Diaspora Romanticizing Discarded Patriarchal Traditions

Speaking of piercings, my mother informed me recently that in our culture, women used to wear the noluk (septum piercing) to indicate that they were newly married. If the women weren’t already pierced, the bridal party would puncture the ring through the septum on the very day of the ceremony.

Septum rings have never appealed to me aesthetically, though I do think they look better on darker skin. When my mother told me this, however, I was so enthralled to know of it, the somehow novel idea that facial piercings are not taboo in our culture, that in my mind I romanticized the tradition for a few seconds.

“It was absolute torture,” my mother said, wincing. “I’m so glad women stopped doing this.”

“When did they stop?”

“With your great grandmother, I think. My mother didn’t have one. It’s such a relief.” She shuddered.

It was, of course, a patriarchal tradition, and my momentary fascination borne out of a longing for connection explains the egomaniacal mindset of diasporic men and their counteractive behaviors. This was a practice traditional women ended on their own agency, and suggestions of revival are regressive to the legacy of tradition in the exact same way that colonialism halts social progression in the societies it terrorizes. What men of color like this do, essentially, is recolonize. Of course, they won’t see that, because women are the powerless gatekeepers of tradition.

Men are going to write things to explain me, and y’all have to accept that.

This past week I’ve received numerous emails linking me to an article written by Rajbir Singh Judge that cites a vignette I drafted with the claim, in the fluid language of academic objectivity, that my desire to pray without a barrier is dishonest and selfish. A telling excerpt is this quote from the article,

“Rather than engage in contestations and reasoning about the Islamic tradition with the Aunties, who exist as serious repositories of knowledge through their extensive networks (which, in turn, could put into question TFF’s certainty), the individual takes precedence and is always already correct in breaking deemed barriers.”

The quote is telling not only because my entire website is dedicated to engaging in “contestations and reasoning about the Islamic tradition.” I already know he’s never visited, because the article cites the guest post on Orbala‘s blog instead of the vignette here. He has never sifted through my writing, but I don’t care for him to read it either. Rather, what is also telling about this excerpt is that, like the entire article, it relies on a sympathetic premise–examining the role of aunties compassionately and investigating their portrayal–in order to villainize younger women, whose arguments, positions, and desires it dismisses.

In fact, the article cites only younger women as the supposed “critics”. If the author were genuine in his exploration, he would have discussed young men’s dismissive attitudes towards aunties, or the uncles who create the oppressive structures which in turn necessitate some of the intrusive behaviors of aunties. Lots of young Muslim women have written about this delicate position of aunties before; in fact, everyone is fascinated with this article because it masquerades as considerate toward a population that is criticized for sexist and often racist reasons… except that, men like the one who wrote this article are exacerbating those reasons by pressing into an “older vs younger woman” dynamic and essentially pitting women against each other in some fantastical theory.

The author treats the piece as a standalone, which is fair, even despite his clear lack of research into what conversations we Islamic feminists have amongst each other, because it does to a certain extent stand alone. But it is not a standalone. It is in fact, part of my thesis, which mentions auntie amina wadud on several occasions, including in this particular vignette itself. In any draft of this piece, the “inquisitiveness, vibrancy and irrepressibility” of aunties is neither incompatible with nor undesirable to our individualism as the article alleges, but the author seems to specialize in south asia and the modern middle east, which against the Islamic tradition leaves out the inclusion of our black leaders. The characterization of my mother–who isn’t an auntie to me but is an auntie to the community, which seems to not occur to the author–as lying “in order to elude their questions” rather than tentatively stepping through complex and nuanced dynamics is already a meaningful observational omission.

If you want to read the full excerpt–you’ve all seen it anyway–I’ve imaged it below.

This is all greatly amusing to me, but for those of you who appear distressed, I assure you it is only expected for men to mischaracterize young women in order to preserve the integrity of tradition under a guise of credibility.

Those of you who’ve pointed out how unqualified the writer is have received some responses simultaneously admitting the author isn’t familiar with engagements in Islamic feminism and emphasizing the dismissal of the auntie nonetheless. Of course the obvious issue with this is that the examples in the article “supporting” its core observations are inaccurate. Needing so desperately to deliver a point as to invent scenarios demonstrates a weakness in the argument, and it’s bad writing. But that was already clear in its investigation of caricatures by reducing younger women to caricatures.

despite our capacity to know ourselves, south asian women don’t; we take from black women instead

Bear with me for a second, because I want to be painfully honest about south asian women in regards to an issue which speaks to why Rupi Kaur has been plagiarizing nayyirah waheed from the very beginning of her career. And when I say honesty, I am speaking of my own experience and perspective: I am prepared to reevaluate them.

