race

These are my privileges

Towards the end of last year I was hit with a couple of uncomfortable truths. My immediate reaction was to balk at the suggestions and defend myself with what I thought were righteous assertions. The first, that I as a British Asian woman had the right to feel suspicious of Muslim men as a result of the hounding I had been subjected to my entire life and secondly, there was no way my age could be considered a privilege because I had spent most of those years running away from my complete lack of said privilege. I also hadn’t completely got to grips with my cis privilege and didn’t know how to react to a trans woman of colour attacking me for alienating her. I didn’t know what I had done wrong and felt it was unnecessary. But I was willing to learn. And the reason for this is because I respected the people highlighting these issues with me and I wanted us to feel equal.

I did not want to rubbish the opinions of the people I respect even if my immediate reaction was one of disagreement. It was one of my new found intersectional friends who pointed it out to me. It was easy to reject his analysis because he was a university educated white male and it felt a little bit like control. His manner was unforgiving and he sounded like all the other men who have ever told me I was wrong. I was distrusting of this guy because he felt a university education was not a privilege. Lacking a formal education myself, I disagreed. But then another of my fledgling friends said the same thing. We were from similar backgrounds so when she said it, I had the realisation that I couldn’t ignore this, I would have to tackle my prejudices. I had to realise the world for the vast space that it is. Taking into account the meta narrative, the way in which ethnic minorities and in particular, Islam is portrayed was a good start. We are socialised into feeling a certain way about a group. Growing up, a community of a few hundred Muslim men made my life a misery. Add to this the monstering of Asian men and Islam, especially post 9/11 and it’s hardly surprising I would feel this way. I could not hold billions of people responsible for the community I belonged to. And I should reject the world as it is presented to me by the ruling classes. The predominantly white ruling classes.

The privilege of age was one it took a while to get my head around. I feel like I’ve only really been alive for a couple of years, savouring the little things that make life worth living is a relatively new thing for me. Up until the point of my breakdown I was merely surviving. I resisted the notion that I was privileged just because I’d a few more years on this earth. But then, watching my young friend and the ways in which she is ignored, undermined, caricaturised and only because she was 17, I began to understand what she meant. I made a promise to myself that I would make an extra effort to hear what she had to say, actively giving her a platform before others. It’s difficult because the hierarchical structures we have in place are entrenched in our way of thinking, because we have life experience we are ‘older and wiser’ but this isn’t necessarily true. We can always think and feel a bit better. We do not know everything.

When a trans woman of colour found me on Twitter and flew into a rage before we’d even been introduced, my immediate reaction was one of fear. I didn’t understand what was happening and I was really working on the whole privilege thing so couldn’t understand why she was so angry. I was afraid that I had done/said something but could not recall anything obvious and this worried me. Had I been abusive or dismissive and not noticed? I asked my trans* friends and they explained that as white trans women, life was difficult enough, being a trans woman of colour made you invisible. I was reassured that I had said nothing wrong. I worked at understanding her reaction. I’d been through life feeling as though I didn’t exist and I had been that angry too. To the outside world it might have seemed misplaced but not in my mind. Why couldn’t anyone see me and make it better?

It is your white friends that give you an idea of what it is to feel like a whole person. For a system to work you need compliance. If, from birth, you are treated as less, you will believe it your whole life through. I know I did. It’s why I remained in abusive relationships. It’s why I went out with white men who openly treated me like a brown trophy. It is my white (thoroughly human) friends who made me aware of this. The ways in which we are treated, the things that are said to us are simply intolerable to people have been brought up free (read: white). My friends show me when I am being subtly manipulated or treated in a substandard way. Of course when I am routinely stopped at airports I am instantly aware of how I am being treated differently.

