Labels on my soul: “feminist”

It’s funny that I’m writing this when years ago, one of the most-read and most popular posts on my (now sadly deleted) Facebook blog was about how I wasn’t a feminist. I guess a lot has changed since then – or rather, not enough has.

To be honest, I have a lot of problems with feminism. I have a problem with the silencing and marginalisation of women of colour. I have a problem with vindictive attacks on trans* women by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). I have a problem with the stigmatisation of sex workers. I have a problem with the rampant biphobia displayed by a certain corner of the radical feminist movement. I have a problem with “political lesbianism”. I have a problem with the silencing of women who aren’t academics, who don’t write papers and bestselling coffee table books, who don’t attend seminars or speak at conventions. Oh, yes, I have a whole lot of problems with feminism.

And in a way, that’s why I have to be a feminist – because if people like me who have problems with feminism keep walking away, the problems will never be fixed.

I believe in a feminism that is sex-positive, gender-inclusive, trans*-friendly, cross-cultural, intersectional and universal. I believe in a feminism that is for all women, not just wealthy white cishet columnists who write for ivory tower publications. This feminism does exist, although the mainstream tries its jolly hardest to silence it. But I, like many women and allies, refuse to be silenced.

The thing is, the world does still need feminism. We live in a society where female bodies are considered public property, where female sexuality is a marketable commodity, where female bodily autonomy is virtually non-existent (yes, even in the developed world). We exist in a world where one in four women in Western countries will be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, where access to safe and effective forms of birth control is too scarce and regulated by mostly male gatekeepers, where women are hyper-sexualised and treated as objects created for male pleasure whether or not they consent. Casting our eyes abroad, we are party to the perpetuation of female genital mutilation, to the rape of virgins in South Africa due to a folk belief that it will cure men of HIV, to the infanticide of female babies born to families who can’t afford their dowries. These things happen not because they are inevitable, nor because they are part of the natural order, but because we as a society allow them to continue to happen.

Feminism is necessary. I do not wish to bring a daughter into a world where she will be sexualised and objectified before she even reaches her teens, where she will be told that it is her responsibility to prevent men from raping her, not a man’s responsibility to choose not to rape. I do not want to raise my sons in a culture that tells them that they may claim ownership of women’s bodies and sexualities to do with as they please. I do not want my children to learn that women are worthless unless a man deems them worthy and that men exist as the arbiters of female worth and importance.

Equally importantly, I do not want to be a party to the hyper-sexualisation of women of colour. I do not wish to be associated with a culture that turns a blind eye to the rape of Native women by white men. I have no desire to claim ownership of trans* bodies, viewing them as objects of morbid fascination and not the individual property of individual human beings. I do not want to look on, unmoving and unmoved, as society condones the erasure of GSM identities, the restriction of reproductive rights, the stigmatisation of sex workers, the fetishisation of disabled people’s sexualities. Because these, too, are feminist issues – ones we ignore at our peril.

My feminism, as the popular rallying cry goes, will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. Women of colour are raped disproportionately more often than white women, and their rapists are overwhelmingly white men. Trans* women are beaten, raped and murdered in shocking numbers as society stands by and does nothing – yea, even implicitly condones a kind of targeted violence reminiscent of genocide. We keep out our tired, our poor, our huddled masses, designating them not worthy of inclusiveness in feminism if they work in the wrong profession, or if they haven’t written essays and spoken at seminars and read all the right books. We turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of women in the developing world, chalking it down to non-white savagery rather than ingrained misogyny. This is not good enough. This is not feminist enough.

Feminism fails millions of women every day. It fails them in big ways and in small ways – by dismissing their lived experiences, by denying them entry into women’s spaces, by treating them as objects of curiosity rather than autonomous beings with their own needs and desires. Feminism fails women of colour, trans* women, women from gender and sexual minorities, disabled women, poor women, sex workers and women in countries that aren’t predominantly white constantly. Feminism fails every time a woman’s story is not heard because she is not rich enough or white enough or literate enough to be given space to tell it. And it will keep failing and failing and failing until we step up and do something to change it.

Yes, I have problems with feminism. But I am still a feminist. I am not a feminist because I want to be – I am a feminist because I need to be, because no woman will ever achieve true freedom or equality until all women achieve it. I am a feminist for my trans* friends and my sex worker friends and my fellow women of colour and my disabled friends and my friends who aren’t wealthy or literate enough to be given a platform from which they can tell their stories. I am a feminist for Malala Yousufzai, who was shot in the head for believing that all women deserve the right to an education. I am a feminist for women in sub-Saharan Africa who will pass on HIV to their children because they were infected by men who were taught that contraception is sinful. I am a feminist for my mother, who raised six children and then went on to complete a university degree despite society telling her she was past her prime and no longer worthy nor deserving of success. I am a feminist for women who, upon being raped, were dismissed because they were wearing a short skirt or were a little drunk when it happened. I am a feminist for women who are too femme or not femme enough or too sexy or not sexy enough or too smart or not smart enough to be accepted by a society that has appointed itself the arbiter of their worth. I am a feminist for all women. I am a feminist for myself.

