The defiling gutter of political rhetoric

At age 48, I’m a veteran of political talk. As an anthropologist, a feminist, a Muslim, a student of global issues, I’m an avid consumer of political talk.

I’ve lived through many rousing speeches. As a child in Pakistan, I watched Zulfiqar Alibhutto.jpg Bhutto use Islamic Socialism and the slogan roti, kapra, makaan (bread, clothing, and a house) to strengthen his government. I remember ration cards. I watched as ready-cooked roti appeared in the market for purchase – supposedly as fulfillment of the promise of ‘bread.’

I watched General Zia-ul-Haq re-deploy Pakistan ka matlab kya? la ilaha illallah (What is the meaning of Pakistan? There is no god but God). I watched him run a referendum that asked “Do you wish Pakistan to be an IsMuhammad_Zia-ul-Haq,_Ronald_Reagan_and_William_Clark_1982.jpglamic state?” and I watched his speech where he celebrated another 5 years as president of Pakistan. I remember speeches where democracy was framed as a stupid, Western, idolatrous project, and Reagan’s America was right behind Zia.

benazir.jpgI then remember the days of Benazir Bhutto, who did practically nothing for the protection of women except be one in the prime minister’s chair.

As a graduate student, I remember many Islami Jamiat Talba speeches – where the terms Islam, shariat, government, Quran, sunnat, risalat, iqamat-e-deen (the political establishment of religion in life) were deployed around to establish a worldview where Islam was a panacea for all our many problems. Where our main problem was the existence of people who wouldn’t commit themselves to purdah and Islamic discourse, and the fact that the politicians who could do the work of this iqamat weren’t actually in Parliament.

Now I hear other kinds of speeches.

I used to yearn for talk. Representative talk. Powerful talk. If only, I gasped inwardly, if only someone important, someone eloquent, someone with power, someone who mattered would use the right words.

If only someone would say Islam. 

If only someone would say human rights. 

If only someone would say Afghanistan. If only someone would say Kashmir. 

And then, as I grew older, and saw the micropolitics of gender, I wished, If only someone would say mercy. If only someone would say feminism. … 

But now, I’m like a teenager in a sulk. I don’t want to hear anything. I want to slam my door on all the adults and say, no more. I don’t want to hear your talk. Your talk is meaningless. Your talk over china cups and sandwiches means something completely different. When it enters the lives of the powerless, your talk becomes something else.

When you say The status of women in Islam in your pamphlets, it really just means patriarchal oppression with a paisley border of groundless optimism.

When you say Afghanistan or Kashmir or Waziristan or Syria or Iraq you’re using it for your own purposes, for your routes to oil, to sea, to mastery, to control.

And when you speak of melting pots and integration and E Pluribus Unum, you accept our laborers and our highly skilled professionals just so long as they come through the cultural crucible of assimilation.

You talk of countering violent extremism, when you really mean to enforce internal and external surveillance in our communities.

A British leaflet against radicalization

You mean to install outsiders in our mosques, those that will prey on the vulnerable, the persons with mental health struggles – so you will pull out the rabbit of a supposed extremist from your hat, voila! The machinery of the security industry has been rationalized. You create a binary of good Muslims and bad Muslims, so that the good ones – the ones in jeans and t-shirts, the ones in the nightclub, the occasional beer-drinkers, they will hate and fear the hijabis, the bearded men, the mosque attendees, the ethnic-garbed, the poor, the under-educated, because they are the problem.

The language of mysticism and Sufism are utilized to establish good Muslims, ones who recite Rumi and Hafez and consume art and biryani, and never contemplate the social reform possibilities of Islamic frameworks.

We are not people to you. We are merely means to your strategic ends.

And when you say feminism, you use it as a fanfare of trumpets, a red carpet rolled out for

Hillary and her hawkish support for war.

a woman candidate who, like Benazir, does almost nothing for women except be one. This feminism means one thing in a gentrified Boston suburb, and it means something else entirely when the Feminist Majority calls for the US to liberate Afghan women via military intervention. The White feminism you deploy is entirely non-intersectional.

