This is One Way to Dance – Essays by Sejal Shah

I first met the American poet and essayist Sejal Shah when we were both students at Wellesley College; a mailbox mixup had us introducing ourselves to each other formally, although I’d been seeing Sejal perform classical Indian dance at Slater House’s annual Divali dinner. In the years that have passed since our college days, both Sejal and I have become writers, and I loved to read her essays over the years, published in places like the Kenyon Review, LitHub, The Rumpus. 

The Internet made it possible for me to read her while she was in the United States and I was in Pakistan, so when I read her first book  – a memoir published in linked essays called This is One Way To Dance – I felt familiarity and warmth as I read essays that had been published and reworked for this edition and other essays that were previously unpublished. Reading in print is entirely different from reading online. On paper, Sejal comes across as irrepressible: her soul burns with curiosity, courage, the willingness to experiment with life and the boundaries that she and others have drawn for herself. 

My favorite essay in the collection remains “The World is Full of Paper. Write To Me”, Sejal’s essay about being taught by the famed Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali. Another, “Your Wilderness is not Permanent,” about Sejal’s experience at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, had me agog: I’d expect that sort of memoir from Allan Ginsberg, not the daughter of Gujarati immigrants, raised in upstate New York and actively connected to her South Asian community, working as a writer and academic (And yet it’s not too far a stretch to imagine her as the spiritual goddaughter of Ginsberg through this piece). “Saris and Sorrows” captures what it’s like to enact a Hindu wedding 20200409_151913across communities in 21st century America, a perspective you’ll hear from no one else but Sejal. 

This book is full of poetry, of heartache, of belonging, of loss. Sejal’s Indian/Gujarati/South Asian identity and heritage frame but never limit the scope of the writing, or the breadth of the vision. To paraphrase Agha Shahid Ali, the world is full of books. Read this one.

What is Feminism? Uks Research Center Campaign

I was asked to take part in a campaign produced by Uks Reasearch Center on women’s rights and the feminist movement in Pakistan. There are many misconceptions and somewhat of a backlash against feminism in Pakistan: the project, called “Understanding Feminism in Pakistan: Dispelling Misconceptions, bringing forward Realties,” will run from February 12 to March 8.

Here are the questions I was posed, as well as my answers, reproduced below:

1. What is feminism?

Very simply put, feminism is the concept that women are not inferior to men, and men are not inferior to women. Your gender should not define your status in the world.

2. Is feminism a Western and hence borrowed concept?

Feminism is a timeless concept. Thousands of years ago humans organized themselves along matriarchal societies. History is replete with women leaders and rulers. In our households today, we revere our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and look to them for strength, guidance, wisdom and inspiration. However, the upending of gender roles began in the West and has spread around the world in the last century. Much of the academic language, phrases, and concepts surrounding this modern revolution originated in English. Therefore feminism can feel like a borrowed movement, but its universal appeal is why Pakistani women feel emboldened enough to seek out empowerment and improve their lives.

3. How would you define feminism in a Pakistani context?

Pakistani women want balance in their lives, not extremism. This means that they want to participate in traditional family life and also pursue personal ambitions, whether educational, career-related, or something unrelated to either. They want space and time to do both things and they usually do it very well, when given the chance. They don’t really want to break apart and create radical female-only communes, or turn men into slaves, or any of the other wild (and often vulgar) things that are alleged against them.

Our society is deeply patriarchal but this is no different than any other society in the past. The Pakistani context has an added complication of religion: the religious right bring their cultural and social biases and prejudices against women to their interpretations of Islam. They claim that rigid gender roles and the segregation and disempowerment of women are part and parcel of the religion. Because they have been given so much public space, their message dominates and is what gets absorbed by the majority of Pakistanis. The voices of feminists are fewer by comparison.

4. What’s the best way to introduce and familiarise our youth with the concept of feminism?

I am challenged on feminism all the time by young people in Pakistan, especially through social media. Only this morning a young Pakistani man asked me to help him understand feminism “logically.” It made me understand that there are so many misconceptions about what feminism is, and so much backlash against Pakistani women’s attempts to empower themselves, that we have to tread very carefully and sometimes go back to the basics when it comes to understanding feminism as a whole and the different issues and aspects related to it. Young women are starving to hear that their ambitions, desires and hopes for their lives are legitimate, that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be empowered.

At this point in the 21st century, where our youth seeks answers to everything on the Internet, it would be best to harness the power of social media and spread the message about feminism. One of the best mediums I have seen so far is Sabahat Zakariya’s video series on feminism, as The Feminustani(I’m the Feministani on my blog, not to be confused!). And Tahira Abdullah’s clip speaking about feminism while Khalil ur Rehman was staring down angrily from a screen, unable to interrupt her, went viral with good reason. These soundbites and short clips that break down challenging concepts into the language of Pakistanis helps to take away some of the apprehension about feminism and make it relatable for our young people.

