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