Women in Egypt mark the anniversary of the Arab Spring at a rally in Tahrir Square. Photo: Getty
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Feminism has been hijacked by white middle-class women

To paraphrase bell hooks: there is little point making women equal to men when not all men are equal. 

This is the transcript of a speech given by Myriam Francois-Cerrah in an Oxford Union debate on 12 Feburary. She was speaking in favour of the successful motion “This House believes that feminism has been hijacked by white middle class women”.

Ladies and Gentleman, it is a pleasure to be here with you this evening.

I know, I know – the apparent irony of my being a white middle class woman who believes feminism has been hijacked by white middle class women will, I’m certain, not be lost on you.

But – it is in many ways a vindication of my case.

After all, I am a minority within my own community – unrepresentative of Muslim women either here or in the global south, in terms of my either socio-economic profile or ethnicity, despite the frequency with which I am called upon to speak from within that subjectivity.

Before attending today, I thought long and hard about whether I should trade my place for one of my many personal heroines, women of colour whose voices are so often overridden not only by a white narrative, but white privilege, which however mitigating my headscarf might be of aspects of it – I nevertheless embody.

I ultimately decided to partake for one central reason and that is to emphasise that critique of white feminism – or white culture more broadly – is not a discussion about race – but of a political category, implying an unequal balance of power between dominant white culture, and subaltern identities. 

The term “white people” doesn’t refer to the colour of people’s skin as much as it refers to people’s identification with the dominant power relations which continue to subjugate people of colour to a second class status and relegates women of colour specifically to the bottom of the heap.

I can’t and refuse to speak for Muslim women – I speak only as a feminist Muslim woman whose solidarity lies first and foremost with the global south. And I speak as an intersectional feminist who believes race, class and gender are critical to feminist discussions.

Arundhati Roy once said: “There’s no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard.” When it comes to alternative conceptions of feminism, the feminist movement has been doggedly resistant to including alternative voices. And by including, I don’t mean merely recognising that alternative voices exist on the margins, a benevolent nod to those who don’t quite conform to “our ways”.

Nor do I mean the superficial diversity of different faces – I’m taking about the substantive diversity of different conceptions of female flourishing. I mean accepting that the white liberal secular framework is not the only acceptable lens through which women can articulate their struggles.

Rather than the predominant assumption that alternative feminist voices are playing “catch up” with western feminism, I mean realising that feminism isn’t about “saving” women from the global south, it’s actually about learning from them as true equals in a shared struggle.  

Although this recognition is slowly trickling through, it is often too tokenistic and at times deeply patronising.

My PhD research is on Morocco where many of the women I interview identify as committed religious believers – in their society, they are the forefront of struggling for the reinterpretation of religious texts in an egalitarian light, they combat the notion of male supremacy or ultimate authority but they also – in many cases – reject the term “feminism” as a western concept which is ill fitting to their needs as Moroccan Muslim women, an import that one woman described as “another form of cultural imperialism design to alienate native women from the real source of their power” – their own culture.

While as a Muslim feminist, I am well aware of the struggles for equality within my faith, I also recognise that the problem of gender inequality cannot be laid at the feet of religion alone. In fact, poverty and authoritarianism – conditions not unique to the Islamic world, and produced out of global interconnections that implicate the west –are often more decisive.

The feminism I relate to, the feminism I draw on, is the feminism of women resisting imperialism, exploitation, war and patriarchy – it is the feminism of Indian women fighting back against rape culture, Palestinian women resisting Israeli occupation, Bengali women demanding basic safety conditions in sweat factories producing clothes for fake fashion feministas – the innumerable women of the Arab uprisings and their ongoing resistance!

When I say feminism has been hijacked by white women, I mean white culture continues to dominate the narrative in all fields and renders alternative points of view as quaint contributions permitted to confirm the eternal truth of western supremacy.

I mean the instrumentalisation of the Malala Yousafzais of this world, local heroines turned into political pawns to justify ongoing wars and occupations, which ultimately hit women hardest. Women’s education recast as a justifiable motive for western imperialism.

Malala’s example serves only to validate white feminism’s priorities and perceptions of otherised women, as in need of saving, as grateful recipients of foreign interventions.

For all the feminist justifications for the plunder of Afghanistan, its maternal death rate today stands among the highest in the world. A recent UN report blames decades of grinding conflict in addition to repressive attitudes towards women.

The same pattern is replicated elsewhere – when 200 Nigerian schools girls get kidnapped by Boko haram, rather than focus on finding the girls, the story is used to justify the ongoing global war on terror. Which incidentally, still hasn’t appeared to have helped return the girls.

There is plenty of research on the impact of conflict on women, who are among its primary victims, not only in terms of actual casualties of war, but also in their struggle for autonomy because what conflicts actually do, is polarise gender roles: masculinity becomes more aggressive and women are idealised as “the bearers of a cultural identity” – women’s bodies become part of the battle field.

This is as true of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as of Afghanistan.

And this is where white feminism continues to fail the true test of feminist solidarity in talking on-board the critiques coming from the margins. There has been far too little introspection, far too much reticence to question white supremacy

White women were active participants in, proponents of and key beneficiaries of the system of slavery in the US as well as in the colonial empires and arguably continue to be beneficiaries of imperialism and exploitation.

The cheap clothes we buy, the petrol we fill our cars with, the diamonds we covet – they are all tied into the feminist struggle because, to paraphrase bell hooks, if feminism seeks to make women equal to men, then it is impossible because western society does not view all men equally.

There can be no equality between men and women until there is a redress of the global inequities which posit whiteness at the top of human hierarchy and consequently posit white bourgeois women as the benchmark for female emancipation.

And this is where groups like Femen are part of the problem – with statements such as “as a society, we haven’t been able to eradicate our Arab mentality towards women“, because we all know that ALL Arab men hate women right?

In response to a campaign by Muslim women to actively denounce Femen as racist and patronising, Inna Shevchenko – who graces us with her presence tonight, responded  “They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me’.” White saviour complex anyone? 

This brand of pseudo feminism which confirms the idea of passive, voiceless women of colour who need saving from their men, if not from their own selves, is not one I recognise.

Do women in the global South struggle with issues of patriarchy?

Err – yeah – alongside all the other problems fostered by an unequal capitalist system, they also struggle with local variations on the virtually universal problem of patriarchy.

Those who seek to proclaim a hyper-arching female solidarity need to start by tackling many white women’s ongoing complicity in the broader conditions of subjugation – military and economic – which keep their so-called “sisters” in the global south down.

A South African activist once said: “Come to my space”, “respect the people in that (…)Do not come and project.” 

If it takes my white privilege to amplify this message, at least it will have served one positive purpose in the broader struggle for human equality.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.