Dear young western-educated Muslim sisters: I see you priding yourselves on your “love” choices as you get ready to marry that boyfriend. I see you dancing in the limelight of capitalist delusions as you celebrate how “free” you are of religious and traditional constraints. I hear you demonize my Muslim mother for having consented to an arranged marriage thirty years ago as your talk about your “modern” love. I see you hate on my Muslim grandmother for looking at your boyfriend suspiciously, for refusing to believe the narrative of “freedom” espoused by the younger westernized generation.
Dear smug sisters: my grandma’s suspicion is a lesson in the traps of patriarchy. It is meant to teach us that self-chosen marriages are not inherently liberatory; they are the exact opposite of liberatory because they have us duped into thinking there can be any choice in this capitalist-heteropatriarchal messy world. My mother’s arranged marriage was so much more radical than your “love” marriage: she was under no such illusions when she unsmilingly signed her nikkahnama; she never believed in the emancipatory potential of the neoliberal ideas of free-will and autonomy. And perhaps she can teach you about the oppression that lies under willingly happily entering an institution that commodifies women as property. Perhaps she can show you that illusions of post-patriarchy are even more dangerous than in-your-face patriarchy.
So when you differentiate yourself from those oppressed Muslim women to make your own muslimness palatable to whiteness, know that your willingness to “choose” love cannot even match the strength of my mother’s refusal to love. My mother’s lack of smiles and laughter in her wedding pictures symbolizes resilience. Your smiles and laughter at your wedding symbolizes coercion, a kind of coercion that manifests itself through an arrogant patronizing feminism.
Our educated, westernized, modernized generation is not any less oppressed than the generation of our mothers and grandmothers. Self-chosen “love” marriages are not any different from the older generation’s arranged marriages. They are simply veiled under the dark illusory shrouds of love and choice. But how can there be choice in an act that inadvertently transforms a relationship into a contract in which the woman is an object of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy? My mother understood the inherently patriarchal nature of this institution when she consented to an arranged marriage years ago. My grandmother understood the violent nature of marriage when her consent didn’t even matter years and years ago. These are women who can surely give you lessons in feminism, who can write correctives to your arrogant feminism that privileges Western-capitalist patriarchy over Muslim patriarchy.
Dear “modern” Muslim sisters, this is why certain older women refuse to participate in your contrived happiness. They have a knowledge that is so much deeper and sadder than the theatrical romance fed to us by heteropatriarchal capitalist culture. Despite her lack of English-medium education (or perhaps because of its lack), my grandmother can see the violence in both “arranged” and “love” marriages. So how can you demonize her for eyeing your boyfriend-turned-fiancé with suspicion? My frail aging daadi who recently said to me “shaadi se burri cheez is dunya main koi nahi” knows better than to endorse such false “love choices.”
I finally got done writing a tedious list of citations for this paper on transnational feminism. One after the other, I wrote names of academics, articles, books. As if my thoughts on feminism were actually inspired by them. As if the passionate voice that my professor lauds was actually stirred by them. As if you had nothing to do with this paper, with all my papers, with all my angry rants and strengths. As if I came to consciousness by reading feminist poets and fiction writers and academics, and not by your everyday acts of resistance as you confronted boldly the men in the bazaars, as you made sure that we wouldn’t learn the gender roles that you and Dad performed, as you always smiled at me when I shifted back and forth from tomboy to femme to sari to black hoodie, as you made sure no relative imposed gender on me.
Ma, I am sorry I cannot mention you in this citations list. I am sorry I would not think to mention you even if academic conventions allowed it. I am sorry there is no space in my life now to acknowledge how you provided forays into alternative worlds that I now waltz in, forgetful, indifferent, unremembering.
Ma, I am sorry that when you call me from Lahore and ask me proudly what my conference paper was on, I am unable to explain poststructural feminism to you. I am sorry I stutter and stumble as I try to “dumb down” the concept of gender performativity for you. I am sorry that in our Urdu conversations, I always switch to English when you ask me about my thoughts on gender.
Ma, I am sorry I told a friend recently that my activism stems from rebellion against my apolitical family. I am sorry for all the lies, for all the erasure, for stepping all over you so that recognized western feminists can validate me.
Ma, I am sorry I spend more time thinking about Butler and Foucault than I do thinking about all the childhood lessons of feminism you gave me. I am sorry that when I try to think about anticolonial queer feminists, the faces of Sara Ahmed and Jasbir Puar always eclipse yours.
I want to tell you, Ma, that you were my introduction to feminism. That I wouldn’t even know how to read the convoluted language of Puar and Butler if it hadn’t been for your teachings, your tenacity, your sacrifices. Sometimes I want to throw away these books and videos and lectures, and just massage your feet. I wonder if your heels have become coarser in the past year. I want to tell you that you are the fiercest feminist I know, the kind of feminist who can love despite the anger, who can forgive despite the oppression, but I have no words to express such feelings. I just wrote six thousand words discussing western androcentric homonormativity, but my education, my activism, my political consciousness have stolen the words that I need most to remind myself that overt politics sometimes colonize your mundane politics, that they make me think of you as victim rather than fire, as apolitical rather than warrior.