Even a concern for all humanity is deployed primarily to erase the murders of black people in Chicago, via All Lives Matter

The language of hope is woven with open-ended promises to harness the energies of the Left, and they are left behind by the war machines, yet again.

How can we retrieve our dearest values from the political gutter that defiles them? 

How do we manage?

You could withdraw into the world of activism where you consciously decline to consume utilitarian political discourse. You could choose not to associate with opportunistic upwardly mobile “handy-men,” aspiring one percenters who are available for hire by the next biggest thing. You could choose to go micro, but how can you do so without being completely out of touch?

You could remain entangled in the larger political discourse, constantly struggling to rip your beloved values from the clutches of the hegemon. You could keep calling foul on the machine: no, that’s not feminism; no, that’s not anti-racism; no, that’s not human rights.

And plenty of people will insert themselves into that political discourse. They will cheer because feminism and human rights and universality still mean something to them. Not only that, but the glamor of power is infectious and irresistible. Many of these will become cogs in the machine, – but happy ones! Because, after all, if they are in the machine, surely it is changing? If they, with their fundamentally good values, are drawing paychecks, handshakes, grant moneys, and honors from the powers-that-be, then surely there must be something good about these powers. Some day, when they’ve had enough handshakes, they’ll be able to bring about real change. Some day, the great and gracious handshaker will turn to them and say, “But Shabana, what do you really think I should do? Change Wall Street? Stop interfering in other nations’ business? Support the troops by actually keeping 20-year olds in college rather than shipping them off to keep Lockheed in business? Do something about agriculture? Save the bees? Save the planet? Save our tomorrows? Well, now, of course I will!”


I now cringe when the capitalist market of political discourse picks up something new. I fear the political gutter that defiles everything I hold dear. I fear the political machine that bleaches agendas clean of meaning, and keeps putting them through the wringer until they mean their opposite. I no longer call for representation in political rhetoric. People get excited when Obama says hijab, and we snicker and cringe when Trump says Here’s my African American, but this is what power does with us: it uses us as a photo-op, and then tosses us in the gutter.

In fact, once an agenda becomes harnessed by political rhetoric, like diversity it is neutralized. Throw it around a lot, the theory seems to be, until the consumer of the ideology is sated. Light a fire under the term, make it into an Issue. Until polarized groups are exhausted with ideological tennis, hashing and rehashing its meanings. And while distracting battles are fought over terms, values, and ideologies, actual hegemonies of the 1% over the bodies and lives of the 99% will be reinforced. They will be marked by happy photographs of smiles celebrating an inch of representation in The New York Times. 

We have to demand more.

And more than anything, we have to be clear about what we want and why. If our personal ambitions to “make it” in the world are uppermost, let us be clear about that, and back away from those with a broader agenda. More and more, I am realizing that broader agenda of change has to be protected from not only many of my dear ones but myself.


How children understand xenophobia

assThe world reacts to the spectacle of the Republican National Convention yesterday. 
 Given his promises (um, threats), many of my friends who are White and middle class feel angry and distressed about a potential Trump presidency in a “Hobbesian America that is nasty, brutish and short.”
gettyimages-484797712_custom-695b9781e4a550ac0cdd3eba481660feefd333a8-s900-c85But what kind of fear and discomfort is experienced by non-White people? Mexican Americans? Immigrants? Blacks? Muslims? The LGBTQ (painfully spelled out by Trump) community?
Consider how fear and stigma are experienced by children. My friend who is currently in the US shared this:

“Yesterday on our cab ride home, my 9 year old said to me “mommy, I am glad you are white” and I said “I am not white” and she was nearly in tears and said “you are white, don’t you see you are white? Your skin is white. You are not Latina. You are just simply white. Make sure you never tell anyone that you are Brazilian or Pakistani or Muslim. You are white, mommy. Okay?”

