– a guest blog by Zainab Mahmood
In a world where supermodels win ‘Inspiring Woman’ awards and white, middle class actresses are classed as feminist icons, it’s difficult to break the privileged, white washed feminist bubble. As a daughter of Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, I’m conscious of the need for different communities to acknowledge and engage with the struggles unique to their cultures.
The default told experience – including women’s – has long been the white one. Whether consciously or not, as women of colour we often whitewash our own narratives. After all, we seldom see ourselves represented in mainstream novels, television, film or other media. Our storytelling is confined to interrogations with our parents and broken dual, even triple, language chats with our grandparents. Building my knowledge and awareness has mainly taken getting lost in an abyss of podcasts, TED talks, blog articles, book recommendations and links sent by friends who are not only women of colour, but have a particular interest in the languages and literatures of their own cultures, as well as others.
Not that fighting for equal pay, for the chance to speak without interruption and to walk and dress confidently without receiving vitriol should be invalidated, but we should also remember the women who quite literally put their lives at risk in efforts to be who they really are. Perhaps they choose an educational or career path different to the one set out for them, love someone their parents don’t approve of or simply speak their mind. These seemingly minor acts of rebellion are for some women the cause of their excommunication, homelessness, abuse and worst-case scenario, death.
It took me stumbling upon Tehmina Durrani’s autobiographical My Feudal Lord on my aunt’s book shelf at age 18 to engage with anything concerning Pakistan outside the context of my own family and their experiences. The women of my family could probably never bring themselves to describe their experiences of emotional and physical abuse to me in the way that Durrani so painfully and graphically translates it.
Due to the role of politics in her life, she depicts an aspect of Pakistan’s patriarchal structures so much more complex than what I had understood from my family’s stories. Some member of Durrani’s family always disapproves of whatever she does, starkly illustrating one ideal model of womanhood; subservient to her husband and children, and always carrying the weight of her father’s reputation.
Gifted to me by a friend who studied South Asian literature, I recently read Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You. A beautifully outpoured stream of consciousness relaying her experience with domestic abuse. Though at times uncomfortable to read, the descriptions of her parents rationalising her husband’s behaviour and urging her to keep working at the relationship are particularly poignant. They shed light on a culture of shame, acceptance and submission commonly found in India, the rest of the Indian Subcontinent, as well as the Arab world. Containing many similar tropes to My Feudal Lord, the narrative style of When I Hit You made apparent the culture of women being silenced by their loved ones, forced to deal with their trauma alone.
Also given to me by a friend, Nawal El-Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero is the only piece of literature I’ve read that truly focuses on the value of the woman, physically and otherwise. The protagonist Firdaus shares an ever-changing relationship with sex following her experiences of sexual abuse and female genital mutilation in Egypt. She strikingly relates how it feels to be a woman alone in a society full of dominant, animalistic men who dichotomise their supposed Islamic piety. Within a short novella, El-Saadawi plays with ideas of pleasure, sexuality, value and power unparalleled to anything else I’ve read.
It may take time and effort, but the digital age has afforded us the tools to build an awareness of marginalised cultures and religions. That is, the kind of awareness required for a feminism that truly benefits us all, a feminism in which the only default narrative is the human one, made up of a simultaneously individual and collective cultural memory.
Illustration by Eleanor Crewes. Eleanor is a North London based Illustrator, recent BA Illustration graduate from UAL and author of graphic novel The Times I Knew I Was Gay.