Move Over: We Don’t Need Your White Middle-Class Feminism 0 345

In 2018 on International Women’s Day I stood in Russell Square in London surrounded by both women and men of various backgrounds, however, what we all had in common was our hopes for a better future for the oppressed women of the world. By this, I mean all women, those of different religions, races, ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities and so on. Women inhabit different bodies, different lives, and different beliefs, and to homogenise them under the category of white-middle-class feminism is the greatest challenge we face.

I was first ‘formerly’ exposed to feminism in secondary school when we studied the suffragette movement. No one is denying that this was a foundational moment, but I think it’s time to move on from this. Understandably, the representation that the suffragettes gained was limited to white middle-class women (you have to start somewhere, I guess), but there is no reason that this group of privileged women should continue to represent women today who are oppressed in more than one way. Emmeline Pankhurst might have helped women in Britain gain the right to vote, but what about the women who exist outside our whitewashed and Eurocentric school curriculums? How many years will it take for them to be the focus of our education? Maya Angelou featured heavily on my A-Level English Literature reading list, but I cannot help but think in retrospect that this was a token representation. There was no real effort to represent women from the margins of literature and history. It seems as if only successful minorities are recognised by institutions, and even then they exist in constant comparison to ‘model’ white women.

For too long, our discussions and narratives of twenty-first-century feminism have been dictated by this dominant group of women, who constantly fail to recognise their privilege. ‘Free the nip’ was a movement that begun in 2012 circulating both online and offline. Yes, feminism should give women control of their bodies and the representation of their bodies, but these ideas do not extend to women who choose to wear the hijab. If we can allow women to free their nipples and burn their bras, and even give them a platform of representation while they’re at it, then why is the same sentiment not expressed to Muslim women?

Last year, when Maryam Pougetoux made the decision of wearing her headscarf on French national television, it was highly politicised and considered a direct attack on the secularism of the French state. Prominent French feminists came out in opposition to Pougetoux, including the French gender-equality minister. Following this, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published a caricature of her on their front page. Not once did Pougetoux politicise her headscarf, it was those around her that did. If we fought against the politicisation and sexualisation of female bodies then why was this same energy not extended in this case?

For too long, the hijab has been represented by the west as a tool of oppression used by Muslim men on Muslim women. Although this may be true in some circumstances, it is clear that the sexual and bodily freedom of white women is used to suppress the religious beliefs of muslim women. In ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote ‘white men are saving brown women from brown men,’ but today the tides have shifted. It is white middle-class women who are taking on the humanitarian mission of saving all other women who are unlike them. In the case of Maryam Pougetoux and Somalian-American politician Ilhan Omar we have seen what happens when these ‘other’ women speak out. Opposition, defamation and mockery fall heavy on them. But the messages of these women are clear: we do not need saving.

Allowing these women to represent and speak for the rest of us is what continues to divide feminist movements today. Even though I have only discussed the struggles of muslim feminists today, I believe that as intersectional feminism grows, we must remember that how we practice our feminism is just as important as why we practice our feminism. Our feminism should not be about our personal oppression as individuals, but the different levels and types of oppression women face across the world. With each movement we take to make the world a better place for women, we must recognise our own privileges, because a single and narrow worldview has never benefitted any movement.

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I’m a third year Comparative Literature at King’s College London. 3 words to sum me up? Books, Bollywood and biryani.

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