White Saviours, White Feminists, and Brown Women’s Voices
The figure of the ‘white saviour’ is predominantly discussed in the field of film studies, but finds its footing firmly in reality. This commonly used trope presents itself in the form of a “white messianic character [saving] a lower- or working-class, usually urban or isolated, non-white character from a sad fate” (Hughey, The White Saviour Film). From the very start of colonisation, it had been the view of white men that it was their duty to ‘save’ people of colour from their ‘savage’ existence, mainly doing so by converting them to Christianity, taking control of their lands, and exploiting their resources. Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem entitled ‘The White Man’s Burden’ encapsulates the attitude of racial superiority that fuelled and justified the colonisation of vast continents and the awful treatment of their people:
Take up the White Man’s burden –
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.
Take up the White Man’s burden –
The savage wars of peace –
Fill full the mouth of famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.
Kipling, like many others in his time, felt that due to their wealth of knowledge and cultural superiority, European and American people should proudly enlist themselves in overseas combat to help their government take control of ‘barbaric’ countries in order to end “savage wars” and “fill full the mouths of famine”. The days of Empire may be over, but the cultural hangover of the white man’s burden still remains. The White Saviour Complex is what motivates Western countries to intervene in foreign conflicts, funds charity appeals, and sparks debates about controversial cultural practices such as the veiling of women and girls in Muslim countries. In a sentence from her seminal work ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ Gayatri Spivak famously stated that “white men are saving brown women from brown men,” (92) describing the essence of the relationship between white colonisers and colonised peoples. Spivak’s specific focus on how white oppressors represent the voices of the oppressed is particularly interesting in relation to the way Malala and other brown, Eastern women are represented by the West.
In his lecture on ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ Dr Jason Campbell talks briefly about the relationship between representation and oppression. He summarises Spivak’s explanation that the oppressed do not possess a direct relationship with hegemonic power; having little power to speak or be heard, the oppressed are unable to represent themselves, so therefore require a representative to speak on their behalf. In this way, the existence of the oppressed is only justified insofar that it is recognised by the representative, and in turn the only way the representative recognises them is through their oppression. Thus, “their existence is only valid insofar as they are oppressed”. Though this explanation may seem circular, this is because it describes a circular system of oppression. The need of the oppressed to be represented only helps to maintain their status as oppressed, but is still the only way they have any hope of being listened to. I believe this is where the White Saviour Complex stems from. Due to the existence of a system of oppression that doesn’t allow for the oppressed to speak for themselves, the white man (who created and perpetuates this system of oppression) takes it upon himself, sees it as his ‘burden,’ not only to speak on the behalf of oppressed people of colour, but to impose Western ideals upon cultures very different from his own, with the earnest intent of preventing what he still sees as ‘barbarism’. The reality of the matter is that Western governments who intervene in foreign affairs prefer this “burden” to the alternative. To begin to dismantle the system of oppression, by allowing the oppressed to speak for themselves rather than speaking for them, would remove the white man from the post of representative, and in his eyes, dock him of power.
Spivak’s example of the criminalisation of Sati under British rule shows how it is particularly the native woman’s voice that is essentialised when she is spoken for; on the one hand you have Nativists claiming that all women who performed Sati wanted to do it, that “the women actually wanted to die” (Spivak 93), and on the other hand you had the British, saying that the act was barbaric and cruel and that no woman would actually want to immolate themselves, suggesting that the influence of men and religion had forced them into it. Both groups spoke for the Indian woman, without ever considering asking her themselves. Obviously if the women were asked their opinions on the matter (arguably the only opinions that were relevant in the first place), a variety of answers would have been given. Some would have agreed with the practice, others disagreed, with varying views on the topic in-between. But the fact is that due to the nature of the Indian woman’s subalternity, any attempt on her part to speak will simply fall on deaf ears. If the beliefs of all subaltern women are able to be essentialised into a singular sentence, then those with full access to hegemonic power would see no point in hearing their voices first-hand.