I am Jay, and I will be a feminist until the world no longer needs feminism. This label has been imprinted on my soul by a society that still sees women, particularly non-white, non-straight, non-cis, uneducated or disabled women, as inferior. I may not like it; I don’t like it. Feminism needs fixing, and far too few people are willing to listen to those who’ve identified its problems. But I refuse to stand by, unmoving and unmoved, as the world punishes women simply for being. I am Jay – woman, worthy. I will be a feminist until I no longer have to fight to prove it.

Labels on my soul: “white/non white”

When I was in Year 5, a girl told me that she wanted a tan like mine, but lighter. “Maybe two or three shades, so I wouldn’t be too dark,” she said. I cried after school that day, wishing my skin didn’t mark me as so obviously different. I used to mix talcum powder with soap and smear it over my face to see what my skin would look like if it were paler. I avoided the sun at all costs so that I wouldn’t tan an even darker shade. It didn’t help – no matter what I did, no matter which books I read or which TV shows I watched or which references I learned, everyone could tell I wasn’t like them. I was Other – the girl with the dark skin and the weird name, the outsider whose family ate curry for dinner instead of steak and veggies. I learned to pray in Arabic around the same time I learned the Lord’s Prayer at school. My parents had both come to Australia from other countries, and though they spoke English fluently, my mother’s covered hair and my father’s dark skin marked them out as different, too – the strange parents of a strange child who never quite fit in.

It’s a weird experience, growing up non-white in a white society. TV shows and movies show you people who look and sound nothing like you, and you’re expected to see them as your heroes and idols. For people like me, the children of migrant parents, the cultural disconnect between the world outside and the world at home can be jarring. It was strange enough being raised in two different faiths (Islam at home and Catholicism at school); add into the mix the fact that the people I went to school with hadn’t seen the movies I’d seen, didn’t know the music I knew and didn’t speak the languages my parents spoke, and I often felt like a traveller between worlds, at home in neither and a stranger in both.

In discussions about race, I can never decide whether I’m meant to be white or non-white. I’m white when it comes to Indigenous issues because I’ve benefited from Australian colonisation; I’m non-white when it comes to the othering of people of colour, because my darker skin has always marked me as a target of racial discrimination from the kind of people who think “towelhead” is a creative insult. I grew up immersed in white culture, but also sheltered from it – my father considered most TV and movies “trash” that would give us dangerous and immoral ideas, but there was no stopping me from talking to the kids at school or sneak-watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch when my dad was working late. (My mother aided and abetted my siblings and me in this, allowing us to watch TV when we weren’t meant to and helping us borrow “bad” books from the library without my father’s knowledge.) Steeped in white culture but simultaneously removed from it, I grew up a white-educated girl in a non-white body – a walking, talking paradox.

My first experience with white people appropriating my culture was the runaway success of Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood adaptation of the Jane Austen novel of a similar name. To me, Aishwarya Rai was a household name – to my friends, she was a new find, an exotic beauty who helped bring the tale of Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy to raucous, garish life through (dubbed-over) song, dance and spectacle. Suddenly, it seemed like every white person I know wanted to be a “Curry”, as they called those of us from the Subcontinent – they thought saris were super-cute, swooned over Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan that my sisters and I had known about for years, talked about trying out Bollywood dance classes, thought “Indian” food was delicious. My culture – the culture I’d kept hidden for years in an attempt to fit in with my white contemporaries – was suddenly mainstream, even cool. As someone who’d spent her life being othered because of her dark skin, to hear similarly-coloured actors and actresses described admiringly as “exotic” felt strange. Was I exotic, too? Was that a good thing or a bad thing?

Of course, none of those people were particularly interested in the rich and varied cultures of the Subcontinent, or even particularly in Bollywood – they were just latching onto something new and exciting to them. None of the people sighing over Aishwarya Rai’s beauty knew or cared about her religious upbringing as a Hindu, the caste system to which she belonged, the meaning of the bindi she and other Hindu women sometimes wore. Nobody knew or cared that there was a difference between the brown-skinned mostly-Hindu Indian stars of Bride and Prejudice and their Muslim, not-even-slightly-Indian friend Aaminah, who was still an outsider and a freak, but suddenly one with valuable information and insights. Perhaps one or two people might have realised on some level that my life was not like a Bollywood film, but that didn’t seem to matter. I was peppered with questions: did I have an arranged marriage in the works? Did I wear saris at home? (No, and no, though I owned a shalwar kameez or two as a young girl.) The trappings of my culture – or something people could equate with what they thought was my culture – had become a source of entertainment, excitement and fantasy for people who’d seen one Bollywood movie and decided that made them Indian film buffs.