I have always felt the power structure and even though it’s not been in my best interests, I have been somewhat resistant to it. The white saviour men have been washed out of my hair. The white friends who are proud to be British show themselves for the colonial masters that they are.  I was that special Asian, the one white people warmed to “you’re not like all the others”. I had a raging distrust of my own kind; I believed what they said in the papers. Y’see, in this country we get a wave of immigration and all the immigrants that came before are eager to show how they’re not like those work shy scroungers. Britain is at its best when it’s dividing and ruling. And I totally bought it for almost 30 years. I liked being a white pet and enjoyed the privileges it afforded; less overt racism than my peers. My Asian peers didn’t like this; I was accused of wanting to be white.  Luckily for me, I have a conscience and it was only a matter of time before it dawned on me that I was just like the rest and in denying this, was a question of my own integrity.

I also found that a lot of white people will never see you as anything but brown. They are actively encouraged to be proud of their empirical heritage. Like rape, war, genocide is easily forgiven when Britain is so ‘welcoming’ to the people of its former colonies. Mind you behave how they want you to though. You are not allowed a culture, an opinion without it being heavily scrutinised for terrorism. Someone called me a fool recently for saying the white man I had been engaged to was racist. He laughed at me once when I came down wearing a pair of mismatched pyjamas. He thought it was a ‘very Asian’ thing to do. HOW? The white brain thinks all of your quirks are attributed to the colour of your skin. Never mind the fact that he was in my bed, he pointed out every little thing that made me Asian. The hair on my body, the time I rubbed his feet, the bond that I had with my family; ALL ASIAN. When you are that obsessed by someone’s race, it is fair to say you might be racist. Especially when you think having an Asian fiancé is winning one back for the team. Well, those Asian boys love a bit of white meat, it’s only fair. If I hadn’t been seriously mentally unwell at the time, I wouldn’t have given him a second look. I don’t regret it though, he taught me a lot about this world.

I’ve had many a white person challenge the racism I have experienced in the past week. They’ve been looking for the P word or the N word and because they haven’t seen any evidence of it, I must be lying and using the race card. Racism and prejudice is not limited to language but rather the way in which we’re made to experience the world. It’s how they make us feel. There hasn’t been anything unusual about the manner in which I’ve been ridiculed or challenged. It is word for word the same as it has always been. Remember it is not your intention, but how you make somebody feel. If you have any respect or love for your critics, you are willing to change or at least think about it from their angle. My anger and my reactions have come as a result of feeling deeply disrespected and unwanted.

The onus is not on me, the oppressed, to make amends.

Privilege Top Trumps

What makes me a feminist? First and foremost I am a woman. I demand an equal right to life. I resent the opportunities I am not given on the basis of my sex. I will fight for these rights, physically if I have to. I resent the ways in which I have had to struggle in order to survive. I am bitter about the many men who have hurt me, on a personal level but professionally also. As women, we have all had these experiences purely because we have been programmed to believe we are physically and intellectually inferior. Many of us haven’t the fight to strike back because we already believe we will lose.

In some parts of the world, it is extremely dangerous to identify as a strong woman. Women in parts of rural Pakistan/Afghanistan have their noses torn off for refusing to make the dinner. In Central America, self-identifying trans women are brutally murdered for deviating from the extremely cis gendered norm. Young Turkish women are coerced into taking their own lives since honour killings carry a mandatory life sentence. Our sisters the world over are suffering still, controlled by the very men who claim to protect and provide. In fact, up to 70% of the women in our vast world will experience domestic abuse. It is astonishing, when the figure is this high, that our Western media is constantly demanding an end to feminism or at least writing about its decline. And there are women, mainly white middle/upper class women, the Brunis and the Perrys; but a few working class too, who believe that this might be true. Even though ¼ of their female British citizens are subjected to threats and violence in their own homes. That they actively choose to disassociate from such a crucial and necessary cause is astonishing and doesn’t make sense. How is one able to claim such ignorance when feminists have been highlighting these issues before I was even born?

