My Past Is A Foreign Country by Zeba Talkhani: Identifying as a muslim feminist & dealing with patriarchy

There is gentleness in Zeba’s intimate story; the fragile relationship with her mother, the silences lingering between them, the possessive nature only a child can have for a parent, the way Zeba would want to know her mother’s movement, watching her like a hawk. Zeba grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia but both her parents were from India. This meant spending summer vacations in a small town in Karnataka, going back and forth between Sirsi( her mother’s home) and honnavar, where her dad grew up. In one of the many instances of growing up in a traditional household where the man works and the woman takes charge of domestic work, Zeba’s mother was preparing for a party but accidentally hurt herself. She was in immense pain and Zeba called her father from work. But in the evening, the guests arrived, exotic delicacies were served, the party went on as if nothing happened. The slow unraveling of the roles society has forced upon women was not lost on Zeba. Throughout her memoir, she wonders about the silence that existed in her house, so many instances where her mama resorted to maintaining peace in the family instead of confronting the wrongs. The grip of patriarchy and the unreal societal expectations that continue to suppress women, often leaning towards the adage of men being without reproach. Zeba’s dissent meant a direct insult to motherhood. It was a constant pull and push, where the fear existed between a mother and daughter, further alienating them from each other.

Growing up, the author talks about the differences in her life as compared to India. The moral police restricted the movement of women, where freedom was only a myth and since she was from a South-Asian heritage, she felt like she didn’t belong. Expressing her precarious place in Jeddah meant committing blasphemy & so Zeba kept to herself. When Zeba’s hair started thinning, her mother was appalled. She was taken to several doctors who prescribed myriad remedies, treatments & surgeries. A lot of importance is given to conventional standards of beauty especial in South-Asian communities, as if beauty alone can absolve one of sins. Naturally, the author faced bullying mainly from her relatives who wanted a piece of gossip. Zeba took to wearing her headscarf and didn’t let this define her life. 

In between standing up for herself, and moving to India for her graduation to pursuing MA in publishing in Germany to later moving to UK, Zeba talks about her faith, being a Muslim feminist in a world that’s hell bent on saving ‘Muslim women’, racism, lack of representation and radical selfcare. Throughout the entirety of the novel, Zeba tenderly discusses the ramifications of patriarchy on the generation of our mothers and also the generation that has come after. We’re still reeling from the shackles put in place, often putting each other down, when the problem has never been us. 

I was rooting for Zeba, cheering her on whenever she felt stuck, but I was rooting for her mother too. The silence that stretched between them, ended when her mother spoke for her. It broke so many layers of oppression because one woman decided it would end here. For the many women who have come before us, and the many woman who decided to choose their own path, I hope we continue to find the courage to be ourselves in a world that’s trying hard to stifle our voice. I felt seen, I felt represented, I felt I didn’t need to pander to values I didn’t believe in and for that I’m really grateful to Zeba.

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Coming Out As Dalit by Yashica Dutt: Caste violence, systemic oppression and owning one's identity.

In this memoir, Yashica with great sincerity reveals how she spent most of her life running away from her reality, one she didn’t even question. She writes, ‘ I never saw caste for what it really is—the invisible arm that turns the gears in nearly every system in our country. It’s been working silently for so long that we have stopped noticing it, even though it exists all around us.’

The act of changing one’s appearance, picking up new habits and trying to lead a double life became pretty common in the caste system of Modern India whereby lower castes started to adopt upper-caste traditions to get ahead. The term, Sanskritization, was popularized by M.N.Srinivas which was as true as it was unjust. Yashica Dutt spent all her life, hiding her ‘Dalit’ identity from her school friends, up until she went to Columbia to pursue her Master’s in Journalism. Her mother, Shashi, wanted to leave no trace of their ‘Dalit’ identity, didn’t want to carry it along with her or pass it to her kids in fear of them being ostracized from the society. She didn’t want their Dalitness to stick to them. In an attempt to be considered as a fully functioning part of the society, she started changing her lifestyle, wearing saris and buying expensive clothes for her daughters to pass off as upper-caste. Yashica narrates how her mother left no stone unturned when it came to giving her children a good education and ultimately a chance to have a normal life even though the whole ‘act’ of passing off as upper-caste soon dissolved into oblivion due to financial restraints—something all Dalits including Yashica’s family struggled with most of her life .

 In this memoir, Yashica with great sincerity reveals how she spent most of her life running away from her reality, one she didn’t even question. She writes, ‘ I never saw caste for what it really is—the invisible arm that turns the gears in nearly every system in our country. It’s been working silently for so long that we have stopped noticing it, even though it exists all around us.’  We may not want to accept the caste supremacy still very much prevalent and spreading like wildfire here in India but many Dalits continue to face the brunt of systemic oppression that has eaten the very fabric of a just nation. Yashica hid her identity to escape systemic caste discrimination. Rohith Vermula’s death sparked nation-wide protests demanding an end to systemic caste-based discrimination and institutional oppression. His death also ignited something in Yashica. She wrote a Facebook post, revealing her Dalit identity, which came as quite a shock to people who knew her. For her, this was no longer being afraid of her identity, one she worked so hard to push out of her existence. It was like the fog had cleared, and she could see herself for who she really was. 

