Wanderlust

I haven’t returned to writing here yet, but I just wanted to post about a Facebook group I’ve started. It’s called Wanderlust, and it’s for female travelers of color to share their experiences.

Although I didn’t imagine there would be more than 6 members, there were 125 within the first 24 hours. I suppose I’m not the only one who’s tired of Eat, Pray, Love and Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.

Wanderlust

If you identify, please feel free to join.

Description:

“A woman of color who travels ruptures the projected narrative of not only the male traveler who is depicted as the default observer, “discovering” the (already discovered) world through a “neutral” gaze credited to himself, but of the white female traveler, who is romanticized as discovering herself through appropriative behaviors and orientalist lenses yet is never made aware of her position in the world.

“A woman of color cannot deny her position in the world, because she is forced to confront it in the sheer act of becoming herself and interacting with those she sees as her equals–not as inferior accessories to her adventure. This group seeks to restore power to the solo female traveler of color, who defies the restraints of neocolonialist insistence that she cannot discover herself and must instead be the object discovered, that she cannot discover languages and cultures and narrate the gorgeousness of worlds that live beside her own and the fearfulness of venturing into them.

“This is a place for you to plan, advise, and chronicle your adventures with stories, photographs, and even trips-gone-wrong.”

I told you I’d bring presents. See you soon.

Guest Post: Culture, nationalism, and the myth of a monolithic Islam

Does our last guest writer even need an introduction? Metis, wife, mother, academic, and a writer on topics related to religion and feminism, is the badass behind MusFem, where feminism is spoken fluently–and the gridlocks of conventional wisdom is challenged. Under different names, Metis has always been a subversive voice of uncompromising reason and astounding patience. Please welcome Metis and her exploration of religion and national identity–as well as her contention as to whom it truly concerns.

It has taken my neighbour’s six-year-old daughter nearly a year to vaguely understand the difference between religion and nationality. Every time her mother tried to take her to church because ‘good Christian children attend church’ she would promptly declare that she was “American, not Christian!”

Most immigrant or expatriate families who live away from home tend to focus more on their “own traditions” which manifests itself either in the form of people interacting closely with their national community or in the form of strict adherence to religious traditions. It appears to me that in my neighbour’s case the focus of the family has been more on their American identity in a foreign country. This made me realise that Quran never refers to ‘nationality’ as we know it today. There are references to ‘peoples’ (49:13) and ‘tribes’ (7:160) like the ‘Children of Israel’ (10:90) and ‘Pharaoh’s People’ (43:51) and the ‘Quraish’ (106:1), for example, because people were known to exist as tribes with their personal beliefs becoming ‘Jews, and Sabaeans, and Christians’ (5:69). Bible doesn’t refer to nationalities either. Yet, in the modern world there are constant references to Islam as it started in the 7th Century Arabia versus the modern idea of nations and nationalities. Muslims are repeatedly reminded that a thousand and four hundred years later Islam is a sum total of the verse 12 of chapter 8 of the Quran, while the ‘West’ is ‘democratic’, ‘free’, and ‘just.’ Muslims who migrated to the ‘West’ (sometimes two generations ago) have, like any other immigrant/expat community, tried to remain faithful to their traditions – in this case their Muslim traditions. For that they have been blamed for “bringing that desert stuff into our world.” Constant references are made to ‘the West and Islam’ or ‘America and Islam’ as if these are mutually exclusive entities, and Muslims are regularly asked if they can be “British and Muslim”, and taught how to exist as hyphenated identities: American-Muslim. We vaguely understand what is meant by ‘West’ and we are fairly sure about what we mean when we refer to America or Britain or France. But what do we mean by ‘Islam’? What is ‘Islam’?

In 2001, the then President of the US, George Bush said, “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.” Thirteen years later, the famous Muslim scholar and writer, Reza Aslan said in reference to ISIS (2:13) that “if a member of ISIS said I’m chopping off the infidels heads because I’m a Muslim and Islam tells me to do so, you’ve got to take his word for it; he’s a Muslim and that’s his interpretation of Islam.” One cannot help but notice the difference between the two men’s understanding of ‘Islam.’ For Bush Islam is a monolithic bloc that is black and white – peaceful Muslims practiced the ‘true Islam’ while the terrorist Muslims hijacked Islam and were “traitors to their own faith.” At least that is what he said. Aslan, on the other hand, acknowledges that everyone has their own interpretation of Islam; in effect, every Muslim’s Islam is their personal understanding of the faith and hence those who are terrorists are also Muslim, not “traitors to their own faith.” Bill Maher infamously condemns all Muslims as following one type of Islam, while Aslan and Jebreal try to argue that there is no one type of Islam.

