Why I don’t need ‘empowering’

So, my school slapped my face onto a marketing poster. It’s a (mostly) candid photo of me studying outside with my earphones in, head down, rocking a peach headscarf that just screams ‘we have diversity!’ My initial reaction was naturally your typical teenage-girly embarrassment, before alarm bells went off in my head, as I noticed the tagline next to my photo. Printed in white letters were three innocent words to market my school: ‘empowering young women’.

Now, that seems like a perfectly innocuous, even inspirational, phrase. Paired with any other pupil in a generic school blazer and it would have captured a lovely sentiment. Making the decision to juxtapose the action of ‘empowering’ with a visibly Muslim female, however, immediately emphasises all the political baggage surrounding that word, whether that’s the intention or not. Muslim girls are constantly bombarded with the idea that we must be ‘liberated’ by the West. And by overtly referencing ‘empowerment’, you implicitly introduce its inverse: ‘oppression’. We must be saved from ourselves, freed from our savage cultures and rescued in spite of religion and its confines. Here’s the issue:

I was empowered before I got here.

Suddenly, my image has been transformed into some Malala-type figure being saved by the power of western education. But the greatest restraints I face are people who stereotype me as a Muslim female, outsiders able to reduce me to an instrument to validate their political narratives (I’m not including my school as part of this category, that would be bonkers.)

Though they never intended to give off a less than positive message, it shows a lack of social awareness. I could be reading into it too much, but I’m an English student – I analyse language! Words have meaning. Sometimes they have connotations we don’t intend. While I don’t expect my predominantly white Surrey private school to see words through a minority lens, I do expect them to be receptive to learning about issues that their minority students pick up on. My school has generally been open and accepting; they accommodated me when I started wearing hijab almost four years ago. I’m grateful. But, if you pause, you can still perceive the subtle scent of pumpkin spice and white feminism in the air.

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Artist’s impression of me noticing the poster

I’ve found a cultural disparity with the words we pick up on; most Asians and Muslims I’ve shown the poster to immediately responded with ‘that’s so funny!’ before nodding their heads as I explained my frustrations. We’re hyper-aware of the politicised language that surrounds us. I understand that my school is a predominantly white institution trying to be inspiring and celebratory – but I also feel that it’s symptomatic of a broader issue. It was also seen outside my common room, in a similar poster of a pupil on a school trip to Zambia, smiling into a camera, as she holds a small black boy in her arms. To some, it’s a subtle indication of buying into the whole ‘White Saviour’ narrative.

The ‘White Saviour’ is a trope used in literature, film and media. Think of Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’, ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ or even ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. Think of morally righteous white people saving people of colour from either their own barbarism, or from oppression. Many of these works are well-intentioned, but I’m reminded of the words of T.S Eliot: ‘Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.’

Girls are told that they don’t need princes to save them. Let’s tell brown girls that they were powerful before white people stepped in.

The Muslim Woman

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