It all starts with “I want all the women to be free and live in an equal world”. We young folks working in international development have those lofty standard goals, enthusiasm, stamina and strong faith in our cause. Sadly (or not) intention isn’t magic, and sometimes the ways that we carry out our intentions cause more harm than good.
While in the West, we are frequently schooled on just how lucky we are to be scholars in such countries like the UK and to be allowed to live the Western Way, in a country that promotes equality between men and women. We are taught to pity women, those other women, living in other places, places that included, in my case, my home country Algeria, where women do not enjoy the same rights that I do. On the surface, these lessons seem to be fairly harmless.
As a white African feminist, I picture myself as a missionary of several generations ago. Being born and raised in a privileged area, I used to assume that I have legitimacy to save those “other women” whom we learned to pity so much, simply because I am from the area and know the context. I thought that I would bring the truth on a silver platter to these oppressed women about the fact that they are being marginalised and this will miraculously change their lives and that all of them would fall to my feet thanking me for the truth I brought them.
We imagine how wonderful, how fulfilling it will be to know that we have saved these women.
What we do not take into consideration is whether and how they want us to save them.
As Teju Cole said in his essay The White-Savior Industrial Complex, “There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”
I will never be able to emphasise this point enough — the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them. The idea that, before we do anything else, the best and most important work that we can do is to listen to marginalised people, give them a platform from which they can reach a wider audience, and use it to help amplify their voices rather than taking the initiative to speak on their behalf, because again we assume we know best. This is the real work that we should be doing. Anything else — any other way of “freeing” women of colour — is at best condescending and neo-colonialist and at worst downright harmful and dangerous.
There are so many examples of white folks running to the rescue of women without considering how those they are rushing to help might feel about their “rescue.” Take FEMEN, for example, the feminist group that tried to “free” Muslim women by organising the International Topless Jihad Day, during which they held protests (topless) in front of mosques, numerous Muslim women felt that their voices were being co-opted, and disagreed with both FEMEN’s message and tactics. There are many western women who will state that Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab and that they need to be freed from the shackles of their oppressive tradition/religion, but few seem to consider the fact that telling women that they should not wear a hijab (or even ripping the scarf off a woman’s head, as many cases reported during the last 5 years all over western countries) is to continue to disempower an already marginalised group.
I guess media representation has also a huge role in redefining oppression, emphasising on regions that need changes, and influencing the public views – Internet has gone crazy over a picture of the Girls Council (picture below on the left) being established in Saudi Arabia, where the discussion panel had only men, I am not saying that this is a great representation, or that this is anywhere near acceptable, but the internet never talked as much about the Global Women Summit that happened in Paris in 2014 (picture below on the right) that had a panel filled with the exact same amount of testosterone.
A third example would be the western world’s treatment of Malala Yusufzai. And just to be clear here, I want to say, that I think that Malala is brave, and her story is worth sharing. But that doesn’t change the fact that what the western world seems to love most about Malala’s saga is the fact that her life was saved by civilised white people. The West loves to pat itself on the back for the fact that it took her away from her barbaric homeland and healed her. They feel so good about Malala’s story, because it’s one of the very few things that might convince us that the war in Afghanistan was somehow justified, and we perpetuate the feeling giving the West more credit, providing them with support and defending the idea that the West has never denied more girls an education via their missiles than the Taliban has with their bullets.“ But we don’t talk about those other little girls, the ones killed by American drone strikes. We don’t talk about the girls struck by stray American bullets. We don’t want to think about the collateral damage. We just want to believe that, somehow, the colonialist intervention was right.
What we need to do most of all is stop making it all about us, Arab and African feminists. When we cry out that we’re not like those western bad white feminists (because we think we know the context better), we are making it about us. When we ask oppressed women to take the time to sit down and educate us on the specific issues that they face and how we can be better allies, rather than doing the research ourselves by reading blogs and articles and books by these women (because our time is way more valuable than theirs and we simply cannot spend it reading), we are making it about us. When we ask why women of colour need to be so divisive and whine that we’re all in this together (obviously, we don’t think we are), we are making it about us. When we decide to swoop in and play the hero without asking what type of help is, in fact, needed, we are still making it about us.
It’s not always about us!
Written by Nawal Allal