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.

(more…)

Build Me My FatherLand

My father is a bit of a history buff; and I get my obsession with mapping events from him. However, when it comes to seeing history as a linear pattern of events, we part ways. My idea of history is too ‘messy’ for him, as I tend to always look at Subaltern points of view — or the voices ‘history’ forgets, so to speak — while he is content with historian’s voices; and the fact that these voices come from a culture and a tradition of privilege aren’t his concern. Needless to say, we have a lot of disagreements when it comes to understanding and seeing history, even when it comes to news and current affairs. Yesterday when Azam Khan questioned how ‘integral’ a part of India Kashmir really was, my father flew into a temper, indignant  at the idea that an ‘Indian’ had any doubts whatsoever regarding how much Kashmir means to us; he started talking about the Kargil war and how our ‘Motherland’ cannot be fissured any more if we want to maintain any semblance of stability. Later that evening, the same news flashed across major networks and my grandma grumbled how easy it is for people to talk about ‘borders’ and question the integrity of Kashmir without witnessing the struggle it took us to attain independence and make these ‘borders’ matter. And then she remembered one speech Nehru gave where he lamented, “what was broken up which was of the highest importance, was something very vital and that was the body of India”. The imagery both discussions conjured up was “motherland”, “mother”, “mother’s ungrateful children” — that is us — and “mother’s body” that ‘we’ve hacked up beyond recognition’. While these words swirl around me, I can’t get over the hyper-feminisation of space, as if this feminised space of imagining India as a “she” or a “her” is an entirely neutral construct and has no bearing on history whatsoever.

Swapping bodies or rather the Body with a female one, isn’t a fateful or even a convenient co-incidence. The female body bears a herstory of  discipline and confinement, historically and otherwise. Victorian novels are full of such cracks, where a feminine body is kept locked up, or just kept to the house. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals talk about walking with her brother, and about constantly stopping to sit down and then eventually to walk back, bringing to bear the immediacy of physical body policing that went on under being ‘Feminine’. Moving forward a century and a continent, during the partition, Muslim and Hindu women’s bodies literally became markers of the religion or the ‘side’ the belonged to; where women were abducted, raped, assaulted and in some cases, ‘marked’ in the truest sense of the world to ‘correct’ their faith. Here, the female body is displaced, abducted, and systematically scarred to signify community, nation and state. Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What The Body Remembers may be a ‘fictional’ re-telling of the partition, a particularly gory one that too but the issues of feminine displacement the narrative unfolds strike a little too close to home. Urvashi Butalia mentions the many barriers she faced while recording the partition for her book The Other Side Of Silence as most women of the Sikh community had repressed their memories of the communal mass-violence. These memories only re-surfaced decades later, when there was a similar Hindu-Muslim riot; what is striking is, this is a communal memory that most women had suppressed unanimously. Men’s account of the same event details violence and loss of land, women remark the loss of ‘the body’. Sadat Hassan Manto or Ismat Chughtai’s short-fiction reflects the same horrifying gendered violence that we almost never mention when we talk of the partition. Can words like “motherland” still be conceived of as words that have no specific significations, collectively and polemically?

We talk of Kashmir as the ‘glory’ and ‘crown’ of India. Many believe how ‘ugly’ the map will look if Kashmir won’t adorn it. The strict governmental control we keep over map-making and specifically regarding the ‘borders’ of Jammu and Kashmir, almost meticulously and possessively hashing the lines as if these lines will somehow duplicate themselves over other ‘borders’ too. Many leaders and voices from Kashmir have denied their role in such political cartography, while we still carry out our fantasy of ‘possessing’ Kashmir. Given how sensitive the issue of ‘borders’ is for the Indian government, whenever any government official makes a statement, almost always it’s the nationalistic rhetoric that coerces the notion ‘Kashmir is ours’. Repeatedly, India and Kashmir are converted to feminised spaces and bodies, thus possessing these spaces — even metaphorically — becomes an achievable activity. Now that this “body” is feminine, it is then easy and necessary to “map” and “mark” the body in order to discipline the inhabitants of Kashmir, so that this “marking” becomes at once visceral and metaphorical. The feminine body is known to be ‘limitless’ if we go by the traditional folklore; the ‘motherland’ isn’t ‘limitless’ geographically but the emotional and patriotic sentiment it projects to us is. There is a Toru Dutt poem that mentions the “mother is half of my sky and half of my body” and “now my body is disappearing”, as she slyly notes the nationalist anxiety the nation as a whole had over the loss of a defined border before the British left. Today, her words take a double edge, where not only are we anxious about keeping borders intact, we also actively participate in ‘capturing’ and ‘keeping’ the body in tact, be it in maps or in our minds. Leaving theoretical ramblings aside, women are seen as ‘honour’ and ‘dignity’ of the community, as the fleshy signifiers of morals and values — publicly and otherwise — and when they fail to uphold this ‘honour’, punishing and disciplining this flesh doesn’t remain just a fantasy, as we well know.