Maybe people thought they were complimenting me by doing this. Maybe they thought I’d be flattered by the attention. I’ve found that a lot of people who appropriate others’ cultures think that way – they think their attention is welcome, that their interest is a sign that they’re worldly, cultured, sophisticated, that they’re the good kind of white people. They eat ethnic cuisine and listen to “world music” and feel enlightened. I know a lot of people like this, and you probably do too. They think that by picking and choosing their favourite parts of someone else’s culture, they’re doing that person a favour.

But there’s nothing flattering about cultural appropriation – about the idea that someone else’s culture, with all the complex history and baggage that comes with it, is nothing but a smorgasboard from which you can pick your favourite bits and make a meal that’s to your liking. White people can choose to engage with other cultures at will, but they don’t have to live them. The girls who fell over themselves to gush about Bride and Prejudice knew nothing about the caste system and its effects on Indian society, particularly the poor, nor did they care. To them, “India” (read as: the entire Subcontinent, because white folks tend not to care that it consists of several countries with distinct cultures and subcultures of their own) was a glamorous parade of women in saris and strapping, safely exotic men singing and dancing for their entertainment. To them, I was their gateway to this fantasy world, one they could access without having to weather any of the drawbacks.

And so it is with people who wear “ironic” war-bonnets and can’t understand why Native people find this offensive; with people who appropriate “urban” culture and get upset when they’re not allowed to use the n-word; with people who view the developing world as their own personal spiritual cleanse, through which they can go on Eat, Pray, Love-style journeys, learning valuable lessons from non-white people who exist only as the background characters in their stories. This is something white culture props up and even encourages – the white culture narrative is that white folks are heroes and that non-whites exist only in supporting parts.

The thing is, those background characters have lives and thoughts and feelings of their own, and their cultures are far more than what white people get to see. As an Australian, I have benefited from colonialism, but as a Pakistani, I am forever scarred by it: I grew up hearing my father’s tales of life in newly post-Raj Pakistan and inherited the combination of bitterness and admiration many Pakistanis feel towards their English colonisers. As a person living in a white society, I am both a party to its benefits and a permanent outsider, the girl whose skin colour falls in and out of fashion depending on what magazine editors decide is trendy this season. (“Get that perfect summer tan!” they proclaim, as though skin colour is just another accessory, something to be put on and then discarded at whim. If only it were that easy for me.)

No cultural accessory exists in a vacuum. Our clothes, our food, even our songs and dances all have meanings to us. When you take them without considering what those meanings are, you are treating non-white people like props who exist as little more than scenery on your stage (Miley Cyrus, anyone?). When Bride and Prejudice had been forgotten, no longer the fashion of the hour, I went back to being that outsider with the too-dark skin and the unpronounceable name, my culture no longer fashionable, no longer of interest to white people, and therefore, lacking in worth to them. But it was still my culture. I still went home and ate curry with my family (and watched Bollywood movies my white friends didn’t even know existed). My tan didn’t wash off or fade. My parents were still migrants from other countries. We were still Other. Nothing had really changed.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not content being the scenery on a white stage. I am the lead character in my own story, and while I might be a traveller between cultures, that doesn’t mean I don’t take offence when someone without my upbringing tries to hitch-hike. If you want to learn more about my lived experiences, ask – but don’t expect me to act as your gateway to a more exotic existence. I’m not “exotic” at all – I’m just me, a regular person who just so happens to have grown up in a different culture with some different values and delicious food (that I will happily share with you upon request). There’s nothing special about my skin colour – it’s just the way my genes express themselves. There’s nothing mystical about my culture – it’s a series of stories, customs and practices with a history behind them, just like yours. You’re welcome to come and learn more about it if you like – but if you want to take anything home with you, even just to try, you need to know what you’re taking first, and what it means for you to take it.

I am Aaminah, sometimes called Jay, and I am a kinda-white girl in a non-white body living in a society that only wants me when I’m in fashion. Both “white” and “non-white” are labels on my soul – contradictory, often in conflict, but both marked on it indelibly by the people with whom I grew up: the white students who were my friends and my non-white family. I am Us and Them, These and The Other. But no matter what I am, my culture is mine, and does not exist for you. I am the lead character in my own story, not a supporting cast member in yours. And I won’t let you forget it.

Labels on my soul: “Intersectionalist”

Okay, so I lied. “Writer” isn’t the only label on my soul. For the rest of this week, I’ll be talking about some of the other things I’m very passionate about, how they define me and the place they have in my life. And the best place to start is with intersectionality, because it’s a theory that has totally shifted the way I view identity politics, social justice and the world around me.

