Intimate Outsider

Note: This is a dialogue that has taken months to articulate, Numa and I have been talking about allyhood, groups and new modes of organising — important to remember this dialogue has no end — we are just certain about one thing, if any speculation around solidarity is not a dialogue, a mutual engagement then it holds no value.

Numa: When you suggested that we start discussing Islam, I wasn’t entirely sure where you wanted to go with this discussion/talk. Talking about Islam certainly hasn’t figured much in our conversations, so I was like, huh?, where did that suggestion come from? But thinking about it now, I recall what you said when you first introduced this idea of this series to me. The assumption made by many is that because we are South Asian women, we will be natural allies.

Well, to be fair, I think because of our melanin count we DO have some shared experiences/ similar experiences that made it possible as individuals to identify with each other. Of course, that’s just on an individual level and it wouldn’t necessarily be the same for myself and another person who looks like me (my mother for example).

Yes, there are differences, like religion. I was going to say, it is interesting that this is clearly a big signifier of difference in your geo-political location, where everyone is more or less the same race, but for me, it wasn’t the first difference that occurred to me. Growing up in a majority white space, and having been raised in a family that while Muslim, is not outwardly read as Muslim by most white people (I don’t wear a headscarf, my father doesn’t have a massive beard etc.), our main signifier is our clearly South Asian looks.

The other day, my father approached a traffic warden to ask about parking in the neighbourhood we were in and the traffic warden put his hands together in greeting (Namaskar), and asked my father whether he knew Shah Rukh Khan. Anyway, my point is that I think this kind of lumping all South Asians into one homogeneous mass, kind of rubbed off on me.

When I meet South Asian people here, we are kind of immediately connected by this bond of shared racism that we face, and intra-group tensions due to religious/regional differences, at least to me, are not something that I think about actively. It’s not like when I meet somebody white, and I immediately think, how will the fact that I am different to them influence the way they behave towards me.

In fact, I kind of feel like, whenever I meet anyone who is foreign/POC, there is this immediate connection that is forged because when you live somewhere where everyone else is nothing like you, anyone who is a little bit like you becomes a friend/ally.

Me: Yes don’t you know? We brown women are all alike! We have the same needs and if you squint really hard, we’ll look the same from a distance too! As you suggested one time, maybe we all come from the secret clone factories. But I digress. It’s fascinating you said “people of the same race” — while it is true — what is strange is, we don’t see ourselves as “races” rather as castes and communities, most of which are almost always on opposite ends. When I think back about my childhood ideas around caste and communities, they are so strongly influenced with the dominant Hindu nationalism, even though I don’t remember ever really believing in God or a religion. Hindu nationalism learnt firsthand from my immediate family who’d wish Pakistan would lose every time there was an India vs Pakistan match, watching the whole neighbourhood taking immense amount of pride when we’d hear the Pakistani soldiers shot during the Kargil war, seeing most people I know fly into a rage whenever Kashmir’s “integrity” into the Indian nation-state was mentioned, having people I looked up to in my family believe that the Godhra riots were “provoked”, having teachers constantly talk about “dignity in all labour” but saying that certain jobs like scavenging and garbage collecting are not for “people like us” in the same breath, being punished for playing with children from slums, being punished for publicly declaring my family as casteist — these are memories that I carry with my body. So while you may feel some sort of connection based on “shared oppression” — however you and the other person define that — or you may start organising, forming alliances based on some similar marginalisations, here, more often than not, even the people we’d categorise under “WOC” or “third world women” have such diverse ideologies, needs, histories and geographies of exclusion (which go both ways), that sometimes I see people allying themselves with [x] community in some far off country, rather than the person sitting next to them in the bus*.

Going to the example you gave, whenever I meet anyone who I think I can potentially work or associate with, usually I have to make sure our ideas of feminism(s), communalism and casteism are somewhat similar — otherwise I’d get stuck in the rut of Hindu nationalist feminism(s), where the imagined community and emancipation is only for the select few. As is customary, I have no answers, I’m just wondering how can we translate our friendship beyond just an individual level, when and if we want to organise around lines of race, nationality and/or ethnicity?

*Whether this alliance is problematic or not, isn’t my place to judge.

Numa: Oh answers, why so elusive? I wish I had answers, but I think there is probably no hard and fast rule regarding how the translation process works.

I remember having a conversation with my father about Hell once. It’s commonly believed in Islam that non-believers will go to Hell (I don’t know the theological details, there may be nuance I am missing…anyway). So I asked my father whether he really believed all the people in this world who were not Muslim would go to Hell. My father came to Germany in the 1970s, at a time where there weren’t all that many POCs, and many of his dearest friends were non-Muslims. Some of the best people he’d ever met, people he had the utmost respect for, were non-Muslims.

He took some time to answer my question and I could see him thinking about those people, and it was clear that when he answered, knowing them had influenced his answer. He said he didn’t believe that good people, irrespective of their religion, would go to Hell.

I don’t know, maybe that’s a bad example, but in this instance his attitude towards an entire group of people was defined by the relationships he’d forged with individuals in that group. And I guess that’s often the first step when alliances are formed? Whether that’s enough, and what the next step is, I’m not sure, but dehumanization is key to fostering oppression. So constant reinforcement of humanization is important when you do the alliances thing?

