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.

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Privilege, Power, Colonialism, and International Development – Part 2

This is a guest post by Numa. She identifies as Bangladeshi-Austrian for the sake of convenience, and works in the field of International Development for which she sometimes gets paid a living wage. She has the ambition of engaging and encouraging wider dialogue on development from a dusty perspective and hopes that she can contribute to making the world less fail in one way or another. She is trying to blog regularly on awkwardatbest.wordpress.com but mostly has a very short attention span.

—-

Initially the first post of this series was a standalone one that I had written to provide context for my thoughts on the field of international development and the theories underpinning it. It was only once I submitted the entry as a guest post for Jaded that I figured that there was more I wanted to say on the matters that I had touched on. Namely, I wanted to discuss how the example I gave of my classmates behaviour towards children in Uganda, was not isolated instance of ignorance, but was the result of wider cultural/societal attitudes that are reflected in both development theory and institutions.

To me, the way privilege and power relations manifest themselves within international development is rooted in the colonial past. Despite the trend of embracing a human rights approach, we still operate on colonial assumptions at the most basic level. The main thrust of development interventions is still to progress, to ‘move forward’, to essentially become more like the West.

“The West,” in this instance does not refer to any actual geographic location, but refers to an identity or a set of socio-economic/cultural values born out of centuries of European imaginings of themselves and the “Orient.”  In the 19th century this image of Self took a particular form based around colonialism that is still prevalent today. Whiteness, wealth, and wisdom, became key to the European identity and this identity transcended beyond Europe to the white colonies of North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

Eurocentric ideas of economic and social development became regarded as objective ideals that were credited for the self-determined success of European advancement. A linear model of progress towards an ideal civilization based on these ideas was adopted, one that places the countries closest to Western ideals at the most “civilized” end of the scale.

Countries that haven’t reached this ideal state of civilization are considered to be “developing,” and their failure to reach this state is pathologized. While it is perhaps no longer as explicitly stated, “developing” countries are still read as helpless, lazy, or incompetent, and this imagery is repeatedly reinforced through media, literature, and art.

One way that ideas about the West and Third World are perpetuated is through development organisations themselves. At an individual level, the imagery of the Western self as helpful, industrious, and competent is constantly used to attract support and donations for development organisations/charities. Third World plight is commodified. Brown bodies are presented for consumption.

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Privilege, Power, Colonialism, and International Development – Part 1

Numa identifies as Bangladeshi-Austrian for the sake of convenience, and works in the field of International Development for which she sometimes gets paid a living wage. She has the ambition of engaging and encouraging wider dialogue on development from a dusty perspective and hopes that she can contribute to making the world less fail in one way or another. She is trying to blog regularly on awkwardatbest.wordpress.com but mostly has a very short attention span.

I grew up in a multicultural bubble where the idea of discrimination because of race, gender, class, ability, and sexuality was never discussed openly. It wasn’t until 2006-7, at university, where I started reading about privilege and oppression, that I discovered the tools to process my own experiences as a WOC. I realized that it wasn’t so much that my environment growing up had been free of racism or sexism, but that I had just  never been primed to recognize any -isms as such.

My immigrant parents were not equipped to help me deal with my experiences as an ethnic minority. They had grown up in a country where they were not the Other, and so subtle racism, or institutional racism didn’t really register with them. The only type of racism that they had learned to recognize, was the blatant “Get the fuck out of my country, you dirty brown foreigner” type of racism.

So I what I internalized was that discrimination was always blatant and happened out of ignorance, out of a lack of education. “Ignorance” was also code for “poor”, and for the longest time I genuinely believed this incredibly classist explanation. I really thought the only people who could be racist were uneducated, and thus, poor.

I realize now that this was a badly thought out, almost instinctive, coping mechanism where my class privilege was used as a form of protection against the forms of oppression I faced, namely racism. It was a bit like “Ha, I may be brown, but at least I’m not poor!” sort of thing, where oppressions are pitted against each other.