Yashica points out cruel treatment meted out to Dalits, the glaring flaws in not just the Indian education system but nearly every job sector, the entire narrative around reservation, lack of accessible opportunities, zero representation of Dalit voices in movies, arts or academia. Furthermore, she sheds light on Dalit woman who are not only suffering caste violence but have no bodily autonomy, a recurrent patriarchal notion of women not having claim to their own body. Upper-caste men use mutilation, public humiliation to silence Dalit women. It’s just another way of making them know their place in the society. Drawing parallels from black women across US, who just like Dalit women, feel under-represented by feminist movements, Yashica writes that upper-caste women only seemed to focus on issues that directly affected them, refusing to acknowledge the struggles of Dalit women. 

We grow up being told segregation exists. We’re already given a tier in the hierarchal system of caste. It doesn’t come as a surprise that prejudice, discrimination & oppression are elements of a skewed society that only seems to be exacerbating. During my teaching years, I would often be asked what my religion was by a number of students. Their questions came from a place of innocence, but mainly, from conversations happening at home. It wasn’t enough to tell them I was ‘Muslim’ because not only would I be met with surprise but some would take it further to ask, ‘Sunni or Shia?’. I never took it as an offence and would always tell them it doesn’t really matter, does it? After which they would drop the question and forget about it. Caste system has seeped into every layer of our being, taking shape and molding itself in subtle ways. You might say our family doesn’t believe in caste but it’s just your privilege talking. To assume, caste is a thing of the past, is shirking off accountability and giving up your privilege. 

Identity: Beyond Borders

The anti-narcotics team had arrived. We were about to go through another rigorous round of security check. Sheru, one of the sniffer dogs, was sun-bathing when he heard his name being called, after which, he jumped excitedly and proceeded towards us. If you’re a fully functional human being with a heart, the sight of a dog in uniform will melt you. We took out our cell phones but were soon rebuked for doing so. This was serious business and Sheru had work to do. Walking in and around our luggage, which were quite a few, Sheru moved on to other passengers. At this point, we were getting late. We had to cross the Wagah Border by afternoon and we hadn’t even boarded the bus that would take us there. To add to our woes, it had started raining. Having grown up in India, watching parades being held on Independence Day at the Wagah Border, always seemed mystical—something out of a movie. Except this was real life, and this wasn’t a drill or an extended joke. My siblings and I had imagined a lot of things we’d be able to witness at the border. It was our first time, it was going be a historic moment for us all. Naturally, we were thrilled. The whole idea of crossing the border by foot is, in my opinion, a little hilarious and maybe unreal. How can a single man-made line divide entire countries? How can the fate of so many people be decided, depending on which side of the line you were in? I guess, my questions were about to be answered.

At one point of time, we were in the no-man’s land— that little space before you step into another country, not belonging to either India or Pakistan. A single step forward would put an official tag of which country I was standing in. It didn’t mean anything, it didn’t deter where I was from, it didn’t take away my roots. Standing there under the biting Amritsar rain, waiting to cross the border, it didn’t feel too magical or heroic. Instead, I was trying to absorb, to understand the seriousness of the situation. I was blown away by the high-rise walls, the beautiful golden dome that you see, with ‘India’s Line of Defense’ written in bold right at the center. In between dragging our luggage and getting anxious about just everything in general, we forgot that our crossing the border coincided with the lowering of the flags’ ceremony, a daily military practice, at the Attari-Wagah border, carried by both India and Pakistan’s security forces ever since 1959. There were people from both sides of the line, who had come with their friends & family, to witness the parade. There were the national flags of both the countries, dancing in the rain, looking at its people, and what had become of it. Despite the terrible weather, the stands were filling up fast. You could see colorful umbrellas forming a canopy at opposite ends, a kind of shield, a form of defiance. Humans have unwavering resilience when they put their mind to something. It was time for us to finally walk our way into another country, passports ready. My grandmother was given a wheelchair, chaperoned by one of the coolies who helped her cross the border at lightning fast speed. 

 It’s a joke in the family now; of us parading in the middle as we dragged our luggage to the other end while the crowd sat at both sides watching us march helplessly. 

I couldn’t stop noticing a woman in her late 50s, who was alone, carrying a dozen bags filled with fresh produce, a few belongings that she would be needing and sheer determination on her face. Maybe she was a vendor, making a living selling fruits & vegetables. She painstakingly tried lifting her heavy bags onto the trolleys right after crossing the border. To avoid a crowd, the security was tightened. The woman was struggling to assemble her belongings and she asked my brother for help. We were busy collecting our luggage to be put in trolleys so that we could proceed towards immigration. We looked back to see the woman give her blessings to my brother for his help, smiling, her eyes moist—forming wrinkles that made her look older. She waved at us and went her way. Did she belong to India or Pakistan? It didn’t matter, not at that moment. There were so many like us, wanting to see their relatives, with longing in their eyes & joy at seeing their loved ones after an unsparing journey. 

This wasn’t going to be the first and last time I was to experience human empathy in all its glory. Belonging to a family who suffered the aftermath of Partition, I know well enough, the limitless ways in which people have extended their support throughout. It’s times like these when humans surpass themselves, with only kindness and empathy as their deus ex machina

We may be divided, we may have forgotten true nationalism, but the kindness of our hearts cannot be bought, it cannot be traded or diminished. We may lose everything one day but empathy? It’s embedded in stone and it’s here to stay.