Apparently there are 73 sects within ‘Islam.’ Whether one believes this number as true or not, it is true that most Muslims identify themselves as belonging to a branch of Islam and even within a particular branch there are diversities in beliefs and practices. There are also ‘cultural Muslims’ (aka secular Muslims) like Jebreal (who told Maher that she is a secular Muslim) or Mandvi who recently acknowledged that “Religion is so much more than the god you pray to. The religion that you associate with, it’s culture, it is family, it is background… culturally, yes, I feel like I will always be culturally Muslim.”

Very recently a radio programme focused on the history of Islam in America the introduction of which made a valuable observation that “Islam has some 1.6 billion followers practicing a wide array of religious traditions and speaking hundreds of different languages. And yet, even as more and more Americans convert to the faith and foreigners emigrate to the U.S. from all over the Islamic world, Muslims are still often caricatured in the American imagination.”

This ugly caricature of the American imagination has to stop but first we must also realise that an ‘American’ does not automatically mean a Maher-version of white, non-Muslim, ill-informed citizen of the US. What is an ‘American imagination’ about Muslims if an American also happens to be Muslim? Inadvertently the programme’s introduction is making the same dangerous mistake of stereotyping, and alienating Muslims from America, which it is accusing ‘Americans’ of doing. An American can be a Muslim. They can be white, brown or black. An American Muslim can be a Sufi or Salafi or Progressive or Quranist or Shiite or even just a cultural Muslim.

To understand if people have, even a vague, universal definition of Islam I asked Muslims and non-Muslims to give me their definition of Islam. Twenty seven people kindly shared their definition – each one different from the other. Interestingly only one Muslim made a reference to the Prophet Muhammad while four non-Muslims referred to him as essential to the Muslim faith. Muslims generally focused on the worship of One God and most further defined their identity for example as ‘Ritualistic spiritual muslim’ (sic) or ‘Spiritual Muslim’ or ‘Sufi Muslim’ and even ‘Quranist.’ Furthermore, while non-Muslims were inclined to offer a text-book definition of Islam highlighting the mechanics like “organized religion”, Prophet, Quran, “rituals” and “rules”, Muslims focused more on their “relationship” with God, as Islam being a “security blanket”, and adopting “a Way of Life.” Clearly Muslims understand Islam personally and individually rather than as a standard definition and they acknowledge that their belief system can be further identified as a particular type of Islam.

Where am I leading with this? I argue that while we all know in our hearts that Islam is not monolithic and that there is no ‘true Islam’, non-Muslims and sometimes even Muslims like to pretend otherwise. This insistence that we have “our own traditions and everything else is wrong” (as if there are standard sets of Muslim traditions) satisfies the ego of Muslims who want to broadcast their version of Islam as the only legitimate version – the true Islam. Recently when Huffington Post Religion posted this article on their Facebook Page on how Shiite Muslims observe Ashura, Sunni Muslims were quick to point out to the world that “This is deceiving”, “This has nothing to do with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad”, “This is not the true Islam; This is very real diversion”, and even that “This is not an Islamic practice it is made up and weird” (sic). Yet, if you ask the small community of Shiite Muslims who observe Ashura through bloodletting, the physical ‘abuse’ is neither deceiving nor weird; it is all about the “universality of the experience”, a universality that is confined to the minority community that celebrates its spirituality in a unique manner. Reiterating what Aslan said, “that’s their interpretation of Islam” and we must take their word for it with tolerance and acceptance of diversity.

No one has perhaps said it better than Dr. Laury Silvers that “There is no core “Islam,” there is only diverse Muslim identities constructed in a multitude of ways.” So which one particular Muslim identity is the only legitimate one that non-Muslims and Muslims alike can refer to when discussing ‘Islam’, a religion of over a billion diverse people?

That is a billion American dollar question.

It’s May. [Update #1]

Is it already? I meant to write something. (I actually meant to write quite a lot.) But–well, it didn’t happen. So here are a number of updates.

About halfway through the semester, a woman in one of my English classes had expressed dissatisfaction that she wasn’t able to read a lot of the “classics” she thought she would be reading as an English major, because so much of “ethnic studies” had made a literary presence in the department.

Let’s examine the unspoken premises here: (1) “Ethnic” people can not write classics, and/or (2) Anything incorporating analysis with “ethnic awareness,” or race studies, is not as extravagant a question as the “classic” musings on the human condition. Because racism is not a human experience. Well I mean, it’s not an important one. It’s not as grand as other literary subjects, like death or the sublime.