Death in the Afternoon

I was leaving the doctor’s office at DHA Clinic (a medical center, not a hospital) when I saw a commotion just inside the boundary gates. A police van had drawn up and people, including policemen with guns, were milling around as two ambulances lined up behind it. I passed by the police van and heard a long sad moaning. I feared the worst, a shooting victim or someone hurt in a car accident.

I saw a man being taken out of the back of the van in a white sheet — his face hidden from my view, but his belly exposed, his shirt ridden up. A doctor was holding up an IV drip while he was being lifted into the ambulance. In the other ambulance, already a corpse had been put on the stretcher inside.

It turned out these were two electricity workers who had been electrocuted while on the job. They’d been brought to the DHA Clinic because it was the closest medical center, but they needed to go to the hospital, one for lifesaving treatment and the other to the morgue.

What haunts me is that I still don’t know who was moaning: the victim or perhaps his wife, still inside the van.

Some thoughts on “Anti-Israel but not anti-Semitic”

I often hear this phrase among people in Pakistan (or Pakistanis in America) who have had experiences living in other countries, where they live and work among Jewish people and have Jewish friends. “I’m against Israel’s genocidal policies/occupation of Palestine/the existence of Israel as an apartheid state but I’m not anti-Semitic.” It is a way of establishing one’s position vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while still assuring our Jewish friends that we are not against their religion or them as Jews.

Does it work? Is it believable or credible? Or is Israel so indivisible from Jewishness that this is an impossible position to take?

I don’t have all the answers. I do feel, though, that we need to tread carefully when we talk about being “anti-Israel but not anti-Semitic” as Muslims, Pakistanis, or anyone else who is not Jewish and feels an affinity with Arabs and Palestinians because we imagine Islam compels us to do so.

Imagine this: that a friend comes up to you and says, “I’m against Pakistan/its oppressive policies against the Pashtuns/the genocide in Baluchistan but I’m not against Islam.”

Would that make sense to you?

Pakistan is so deeply identified with Islam that it would be a Herculean task to separate one from the other. If an outsider were to make the statement “I’m against Pakistan but I’m not against Islam” you would immediately feel alienated and on the defensive, as if your identity as a Pakistani Muslim was being threatened or called into question. However, if a Pakistani talked about opposing policies espoused by the Pakistani government, you would know they were speaking with an insider’s view, with an understanding of context, and with a deep love for the country despite its mistakes and missteps.

So too it is with Israel: when we speak of being “against” Israel but not against Judaism, we are not realizing what we are saying and how it is perceived (Please note that I am not saying a pro-Palestinian stance is undesirable or that we must not call out nations that engage in occupation and oppression). But trying to hedge your bets, as someone who is not Jewish, may strike someone as insincere at best, dishonest at worst, and agenda-driven regardless.

It is probably best to give the space to those Jews and those Israelis who understand the system and religion to lead the movement and protest against its oppressions and injustices. And there are many Jews and many Israelis of conscience who do understand and who do oppose those policies and who do lead the protests. We as Pakistanis, Muslims, and non-Jews, can support those Israeli voices and amplify their message, while remaining pro-Palestinian in a political sense.

But we must always bear in mind that Jews around the world still hold the idea of Israel, a homeland for their people, dear to their hearts.

Tread carefully, because you tread on their dreams, to paraphrase Yeats.

Because I Watched Delhi Crime

“Because I Watched” is a Netflix podcast that looks at how people and communities are positively impacted by Netflix series.

“Because I Watched Delhi Crime” is the story of how I watched the show on the Delhi bus gang rape, then wrote a column in the Dawn which was noticed by the President of Pakistan. The essay is by Rabia Chaudry of Serial fame and narrated by Indian actress Shefali Shah. You can hear it on Spotify, Apple Music, and across other streaming services.

Screenshot 2019-12-05 at 8.19.05 AM.

 

Mera jism meri marzi

Following on from my post about Aurat March 2020, it might be helpful to talk about the slogan “Mera jism meri marzi” (My body, my choice).

This slogan was first used in its original English by women who advocate for reproductive rights and autonomy over their bodies. That is, the right to decide whether or not they will carry a pregnancy, not leaving this decision to others — individual men or the state.

The organizers of the Aurat March in Pakistan translated this slogan into Urdu and it became Mera Jism Meri Marzi.

Immediately, men, mullahs, misogynists seized upon this slogan and twisted it beyond any logic. Pontificating on what Mera Jism Meri Marzi means, I have heard these responses to the slogan coming from men and boys:

  • You want to have sex with your father
  • You want to walk naked down the street
  • You want to be a prostitute
  • You want to have sex with anyone you want

What a low opinion Pakistani men must have of Pakistani women if this is what’s going through their minds! No wonder they feel they must control every action, police every movement, otherwise Pakistani women would break free and run around uncontrollably, destroying what’s left of society.