I like to play privilege Buckaroo in my head. I am a cis gendered woman with a few years of life behind me. I was educated in my relatively developed corner of the West. I have the sort of face that fits and a name I constructed to impress white people from whom I may need to seek employment. I struggle to think of all my privileges because, from where I normally sit, people haven’t always been welcoming. I am a BrAsian woman of Pakistani/Kashmiri heritage but I’m kind of a beige-y brown so people generally cannot place me. I’m the ‘other’, I have to ‘specify’ and this makes me suspicious to some folk. They want to trust me cos I like to drink gin and know all the lyrics to Pink Floyd but I start to twitch when people bring up the ethnics and their alien ways, and this alarms them. I should do a better job of being British and give over my old allegiances, deny my ancestral journey to this greatest of islands. But I can’t. Not because I hold dear my old culture or religion but because women like me have to smash through the patriarchal crap for women like my mother.

A child bride, uneducated, one of eight daughters; existing only so that one day she would cook and clean and bear children. Nobody asked her about her plans, she wasn’t taught consent or autonomy. She suffered. I haven’t had the best of lives but comparatively, I had the strength to fight back. I had white middle class teachers and a second wave feminist aunt. It no longer matters that my mother struggled to feed and clothe all four of us on £40 week child benefit, I looked forward to hippy guitar mornings with Mr Davies, the primary school teacher who gave me first Parker pen. I was not going to be like my mother, I said. I wasn’t going to be so weak and unable to help myself. I was going to elevate my status and never look back. Except.. It’s a little bit selfish thinking like that. I had hope. I could read English. My teachers believed in me; I was destined for great things. My mother was never given the opportunity. She wore a plait with a middle parting, a shalwar kameez and she wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. It made her look shifty but she was just painfully shy. I have privileges my mother wouldn’t have dared to dream about. I must remember this.

When conscientious white feminist friends start questioning the validity of the word feminism in the fight for equality for ALL women, it makes me think again about my privilege and the relative ease with which I can proclaim to be a feminist. Women of colour are struggling to find their place in this crucial global movement. But also, women of the working classes. Has it been hijacked by the white woman who believes in equality for well to do white women alone or is this another divide and rule mission for the patriarchy? It’s easy for a man to say that oppression is about class first and foremost, especially if that man happens to be called Marx but the fact remains that that is his privilege as a man. And a white man at that. White women with money (and some without) have the time and resources to make a stand. Banging on about equality whilst ignoring the prejudice and discrimination faced by women of colour, disabled women, trans women etc. is not the feminism I believed it to be. It’s patriarchy manifesting in the very people who were privileged enough to recognise the inequality they were themselves subjected to.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

We cannot let the patriarchy take the word ‘feminism’ away from us. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my issues with it, BUT I am damned if I let the patriarchy dictate its usage.

Fems, let us be inclusive. Let’s literally give a shit about ALL women. Listen to the women who have been toxically shamed into believing they are inferior, because they are black or mentally unwell. We need to be aware of our language and the way patriarchy subtly controls people who are the ‘other’.

Who’s with me?

Say It Lots And Say It Loud: I’m A Feminist And Proud

People love to hate feminism. Its core values have been to promote equality between the sexes; political, social and economical. By definition, one could assume that all women would like equality and therefore all women must be feminists. Sadly, this is not true. Feminism has been given a different meaning, one that has been distorted to mean oppression rather than freedom.

I was once told by a feminist that “real feminists do not have to announce they are feminists”. I was left feeling like feminist was a dirty word that we must disassociate ourselves from. It was ok to feel like a feminist and act like a feminist but you couldn’t tell anyone you were one. I encountered a negative response any time I uttered the words “I am a feminist”. People knew about my work, they knew I believed in equal rights and whilst we spoke of these things in the context of social impact and global development of women, it was fine. Most people agreed, most people do hope for a better future for their daughters. Without the dreaded feminist word.

“Feminism has had its day, it’s time to move on as its less about gender and more about education and equality for all then just for women… Injustice is just that injustice. It doesn’t pick a gender, race or creed, people do. This is why I hate feminism, it detracts from the fact that there are many people, men and women, who are unjustly treated, beaten and abused.”

