Why mainstream feminism needs to embrace women of colour

A participant seen holding a placard during the demonstration. Hundreds of women participated in the demonstration of "anti-sexism and patriarchy" during international women's day
6 min read
15 September, 2021
Liberal Democrat Councillor Rabina Khan discusses why white feminism is leaving Black, Asian and ethnic minority women out of the conversation and why the voices of women of colour need to be included in the feminist debate.

Everyone will experience feminism differently, especially women of colour, but white feminism is leaving Black, Asian and ethnic minority women out of the conversation. Mainstream feminism, predominantly white, still rejects women of colour.

Therefore, is it a racist ideology if it claims to speak for all women, but at the same time ignores women of colour?

When it was first established, I failed to see the voices of women of colour being amplified in the #MeToo campaign. Where was the struggle of the Muslim women so often facing physical, emotional, and structural abuse because they choose to wear the hijab?

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Historically, feminism is interconnected to colonialism, with perceptions of race, faith, class, and gender profoundly affecting contemporary mainstream feminist ideology.

Growing up in Kent, in Britain during the 1970s, I never saw anyone who looked like me – a little brown girl whose mother wore a headscarf. The first time I ever saw someone who looked like me was in a book entitled Pocahontas.

In the late 1970s, books by Black and Asian writers were not provided in school, so I was unaware that they existed. I read these books when I was about fifteen. However, it was the novel of the story of the other Mrs Rochester, a Creole woman, in the 1966 book Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys that had the most impact. The story covered Antoinette’s traumatic youth, her attendance at a convent school with other young Creole girls, and later her marriage of bribery to Mr Rochester, who was desperate for money. Her husband renamed her ‘Bertha’, eventually taking her to England from Jamaica, only to imprison her in their home. 

The novel responded to colonialism written from a female perspective. In Rhys’ novel, Antoinette is caught in an oppressive society in which she does not fully belong – either to Europe or Jamaica. Wide Sargasso Sea explores the power of relationships between men and women and encompasses feminist themes through an emphasis on female characters, non-conformity and embracing new ideas about women’s standing in society.

"White women have not walked with us within feminist movements; they have been leading us. Women of colour must be on the same platform"

I could certainly identify with Antoinette’s feeling of not belonging and of battling against preconceptions, not just as a child, but today. That feeling of not quite belonging and having to justify that I do belong; the way in which my mother felt displaced coming to Britain to join my father, and our struggle to integrate with our neighbours and neighbourhood, school, and British society.

White women have not walked with us within feminist movements; they have been leading us. Women of colour must be on the same platform. True feminism is really about the power to transform society. When middle-class white women advocate as feminists, do they actually speak for the lived experiences of women of colour, especially Muslim women?

The dictionary describes feminism as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’ In this context, if we consider rights, it relates to women’s choices and their right to exercise those choices without prejudice. This means that a woman should be able to choose what she does or does not wear – the hijab included. 

How many Muslim women write about what feminism means to them? Or is it just white feminist ‘sisters’ that have a higher platform than a Muslim telling her perspective?

Are the views of Muslim feminists ignored, or not deemed worthy of publication, because of the false assumption that Muslim women are oppressed and therefore cannot be true feminists? Most feminist writers are white and often from privileged backgrounds, so feminism has not only failed working-class women but Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority women. They have focused far too much on gender equality in prominent positions and overlooked the inequality at the bottom of the scale.

"When middle-class white women advocate as feminists, do they actually speak for the lived experiences of women of colour, especially Muslim women?"

There are two schools of thought here. In my experience, some people believe that Muslim women, especially those who wear the hijab, cannot possibly believe in women’s rights as their attire and values in life are dictated by men. This may be true for a minority of women of all races and religions, including white women, but it is certainly not true for the majority of Muslim women in the UK.

I have, however, faced misogyny from a minority of Muslim men who object to my liberalism and probably believe that I am not Muslim enough. Again, misogynistic attitudes exist everywhere and are not just confined to a race or religion, but the problem that Muslim women face is the perpetuation of stereotypes.

White feminists have long viewed their task as a struggle against men – black, brown, white – without acknowledging the realities of women of colour, how structural/systemic/institutional racism in society puts them at a disadvantage, and why the privilege of being white must be acknowledged in conversations about dismantling the patriarchal oppression to which all women are subjected.

Institutional racism is defined as ‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’.

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Historically, it is white women who have been the controlling voices of feminism, as they are not viewed as ‘cultural outsiders’. However, since statistics show that Black and Ethnic Minority women face discrimination in many areas of life, it is only fair that intersectional feminism should be at the heart of all feminist debates, protests, and written pieces.

Although we cannot profess to be experts on anyone else’s feminism, it is essential to acknowledge how different forms of discrimination intersect with gender-based discrimination to ensure that all women benefit from women’s rights.

White privilege is the societal favour that benefits white people over others in some societies, particularly if they are otherwise under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.

As a teenager, it was easy for my white peers to find the shampoo they wanted or the foundation and make-up that suited their skin. When they watched Top of the Pops, or their favourite soaps, or were entertained at the theatre, they saw people of their race representing them.

In my book My Hair Is Pink Under This Veil I explore the above topics and more, challenging outdated perceptions of Muslim women, the prejudice that I have faced in my personal and professional life, and how I have dealt with this in the way that my parents taught me to do – with politeness, dignity and determination.

"After all, feminism is not just a fight between men and women but a fight for any woman oppressed because of any difference, not just gender"

The title of the book originated from 2015 when I stood as an independent candidate in the Tower Hamlets’ Mayoral election and a smartly dressed middle-class man asked me what colour my hair was underneath my headscarf. ‘Pink,’ I replied, smiling.

In my interviews both on radio and television, I have consistently stressed the importance that the voices of women of colour need to be included in the feminism debate. After all, feminism is not just a fight between men and women but a fight for any woman oppressed because of any difference, not just gender. 

Rabina Khan is a Liberal Democrat Councillor and Special Advisor, she writes opinion pieces for various papers and regularly appears in the media.  Her book My Hair Is Pink Under This Veil was recently published by BiteBack publishers.

Follow her on Twitter: @RabinaKhan