This issue is just as relevant in a post-colonial society as it was in a colonial one, if not more. In her essay ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?’ Lila Abu-Lughod recalls the types of questions she was asked to check over for an American panel show on the subject of women and Islam shortly after the events of September 11th 2001. She says that the questions were “hopelessly general. Do Muslim women believe ‘x’? Are Muslim women ‘y’? Does Islam allow ‘z’ for women? I asked [the presenter]: If you were to substitute Christian or Jewish wherever you have Muslim, would these questions make sense?” Again, these questions about Muslim women’s beliefs and practices presuppose that all Muslim women around the world think and feel the same things, thus dehumanising them. Treating Muslim women in this way, as if they were a herd of cattle, allows the idea to be perpetuated that it is possible to represent them with a singular set of beliefs and ideals.
Perhaps more worryingly, any interest that the West takes in the plight of Muslim women, presented in the guise of feminist concern, is more often than not a tool to instil Islamophobia into an already willing, post-9/11 Western society. As Abu-Lughod points out, discussing how, for example, Muslim women in Afghanistan are treated, rather than “exploring the history of the developments of repressive regimes in the region and the U.S. role in this history” (Abu-Lughod, 784), distracts from the harsh reality of America’s involvement in areas that came to be ruled by the Taliban. This deflects blame and causes hatred to be focused on the Islamic religion itself. This tool of misdirection is what allowed so many people to support American intervention in Afghanistan, under the idea that it would mean the ‘liberation’ of the Afghani Muslim woman. In the eyes of the West, she would tear off her oppressive burqa and rejoice at the news of her salvation by liberated white feminists, from the tyranny of Muslim men. This of course completely erases any autonomy Afghani women had in choosing for themselves to cover their heads or faces in order to practice their religion in the manner they wanted. I am reminded once again of Spivak’s phrase “white men are saving brown women from brown men”, although in this case, perhaps it is more accurate to say that ‘white feminists are saving brown women from brown men.’
In Malala’s case, the media storm created after the shooting and her subsequent transportation to the UK for medical treatment creates a very similar narrative. As Assed Baig points out, “this is a story of a native girl being saved by the white man […] the story of an innocent brown child that was shot by savages for demanding an education and along comes the knight in shining armour to save her. The actions of the West, the bombings, the occupations the wars all seem justified now, ‘see, we told you, this is why we intervene to save the natives’” (Baig, Media Diversified: Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex). This narrative ignores the tireless work that Malala did with her father for both the rights of the people in Taliban-occupied Swat valley, and for the education of girls in Pakistan. Instead of examining why a terrorist organisation would want to assassinate a teenager, Malala’s story is similarly framed as an example of the barbarism of all non-white Muslim men and the violence promoted by the Islamic faith. Malala’s voice is silenced in favour of a pseudo-feminist call to arms on the behalf of brown girls, by Western governments that are already heavily involved in the deaths of hundreds of innocent women and children.*
At the very same time, it seems the West is only interested in bridging the topic of misogyny and the tyrannical patriarchy if it involves condemning other religions, races and cultures as being morally bankrupt and inherently evil, while the issues of sexual inequality inherent in their own societies are brushed under the carpet, or worse used to show how Western women are over-privileged and should count themselves lucky. In the UK, 1 in 5 women aged 16 – 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator (Rape Crisis England and Wales). Any country that exploits the oppression of women in Islamic countries in order to shame their own female population country into silence about their own mistreatment cannot claim to have women’s interests at heart.
Of course it is perfectly valid to ask whether Malala would still be alive to speak out if the West had not intervened, and the answer is probably not. The importance of the UK’s role in treating Malala’s injuries and giving her protection since then cannot be understated. However the real issue comes with breaking the cycle of the West having to intervene for the oppressed person’s voice to be heard. Malala has her voice now, and is incredibly outspoken on the issues she campaigns for. The task now, in my mind, is making sure her voice continues to be heard, and stays free from the influence of Western discourse.
* In February 2015, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported: “At least 2,464 people have now been killed by US drone strikes outside the country’s declared war zones since President Barack Obama’s inauguration six years ago […] Of the total killed since Obama took his oath of office on January 20 2009, at least 314 have been civilians, while the number of confirmed strikes under his administration now stands at 456.” (Serle, The Bureau’s report for January 2015)
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