “The idea of HR –the quest to craft a universal bundle of attributes with which all societies must endow all human beings- is a noble one”, while still arguing against it although it is noble (Pollman, 103).

As a reply to the critiques, if HR is the only paramount for people of the world, this is only from the Western perspective which is mainly Mutua’s argument. He argued it is the method of neo-colonization and exploitation of resources by the West, so if the idea is noble, the application is mere exploitation. It is a liberal democratic project to ensure sources for successful economies that will results in the so-called democratic environments. Therefore, the West democracy depends on the “other” authoritarian regimes. This has appeared clearly when the Western governments were encouraging democracy and equality; they were oppressing people of color on their own lands and supporting the authoritarian governments of the so-called Third World. But their rhetoric has always been that it’s the Third World people’s fault not trying to evolve their own systems that support democracy and equality. Besides, there are truly some norms that “could” make a collective agreement but there remains the fact that who will interpret the meaning of applying them? Is it the powerful West or the uncivilized, uneducated “other”? Finally, calling analysts “socialists” referring to Marx is not really a counter argument. Marx called for some ideas that proved its inability to be applied, but the same goes to capitalism, White feminism, and many other projects initiated by Western Europeans. Actually, colonialism itself is a black hole in the European history that is not even recorded or written down in the Human Rights’ discourse.

Esraa Osama is a graduating senior at The American University in Cairo, studies Political Science, specializes in International Relations and International law; blogger and writer.

Cited Work

Ahmed, Leila. “THE DISCOURSE OF THE VEIL”. “THE DISCOURSE OF THE VEIL”. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. Yale University Press, 1992. 144–168.

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Charlesworth, Hilary/Christine Chinkin/ Shelley Wright. The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 85, No. 4 (Oct., 1991), pp. 613-645 Published by: American Society of International Law. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2203269


Engel, Karen. “Female Subjects of Public International Law: Human Rights and the Exotic Other Female”. 26 New England Law Review. (1992)Vol.26: 1509.


Harris-Short, Sonia. “Listening to ‘the Other’? The Convention on the Rights of the Child,” Melbourne Journal of International Law 2 (2001): 316


McIntosh. “The Male Privilege Checklist.” Alas a Blog. Alas, 29 May 2006. Web. 15 Dec. 2015. http://amptoons.com/blog/the-male-privilege-checklist/


Mutua, Makau. “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights”. Harvard International Law Journal, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 201-245, 2001


Pollmann, Christopher. “Human Rights Between Critique And Moralization.” Human Rights Review 5.1 (2003): 99-111. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.


Shemtob, Zachary Baron, Human Rights and Wrongs: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Human Rights Skepticism (February 22, 2009). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1792904 orhttp://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1792904


Vargas, Claret. ” Victor Montejo’s Testimonio: Appropriations and Critiques of Human Rights Discourses.” Postcolonial Text, Vol 7, No 1 (2012). Web. 15 Dec. 2015.


Williams Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241-1299.


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