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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So Over It

The following post is by Numa and I as a response to Eve Ensler’s post Over It. There are some things you don’t get to be over, Eve Ensler. But if we’re going to play this game, here are some of ours.

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We are over cis white feminists claiming to speak for the rest of us and then shutting us up when we try to fit a word in edgewise. We are over being told that we are splintering a (separatist) movement whenever we bring up things that go just beyond their immediate focus.

We are over feeling left out whenever the talk goes to rape culture, because our rape culture is never addressed, maybe because it would hold you accountable too.

We are over rape being framed as an act done only by men on women, or that it requires a penis to forcibly penetrate a vagina or an anus and all other acts of coercion on other body parts by other bodies don’t matter as much.

We are over cis white feminists using experiences of POC to prove their own humanity. We are over experiences of scores of people in Congo, in Somalia, or any place with poverty tourism becoming a footnote to white feminists’ tales of enlightenment.

We are over cis white feminists using stories from “war torn” areas to woo audiences without addressing or holding their own Governments responsible for the said war.  We are over people making money by writing about the “horrifying” experiences they saw in the [third world nation], narrating stories that are not theirs to tell.

We are over countless (one-sided) dialogues with cis white feminists when they do want to talk about the difference in our rape cultures who simply retort to, “your men are irresponsible and patriarchal! We are just here to help! We can talk about murky consent issues between us some other time”.

We are over white cis women feminists essentialising the experiences of all women everywhere when it suits them but then having no trouble with using an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy against those who don’t agree with them.

We are over being told that we’re too angry and divisive when we direct criticism at the mainstream feminist movement but it’s okay for violent imagery and words to be used to threaten non-white cis women.

And what the fuck is “occupyrape” meant to mean anyway?! We are over people using the terminology of violence and colonisation to sound relevant and cool. How can you occupy an act of violence? How can you reclaim it? We don’t understand.

We are over the assumption that there is a “global paradigm of rape” but there is no recognition that this global paradigm, if there is something so all encompassing, is probably the result of political and socio-economic violation of the racial Other.

To be honest, we’re just over of this type of rallying cry for unity where it’s believed that self-reflexiveness will do harm more than it will do good. Apparently we can’t be critical of issues without also destroying our effectiveness.

We are over people simply drawing back saying “this is not my culture and therefore I will stay silent and complicit” without engaging with us at all.

We are over thousand Eve Enslers who spew shit like this over and over again and then a few others who’ll pretend this is the first time they’ve heard us speak up.

We are over seeing movements perpetuate the same acts of violence we’re meant to be addressing.

A response to #mencallmethings

A little background — this week Renee, Numa and I ranted a bit on tumblr, a P.S. to #mencallmethings if you can call it as #otherpeoplecallusthingstoo and by the time we finished, we realised we had so much more to say. The following post is a collaborative post by Renee and I. Post contains mentions of rape, rape threats, trans*misogyny and many other –isms. Tread carefully.

Renee: I was talking to a friend tonight about #otherpeoplecallmethingstoo. Now this friend…well, I’m unsure how much or how little to say about other peoples’ intersections, but I think it’s safe to say he has a real depth of experience with race, gender identity, sexuality, and so on. He’s also a bit my senior, which means he was old enough to actively identify as a feminist when second wave feminism was a happening thing, and still has many friends and acquaintances for whom THAT feminism is still THE feminism. And he’s a creative person who has sometimes channeled his energy into critiquing the sins of the feminist past…and felt the sting for doing so. Point being, he’s savvy to this sort of stuff, and it’s something we commiserate around often.

And he was with me while I bemoaned my frustration with the mainstream feminist community. He gets my anger about how abortion and reproductive health are framed as “women’s issues”. He recognizes my pain when the Amanda Marcotte’s of the world reduce misogyny and sexism to the existence of “gonads hang[ing] on the outside” of certain people. But, of course, it’s easy to empathize with my position on that stuff…it’s not shocking, because it happened and we know who these people are and it wasn’t personal, even if I take it personally.

But when I told him about some of the other stuff – the personal attacks ,especially the ones Jaded wrote about, which I quoted some of verbatim – he drew back a bit. I’m not really sure why, because he’s certainly seen a lot of vitriol and hate, much of it from within the feminist community. But for whatever reason, he offered an explanation.

“Well keep in mind, it’s the internet. Those are the worst of the worst,” he said.

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Re-Claiming Subversion

I haven’t written here for more than a month, because honestly I didn’t trust myself to write without exploding into particles of dust, or if I did manage to write somehow it would only be selective expletives repeated over and over — I’ve been more than just a little angry. Warning to readers, I’m not writing this to cater to your sensibilities, nor is this the moment to profess how you belong to [x] group but don’t do any [abc] I talk about. I am exhausted with keeping my anger inside, and it’s coming out in all insidious ways today.