Two days before this, she came home and said that when Trump is in power, minorities like herself would only be allowed to live in basements. And she wondered out loud if we walked really softly, would “they” be okay to let us live in the penthouse apt we are renting out now? Or will all of us be moved to some basement if we were living in US. And then her concern moved to Amy, who is half [South American] and half European. Where will they put children like Amy?

(This conversation happened at camp, when some kid pointed out that soon people like my daughter will be living in basements and then other kids laughed!)

I am spending my summer in the most diverse city in US, and my daughters are at the receiving end of such fear mongering and outright racism from other children, which is so heart breaking. And painful still that my daughter didn’t challenge why her place should be in some basement!

Whether Trump wins or not, US is losing the very qualities that made it so special: inclusiveness being one of them. I don’t even want to know what is happening in less diverse school/camp settings with children who are Muslim, immigrant, minorities, from multi-racial families, or same gendered couples.”

On her way out of the US, she wrote:

“In the club lounge, the men I am sharing the table with exclaim that there is not one thing wrong with banning all Muslims from entering the US. That policy makes a lot of sense. It should have happened earlier. They say this right in front of my child, and moments later walks in a family with Trump t-shirts on.
I feel like this is goodbye to United States. Heavy heart.”


Religious identities in the college classroom

Many observers of higher education believe that the college classroom demands a performance of objectivity from instructors. Lay persons often assume that professors are the embodiment of positivistic scientific knowledge, free of emotion, bias, and values. This article, “Forum: Insiders, Outsiders, and Disclosure in the Undergraduate Classroom Forum”, refuses to perform such objectivity. Instead, the academic authors explicitly discuss how they deal with religious identities in the college classroom. By engaging with their religious identities, these academics problematize binary notions of outsider and insider. These professors  ask their students to explore religious traditions with fearless curiosity, using such strategies as role-play and such frameworks as reflexive analysis.

DP159383Context has much to do with how we engage with religious identities. It is significantly easier for me to bring my faith to the classroom in my Muslim college than it was in the mostly-evangelical Christian classroom in the American South. When I first arrived there, I was encouraged by some colleagues to discuss my research in the classroom: my response was to move cautiously. As I correctly assumed, too many of my students (and colleagues) thought of Muslims as the cultural, religious, and political Other. Context is everything.

Context is everything, I repeat. We wrestle with this election season, and wonder who America will be next year. What spaces will our college classrooms be? What possibilities will be available to us as professors?


21 years ago in Cambridge

Cambridge graduation copy.jpgCan I share a moment of the past with you today?

This is a photograph of me on the occasion of graduation with an M.Phil. in Education from Cambridge University. It’s dated – I think – July 1995, so it’s over 20 years old.

This is a product of the first studio photo-shoot I ever had in my life. We didn’t own a camera for most of my life while I was growing up. So after my graduation, I splurged (I think it was £40) on an Eaden-Lilley session right after receiving my diploma. I was still hijabi, and I was poor, with little disposable income.

I felt incredibly guilty about throwing thousands of pounds at a graduate degree, so I started working immediately after my degree. My first job – which lasted a single day – was as a cleaner at the enormous facilities of British Antarctic in Cambridge. I wasn’t physically strong enough for it, and it took me about 45 minutes of cycling to get there (I wasn’t very good at cycling, and I wasn’t great at directions either). I got a job and a dorm room with a friend as an editor and translator in Northwest London. I think I borrowed the white shirt from a friend, and I bought black high-heeled maryjanes from a cheap shoe shop in Cricklewood, and I took a £5 bus ride from London back to Cambridge for graduation.

On that day, I could not have imagined that I would ever own a car. My finances were extremely fragile. I was fresh from Pakistan, and I still saw myself as more an international student than an immigrant. I taught myself to ride a bicycle (I’d never had the liberty to ride a bicycle in Pakistan.) I was an innocent. I wasn’t clever. I wasn’t quick. I didn’t wear lipstick. I didn’t do my eyebrows. I’d only started doing my upper lip when I was 21, and that was a big deal at the time. I didn’t really watch TV. I watched one movie over two years (my roommates invited me along) and that was “Forrest Gump.” I didn’t have a TV as a student.

