The manipulation of feminist rhetoric to further colonialist agendas, steal land, trample over the bodies of women of colour, and actively attempt to erase their indigenous presence on a specified territory is unfortunately a phenomenon very much alive and thriving today. The portrayal of women of colour which seemingly justifies their further oppression is facilitated by an Orientalist discourse that creates an exaggerated and distorted, a-historical and de-contextual image. This image is reproduced and helps to validate the oppressive actions of those who wish to save these ‘uncivilized’, ‘irrational’, and ‘inferior’ peoples.
The creation and application of binaries, such as rational vs. savage and liberated vs. victim, are fundamental to this damaging discourse. The definitions of these separate categories, and what it means to be ‘liberated’, are set by those who wield power, and are forcibly applied with an unquestioning belief in the superiority of their ways. Neglecting the heterogeneity and complexity of these regions, and replacing an accurate understanding of the different forms of oppression and systematic power relations at play when creating these binaries and categories, and when setting and applying standards of liberation, leads to a glaring lack of intersectionality in this purported ‘activism’. There is truly something wrong when we still use the narratives of nineteenth century colonial men evidencing the veil as the archetypal symbol of inferiority and manipulating feminist rhetoric to justify imperialism. That we are still viewing women of colour through a hegemonic lens, which at times reduces them to voiceless beings and at times bolsters their hyper-visibility when it serves our pre-conceived understanding of the way they are and the way they must be, is cynical and detrimental to the cause we are supposedly fighting for.
Furthermore, the creation and application of such binaries implicitly ignores the efforts that still need to be made for feminism in the communities of those who are ‘liberated’ and freeing others from the shackles of patriarchy. It ignores the fact that the patriarchy is global, and not inherent to the ‘West’ or ‘East’. Institutions everywhere are steeped in misogyny, people everywhere must unlearn what patriarchy has internalised within us. What we should also accept is that our institutions are steeped in racism, and that we must unlearn what centuries of colonialism and racism marks in our lives. Misusing one form of oppression to further marginalize a group of people whose lives are destroyed by misogyny and racism is not liberating in any sense of the word.
The use of feminist rhetoric in this manner in fact has the potential to exacerbate patriarchal structures within the communities that need ‘rescuing’. When the cause is co-opted by some and is evidently used to harm everyone in the community, the task for feminists who belong to these communities obviously becomes more difficult. Crystallizing the image of their partners, husbands and brothers as aggressive and barbaric, and reinforcing lazy Orientalist tropes which seek to portray all people of colour as inferior, clearly does harm to a vital cause that is supposed to be emancipatory but instead presents itself as another tool of oppression when used by some.
The way in which we can help to dismantle patriarchy is not by stifling grassroots feminist movements led by women of colour who have an accurate understanding of the systems of oppression they must challenge, and who have an accurate understanding of how misogyny, classism and racism intersect to control their lives. It is not by ignoring and silencing them and replacing their invaluable work which can effectively bring change to women in their communities. Telling women that they should do so and so, and that if you were them you would do this and that, is not how we achieve sisterhood and liberation. Not identifying, understanding and critiquing power relations in all of our interactions is not how we achieve liberation.
Listening, educating ourselves, and knowing when to assert our opinion in the feminist activism of women of colour is perhaps a step towards achieving liberation.