This will be the first in a series of 101-style posts – introductory things that you can share around with your friends who ask you what a term means, or things you can bookmark in case you want to refer to them later. That said, I am not the definitive authority on any subject except Jaythenerdkid, Adult Prodigy and Writer For Hire (Seriously, Call Me!), so take everything I write with a grain of salt. I do make mistakes just like regular human beings, and to paraphrase the great Albus Dumbledore, given that I am considerably more intelligent than most people, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.

(“Modest” has never been a label on any part of my being.)

Enough waffle. Let’s talk about this label and what it means.

Intersectionality is the theory that people exist at different points along various intersecting axes of oppression/privilege, and that a person’s place in society can’t be completely understood without taking into account all of these axes, how they intersect and how each person’s unique combination of privileges and deficits thereof positions them within a society. Basically: it’s not as simple as being black or being female or being gay or being trans or being disabled or being poor, etc. We don’t exist only on one axis – we coexist on several, and in order to truly unpack the ways in which we’re privileged or oppressed, we need to understand that all of these factors are constantly at play, and almost never in isolation.

I’m a Muslim cisgender bipolar bisexual female from an upper-middle-class family, university educated (though without a degree), living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world and currently employed part-time. That’s a whole lot to unpack, and if you try to see me as just a woman, or just cis, or just Muslim or whatever, you won’t even come close to understanding how I interact with society and how societal prejudices affect me (positively or negatively). It’s not as simple as, “I’m female, so I’m oppressed,” nor is it as simple as, “I’m cisgender, so I’m privileged.” Sure, both of those statements are factually accurate, but they have to be understood in context or they’re practically useless.

Overall, I would consider myself a relatively privileged person. The things for which society oppresses me (my gender, my skin colour, my faith [due to where I live, not because Muslims in general are persecuted], my sexuality) are balanced out by the privileges I enjoy (I’m cis, I’m well-educated, I’ve never had serious financial troubles, I’m in relatively good health, I’m in a relationship that “passes” for straight). This doesn’t mean, however, that the ways in which I’m oppressed aren’t important – I still have a one in five chance of being raped (or a one in four chance of being sexually assaulted in some way), I still deal with street harassment, I suffer from a mental illness that comes with pretty heavy stigma, my identity as a queer person is often erased by both GSM and non-GSM people, I still weather a fair amount of racist abuse and vitriol, and so on. Those things are pretty serious and it’s important to fight so that I and people like me don’t have to suffer any more. I shouldn’t have to worry about walking home alone after sunset. I shouldn’t have to endure being called a sand-n****r or a towelhead. I shouldn’t have to deal with men becoming angry or aggressive when I don’t feel like talking to them at the bus stop. A lot of things do need to change.

However, I’m not blind to my privileges. My parents paid for an education that plenty of people, even people from double income families, can’t afford. I have four years of university under my belt. I’ve never been homeless, starving or deprived of food and water. People tend to listen to me when I speak because I’m eloquent, and they read what I write because I write like an educated person. Folks afford me a little more respect just because I’ve read more of the dictionary than some people have. That’s a pretty big privilege right there – knowing you’ll be taken more seriously because your communication skills have been polished by years of high school debating, patient history taking and public presentations. A lot of people I know have similar privileges, and many of them don’t realise how lucky they are at all.

See, here’s the thing about privilege – it’s not a zero sum game. It’s not that you either have it or you don’t. Almost everyone is privileged in some way, shape or form, and it’s possible to oppress people along one axis even if you yourself are oppressed along another. I can still be classist or transphobic. People can still be sexist, racist and biphobic towards me. People can and do mock me due to my mental illness, and I can and have mocked people for being unable to match me intellectually in debates. It’s not black and white – in fact, it’s an entire spectrum of grey.

As an intersectionalist, this is something I think about – how feminism oppresses women of colour, how the gay rights movement has marginalised trans* people, how I as a relatively wealthy person have been party to the denigration of those who weren’t fortunate enough to be born into well-off families. I think it’s something we should all think about, not only because self-awareness is important, but because until we truly understand the complex ways in which society positions people above or below each other relative to various axes of privilege and oppression, we’ll never truly advance the cause of true social justice and equality for everyone.

“Intersectionalist” is one of the labels on my soul. It is a philosophy that defines me as an activist – to paraphrase the folks at Tiger Beatdown, my activism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. It is a philosophy that has led me to reconsider my place in society and my interactions with others. It has led to a greater awareness of the ways in which I’ve contributed to the oppression of other people, and the ways in which I can actively work to ensure I don’t hurt people who are already fighting oppression. It has led to new friends, new paths, new ways of thinking, seeing and being. I see the world, now, as a complex web of societal interactions, none of them ever completely black and white. It has opened my eyes.

I am Jay. I am a writer and an intersectionalist.