I spent all my time studying, socializing with other Muslim students, and leading two Qur’anic study circles (one in English, for women students and one in Urdu for the “aunties”). The Urdu study circle became a pawn in the Sufi-Salafi battle in the small Cambridge community, because now the non-Salafi women could brag about how fun their discussion was. I was fairly prominent in that community.

But as a young woman, I was also a single Pakistani woman abroad. In my kin circle, this was an unusual phenomenon. I wanted to be married. But somehow, I was never an option for anyone. I was intelligent, religious, knowledgeable enough to lead the study circles, popular, well-liked. But I had no family network in the country. This vacuum turned me into an unknown quantity. I met Muslim men who respected me, but somehow the conversation never went there. The only Muslim men interested in me were those of dubious immigration status (and I had a UK passport).

Though happily married now, I still puzzle over this. It took me years to find my spouse. Why? Was I perhaps too smart, too independent, too alone? Was this frightening to Muslim men? The Muslim men who aspired to Muslim fraternity and commitment, they also wanted to marry within their tribal communities (especially in the U.K.), and they also wanted their mothers to meet their prospective in-laws.

Not long after I moved to London, one of the “brothers” (who spent a lot of time discussing religious matters with me) called me to help him play match-maker for one of the British Muslim sisters. He wanted to set up his friend with her and not any of the other sisters because, you know, “Punjabis are coarse and she’s not Punjabi.” I was quite struck with this news. Up until then, in Young Muslims and Muslim Council of Britain and FOSIS and Islamic Relief and Islamic Foundation, all I’d absorbed was a sense of Muslim fraternity free of boundaries. When it came to marriage, this wasn’t real. People called me “brave” for being a single woman abroad, “strong” for my dedication to my education and career, “inspirational” for my religiosity – but no one called me eligible. Raised in an intense marriage market, this wounded me intensely.

It’s no accident, too, that I ended up marrying a White American who couldn’t really care less that I didn’t bring with me a U.S.-based home, family, and upbringing. Perhaps he too had experienced the same invisibility that comes to persons who don’t function as complete clan networks in the marriage market.

I think here, for example, of the family patriarch who arranged all his offspring’s marriages within the US to ensure the network remained intact and that international mobility didn’t weaken their influence and impact.


I don’t bemoan the clannish workings of many Western Muslim communities in marriage matters. It works well for so many. But it works so well that converts, for instance, are left in the cold when it comes to eligibility. And international students.

The fantasy of Muslim fraternity has invisible boundaries.



Desire, women’s bodies, & Qandeel Baloch

Qandeel Baloch was murdered in Multan.

UntitledIt’s said her brother strangled her to death to regain the “honor” of the family. To date, though, her family – of humble background – has been living off her earnings as a model and po*n star, so why this sudden desire for “honor”? I’m not going to go into the details of her life, her marriage and divorce, the scandals around her career, the men she shamed because they associated with her and then they spat on her.

I’m also not going to engage in lengthy caveats about how I’m a Muslim who in her personal life is fairly conservative in terms of what I consider physical modesty; there is no need for me to do so. If a man doesn’t feel the need to state that he dresses only in long-sleeved kameezes and his jeans are never tight, why should I explain what my sartorial practices are? Why would you be interested anyway? Why do I need to dissociate myself from Qandeel Baloch’s body practices? She was Qandeel, and I am me. I don’t consume po*n, but I’m sure a good number of men who are now spitting on the corpse of QB have consumed the po*n she produced. So I’ll leave caveats and explanations to these men. For my part, I mourn the terror and horror of her death, and the utter cheapness of women’s lives. I grieve the fact that she found an income in sharing her sexuality with these men, but then it is she and not the consumers of her po*n that is shamed.

So let’s listen to this song from the movie Pakeezah, where the prostitute/courtesan sings:

These are the people who took my scarf away.
These are the people who took my scarf away.
Don’t believe me; darling, go ask the cloth merchant!
He’s the one who sold me the scarf for a coin.
You don’t believe me, dearest, go and ask the cloth-dyer. 

