The above text is translated as: "I am driving a Ricksha, not a bullet!"

Thursday, May 30, 2013

"Mai Ik Baar Jo Commitment Karloon Tou Uske Baad Khud Ki Bhi Nahi Sunta" (Translated as: Once I Commit, I Don't Even Listen To Myself)

I remember why I grew to love Rickshas in the first place. It was undoubtedly because stepping outside my house, walking to the bus stop in my flip flops, trying to hail a Ricksha in the scorching sun and then arguing with the driver to lower his overpriced rates (which, even when not overpriced, merited bargaining due to a customary necessity), was always followed by a much precious sense of independence. The ride from one end of the city to the other, inhaling bouts of smoke from public buses, zooming past the street vendors, office buildings, only to come to pause at traffic signals next to motor bikers, who would sometimes conduct your x-ray through their eyes, and at other times, be just focusing on balancing a wife and two kids, half sitting on the bike and half sitting in air, was weirdly liberating. For those 40 to 45 minutes of my life, I was not only free to go where ever I wanted to, but also, it felt like I had transformed into someone who had the freedom that was most frequently denied to women in my society, the freedom to make their choices, the freedom to be independent.

From an early age, I knew that even a small taste of independence was bliss. And so did many others. I saw girls who absolutely did not want to defy the norms. Yet, they couldn't help feel a certain sense of elation in taking a smoke or two, in driving away without permission, or taking small steps to keep reminding themselves that all was not out of their control, that there were still some steps, small steps, that they could take without anyone being able to stop them. And as long as there were these channels of ventilation, it was enough, things were going to be fine, they could breathe.

Females from this class of the society, my class of the society, have often asked me how it feels to be so far, to be so independent, to be so free. Naturally, my first instinct is to say no, I am not very free. I have a lot of constraints, like financial obligations, family obligations, financial limitations, family limitations, college work load, job pressures etc. But then I end up saying yes, it really is great in many ways. Those who ask this question are often not interested in hearing about these many ways. For them, knowing that I can often travel alone is enough of an indication of how great it could possibly be. 

Mobility, is only one of such aspects of independence that is often under appreciated in America. One only has to go back home once and spend hours figuring out what an assortment of males, cars and Rickshas could make a trip from North Nazimabad to Clifton possible, to know that the suffocating feeling of dependence on others that most of our Pakistani females feel today, is often a direct consequence of the lack of socially acceptable and safe options that allow them the freedom to move around as they like.

Despite the ever present and some greatly increased restrictions, the reason I have felt independent in America is because I could, in some cases of defiance and others of acceptance, often travel as I chose. Be it going to another state for a vacation with a couple of friends or be it going to another state alone for an Islamic conference and crashing with a family of little known affiliation, or dragging two suitcases for an entire day, or missing flights and being stranded in another country altogether, I have had a taste of it all. And let me tell you, not all of it is pleasant. But if you are like me, you already anticipate the unpleasantness. Hence, let me assure you that some of this independence is not only pleasant but very much worth fighting for. Allow me to elaborate why.

1 - To begin with, the inherent goodness in people never fails you. Whenever I have been plagued with a sinking feeling of loneliness, hopelessness, exhaustion - all of which come part in parcel with the long aspired for independence - I have always found ways, through God sent people or otherwise, to rejuvenate myself. In times of crisis, I have not only questioned my own aspirations but have also doubted my strength, at times as an individual and at times, as a female. For you can never fully rid yourself of that voice from your family which keeps playing in your brain like an infinite reel "Told you, you are a girl and you were not made capable enough to handle this." And just when something or someone comes up and helps you in such a time of need, you realize that as a creature whose pain tolerance threshold is set to be very high, just so that the human life cycle in this universe could continue, you are very much capable of handling it.

2 - This might not be your piece of cake. And your hesitation was justified from the start. But what you have learnt about yourself over the course of this experiment, will never go to waste. Maybe you weren't born to be a traveller, unlike what the restricted mobility in your hometown makes you think, but you were definitely born as someone, and spending all this time of struggling alone or with people who have had similar struggles, the probability of you connecting to that someone who felt very ignored all these years sitting inside you, unquestionably increases. When no one is there to tell you to do a certain thing a certain way and to not do somethings at all, and you are just sitting looking at a lake (and maybe the geese in it, if you are at Mount Holyoke), you can feel a silence in your brain, a quietness that is the closest it can get to you meeting the real you. And only if to get to know that person inside you, I think that independence is worth fighting for.