One of the stereotypes south asian women confront is that we are “too overdramatic” and “too emotional.” I have sensed this attitude from non-south asian (white) people, and have heard it repeated by other south asian women. A woman in my undergrad once said, “Not to be racist, but I’m not friends with women of my own race, because south asian girls are always starting drama.” It’s a stereotype already that (all) girls are “always starting drama” but this is amplified with the south asian woman, who is viewed as too constantly on the brink of tears, driven by the fragility imbued in her “over”analytical character.

South asian cultures are deeply emotional. They are emotional in non-English languages, in south asian phrases where the senses run into each other, where colors are unapologetically intense and all perfumes are the liveliest jasmine (taken from the flower rather than the stems), in the undertones of abusive in-laws and the soft subversions of quickwitted women against sneering patriarchal men, in the quiet pains of feminine men and in the colonized violence against nonbinary people. It is emotional in ways that american culture cannot reproduce. As south asian men mock the accents with which their parents speak yet claim to love their cultures through these patronizing, minimizing, infidelitous derisions, so do south asian women, removed for a context we feel only deep in our subconscious memories, mirror the soft outbursts of the centuries our mothers lived even though we do not understand our motions. In the context of the restrictive English language and the emotion-starved “objectivity” of American culture, these reproductions are superficial. We shadow “drama” without knowing the source.

The south asian woman (when she is not american and even when she is) is always imaged with lowered lashes, unsmiling or smiling too softly, subdued in her pain and quiet about and because of it. The south asian woman erupts and refrains. She bubbles within herself and the emotion spills and she is too apologetic—to the point of inspiring irritation—when she cleans it up. She is seen as superficial, like an imitated accent, and she knows this and sees herself this way. She has a double conscience. She gropes in the dark for reasons to explain her behavior.

In our mothers, words that don’t exist in english perfectly encompass emotions we need entire phrases to translate and understand. The word obhimaan is one my mother always used; it is not anger. It is an anguished frustration enflamed specifically by the thoughtless or selfish actions of a loved one. It is not used with strangers: obhimaan can only be used in the context of love. There is no english equivalent unless you want to consider this paragraph of words.

In english there are despondency, pleasure, regret etc. and the slightly more complex melancholy, homesick—but nothing to describe the specific discontent of completing a fantasy, or confronting your own mortality at your grown daughter’s wedding, or the scientific thrill that attends a failure. What happens when you take a woman who comes from a language like this and shove her into the confines of english, with no memory of why she is the way she is?

When I first read Rupi Kaur, I thought immediately that it took the spirit from nayyirah waheed’s work. This is why, you’ll notice, I’ve never posted her writing on any social media platform. But I was uncomfortable with it for another reason. It’s uninspired. It’s superficial. There is a lack of honesty. It sounds painfully like a woman attempting to express herself in another woman’s language. Brown women have always leaned against black women while benefitting from certain privileges in a closer proximity to whiteness. And Rupi Kaur’s “poetry” was familiar in more than one respect.

I recognized that it sounded like another woman’s language not only because Kaur was attempting to impersonate waheed’s persona, but it was so recognizably an attempt to reproduce another’s language because this is what south asian women do—when we speak English, when we carry the pressures of our mothers against the flight of our own spirits, when we erupt in emotions that cannot translate through diaspora. We are vocal without knowing our voice. And this is something that we need to recognize, understand, and change.

We are lethal to each other as if scrambling to establish a theory first without knowing ourselves, and ultimately still attempting to apply the theories that have already been created for another woman to ourselves. As one commenter said, “desi women are more capable of producing their own emotions.” But we grow defensive and certainly toxic when any of us dares make an attempt that does not resemble what has already been lain out, and we celebrate those who do in their spiritual plagiarism. When we feel vacant ourselves because we cannot fasten reason to our emotions, any semblance of that vapidity in another, even if misplaced or projected, inspires our contempt. We will get nowhere if we continue to deter ourselves and other south asian women who are attempting to pave our own way and relieve the theories of black women of constant misuse, misappropriation, and plagiarism.

Leave the work of black women to black women. They have worked hard. We cannot adopt the struggle of another as a means to name our own growing pains.

