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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