3 - On this journey of self-actualization, you will meet many liberated individuals who will fascinate you. One or two of these might even be able to leave an ever lasting impression on your life. Or they might not. Regardless, the strength that one can draw from such interactions can definitely last a lifetime. Of course, I haven't lived my entire life to be sure of that, but the reason why I imagine so, is simply that every past phase in my life has influenced me and shaped who I am today, with all my goods and bads. And there is no reason why I shouldn't expect such a trend to continue. On the contrary, if I hadn't persisted at my struggles, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet people who, through their personalities and life achievements, have often reminded me why such a struggle was important in the first place. Why, for example, independence and freedom should not be a luxury for only those who can afford it, monetarily or otherwise, but it should be a basic right possessed by every individual in our society, just to ensure that everyone has access to the decent life we aspire for.

4 - This reminds me of an episode of Winnie the Pooh, where Pooh is riding on Skippy the dog, and he invites Piglet, who, from a high hole in a tree bark, says:

"If I have to see this thing, let me make sure that I see if from a place where it can't see me"

Going off of Piglet, I would say that it never hurts to prepare yourself well for whatever life will, inevitably, offer you. If you have done even most of what you always wanted to do, like going on a hiking trip with your friends or having an apartment of your own, chances are, that you are more satisfied with your life and better prepared to meet whatever it is that awaits you. For we only learn from our experiences and the more the experiences, the better it is.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"Maa Kia Dua, Jannat Ki Huwa" (Translated as: Mother's Prayer is Heaven's Breeze)

Do you remember the bee that annoyingly buzzes in front of your eyes, that you try to hush away with a slap in the wind, but it comes back buzzing more loudly? Such is the frustration that has begged me to write on this topic.

As soon as I stepped out of an environment where the primary discourse on religion is centered upon the notion of heaven and hell and actions that are evaluated for their religiosity at all, are measured only through perceptions of these polar opposite extreme implications, I faced what I would like to call a "Feminist Muslima Dilemma". In countless conversations with practicing Muslim females in America, particularly those belonging to South Asia, where one or other of the cultural taboos have found supporting evidence in religious doctrines, I have often heard that most conservative proponents of Islam back home, those who limit the rights, mobility and equality of women, have it wrong. That the reason many Muslim females are actually feminists, is because Islam teaches feminist values.

Now, for a girl who has, for 18 years of her budding adulthood, been decried for her feminist ambitions (the pursuit of a higher education to name one) only because of the countless ways in which such ambitions lead to acts that are "displeasing to Allah," Islam appears to be anything but feminist. This does not mean that such a person would always necessarily become averse to religious practice, which happens in many cases. But what this means is that for me, after 18 yeas of a struggle to accept my position in the middle class Muslim society as a girl who is not equal to her brother, does not have the power to make decisions and certainly cannot justify traveling abroad to get a bachelors degree as Islamic, I was trying to understand how a God who I knew loved me, was, out of this love, testing me by demanding adherence to these restrictions. I did not imagine that these restrictions do not exist, for you only have to go to a Maulvi in a nearby madrassa who would use Quran and Hadith to tear any such doubts apart, but what I did imagine was that there were misread nuances in these restrictions, that, frustratingly enough, did not change these restrictions but definitely did allow a little more leverage in accepting and obeying them. For all super-feminist practicing Muslim liberals out there, this might just be a case of being taught about Islam the wrong way. However, I would argue that while such an assumption might be true, this matter cannot be reduced to just that. After all, most of the conservative groups that I have had the chance to interact in close quarters with, say the same about such Muslims liberals, precisely that they have it all wrong.

But it is not these conservative groups that I choose to focus on right now. Even though much needs to be said about them, they, many times rightly so, have gotten enough of their share of criticism. Instead, I want to talk about the other end of the spectrum, the liberal feminist Muslim enthusiasts.

Those of us, who have grown up in 90s and are the first products of this global village, have unconsciously developed an inherent disposition to accepting progress and liberalism as all things good and conservatism and orthodoxy as all things bad. So much so, that at times, things like religion that we were born in and conditioned to embrace, is not enough as a faith and belief system in itself. Rather, we  feel the need to associate it with our perceptions of good and hence, try to find in that religion an inherent evidence for other worldly inclinations that appeal to our common senses, be it the object of revelation or not. So even in my attempts to understand my identity as a Muslim female, first in Pakistan and then in America, I saw people struggling profusely to prove that Islam preaches feminism and is the reason why they are feminists. But must Islam preach feminism, for Muslims to be feminists?