When I think about my attitude towards -isms that don’t affect me directly, it’s the thought of hurting people I care for, who are affected by these -isms, that makes me pause the most. I don’t want to hurt them, so I have to check myself. But then, doing that isn’t enough because there’s an entire system out there that hurts them. If I want to stop hurting them, I need to dismantle that system. But is that enough? What comes next? Do you need more to form stronger alliances?

When I think about the rise of Islamophobia, sometimes I think that it would be easy to distance myself. I’m not particularly religious, and my family is quite private about how they practice their faith.. We fit into the model minority mold, we could probably survive unscathed. But then, I think about my brother whose age, whose skin colour, whose name, mean that he’ll have to try much harder to remain unscathed.

If I’m tempted to abandon my own group, what makes people not in my group stick around? How do you feel about Islamophobia, having grown up in upper-caste Hindu nationalist environment? Do you think of yourself as an ally to Muslims in the fight against anti-Muslim sentiments?

It’s important to note that it was at this point that Numa and I were having various technological, semiotic and semantic barriers and we didn’t write for a while in the middle, there were some personal barriers between us, where we went days without communicating with each other . While the post in its entirety looks like a seamless text, it certainly wasn’t un-fissured when we were writing.

Me: I love how you said humanisation is important for solidarity and forming alliances, you’d think that would be Step One of being any one’s ally. But too often, we’re just boxing people as “causes” we support — so being the nice liberal conservative I was raised to be, I learnt early on to say how I think all communities across India are all “equal”, so just like the national anthem I’d say that I talk to Hindu Muslim Sikh Bangala people, people reduced to labels I must use to show how progressive I was; in a similar way, almost every Governmental institution will have photos of all gods to symbolise their secularity — we don’t realise how much objectification and Othering happens in the enterprise of making ourselves seem progressive. I find people stick around just to protect their biases or as long as the cause is cool. We like to protest for the dislocated labourers every time a basti or a slum-dwelling is torn down to make a new road or a flyover, but how many people really *engage* with them, ask them if the protest will even help them, will put them in trouble with the State? As M* from the uni says daily, “fish don’t need to theorise the water they swim in” — which isn’t to say any marginalised group people like to “support” don’t have any qualms about being oppressed and marginalised, rather it’s us on the outside who need a discourse of manifestation to prove to ourselves the “causes” we are fighting for deserve our time. Colour me cynical, but I find that this con-struction of the discourse of despair actually keeps people around in a movement, even though the people affected by your cause/protest will most probably indifferent. Being familiar with feminism here, I can tell you about what happens in our progressive, Left movements. So, conversationally, I can wax on poetically about how much I identify with the goals of Muslim feminists in India — a diverse group, by no means containable in an umbrella term outside of this dialogue — or how their problems with Hindu feminisms are mine and then go on to dispel the myths about the Sharia law, when in fact, I have again just reduced these movements to symbolic pictures on my wall, which signify what I want them to, nothing more or less. As an intimate outsider, my history as an upper caste Hindu feminist is tied with the various acts of communal violence(s) that the movement as a whole has foisted on Muslim feminists here, on the Muslim community individually and structurally. Till date, many Indian feminism(s) like to configure themselves via Hindu imagery, and center themselves in and around claims and “issues” of Hindu women only — for instance, we still talk about child marriage, female feticide as “Indian feminist issues!” and things such as citizenship — which “progressive” feminists in positions such as mine don’t even consider as “feminist issues” — are confined only to theoretical debates, and are not seen as daily contentions non-Hindu people have to live with. Are living with, as we talk.

It’s on such feminised bodies, each community traces it’s limits on — like the age-old custom, women become the repositories of tradition once again, and the Muslim feminist is reduced to one “cause”, of the “veil”, of the “honour killing” or [enter cause of the week]. In this lobbying for “issues”, we tend to see communities as flat wholes, so abuse and oppression within the Muslim community (as no community is inherently unoppressive) for instance, gets written over — we are too busy being progressive to say we are allies of [x] community, but that it is not without its problems — and in the end, being an “activist for the Anti-Communalist Stance in India!11!!” I cache more than I contest, I help put one more layer of marginalisation on people who we systematically render wordless. While, it is most definitely problematic that I as an outsider talk about the conflicts within that community, what I generally do is talk to and with feminists of the community, make my voice as another in the plethora of voices from the group pointing out the cracks in your movement. Humanisation is the key, as you said earlier; and this means taking down pictures of [x] community from my wall, seeing them as wholes within and of themselves, as people aware of their oppression, as people who I cannot ally myself with, without examining where and how I’ve been complicit in their marginalisation, to ensure that my words don’t rob them of a voice. The question that plagues me today is, after this acknowledgement that I had a hand in keeping you down, will you still see me as your ally? Not that I will stop working with your movement if you don’t, I’m just interested in seeing if even after such fractures can alliances work? Will you also examine how you’ve kept me and mine at bay all this time? Will we ever talk about how we’ve both made walls we don’t want to tear down?

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