You see, once upon a time, English and Comparative Literature were actually two different departments. The whites were separated from the coloreds and everyone was happy. Then, one dreadful day, some people who were clearly suffering from too much political correctness actually decided to combine them together, on the basis that treating comparative literature as though it isn’t mainstream just because it’s written in languages not English is completely arbitrary to the study of literature. Or at least arbitrary according to them. I mean, it’s called English literature for a reason right? Being white has nothing to do with it, just Englishness. It’s not like we ever translate Greek lit–

Oh wait.

I have something to ask those who feel that “race” or “sex” don’t belong among the universal human experiences that are explored in literature and literature classrooms.

On what grounds?

Why are your questions about life larger than mine? Why do we have to explore the complexities of good and evil exposed by literature only on your terms, according to your human experiences? Why should I be expected to relate to your experiences as universal when you aren’t expected to relate to mine?

Why do you get to call yours universal, significant, penetrating the depths of human truths–apolitical–and accuse me of a political agenda on the assumption that–what? You are the exemplar of all humankind? That your experience of race–and trust me, you do have one despite your ardent denial–is the ultimate, that your awareness of race, under the pretense of not concerning yourself with it, as told from the perspective of the status quo is to remain unquestioned or else I am making the classroom political?

The problem isn’t that I am making you discuss race or sex when you don’t want to discuss it in literature. The problem is that I am changing the terms in which you discuss it. The truth is you were already discussing it, by default–except from your perspective, under the guise of “normality.” The truth is that before women’s studies you only had Male Studies in every class–history, biology, English, medicine was taught based on what was proven to work on male patients. The truth is that before comparative literature you already had White Literature. The truth is you were always discussing race, you were always discussing sex, and you were always discussing them as questions worthy of exploration alongside death and nature and the sublime and identity.

Why the sudden change of approach?

Do you believe English literature was truly English literature before I came along with my intellectual honesty political correctness? That you weren’t already obsessed with race? That it was English literature, not White literature?

Why have you translated the Greeks?

a note to LGBT Muslims

Over the past couple of years I’ve received some messages in my inbox asking for advice. I can’t imagine why anyone would ask me, a straight woman, about advice coming out, except out of desperation and having nowhere else to turn. It breaks my heart to know I can’t help you because I can’t possibly know what you’re going through, but from what I have seen, all I can offer is this:

–If you are sure your parents are going to freak out, wait until you are financially independent to tell them

–If you suspect that your parents are not going to freak out, wait until you are financially independent to tell them, because they might just freak out

–Don’t depend on your parents, siblings, and friends not freaking out. You may think they will love you no matter what. Unfortunately you may be in for a surprise.

If this means that you have to wait a couple of years, then wait for your own best interest, even if it is eating you alive from the inside. I have seen terrible things happen to friends who came out to their parents–they were basically put through hell until they were able to move out. That means emotional, psychological, and even threats of physical abuse. That means the looming possibility of suicide. And hell, it’s not me it happened to, it’ll never be me it happened to, so I can’t just say that it’s better to wait than go through all of that for the sake of getting it off your chest, but I’m making a judgement call and saying that it probably is; that the feeling of relief from letting it out probably won’t be worth the anguish and torment that you might endure if you are still dependent.

I don’t mean to frighten you, or discourage you, but I do mean to see to it that you make sure your safety is first. I don’t doubt that there are some wonderful parents, that there will be those among you who will wish that you hadn’t heeded this advice because when you do tell your parents you’ll think about how you could have fallen securely into their accepting embrace ages ago and rested easy. But from my second hand experience, these types of coming out scenarios are rare. Unless your parent comes straight out and tells you, “People are so shit to LGBT folk, I wouldn’t care if you were attracted to the same sex, and I’d love you” it’s probably safer to wait until you needn’t subject yourself to their fury in order to survive.

It is incredibly frustrating, and incredibly unfair, and sometimes when something is just festering inside of you you can’t even always control when you let it out anyway, and I know. Well, I don’t know. But you know. I can only ask if there is some other outlet for you to relieve your frustrations in the meanwhile; confide in friends at the GSA at your school, for example, make connections so that it’s not so hard on you. And so that you have resources–anything that is psychologically soothing, treat yourself to it.

Sometimes that support simply isn’t available, in which case you might have to go out of your way to find it. I am so sorry. I am sorry straight people are such jerks, I am sorry I can’t have more words to give you; please watch our for yourself until you can take care of yourself, and then some, I love you.