So I am sorry Ma, for letting my feminism trample all over your womanhood.
this draft blowing from the yawns of my window is chilly/ but i sit next to it anyway wrapped in my mother’s shawl unable to move/ unable to tug at the curtains who shudder lonely despite being next to me/ we are all alone in this sisterhood after all
i look outside my window for the day i was a part of their women’s movement, the day I discarded this shawl and trampled over the uneducated yellowing grass with no guilt/ outside this unventilated apartment where the smell of garlic after a light sauté now lingers for more than a day
and like this faint garlic odour, i linger next to the window suspended by the flimsy threads of my convictions/ but when things get too lonely on the cusp of this cold wind and my hot anxiety/ i do try scrambling for remnants of faith of mother of home but it is difficult to scramble with frozen limbs
what else did i expect when the ground waltzed away from under me leaving me hovering, breathless and/ unable to understand how she could’ve been so certain about her moves while i clung terrified/ to garlic smells and drafts that chill me static
once upon a time when i was grounded, i felt less yellow than the tips of winter grass/ and i felt confident not because i was kind of green, but because she was more weak/ i should’ve known then, that the feminism they taught me was more about disempowering other women than about empowering ourselves
I heard about Gulshan-i-Iqbal park when I was wrapped up in my blanket in my warm apartment, oceans away from the carnage and body parts. My immediate response was worry—not about the lives lost but about my family. Having confirmed that everyone I knew was fine, I proceeded to get out of bed and carry out my daily morning rituals. I made alaichi chai, making sure to let the cardamom infused water boil for a long time. I responded to some messages from friends asking about my family, thanked them for their concern, and decided to make myself an omelet with onions and green peppers. Luxuries of a Sunday morning. I made a mental list of the errands I had to run, the electricity bill I had to pay, and the assignments I had to finish for tomorrow. As I sipped my chai, I opened Dawn on my phone, scrolled quickly through the news articles, and glanced at the image with the woman crying. I thought momentarily about how the idea of “women and children” is used by journalists to invite empathy, to amplify the “innocence” of the lives lost; thought about incorporating the images and headlines into a paper I’m writing on the problematic co-optation of women as symbols by nations while broadcasting news about tragedy.
And this is how I forget the real women and children killed, the real Christians in Pakistan who undergo the horrors of existing under religious facism in a country where the sunni Muslims keep sipping their chai; in a country where folks like me never fear that we too will blow up like the suicide bomber with our anger and sorrow. We are devoid of anger, not because we are used to tragedy, but because we know that we will never be the chosen targets of the suicide bomber. We will never have nightmares about finding children’s limbs under heavy metal pieces, we will never fear the monsters unleashed on our religious holidays, we will never live at the literal margins of Lahore. We will text our family members to make sure they weren’t accidentally around Gulshan-i-Iqbal during the unfortunate bombing, we will drink more and more chai as we scroll through the news stories about Islamist militants, and we will continue to do our daily chores. And now and then in the coming week, we will discuss the state of Pakistan, express our contrived grief as we willfully create a rhetoric that highlights the unfathomable brutality of militants and erases the daily oppression lived religious and ethnic minorities. If we are leftist radicals, we will also talk about how our armed forces are not any different from the taliban; how the authorities would not mourn such an attack if “innocent women and children” had been killed in Balochistan by our nawjawan.
And in our condemnation of the militants, the government, the army, the taliban –who selectively target Christians, Hindus, Ahmedis, Balochis, Hazaras etc etc — we will forget that our chores, our schools, our jobs, our academic papers, our smartphones that provide us with latest updates on the bloodbath, are all tools of systems that selectively target those who live at the margins. We will forget that the lives at the margins exist in that periphery because of our complicity, our silence, our forgetfulness, our chai, our ability to calmly chop green peppers for a morning omellete while a Christian woman in Lahore is shaken by recurring visions of her chopped up sister.