What’s especially sad is how men and boys say, “Fine, if you want mera jism meri marzi, tau phir I have the right to rape you. My body, my choice.”

Alhamdullillah! Brain stunting is a real phenomenon in Pakistan, but its real cause is not malnutrition, it’s patriarchy.

The real meaning of Mera Jism Meri Marzi boils down to a single word: consent. Giving permission for something to happen. The women who talk about this slogan are referring to women having control over their own bodies. Not being pushed or forced into:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Rape
  • Forced marriage
  • Sexual trafficking
  • Prostitution
  • Pregnancy
  • Abortion

And so much more. In Pakistan, the understanding of consent has been limited to a silent bride at her own wedding, while men speak for her, agree to her marriage, and sign away her rights on a piece of paper. The women of Pakistan deserve so much more than this. Islam promises Muslim women consent over every aspect of their lives, but we in Pakistan like to only listen to Islam when it promises men four wives, unlimited concubines, and 72 hoors in Heaven. When it comes to women and their rights, we suddenly develop amnesia.

It is always a woman’s decision to get married, to have sexual intercourse, to have a baby or not, to allow a man to touch her. It is also always a woman’s decision to get an education, leave the house, come back to the house, take care of her children, go to work, not work. Somehow, in our deeply controlling and misogynistic society, we have decided women are to have no control over any of these things: she is little better than a child whose life must be ordered and decided by her husband, father, in-laws, older brothers, uncles, grandfathers. If a woman is to do anything her heart desires, it is only because she has been given “permission” to do so by the men in her life, the guardians of Islam, and the state.

Mera Jism Meri Marzi may not be the most subtle of slogans. It may not even translate very well to Pakistani culture and society. But it is direct and honest. A woman has the right to decide, to have autonomy over her life and her body. A man does not have the right to tell her what to do. A man does not represent Islam, God, or the angels: he is a man, with rights and responsibilities, but those rights and responsibilities do not extend to every woman in society, only the ones he is bound to through marriage and blood ties.

 

 

Aurat March 2020

The organizers of Aurat March 2020 made a public announcement inviting everyone to join their inaugural meeting and become a part of the groundbreaking women’s rights march across Pakistan.

auratmarch.jpg

The march calls for women, trans, gender fluid, gender nonbinary and other marginalized gender groups to “shake up the patriarchy and raise their voice for injustice.” Cis men are allowed to attend the march but not be on the managing committee.

The responses to the call have been … interesting. As the Aurat March organizers said in a later post, “Aurat March’s open call for an organizing committee meeting received a few thousand misogynist messages, which included rape threats, death threats and threats of blowing up the venue.”

Indeed, looking at the comments after the march post on Facebook, one would think the people organizing the march were suggesting a naked march down the main streets of every city in Pakistan. The responses from boys and men — laughing, mocking, taunting, threatening — suggest that they are feeling very threatened by women showing up and claiming space. The more helpless they feel, the more exaggerated the responses get. A deliberate misunderstanding of what feminism is (by now it’s maliciously deliberate, not even simple ignorance), a distortion of what women are asking for (dignity, safety, autonomy) and threats of violent repercussion against the marchers complete this triumvirate of fright and agnst.

As the comedian Ilisa Schleisnger said in her recent Netflix comedy special, “You can be pro-women and not anti-men.”

Repeat that.

You can be pro-women and not anti-men. 

When young women say “men are trash” they are referring to the men who disrespect them, who hurt them, who discriminate, who put them down, who oppress and who beat, rape and kill. If you don’t count yourself among those numbers, what are you afraid of?

If fear is your first response and anger your second to the Aurat March, might I suggest you think about why your masculinity is so easily threatened.

Expatsplaining

Do you live in UK, US, Canada, Europe but are an expert on everything that happens in Pakistan?
Do you constantly explain the way things work in Pakistan to resident Pakistanis?
You might be an “expatsplainer”* or suffering from EXPATITIS

How to recognize the symptoms of EXPATITIS
EXPATITS-A = American resident, strange accent, convinced fintech will solve Pakistan’s problems
EXPATITIS-B = Britain resident, hates Southall for “ruining” atmosphere
EXPATITIS-C = Canadian resident, tries to convince you Justin Trudeau is Muslim
EXPATITIS-D = Dubai resident, talks non-stop about property boom, calls Emirates flight attendants “friends”
EXPATITIS-AU = Australia resident, unintelligible accent, married to kangaroo for Australian nationality
EXPATITIS-E = European resident, pretends to not speak English, argues against circumcision

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Call 1-800-EXPATITIS

*TM Talat Aslam