As someone who has continuously taken a problem with people trying to support their conservative and often radical biases through Islam, I want to draw attention to a subject seldom discussed before. For those of us who aspire to be practicing Muslims, why is it that we try to use Islam to serve our ends as opposed to using ourselves to serve its ends? Why is it that religion for us is not merely religion anymore but rather, overwhelmed by the need to validate it with every ounce of our existence, we try to find in it ways to justify all else that makes sense to us? This is not to say that Islam does not preach feminist values at all. In the context of Arabia where Islam arrived, it did have revolutionary features that empowered women. Positive features like these are the reason why it appeals to some of our intellects in the first place. But the way people use Islam to support their own feminist biases today is really not a holistic representation of the religion itself. Most problematic is the fact that such feminists do not adopt an approach that is any different from the approach adopted by some hardliners and conservatives, who also use Islam as fitting to their proclivities.

This is absolutely not a judgement on the value of feminism. But rather, it is an attempt to raise a voice of caution at all those who try to justify feminism through Islam. Is it the case that one makes Islam their strength when it comes to feminism or is it that Islam really preaches feminism? The former is what many Muslims do all the time. But to say that the latter is true too, one would need to disqualify the experiences of all those females who have been oppressed under the banner of Islam, in societies like Pakistan, by people well versed in what Marshall Hodgson refers to as the "religion proper".

In my opinion, while there is something fundamentally problematic about the way in which most of us are taught about Islam in Pakistan, which is through a discourse of fear, my first exposure to Islam in America also raised a whole host of new questions. It does not make sense for a religious doctrine to change so drastically with geography, but its meaning and context changes with the collective human intellect and experiences of groups in different societies. What maybe makes Islam universal in certain respects is not that it preaches feminist values, but rather that the values it preaches can be both feminist and oppressive as befitting to different societies.

So as the rickshaw driver picks up the gear at the yellow light, a note to self: know that Islam is not all that you see in the rearview mirror, but it also cannot be all that appears to be pleasant in this “land of opportunity”. Never stop to question yourself, but also, never fail to question those who pass sweeping statements about Islam premised upon certain moral judgments about the world. While that view and understanding might have helped them fulfill their own need to validate a belief system in a multitude of other belief systems, if one wants to understand and accept Islam for what it is, such judgments and biases must be put aside in an objective study of religion.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"Dekh Magar Pyaar Se" (Translated as: You Can Look At Me, But Only With Love)

The last spring at Mount Holyoke College - yes, the super unclimactic roller coaster ride of the past few months was just that.

Since the time I remember stepping on this campus, I have never failed to acknowledge its beauty, the pink petals on the greens that brighten the spring, the oranges with the yellows and browns scattered around squirrels in the fall, the regal castle like library, somber yet powerfully nostalgic Mary Lyon's grave, and the list goes on. However, at the same time, I find myself noticing all the beauty much more closely at times like these, when goodbyes stand awaiting and I, in my desperate attempts to repeatedly pause time, am trying to capture it all in one go.

After experiencing the heightened exuberance of a fresh firstie who believed that she could do anything and be super amazed by every single thing this campus had to offer, I noticed my energy levels decline over the course of the next three years and the uniqueness of this place become the norm, rather than the exception. The perfection stayed where it was. Yet, it was the imperfection I often found myself focusing on. A sour taste of dissatisfaction at not having done enough, doing enough but not the way it should be done, doing it all and not being good enough, doing the best it can get but still feeling stuck, not being able to escape from certain pressures, the overwhelming suffocation of the world, sometimes ultra amplified by the confines of this small town we call South Hadley.

But now as I try to gather myself, organize my feelings - like the assortment of shells I used to pick from Karachi's beaches - retouching, reabsorbing and packing it all in the hollows of my heart, as well as one small suitcase, I dont know if there is any easier way to do this. What Mount Holyoke has given me is too much to quantify. The diploma I carry is worth more than $200,000 and by the graces of the scholarship and financial aid, I have it. But it is still the less valuable of all the things that I have today. So what are these other things that are more important? I guess its time to try doing an inventory. For the first time, and for the countless times to come.