The Stealth Hijabi

If it isn’t clear already, I am not a hijabi. But while other young Muslim women would express disapproval (in a not-so-keen patriarchal tactic of pitting women against each other) at the trope of the hijabi who goes clubbing with her friends and wears vivid makeup while simultaneously donning a “modest” persona, I would almost always immediately arrive at her defense. I love the stealth hijabi. Other than the fact that I don’t wear a headscarf, I am the stealth hijabi. I’m the woman who removes her pantyhose as soon as she walks out of her front door.

You see, the stealth hijabi doesn’t actually do anything wrong. She doesn’t drink or gamble or gossip—her biggest “shortcoming” is disobedience. (And dancing, apparently, but we’ll get to that in a different post.) She does not mean to be deceitful. Unlike her falsely attributed counterpart, the man who drinks and sleeps around yet demands a virgin wife, she does not impose her judgments on others or set double standards for the opposite sex.

Arguably this is a variety of the stealth hijabi—granted I never did sneak off to parties late at night. I did, however, go to the library in the afternoon on weekends while my mother, at work, had no idea, and also to the movies with friends I haven’t seen for a long time. And how did I justify this? It is not easy to lie to one’s mother, but the way I saw it, I was restoring something of mine that is a right, and something I needed from which I had been continuously obstructed. In my childhood I never went to sleepovers or hosted them, I didn’t see a movie in theaters until Pirates of the Caribbean 3 in high school, never went shopping with friends until university. None of these things are against Islam, but they are against the overprotective regulations of my mother, who cannot to this day allow me to run to the store alone.

To understand this, you should know two things. The first is that immigrant parents, though they come from countries that are a thousand times more dangerous than the US (or at least mine did), can not move past their fears of the unfamiliar to the reality that this nation is more foreign and foreboding to them than it is to their children. Though my mother knows from evidence that I can demonstrably get myself out of any situation, she’s convinced that I’ll be left stranded somewhere and she’ll have no way to reach me—even if that “somewhere” is less than ten miles away, and even if, had we resided in her country of birth, she would have allowed me to travel anywhere in the city I desired despite the higher risk.

The second is that I was abused as a child, and my mother also endured domestic violence.

Let me explain the resulting dynamics by starting from the beginning: When I was very little–about four to five years old–I would invent new toys from our old toys for my little brother (who was one to two at the time). He would wake up from his nap and play with them. When he tired of them I would take them apart and make new toys again, and he would return to playing with them with new interest. When my mother was asleep I would sneak out with my brother and take him to the park and push him on the swings and we would run back home before my mom woke up. (Until she discovered, at which point we ceased.)

As we grew older we were growing accustomed to our little world–and it was an abusive one. Except the abuse didn’t stop with the perpetrator. I was very soft at school, attentive, responsive, bright–at home I turned into a monster. I became extremely controlling. I stopped making things for my bother to play with–I took things from him instead. Especially if these things were books I wanted to read, or time on the computer (we only had one then), anything–anything!–that would allow me to escape. He needed to play too, but he was young. I was three years older and that means I had the power. And I used it.

I cried often. (So did he.) And I continued to take things from him, because if because of the abuse I couldn’t have control over myself then I had to have control over someone else! In a few long years my brother watched the sister who had told him stories and made things for him to play with and never yelled at him even once and made excuses for him when he broke something or made a mess turn into someone absolutely unjust that he was forced to hate.

Eventually, I learned to live with what was happening to both of us (an opportunity my brother never had because he had no way to act out), and I came back around again. (“We all return to our nature,” my mother once said.) But the damage was done.

Although I was always aware of the devastating irony that my mother did not want me to leave the house in fear that some danger would befall me when in fact my own house was the most dangerous place I could be, it took me a long time to realize that my obsessive controlling nature toward my brother as a result of the abuse was almost exactly like the overprotective nature of my mother toward us. (She was much kinder though, and genuinely was afraid she would lose me to a world of kidnappers and murderers.) I have no doubt that she already had the inclination to be overprotective, all factors considered, and overprotection is not intrinsically a negative thing that stunts the joys of childhood, but had we not been in this position, she would have been freer and more open with allowing us to participate in regular activities of which childhood is composed. And indeed, as the atmosphere of our lives shifted, she began to accept that she couldn’t supervise me at all times–and shouldn’t.

The reacquisition of my freedom, and the right to live my life, was something I deserved, something I saw–and still see–as rightfully mine, the retribution of a deprived childhood.