So says a dear friend of mine, who was himself abused by a woman.  I like to think everyone has a friend who they can argue with till they’re blue in the face, it’s going to end in fisticuffs until one suddenly lets up that they were just playing advocate. This is the relationship I have with this friend. He’s a feminist but doesn’t know it. The response he had from the police was an example of best practice. He was offered advice around his options, sympathetic and methodical. Although I do not have much experience of men accessing domestic abuse services, this one example was dealt with efficiently and empathically. Until we achieve equality in authorities dealings with victims, 1 in 5 men and 1 in 10 women will continue to believe domestic violence against women is acceptable. Speaking to my colleagues, there is a perception that male victims of DV are much more likely to be believed by the police simply because they are men.

More worryingly, it is when women take issue with it that I have to question why feminism has left some women estranged from the cause.

“ABSURD ‘feminists’ label all men who don’t roll over and comply as rapists.’Feminists’ do all women a disservice.”

This in response to men should take more responsibility when attempting to sleep with an inebriated partner. Decency dictates that if either partner is in such a state that they might not remember, it’s probably best to leave it. We live in a society where women feel it their duty to protect themselves from attack. Don’t get so drunk you cannot consent. Whilst men are free to get as drunk as they like without a perceived threat to their sex. If a group of men got drunk and one of their party chose to have stick it into another whilst he was too drunk to consent, that would be rape. No questions asked. He wouldn’t be asked whether his clothing was too revealing. We wouldn’t dream of saying he had lured the rapist into his bed with his provocative behaviour. We wouldn’t suggest it would not have happened had he been sober.

The more I try to understand the role of woman in society, the more I struggle to remain focused on equality. How can I accept that “feminism has had its day” when we are further from equality than we were 2 years ago? The global war on women has reached dizzying heights of violation. Our wombs are up for debate, both sides of the Atlantic. I have never witnessed such a fixation on the reproductive rights of women, misinformation around abortion and toxic shaming of those who make the choice to abort. I cannot think of a more gross violation of an individual’s human rights and the right to privacy than the pro-lifers camping outside abortion clinics. Their actions are forceful and coercive. How can they be allowed to protest when protest for the masses is being criminalised? An on such a deeply private matter.

They’re turning the clock back to their 70s by withdrawing crucial funding. Right now, we must accelerate our feminist activities, spread our arms and become more inclusive. Otherwise we’ll hear more news like this:

“Pavan Amara interviewed 38 working class women from across the country for her report that was published on the F-Word website last week. She found that working class women had effectively been excluded by a movement that was failing to reach the people who really needed it. It was only when the class divide was crossed that the problem became evident.”

(http://www.islingtontribune.com/reviews/cinema/2012/mar/feminism-failing-are-working-class-women-being-excluded-movement)

Coming from a working class background, 2nd generation Asian, I would say there is some truth to this statement. I didn’t notice one day I was part of the movement; I was born this way. I actively sought it and initially struggled to find my part in it. There is a divide between white middle class feminists and the rest of us. I found my experiences a hindrance to my work. Somehow because of what I was going through and in some way, still experiencing, I felt my contribution was not as valid as someone who had done a degree in Gender Studies and a Masters in Women’s Rights. Surely the people best placed to help people overcome abuse are those who have been there and felt it themselves? Isn’t that where true empathy comes from?

As with an ideology, there will be sections and subsections sprouting from wherever it can be extended. For my part, I cannot understand the Transphobia emanating from some radicals on the feminist spectrum. The root meaning of the word for me is equality. And I do believe we can achieve equality together, female and male feminists working together to smash patriarchy.

Feminists of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your shackles. 

Honour Based Crime: It’s Their Cultural Right

Domestic violence is illegal in this country. The term domestic violence extends to threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) and it doesn’t just affect spouses but also family members or members of the same household, irrespective of gender or sexuality. When an assault or threat of an assault is reported the police have a duty to investigate. Except in some cases they say they cannot undertake their duty lest they offend on grounds of cultural differences.