This kind of attitude also helped insulate me against the racism of my peers and immediate environment. As long as racism was only perpetuated by a group I never had to deal with, then the things that felt like racism invoked by my peers, were a different kind of creature. I was able to maintain the illusion of safety and lead a relatively untroubled existence.

Unfortunately for me, this meant that I once realized the actual pervasiveness of racism and other kinds of -isms, I found myself surrounded by people who had never had to think about any of these issues either. If it hadn’t been for the internet, I would have never have found the resources to help me make sense of my experiences with oppression and privilege.

By the time I started my postgraduate studies at the end of 2008, I was already well-versed in issues of discrimination. However, I had not yet thought about how oppression and privilege manifests itself within international development. When I started my degree, I was still naïvely under the impression that since the very concept of international development was about ensuring global economic and social justice, development theory and practice would be critical of all kinds of oppression. Like some kind of -ism free utopia…

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The Rest Is Not Silence But Belongs To Me

This is a guest post by Thursday of Weekday Blues. I refer to Thurs as my Token Moozlum Friend when around my radically conservative Hindu family (but no one else gets to call Thurs a token for ungodly things will befall on you; and for all you know, we could definitely curse you with our third worldy exotic magic). Thurs is currently residing in a first world country and plotting to help us third worlder’s infiltrate. Be nice, people of the interwebes!

——–

Someone once said I could never truly be invisible.

I offer my lived experience as proof I can never be truly visible. At least, not in my lifetime. My revolution is a long way from now.

Because while we are supposedly taking down the master’s house, the master is laughing at us.

Bugger the master. I’m building my own house.

*

I am wary of groups. Groups mean labels. Yes, St. Thomas says if we have words for things it helps us deal with what they are. But groups — consciously or unconsciously — create and Us and a Them. There is rarely anything comfortable about having an identity built on such a base, for your comfort is someone else’s marginalisation.

& I have always been a Them.

I do not have the luxury of relying on a community to take care of my needs, to affirm my value as a member, because they continuously erase me, despite claiming to be in my interests. I feel as though there are bits and pieces of me that exist in some strange limbo that detach at will whenever I am with others, so that I am never whole. So excuse me for not conforming, because I don’t buy your assimilation bullshit.

I am everyone’s Them. & I will always be an Other.

*

We didn’t intend to.

Speaking as a Muslim, intent does matter. Especially when you intend to sin. But could you imagine walking into a shop, knocking over a vase, and then getting out of it by claiming you didn’t intend to? Of course not. You pay for the vase and leave quickly.

The difference is that human beings aren’t vases.

*

Words have power. I bear their weight, and the weight of my own truth. Because silence is hardly useful, or innocent.

Silence is not consent.

Voice is justice tearing through the nerve cells, reaching for one more dawn. & Voice is a terrible, beautiful thing. But even as it is claimed, it can be taken away, or coerced. Eroded, bit by bit.

Silence kills voice.

Silence is not consent.

The same people who tell you that you are cowardly to hide behind words are the ones whose worlds shatter when you speak. For criticism is nothing — nothing — compared to the unbearable weight of the system upon our shoulders, and the trials a voice goes through to be heard cannot, and should not, ever be trivialised.

*

I do not claim to represent a community. I speak for myself because no-one will speak for me. I do not believe in “solidarity” as-is, for I have experienced for myself the insidious nature of this very top-down relationship. I am not in solidarity with people who demand that I let go of my baggage, for if their ideal was so noble, they would not erase us.

& I do not believe that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, because with friends like these, I don’t need enemies.

*

Must we react? What are we reacting to? Can we never do things for ourselves, of our own volition, to explore the chasms inside ourselves that we have to cross, & cannot cross alone?