White Feminists Prioritize Race Over Sex: on Failing to Understand White Feminism

My fever for the past few days is currently at 103°F, so I apologize in advance if this post makes jumps, but it all bears repeating.

No one in the history of revolutions has ever placed sex before race, including white women, who consistently prioritize their race over their sex (see: voting for men who’ve assaulted them, voting against the interests of women of color, etc.) but the opposite—believing racism is the only real oppression and should be prioritized over all supposedly imaginary others—has always existed, especially with male revolutionaries of color.

The complaint that a woman is prioritizing sex before race is based on an imaginary perception, and alarmingly, it is an accusation that can only ever be levied against a woman of color. White women don’t actually ever prioritize their sex, because they vote against the interests of women of color. They prioritize their race. When white women do support women of color, it’s an anti-racist cause as much as an anti-sexist cause.

It’s astounding to me that people don’t recognize accusations that a woman of color is placing her sex before her race are specific to her. It’s a racist, sexist accusation. It doesn’t apply to white women. It is only justified if she is upholding white women against women of color, and even then is internalized white supremacy, not a prioritization of sex over race.

White feminism is the prioritization of your race over your sex, not the other way around. This post is obviously not speaking to black women, who coined the term and created its usage, and whose intellectual labor is consistently credited by men to white women. It is speaking to non-black women of color, who misappropriate and misuse black feminist terms in order to uphold a race-over-sex hierarchy supporting men of their own race—just like white feminists (and like the very men of color) that black feminists criticize.

Some of you who’ve been reading me since 2011 know that I’ve had difficulty describing my …relationship with my race, and I think there is an overall (not unjustified, but certainly untrue) assumption that white supremacy factors into that. It doesn’t. And I’m ready now to disclose what it is, very briefly.

I’d noticed that although I’m very detached from my race (resorting to describing it through my hair), I entertain—just like I used to when Muslims accused me of not being Muslim—just a tiny, little, unconcerning strand of thoughts about not wanting to live anymore when a woman of my race accused me of not being of my race, or otherwise sources my work to white feminists. Again, this isn’t serious, and there’s no cause for alarm. I fantasize about a lot of things, all the time. This was strange considering I’m so distant from race and typically unfeeling. How could denial of my race result in this reaction? I knew there must have been something going on. (Sometimes what you don’t feel speaks volumes more than what you do.)

Some of you know that my childhood was, I suppose, what can objectively be considered sort of rough. I’ve mentioned it in passing before, and never really in detail, because I don’t think of it as traumatizing. I tend to bounce back from hardship pretty quickly, or at least I did as a child, even when it drags on for years. But my mother’s physically abusive marriage meant several things in terms of how connected I was to her and subsequently to my race.

My mother’s forced isolation from her family and friends and the confiscation of her paychecks meant that, unlike other girls with perfect families, I didn’t just not have warm coats in the winter or fitted shoes. It also meant that I didn’t have glittering saris brought back from abroad every summer. It meant that I was not surrounded with music or movies from my mother’s home. It meant that I could not visit my mother’s family annually like so many of my classmates did theirs. It meant that all I knew about anything was violence. It was violence at home, and, when I encountered racism, violence at school.

It’s a popular concept to convey, that white women want tiklis and kohl and henna but they don’t want the harder things. All I had was the harder things. And to be told, after that, by some prissy well-to-do girl whose mother was never barred from sending money home and who had two whole parents and routine vacations and something glimmering to wear every Eid, that I wasn’t connected to my race or that I needed to read the black scholarship she supposedly knew well enough to manipulate like that kid who wrote “black lives matter” 100 times for his college essay, was fundamentally and astronomically enraging—in the quiet, internal, not-good-enough, evoking-abuse, destructive kind of way. The kind of rage that isn’t rage. The most dangerous kind. (Thankfully, I am very good at healing myself.)

Having figured this out, it doesn’t bother me anymore, but it still speaks to how obtuse (and ultimately white feminist) non-black women of color are when they source the work of other women of color to white feminists any time that work doesn’t center men of color. It’s not just that white feminism erases race—in fact, it recognizes and prioritizes whiteness—rather, white feminism erases the womanness of women of color. It excludes women of color, as not-women, and that is its main feature—not some failure to include non-black men of color. It’s not about men of color. Please stop centering them for once in your sorry lives. And if you must, at least don’t expect me to do it for you. Thanks.

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?