Female Empowerment and White Saviourism
21 JANUARY 2022
Despite what the popular Western discourse might suggest, there are many women in the Middle East and Africa who are empowered.
As someone working to empower marginalised women, I actively follow stories of women succeeding in their fields and living with independence. However, I can’t help but notice that the female empowerment discourse in this country is tinged with white saviourism — ‘empowered women’ tend only to be White, European or American, whereas women in other continents tend to be portrayed as requiring rescuing.
This does not mean that there aren’t women in those countries who are suffering and oppressed, but then there is the same problem in the U.K..
There is an issue of visibility and bias here.
African and Arab women are not automatically oppressed just because of where they live. There are countless examples of women making independent, successful lives for themselves and improving the lives of others.
Black and Brown girls should be able to see that there are successful women out there who like them that our media cares about. We need diverse representation to counter the entrenched biases that lead to misinformation and discrimination.
If the people who talk about empowering oppressed women are serious about doing so, they should do more than just a photo op and celebrate empowered women from all backgrounds — otherwise, it’s little more than tokenism.
The Middle East is full of development and innovation, and yet often it is portrayed as little more than a source of oil, poverty, corruption, or the favoured holiday hotspot for the wealthy Western elites.
The Forbes ’30 under 30’ list regularly garners widespread press attention for its annual list of successful young people to watch and, whilst this country’s media often keeps a keen eye on European and American figures, very little focus is shifted towards the empowered women of Asia.
Ironically, anyone who has actually been to the Middle East will know for themselves how many businesses are owned by women and how much change is driven by women. Whilst it could be argued that these women exist within the specific environment of their own cultures and countries, this would apply to any woman, and a European, ethnocentric lens is by no means accurate — or right.
Many in the U.K., no doubt, associate the Middle East with women being banned from driving, and yet a prominent figure at the recently controversial Formula One Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was the Race Ambassador, Reema Juffali. Juffali is the first ever professional female racing driver and has recently been climbing the ranks in racing series in the U.K..
Despite this happening in England, she has received very little media attention beyond the rare, occasional article, and some whispers from the motorsport sector — a stark contrast to the many ‘record breaking’ headlines that we see on a near daily basis on any kind of event.
The ban on women driving was certainly not lifted purely through the efforts of men, and yet such a momentous occasion worthy was barely reported on in detail internationally.
This is just one example of the many ways in which the female empowerment agenda has been consumed with a certain level of White ethnocentrism, if not Euro-American bias.
We won’t achieve full women’s empowerment until we acknowledge the different kinds of empowered women all across the world, and we certainly won’t achieve full women’s empowerment if some refuse to countenance the idea of women from other parts of the world being empowered.
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