I am yet to encounter a culture where domestic abuse is enshrined as one of their respected practices. As in any culture across the world, the majority of people are peaceful and benign in their actions. They can be reasonable and resolve issues without resorting to harm. Islam, a religion that is touted as punitive and regressive to the development of women is often held up as an example by right wing pressure groups and media in the West of how men in the East continue to control their women because their holy book says so and somewhere in this book, it is alleged that God decrees domestic abuse as the right of man, it is not apparently a religion of peace as its followers believe but one of violence and control, oppressive and archaic. I’m not a Muslim by a long stretch of the imagination but I was institutionalised once upon a time. And I was victim to such abuses. However, I cannot say that I was abused because the good book said so. I was abused because the men in my family were hellbent on control.

Having arrived in the 60s, my grandfather (ex-army) had to muddle his way through British life by himself for the first few years. He found work as a foreman for British Steel. Without their wives and children, groups of men in their tens would share grotty bedsits in an effort to stay alive on the meagre wages they were paid but also to save so they could bring their families over. It was a time of deprivation and disorder; they were not wanted in this country. I think my grandfather was a very angry man, put upon and controlled by other men he could not afford to say boo to. And so the cycle began. They would bark orders at him and he would beat it down to her, my grandmother. She was a poor village girl he’d fallen in love with and eloped. Strange that my grandparents had what we term a love marriage whilst they forced most of their own children into marriages they did not want. I believe they did this because they felt they had to protect their culture. I remember my mother laughingly telling me how my gran had reacted to the news a distant relative had recently got married to a white man. My grandmother was adamant my sister and I should not hear about it, just in case we did the same.

Whenever any group migrates to new shores, they become insular, protective of who they are and where they come from. The culture in the Motherland will continue to move on and adapt, becoming modernised and globalised. When I went to Pakistan in 2002, I was shocked to find my girl cousins wearing short sleeves and getting their eyebrows done at the local beauticians. We were forbidden from doing such things. When your culture is not being oppressed, it is easier to move with the times. My cousins were not beaten, they were all studying and one was even going into engineering. Domestic abuse is not part of South Asian culture.

It is not part of Islam either. You’ll get the fundos with their beards and cropped trousers offering dawah, with their various takes on Islam and the role of the woman. One offered “if God did not exist (wait for him to finish saying his astagfirullahs) then woman would look to her man as her God”. Wait a minute, last time I checked it was women who had the power to create. If God did not exist (sorry god), then surely it is woman who takes the place of creator?

In relation to abuse, I have found two teachings which shed some light. Firstly, there is a passage on chastisement (domestic abuse to you and me). It is recommended, if the woman should speak out of turn (my mind usually wanders at such a sentence) then it is permissible to strike her on the arm with a ‘miswak’. A miswak is a twig from the Salvadora Persica tree which is used to clean the teeth. It is no bigger than your hand and about the thickness of a standard pencil. Texts are largely open to interpretation but I believe this to mean, you shouldn’t hit your wife. There is another teaching from the hadiths which suggest that if an argument ensues and your opponent is not a physical match to you, one must lay down on the ground. The change in stance has a calming effect. Perhaps I have chosen to focus on the bits where confrontation and violence are discouraged but when Muslims the world over call it the religion of peace, maybe it’s time we started listening.

Domestic abuse is not a cultural practice. It is the worst manifestation of control by people who feel the need to exert their control. I personally believe that statutory agencies are using this excuse to avoid having to deal with people they might not understand or actually care for. This excuse has gone on long enough, why are these agencies not putting some of their budget into courses designed to tackle culturally sensitive issues? For if they did, they might realise that saying domestic abuse aka ‘honour’ based crime  is a cultural thing, they ‘d be saying the same about us Brits. Where one person has intentions to harm another’s body or state of mind, the state has a duty to protect. Irrespective of the excuses the perpetrators think up.

Still I Rise – Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

It’s a tough Hijab but someone’s gotta do it

Hijab – A personal choice

Click on the link to read feature

HT @MrChrisEllis