If we were to consider a FatherLand, a land defined by borders alone, by keeping in mind the Body as a masculine space, would such gendering of violence even be a question? Would we expect our FatherLand to mold to our cartographical desires? Would we think his honour is tainted by a stretch of land gone to the enemy? The truth is, in order to possess and ‘claim’ Kashmir as ours, it needs to be feminised and tamed, it has to remain bound so that we can call it ‘free’.

 

 

Is That ‘Honor Killing’ In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Happy To Not Be Me?

There are some crimes that are just gut wrenching to think about.  “Honor” killing, the murder of a someone (usually a woman or girl) by family and friends over sex / marriage is an awful thing.

I object to it personally.  as a father of a girl, I shudder to think what could bring a father or brother to slaughter their own kin.  It cannot end soon enough for me.

There are some great resources committed to ending ‘honor’ killing, listed at the end of this post.  If you know of others not listed here, please leave them in the comments field.

What has my mind today is not the ‘honor’ killings themselves but how the topic itself is discussed, presented and marketed in western societies – the EU and US.  The news reports and accounts of these killings reveal these deaths in terms of the way they are carried out, along with details of religious and cultural practices that seem primitive, cruel and that fly in the face of any rule of fairness, reasoning or legal structure.

Sure, we get upset by such murders, but are these ‘honor’ killing being used to reinforce a “single story” about the populations where these killings occur?  As Chimamanda Adichie illustrates well, repeated and dramatic negative images about a culture other than one’s own, can reduce our own awareness to a “single story” of who those people are.  It lumps people into one-dimensional creations, not as complex and alive in our minds as we hold ourselves.  It strips individuals of identity and reduces people to “one of those people”.

Chimiamanda talks about people being framed in a  “patriarchal, well-meaning pity” by holding them in a “single story of catastrophe”.

The problem with a ‘one story’ is that it reduces people to being a stereotype and as Chimimanda says:

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story.”

So, I ask myself and I’m asking you, really…is the topic of ‘honor killing’ being used to paint millions of people as helpless, violent, ignorant and incompressible creatures who are unable to help themselves and waiting  to be saved by us?

‘Honor’ killings, starving children, mass rapes, civil wars, drug trades, warlords, religious fanatics calling for war and murder…all of these are facts of life.  They really happen, but they are not all that happens.  They are not all that define a group of people and they will never define any one person.

So, in addition to the ‘one story’ painting over a group of people and omitting who those individuals are in reality, the story also omits who we are in relation to ‘those people’.

Nothing happens in a vacum.  Our corporate, political & military foreign policy often has a lot to do with the levels of poverty, education, violence and health of the very people we view through these ‘one stories’.

The goods we consume, use and purchase every day are made from the spoils of foreign lands.  We send arms and ammunition in trade for oil, minerals, timber, medicine, food, livestock and so much more.  We leave behind devastated land, polluted water, destitute and uprooted populations and wildlife extinction.

The ‘one story’ of ‘honor’ killing cultures allows us to not hear what people have to say for themselves, about themselves and to us, about our actions.  It is no coincidence that the ‘one story’ of ‘honor’ killings is getting the attention while our corporations and soldiers are in those lands which have minerals, oil and drugs that are needed by consumers and manufacturers here in the US & Europe.

Our hands are not clean of the blood spilled in these lands.  But, they can be – if we stop telling ourselves these ‘one stories’ about ‘them’ and embrace the many stories of us all.  It ends when we embrace the lives of us all and write the story of our shared future.