Chop chop chop, sip sip sip. I hate chopping vegetables in the morning even though I really like having some color in my omelet. If only I had a bomb in my kitchen to chop up the limbs of the peppers and onions for me.
i am tired/ of shuttling between the binaries of mullah and white/ of defending the worst parts of me my history my trauma/ of constantly laboring to shatter stereotype to complicate your simplistic reductive bullshit that makes me want to give up the parts of me that are meant to be the most radical
your mullah, your imam, your man who holds hadiths like knives makes me defend the feminist movements that have harmed my mother my grandmother my aunties, makes me suck up to your imperialism, sows my mouth shut when the white cis gay man shrouds me in this rainbow veil/ i do not know how to critique the neoliberalism and colonialism behind feminist and queer movements when my womanhood and queerness is being charred slowly by the sparks of the holy quran/ in the name of god who is most merciful and kind but only in his tyrannical ways
your white, your western, your liberal makes me defend the religion the culture the traditions that i always ran away from, makes me suck up to all things islam, sows my mouth shut when my own brown men shroud me under their protective possessive violent gaze/ i do not know how to critique surah nisa and the thirteenness of khadija-zainab-saffiya-ayesha-etc.etc. behind the faith that has protected me against the swords of whiteness that do not slay, but only probe me slowly split my skin slowly/ you don’t kill straight-up you maim bruise torture me islamophobia
i’ve had enough of this shuttling/ of defending the violence of my brown muslim men in the face of your islamophobia, of defending the colonial violence and prescription of my western-educated feminism and queer liberation in the face of your blasphemy laws/ i am tired of shuttling between your islamophobia your blasphemy your mosque that pushes women to the back your fucked up imperialism your pinkwashing your homonationalism/ when will i give up this defending this justifying this explaining this educating/ when will i finally give up this body, this womanness, this ism, this islam, this muslimness, this brown queer bullshit that is supposed to make me radical but only makes me want to/ wash away my brown, tear apart my quran, vomit out my womyn my queer my desire, and surrender to you/ all of my shields and all of my explanations and all of my contrived broken strength
the women in my family taught me how to love women by not loving men no, they are not lesbians or queer or whatever labels you stick onto me, but they refused so wholly to succumb emotionally to men
the women in my family are embodiments of light because they could not get tied to false ideas of hetero romance yes, they spat out the lies fed to them by the afsanay they read the films they watched
the women in my family married men for circumstance, not love
and this is not their tragedy but their ferocity
[yes, this is not some sad poem about their oppression but a testament to their battle, to their unwavering courage]
the women in my family have been fighting since they hit puberty, and some even before then, and they do not tire they labor on and on in the kitchens and bazaars and gardens by closing their hearts to men even when they can’t close their legs, by rising through hardened mud to build suns for their daughters
my mother has held the entire fucking world on her breasts and she still stands straight always my phuppo learned to make love to god after learning that the man she called husband could only make rape, not love, to her and my nani has had her head filled with clouds since she got married, and yet she never let it rain because the women in my family are goddesses whose kisses planted wings on my back, who filled their own voids by loving each other, who taught me to look beyond the hetero romance ideas being drilled into me from all the arenas that were controlled by men
the women in my family taught me the different colors of love, the multiple directions that I can get and give love, the million ways of drinking and savoring and holding love so deep inside me, and none of these teachings ever involved men
a few thousand years ago when i was crashing into rocks and giving birth to this body burden i sprouted a forest on my chest of two little touch-me-nots and the right one became touchable first
my right nipple: i touched it when i was seven to see what it would feel like and i liked the feeling so i tickled it and used a feather on it and later forgot all about it when i discovered my clitoris, the long span of childhood isn’t different from one night of sex is it? the nipple just gets forgotten under the thunder and rain of other body parts
now it is just a sore, wrapped up, padded up, pillowed part of me that you are not meant to see, that I am not meant to talk write scream moan cry about even if it cracks and bleeds and milks and flowers but I am developing slowly a practice of love and care and compassion
so, the first thing i do when i come back to my apartment from a day of laboring under this white sky against white walls is take off my bra unbuckle it from under my shirt squeeze my arms through the shoulder straps slip the cage through my sleeve without taking off my shirt first
you see, i’m just lazy like that, but i will let this right nipple of mine breath freely when i can when the white walls aren’t closing in when the hybrid monster of memory-oblivion will allow me some respite
what happens if you clip a touch-me-not from the stem, does it react, does all feeling die then, does it become touchable for the whole goddamn world? after all my critical theory books imply that there may not be any such thing as consent in a world ruled by ideology, ugh i will feed this book to the memory-oblivion monster, let him chew it and vomit it out while riding a merry-go-round
you see, i just don’t like it when my right nipple is taken lightly, or taken too seriously that it has to turn into a theory, my body is not a theory for your academic consumption
my right nipple is air and wood and earth and fire it burns and gushes and sometimes it creates a breeze and sometimes it hurts like hell, like today it hurt and i did not know what to do should i call the doctor or should i hold it and sooth it myself, i always choose the latter
you see, my nipple is a landmark that I don’t want inspected by some doctor, it holds the vestiges of my seven year old fingernails, the residue of her hot saliva, drippingdripdrip downward as her tongue rolls and circles against my heavy moans,
you see, my nipple is not for inspection under your microscope, it is a historical site, but not for historians no, these salivatory drips and red hot aches and cotton padded cages, none of these can be archived
there are no visible remains
so, I put my hand under my shirt and touch the softness softly and my nipple feels like
it is made of nothing