1- A sense of home. Yes, as absurd as it sounds coming from someone who left home from the other end of the world to come here, Mount Holyoke has made me reevaluate the term "home" itself and understand my relationship with it. It is a bittersweet, nostalgic relationship. One may never be fully satisfied with home at home and be craving to venture out and about, explore the roads on another corner of the world and cruise on a ship to skies far, far away. But as soon as one steps out of home, for good too, despite the best of our travelers' instincts - our bodies crave for that familiar home, like a baby crying for his mother's lap. Of course, some of us are too old to cry so expressively, but away from home, we all shed tears one way or the other. For in the big, big world, there is lots of learning and great experiences, but the security we feel in that small, small world we know as home, is second to none. This security need not be physical or emotional, but it is more like an existential security - a security that comes from a reinforcement and validation of your existence. No matter where in the world you go, the environment where you first connected to your deeper self, will always reconnect you back to your roots, and ground you at what you know as your center. Home is not a place static in time or space, but rather a nurturing environment that makes those shy hidden buds, blossom into flowers - a place that tells your deepest fears and uncertainties that it is okay and it will be fine, because right now you are at home and even at the worst of times, you can retreat back to home. It is that center of existential gravity, that Mount Holyoke has become and will always stay for me.

2- Womanhood. From the world where I came from, I was never allowed to feel happy or even satisfied at being born a girl. Firstly, I was too tall for that gender and very possibly inclined to be doomed at the lack of potential suitors who were equally, if not more, tall. Secondly, I was too ambitious and in the words of some, too "aggressive," for my gender because of my attempts to get an education that wasn't meant for me to begin with. Thirdly, I was too adventuresome, or rowdy, unlike the way girls in middle class neighborhoods are supposed to be. Going for a bike ride early morning or playing cricket on the street when milkmen pass on their motorbikes, often casting a good long stare or two, was very much inappropriate for girls. Despite so many things being so inappropriate for my gender, last but not the least, the fact that I did manage to do them somehow or the other, was never well-taken. So when the first time I heard stories of how I would become even more unfixable and an utterly hopeless case, when I got back with a degree from "Amreeka," I decided to try a new approach. An approach of self-preservation. For the longest time ever, I resisted change and became an advocate of the socially acceptable norms of my society, just so that when I went back, I had protected my value systems just enough to not be completely unacceptable in that environment. For no one likes to be homeless. And it isn't hard to imagine the worst that could happen to one who, already so incapable of making and fitting in a home - an art that God had predisposed all other women to but had conveniently ignored in this case - becomes more unwomanly. Confused as to why I was born a girl and blessed with many instincts of a man, I persisted at my self-preservation at Mount Holyoke. However, here I met girls who defied all my conceptions of being the worst possible "girl" according to the standards set for a "good girl". I met girls who were confident about being the girls they were. I met women who respected me for being a woman and men who never treated me as any less. I saw women lead lives where they were the shapers of their own destinies, where they might be very lonely at times, but were never outcasts or purposeless because of their singlehood. Women who were individuals and humans before they were creatures capable of birthing, longing for love, and desiring to make a home. Women who were very happy with some men and very disappointed with others, but with every consecutive man, their lives did not find and lose meaning completely. For it is with this conception of what a woman is, that I hope to leave today.

3 - Intellect. Among the countless class sessions where my deeply held convictions have been thoroughly challenged and where the intellectual calibre of all those present in the room has been too overwhelming for me to give an ounce's worth of value to my own, I can hardly remember some well enough to preciously preserve forever in my mind's treasure box. My brain fails me when I try to revisit all those moments of intellectual growth. And it disheartens me that even so soon in time, I can't remember it all. But why should this be so disheartening? Although a human brain has a large storage space, we tend to forget similar events and retain only more novel information, allowing our neurons to reconnect in new ways for new learning to happen. This is why at the end of every semester, all we have are a few flash backs with large chunks of nothingness. And if I couldn't even preserve it all at the end of one semester, I can't expect myself to be able to accomplish this gargantuan task at the end of these four years. Moreover, how would such a collection of moments have served me anyways? Yes, it would have made me remember all the different view points on countless political and international issues and it would have left me with a much a greater working knowledge of all that I once learnt and continue to learn, but all is not lost due to my human limitations. I can still remember how the process of learning unraveled for me, how I challenged myself and others and felt accomplished whenever I was successful at organizing the hoards of conflicting information in a research paper. The brain conditioning that has happened because I was made to repeat the same process of learning so many times in different subject areas, will stick with me forever. Hence, even though I cant carry all that knowledge with me, I will carry a more polished intellect and use it to embark on new expeditions of rediscovering knowledge in new environments.

Three does not seem like a flattering enough number for the things that are "too much to quantify". However, this list is not exhaustive by any means. It is merely a memory in evolution, the drifting water in the upper lake and a chai discussion that never ends.