The Ugly Truth About Imperial Feminism


Following International Women’s Day, there remains a troublesome reality not acknowledged by the mainstream feminist movement. This unspoken truth about the rise of faux feminism and its exclusion of black and minority ethnic women remains a reality plaguing the movement’s claim of progressivity. Feminism and female equality should be a cause inclusive to all women despite background, race, religion, or economic status. Unfortunately, as many failed to mention amongst the bustle of yesterday’s events, a sense of Western superiority has dominated feminism for decades.

Many modern feminist organizations continually fail to take responsibility for ‘imperial feminism,’ a concept that has plagued the movement and caused detriment to many communities. Imperial feminism bestows the myth that “other” women need saving, often by the judgements of white Western women. It is a reminder of the colonial history that defines our modern world, shaping the current systems of power and continually oppressing its victims.

This hijacking of the feminist narrative has bestowed great burden on the lives of black and minority ethnic women as well as transgender and disabled communities. It allows for privileged women to define liberation by their own terms, subjecting the “other” to stereotypes of oppression. The most notable example of this phenomenon is the Westerner’s correlation of hijab with oppression, when in fact many women choose to wear the traditional garment.

The consequence of this is that the dominant image of a liberalized woman takes on the form of western culture and consequently dismisses anyone else deviating from this norm as in need of saving. It essentially strips women of color of their agency, while creating a platform for white women to dominate the conversation.

Undoubtedly, the prevalence of imperial feminism can be linked to a long history of colonialism and empire. Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism helped promote these views by essentially pinpointing oppressive and inferior behaviours to the “oriental eastern nations.” He wrote, “There’s still so much oppression that these women have to endure.” His book justified the intervention of the West as genuine efforts to help “save” the East from its misogyny and savagery.

Women of color were subjugated to the intervention of the West and assumed to be incapable of helping themselves. As a consequence these women continue to be marginalized by the very movement meant to elevate them. However, this paradigm of thought also proves harmful to women of the West. It assumes the West is a society superior to all others, lacking the misogyny that cripples other communities. In reality, as recent movements such as #MeToo have shown, misogyny prevails in all communities of the world and no one race is immune.

Undermining feminism as a movement of equality remains a legacy to preserve racial hierarchy. For example, in North America, women who are oppressed by gendered systems of power are at the same time perpetuators of injustice against other women deemed “less worthy” by an institutionalized racial order. As such, some women choose to protect racial hierarchy even at the stake of damaging the progress for female equality. This is evident in that 52% of white women voted for Trump, an extremely patriarchal figure accused of sexual violating multiple women.

Women’s progress will continue to hit a brick wall if feminism fails to address its systematic shortcomings. Equality can only be achieved if women of all races, religions, and backgrounds are given the agency to fight for their freedoms.

In order to ensure effectiveness, feminism needs to adopt an intersectional approach, leaving behind its imperialistic ideologies in favour of equality. Authentic feminism, in its truest form, should never define what liberalization looks like, but instead fight the systems of power that prevent individuals from defining it for themselves. Dismantling the remnants of the colonial beast will not be easy, as the ideologies are prevalent and ingrained throughout society, but if successful the result will bring about significant change- change that is inclusive to all.

Cameron de Matteis