Those who insist that Muslim women who engage in supposedly religiously dubious activities whilst modestly dressed are championing a façade of modesty are as mistaken as those who insist it is just an “expected” natural rebellion against the restraints of an intensely confined society that does not allow them freedom. Both these allegations fail to compassionately approach the structural complexity of subverting two patriarchies and neglect to recognize the stealth hijabi—and the Muslim woman—as an agent fully seizing her opportunities and her personhood to play the system and restore her rights within her Moral framework. The approach of the stealth hijabi to life is a careful and restorative one, and not the irresponsible “damaged beyond redemption” state that Muslims suppose or the simple “rebellious child” that non-Muslims perceive.

The woman taking off her pantyhose as she walks out of her house isn’t intentionally duplicitous. Nor is she a helpless thing to be saved who is slipping out of one patriarchy and stepping into another. She is fully conscious of her identity, a lover of beauty and of quiet pleasures; she may arguably be a coward for avoiding confrontation—or she may be too tired to give a damn anymore.

There is a point of recognizing that not only is there no explanation owed, there is no time to deliver one.

And while I can understand, as a woman who does not wear a headscarf, the bitter temptation to disparage a hijabi praised by patriarchal society by magnifying her “falsity,” I simply refuse to engage in deriding any of my sisters.

Race and the Other Consequence

Sometimes I wonder if I love my state more than I love my country. In fact, not even all of California–just the Bay Area specifically; the rest of the state might as well be another to me.

I suspect that I haven’t felt loved here–after all, the city is a harsh and lonely place. There is a kind of unspoken character, a confused jumble between rigorous materialism and outcries of painful poetic passion. Love is not a comforting warmth here–it flames in intervals like the passing heat waves, the “slow degrees of lazy Fahrenheit” that “cook the day, eat the night.” (That was truly written for us.) With the ocean to my left and the mountains to my right, the valley is nothing short of glorious. My valley. “It’s a beautiful day in the Bay,” announces an advertisement for morning news. And it is. An ocean breeze graces even inward cities. The summers are deep and sad.

You don’t look American, but you look Californian. Not the perpetuated vision, but strangely akin to the features of the place itself: enormous dark glossy eyes like some sort of creature of the sea, stormy hair like seaweed or onyx untamed fire, and skin the tone of warmed sand. The women here have beautiful names, names that as Warsan Shire states command full use of the tongue–names that owe no trust to those who cannot pronounce them correctly. The barista spells yours right. Salespeople converse in Vietnamese. Latina women stop you in the street to ask what shampoo you use; “Your hair is like mine,” they reach out to touch it, awed by the familiarity. They ask whether you are one of them–this time you don’t mind.

They are mournful when you answer, “No.” “You’re pretty!” they exclaim. Please be possible, had been the unspoken hope. I can’t look white but I can look like you! I know, because I see the reflection of my desires on their faces.

In the high-end shopping malls you have to dress twice as beautiful as any white woman to fend off curious borderline hostile looks. A white woman in jeans is casual and practical; a woman of color in jeans must have inadequate finances. Yet, “What beautiful hair–is that the conditioner you use?” she inquires reaching for it herself after seeing you pull it off the shelf, because she has clearly dyed her own once too many (but you are too polite to point out that this is the problem, not her conditioner). Instead you tell her when you were little you wanted to be blonde just like her. (Her eyes light up a little and indicate to you the message is received.) The reactions are so independently contrasted between suspicion and admiration it’s exhausting not to know what to expect.

But it is California and it is mine.

I will always be Californian. As disinterested as I am in sports if I do ever move I will almost certainly still cheer for Californian teams. But that’s no reason I’ll ever betray the next state where I live.

A white woman tells me something that reminds me of a moving article I have read before, “I don’t mean to be offensive, and I know how dangerous and hurtful the word ‘exotic‘ is to you, how it reinforces the colonial idea of you as not normal, but I am part Native American and I feel so confirmed when people say that in one moment by happenstance I look exotic–like I can connect with something I love, a part of my identity that has been denied to me. I would never claim it, but that’s how I feel.” And my heart breaks for her. They say white culture doesn’t hurt white people like patriarchy hurts men, but it does, it does. Just a little. After all, what conqueror can engage in such evil without feeling a dark emptiness where once was his spirit? Bound forever to appropriate from the cultures he has hated, a sick kind of love. Searching for the spirituality compromised in violence–by perpetuating more violence in this appropriation.

I would be a sick fool to mourn for a collateral backfiring for who have destroyed me–it is something similar to a kind of syndrome no doubt… but I’d rather feel it just a little, in case it isn’t, in case it is really just human.