Resources:

International Campaign Against Honor Killings

The Dynamics of Honour Killings in Turkey: Prospects for Action

Amnesty International: Honor Killings

 

Going Behind The Old Stone Face

As a country dedicated to be a hub for Westerners to feel ‘at home’ or to ‘re-find themselves’, India peddles a lot of things right by your nose — to the delight of the omnipresent DoucheColonial Gaze–  as long as they fit the frame of being ‘exotic’ and condescendingly charitable. Like the handmade paper by limbless workers, the Snake Dance performed by devdasis or Temple Dancers or anything that evokes the same sentiment that Slumdog Millionaire did: consumable, understandable and decoded culture, set to lively Bollywood beats, ready for you to devour it and then feel better for being as far away as possible from a culture or space that ‘terrible’. In this process of re-packaging and selling culture, we’ve started buying it ourselves. That our religions or gods were indeed some mystified beings, that they did really exist at one point, and we will seek legal proof of just that — as opposed to the previously held belief that they were well written and formed myths or epics — that festivals need to be celebrated collectively, publicly, catastrophically till all semblance of an ‘I’ is washed away and in its place remains the bigger, more heavily inscribed ‘We’, till the act of worshiping god becomes an exhibitionist ritual while the personal in religion is coloured invisible.

Eyes glowering. Sometimes raised, sometimes fixed. Rock steady.

The last two weeks have been what we call in India ‘Navratri’, where most of the overtly Hindu regions of the country break into a folk tradition of dance and celebration to felicitate the myth of a Goddess who slayed a Horrid, Horrid Monster some centuries ago and in her memory we perform this ritual. There are ambiguous reasons behind this Goddess Amba some say she is another avatar of Shakti (the root of all feminine folklore), some believe she existed outside Shakti and some believe she is tied up with Creation itself, seeing how she is the Mother of the Universe. Whatever the reason may have been for her creation, today she is one of the ideals of femininity; an extremely non-threatening one at that. The myth I grew up with was the demon Mahisasura had got himself a boon of immortality and specifically speaking requested that “No god nor animal” will be able to match up to him, conveniently forgetting to include ‘Woman’. So the Gods from their Heavenly Seats decided to make such a woman, where each God gave her some of his special powers, she was given extra limbs and a weapon in each arm, to kill the demon. One thing that strikes me is how she is ManMade, how she is created with a specific purpose in mind, she has utility for the DudeCouncil and that she wouldn’t exist at all — or even occupy the few hundred lines she does in our epics — had it not been for one vain demon. Just like Eve, she too is half, incomplete without her demon; she has no role to play except fly into a rage, use her Shakti to restore peace unto Earth, displaying sanctioned amounts of rage on the source of ‘Evil’ after which she dissolves into obscurity without a trace.

Mouth set. Not a word ever escapes out. That fixed smile sets on me.

Last week as the house settled into preparations for Dusshera, the proverbial ninth day when Amba is said to have killed Mahisasura, we prepared the pyre where a caricature of the demon is burnt, and my LadyBrain wandered off to thinking alternatives to this ritual, whether it was possible at all and (perhaps?) tried to understand my problem with this Goddess. As she is a creation of the DudeCouncil, obviously she has problematic elements as discussed above. What worries me greatly is how most modern re-tellings don’t focus on her origin, at all and simply skip to her heroic deeds; which is doubly ironic considering the Mother of the Universe has no history or rather that her birth is wiped away with the hopes that she will stand out as a figure in her own right. Instead she steps further into darkness, or she’s simply seen as an extension of Durga and therefore her history is again tied up with the bigger mythological narrative or Origin and Creation and by extension all the Patriarchal Pantheon of Gods. I remember asking my grandmum as a child who hadn’t yet learnt to keep such questions to herself, “But what about HER?” and this is the only time she didn’t have an answer ready. It’s extremely disturbing to see mothers and daughters praying to this Goddess to seek blessings, to seek the ‘calm’ she has, to seek the qualities she has and most important of all, the ability to please everyone. There are other Goddess who are more subversive then her, some like Ma Tara (another avatar of Durga) who can be plainly described as, “almost naked with matted hair and a blood-red rolling tongue and sitting upon a tiger’s skin with four arms, wearing a garland of freshly severed heads; she wields a blood-smeared cleaver as she stood victorious, dripping with blood, over a dead corpse with an erect phallus”, or Draupadi who hints at sexual promiscuity in the most patriarchally inclined text such as the Mahabharata or even Laxmi, who stands for wealth — much to my surprise for she’s probably one of the most SpineLess goddesses — who decides whose house she enters, indicating agency and free-will. But, obviously, we choose to mass worship this particular Goddess, precisely because of how unproblematic her entire story is, from start to finish.