When I repeat out of frustration to western feminists — yes western feminists get clubbed in the same indistinguishable a bubble as “South Asian feminist” feels to me — that abortion wars here are different, we face different demons, we use different strategies, all they seem to hear is “India doesn’t consider abortion is illegal! They don’t have anything to complain about!”. Yes, factually, the Indian nation-state hasn’t outlawed abortion, that can hardly be cited as evidence to prove that there aren’t any problems. Or on the flip-side, almost every feminist (or not) publication from the Global North talks about the problem of female feticide India — additionally India and China are used interchangeably for some reason, as if any place that is Not the Global North must be a homogeneous mass of cultures  — to the extent that “feminism in India” means “sex-selective abortion”. There is a problem with using and perpetuating such a model, where you start equating a region’s “gender problems” to its feminism is probably the preliminary layer of fail; I’ve talked about  it long enough. What you leave out when you stick to the primitive equation of “Indian feminism = sex-selective abortion” are the many methods that the State designs to keep contraception from people who want to access it, to forcibly sterilise groups which the State thinks need to be curbed and even erased. It infuriates me that whenever one speaks of “sex-selective abortions” and its evils — yes fetuses are being aborted because they’re perceived to be ‘useless’ as they’re female, and it is evil, it needs to end, no disputing this fact. But there’s more to just a “culture thinking females are unworthy” that people don’t want to engage with — what western feminists don’t even consider is the way discourse around contraception figures here; mainly because they’re too busy presuming that it’s the same as it is in their native countries, but I digress.

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Making Our Bodies Matter

A friend and I started talking about communities, alliances and feminism(s) a few months ago — this conversation is a brief culmination of our identities and ideologies.

Me: Writing about bodies isn’t too difficult for me, that was until I realised “writing about bodies” meant writing of bodies other than mine, or even if I were to write about myself, the language automatically becomes clinical, my gaze objective and the talk goes to whatever is ailing me — it’s never about how I feel about my body, my relationship with my scars or what I see when I look in the mirror. As I am now living in a new city and adjusting to the weather patterns here, I have to take more care of my skin here than in I did in Mumbai, I have to leave myself notes to apply [x] cream before my heels crack and bleed — it’s such a jarring experience to see that my body has carried on without me (in a sense), has already started cracking, started healing in some parts while I have gone on and done something else. It all came to a head when I was thinking of Suheir Hammad‘s words — when she says “What am I saying when I say I sit in this body, dream in this body, expel in this body, inherit in this body” — where she posits the body as a start to all experiences, and here I was forgetting to take care of my body altogether, even in the most routine and seemingly trivial ways. I’ve often complained to friends that I feel ‘bound’ in this city — as public transport systems are irregular and auto rickshaws are a luxury I cannot always afford — so most of my ‘movement’ is between my apartment, the massive Uni campus and its libraries. Now that I re-think what I mean when I say ‘bound’, I mean more than just physical limits to where I can go or am kept from, I find limits in my syllables and expressions — precisely because my body feels those limits more intimately and primarily, as if my body translates these borders in the silences that creep up everywhere, from my thoughts to my academic writing. It’s only when I completely stopped producing words and syllables a week ago, went for a three-hour long walk, felt my words come back to me as I described to my guardian just why were my heels bleeding this time I realised how closely my body felt limited here*

*This isn’t to say there weren’t other barriers in Mumbai, just that navigating these particular changes is an entirely new experience for me.

Renee: It’s equally jarring to see your body stopped in time, unable to keep up with you, and trying to formulate contingencies for when it starts to slide backwards in time. This has been my experience since losing my job just more than a year ago.

My teeth hurt all the time now; one has eroded almost to the gum line, and I touch them constantly with my tongue and my fingers to make sure none are loose. I waited out a UTI two months ago, but an ear infection still lingers (and makes my teeth ache even more). There is no money for a doctor or dentist to attend to current ills, never mind the dreams I once had for my body. Most upsetting, when my current stash of hormone pills runs out, in perhaps a month or so, I may not be able to afford more, and at that point the person I know as me officially begins to disintegrate. I never really knew myself before starting hormones, and the threat of losing that is terrifying beyond what I can describe. Already I find myself glancing in the mirror more often, touching my face, to make sure I still exist.

But it’s not just the physical degradation I feel. For now, I’m staying in a friend’s spare room, sleeping upon a mattress on the floor, with all my worldly possessions piled in boxes around me. My days are lived largely in the space between my bed and the downstairs basement, where the household television is. I have few reasons to go anywhere else, and fewer resources to do so. I wear the same clothes most days, because to do anything else means doing more laundry, which inevitably costs someone money, even if that someone isn’t me. I don’t shower every day, or moisturize, or shave, or wear makeup, because all of those things are an expense too…and so again my body suffers.

It’s apropos that my body gets neglected first and most, as it’s the rejection of my body by others that led me here. Slowly it decays, out of sight and forgotten.

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