*

I struggle to know the worth of me and mine even if it has been trampled, glossed over, erased, and obscured in old books, in single sentences that leap at me on pages. I’m not interested in telling you how your world was built on the backs of me and mine. But every time you say I am angry, every time you shove your Oh So Privileged Voice in my face and expect me to be silent, to be complicit, my voice will be thunder and typhoon spilling from my lips. The clouds swelling in the sky over your head will make you tremble. I will shout until I have no voice left, and even then, even if you have crushed me until I am a speck of dust to the eyes of you and yours, you will still hear me roar.

*

I once wrote that kyriarchy had much in common with fruits. I never saw myself in that analogy, because being me is like being trapped in a small room where everyone is throwing things and they don’t ~mean to~ but the bulk of it hits you. Maybe an orange, being eaten while the others ignore it.

So I will try to be a durian. I don’t expect it to be easy, or less tiring. Weighed against what others suffer, what others have paid and are paying — their blood, their freedom, their lives — mine seem insignificant. Dusty skin does an excellent job of hiding the scars, and words never leave scars, do they?

But a price — no matter how small or how large — would have been exacted from me anyway.

For daring to exist.

What I would remind you is that durians grow on trees. With several others, that may grow at different speeds and from different heights, but all of them will eventually ripen. & break free.

I am not alone.

There are more of us than you think.

On Taking The Bus

This is a guest post by Deepti. She just finished her Masters in communication. A connoisseur of good and meaningful writing, she spends half her day glued to the thousand feeds on her Google Reader. She spends the other half, nurturing an unhealthy obsession for American crime procedurals, cinema, and dissing popular culture. She researches telecom policy and accessibility for an NGO in Bangalore and waits for Fall, when she can go to Grad School and get her PhD.

—–

It’s never a random decision. Oh I think I’ll take the bus… nope can’t do. Not dressed like that anyhow.

Being a girl in India means many things.

It means you’re valued less, you’re harassed more.

It also means that you have to be very very careful about how you choose to cloth yourself when you go out. Am I going to a conservative neighbourhood- definitely not the skinny jeans then? Can I walk around in boxers in my home? Sure but always be ready to pull the fastest trick change into pajamas if a guest comes calling.You’d be amazed how many times I have changed from perfectly okay clothing to go somewhere because; well… it’s just not okay to go there.

I know all about, I have the right to dress how I want and not get raped.

But I also know something else- I most definitely don’t want random men to stare at my legs when I walk down the road in a skirt. I don’t want to be whistled at by random teenage boys on bikes. I don’t want to be standing in a bus and have to bear uncomfortable staring from the men at the back because my shirt is clingy.

Does that mean I have to always dowdy up? No not really, because you see my upper middle class privilege lets me do all kinds of things. It lets me have a car that I can drive around in wearing whatever the hell I please. It lets me go to malls and restaurants and coffee shops and plays in revealing clothes where I can walk in confidently with the expectation that no one will look at me threateningly. Because that’s not what ‘people like us’ do now is it?

But yes, I police myself. I don’t wear skirts to work even though I want to because I have to take the public bus. And even if this is Bangalore where its quite okay to dress how you like because this is where the cool people live, And even if the bus I take is a nice red Volvo with air conditioning and padded seats and really helpful drivers and conductors and ‘a better class of people’ who can afford the Rs 30-40 fare and who don’t ‘ostensibly’ engage in leching (It’s called ‘checking out’ if it’s done by software techies instead of day labourers, I believe), I don’t because I still have to stand everyday at a bus stop for five minutes waiting, when I all I want to do is be swallowed up by the earth because I can feel every single man staring at me.

This constant mortification, even for five minutes, is not a price I am ready to pay for the joy of baring my legs. Call me a coward, call me a bad poster example  for liberation, but I won’t do it.

The skirts meanwhile, lie unworn…

P.S. Any comments which hint at malice or scorn over the fact Deepti doesn’t wear the clothes she likes, and is bringing down the name of Feminism by extension will be promptly deleted. Before you think of commenting, keep in mind the geo-political location of the writer, that will curb a little privilege showing too. I’d also like to remind you about this wonderful page that is still open for guest posts.

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