Now the eyes don’t glower. The mouth has crumbled away, a few years ago. What is left is a shell.

Twice a day we prayed near her idol, for nine days as the ritual dictates. On the last day, we immerse the idol in water to bid her goodbye into the universe — where she truly supposedly exists — and for a moment I thought I saw her head move. Like the idol, we too are somewhat set in stone, existing for others, occupying spaces on the fringe; never taking center stage to any narrative, just slipping in and out of collective consciousness, but never really being. That moment I realised my real problem with her: she reminded me too much of the lives of women I see around me, the woman I am expected to be someday. The reality of what we are as women will never be enough to the DudeCouncil because unlike Amba, we talk too much think too much are too loud are too ‘rebellious’ and ultimately are too ‘us’. As I saw the caricature of the demon burn I thought of burning HER instead, futilely hoping that her shadow will come off my skin too. Maybe, someday it will. Today, I’ll have to settle for being ‘hysterical’.

—-

I don’t mean to offend any one’s religious feelings or inclinations channelised through and to this Goddess, rather examine her from a cultural distance. Please make sure the comments stay in this direction as well, instead of attacking anyone’s belief.

Hark! I Hear Whispers Of ‘Hysteria’ Again*

As it is required by the Handbook of LadyBusiness, I do have a mandatory LadyFriend who helps me pick out books and bags, nods in agreement after I’m done talking and sometimes talks; and even then only talks about me. Fine, I embellished a little. The truth is, often we agree so intensely on so many subjects, it seems like we’re speaking a language only the two of us understand. It’s an equally flattering and jarring experience to see yourself reflected in someone else, to such an extent. So a few weeks ago, I was down with what are commonly known as VulvaBlues, where once a month a monster looms over you and everything you say comes out lined with fire. In the middle of one such rant, I lost it and started crying, hysterically. She managed to calm me down after a while and we left it at that. Later that week, she confessed she had these fits of emotions too from raging fury to a suicidal calm, from feeling euphoric to wanting to be left alone, all in the span of a few hours. She thought she was the only one with these “mood swings”. Over the next few days as I discussed the same topic of ‘Female Hysteria’ with my professors, friends and some ex-students of mine, one thing became clear. We’re all ‘hysterical’. Just like the time in Victorian England, a woman would be silenced and put in the attic — Who can ever forget Bertha? — under the notion of being ‘hysterical’, seems like we are also labelling ourselves ‘abnormal’; for this ‘fury’, ‘rage’ and ‘anger’ that we feel can’t be normal, can it? Especially when we know just where the problem lies. Or that was the assumption, anyway.

All these women I speak of are either feminist, Marxist, (closeted) atheists,  political activists or involved in some or the other form of an anti-establishment philosophy; in addition to occupying traditional patriarchal spaces of being wives, daughters, sisters, mothers and so many other categories that are too complicated to ever pin down. I don’t mean to insinuate that somehow these women I speak of are ‘different’ — and by extension inherently superior (Ick!) — or that women who don’t fit any of the above labels have never witnessed the same ‘fury’, but rather that I identify strongly with these women, I could discuss at length and even seek permission to personalise and localise this collective ‘Cultural Hysteria’ that we feel. As it turns out, despite being so politically active, most of us lead ruptured lives, where what we are in our Personal Skins is so radically different from what we perform to be in our Family or Public Skins, revealing the TrueSelf only in a few safe spaces, having the Public Performative Identity gulp down huge chunks of our Private Skin. And to say from this fracture between the Public and the Private comes the ‘fury’ and ‘hysteria’ would be to easily and anthropologically further fissure our fragmented lives. Also being ‘culturally hysterical’ myself, such simple unraveling is a tad hard to achieve People of The Olde Interwebes.

This ‘cultural hysteria’ I speak of is a common experience that manifests itself in the simplest and in daily tasks. Some detest the idea of having to ritually bow down to patriarchal authority of their fathers, husbands or brothers; some feel oppressed by the system that requires them to be ‘good mothers’, some are simply frustrated for not being allowed to voice themselves, some face direct and systematic sexism each day (LadyFriend, I’m winking at you!), some are just freaking pissed off for being a part of such a model that encourages and ensures women’s silence. In brief, we’re those Pesky Angry Ladies you were warned off, ready to snap your head off the moment you cross a line. Or not. In fact, one of the biggest problems that face us everyday is this deep stated inaction and not the other way around. I can state my views firmly on the Olde Interwebes, but at family dinners and other social events, I am silent. Rather, I’m required to be silent; like any smart Oriental woman who knows what will happen when this silence isn’t granted, I comply, often against my will. Like many others, the fury seethes and dances right under my skin, the words almost tumble out of my mouth and then I remember where I am and then the tongue is heavy and curled inwards again. Another Pesky Angry Lady told off her superior and she lost her job, one cannot reconcile the idea that she is supposed to be an obedient daughter-in-law for people who think daughter-in-law is the NewAge code for Happy Servant! And SpineLess worker! What is interesting here is how our ‘hysteria’ turns inwards and comes to bite us. Similar to Lee Maracle’s beautiful poem ‘Hate’, we are too “Blinded by the niceties and polite liberality/ we can’t see our enemy/so, we’ll just have to kill each other”. This sentiment of having our hysteria paralyze and disable¹ us isn’t new. The very fact we’ve internalised it isn’t exactly a revelation. What really struck me here is the way this ‘cultural hysteria’ manifests itself; like the Madwoman In The Attic, if we’re not careful this ‘hysteria’ comes out and spews venom before we can stop. One artist I know says she waits till she is ‘furious’ enough to paint; crying and painting at the same time and yet can’t seem to decipher how those rips and tears come up on the canvas. Sometimes I write a post or a poem and when I re-read it I can’t almost believe that it’s my writing that is so dark and jagged, out to wound instead of heal. After these outbursts of ‘hysteria’ comes the deep sense of helplessness, we cry and then reclaim our senses. Stop. Rinse. Repeat more times than humanely imaginable. My LadyFriend confessed she is ‘going completely nuts’ every other day; and then she said something that still chills my bones. She said, “At least, this is the one constant companion I know I have” and again she mirrored what I felt, said something I didn’t want to put it in words. We exist on the hinge, choked to claustrophobia with ‘hysteria’, yet comfortable — where comfortable is the new learnt helplessness — being this numb.

Within this numbness, another thing we do piece and byte ourselves further — some overplay the Public Performative Identity, some of us blog to retain what was once there and (perhaps?) retrieve it, some chain smoke cigarettes though they hate them, some indulge in violent sex as a release. And after the chosen method of UnRaveling the Self, we conveniently slot ourselves as ‘Pre’ and ‘Post’ fit of hysteria; as if they are two neat shelves where our Skins sit, as if we really have a choice which Skin will manifest itself. We blame the cavity between the Personal and the Private for this ‘fury’, understand when the Dudes we associate don’t get our ‘hysteria’ as they’re not the ones being robbed off agency and choice and then tell ourselves, “this too shall pass”. Little do we know, how completely it chars us inside. We say we know where this ‘hysteria’ stems from, it’s the freaking society that makes us so, and we all fervently hope for the Unicorn Revolution to come save us. At least, this LadyBrain does. But like everything else, it’s not simple to get the root of this fury. The best I can do is, say it’s like living the inside story while being an outsider to your own life. And somewhere caught in between, is the TrueSelf; amalgamated with the Madwoman In The Attic. Waiting to snarl and bite. Am I the only one who feels this way? Or this is just another ‘hysterical’ woman writing from her hysteria?

1. I don’t mean to trivialise disability but instead shed light on the real side-effects of this ‘hysteria’. Some women I mention have sunk into depression, been catatonic for days. Sometimes when I’m ‘hysterical’ I forget words and meanings and need sedatives before the tiny fit becomes a full-blown panic attack.

* I can’t write just about me, because in cases like this, the collectively felt ‘cultural hysteria’ is both at once a public and a private experience; to obliterate other’s voices would mean losing mine too.

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