He’s the one who dyed my scarf a pink color.
You don’t believe me. Ask the policeman:
In the open bazaar, he snatched my scarf away.

UntitledPatriarchy turns the bodies of girls and women into objects. They are the objects of desire, and they are hated and reviled for the intense desire they evoke. But everyone participates in this system of objectification and everyone consumes it. It is the woman’s body alone that is reviled for being the object of desire. The male subjects of desire consider themselves free of blame. Any girl or woman who awakens desire becomes an object and is then blamed if she is beautiful, attractive, distracting. A lock of hair that escapes from a scarf, a glance that is too nasheeli,too intoxicating, an slender ankle, a melodious voice — everything becomes blameworthy. A woman who dares to be desirable is punishedVirginity then becomes a commodity that fathers and brothers own and must preserve; chastity is then not a religious practice with any agentic component for a woman, but a banking practice of the male family.

Ultimately this is an endless game. Because the world overflows with beauty and desire.

Payal mein geet hain chham chham ke
Tu lakh chaley ri gori thham thham ke

There are melodies in the anklet, O beautiful girl,
no matter how hard you try to tread softly 


What exactly is Sharia?

A man called “Newt” has decided to sort Americans into groups using the question “Do you believe in Sharia?” 

I’d be happy with the question, except most people asking it don’t know the meaning of the word “Sharia.” So perhaps we could start with the question, “Do you know what Sharia is?”

In order to respond to this question, and yet not to re-hash issues that have already been hashed multiple times by experts before me, I’ve posted some resources below. I’ll continue to update as I find more. Please drop additional resources in the comments. I prefer not to engage in pointless Twitter wars with persons who prefer not to – you know – read. Or think. 

But for those who prefer to, you know, hate, rather than think, read, or understand, I’ve got absolutely nothing.

And about the question of What is Not Sharia:

And on a lighter note, Muslims helped out and made the quiz for Newt:


How “All Lives Matter” dismisses America’s problem with race

How non-Black people use “All Lives Matter” and “colorblind” perspectives to dismiss America’s problem with race and White Privilege.


I just shared it with my daughter. She said, after my explanation, “But – when I say “All Lives Matter, I really mean that.” So I explained further that, in the context of continuing anti-Black violence in the US, saying ALM is a way of dismissing the problem and of reasserting White privilege and supremacy. (I gave her another example, using her advocacy of animals, which allowed her a lightbulb moment.

She said: “But I’m White” (Um, sort of). And I said, “And that’s fine. I’m not Black. But I am an ally, so I stand with Black struggles to protect Black bodies and to get justice.”

Recently, I’ve been reminded of how, for immigrants in the middle class, it is often quite challenging to stand in solidarity with the struggle for Black justice. Immigrants often arrive here and find a place of comfort with White middle class values, and don’t find commonality with Blacks (because they want to avoid association with the oppression and the struggle). I hope we educate ourselves in historical paradigms of oppression and inequality. I hope we don’t grumble and sigh and I hope we don’t say, “Oh get over it” or “Why can’t you calm down?” or “All Lives Matter.”

There was probably a moment in your life when you were wronged, and you wanted an ally. But all your potential allies said, “Oh, I can’t stand alongside you. After all, Powerful Person has such strong ties with my family, and he is so famous and so nice, and I don’t have much in common with your scrubby self. I want to be like Powerful Person some day, and solidarity with you blocks my trajectory.” Middle class upwardly mobile non-Black people like myself have so much difficulty empathizing with Black struggles, and the Black prison pipeline, and the fact that Blacks can get shot for no crime at all, because we do not have that risk.

Imagine raising a Black child to face those dangers as soon as he hits his teen years. If I were to contemplate that possibility, there’s no way I would be able to “calm down” or “get over it”.

I know people who are too refined and sweet to watch videos like this of Alton Sterling, but who are quick to dismiss them with “All Lives Matter.” The rhetoric of such liberals will demonize the movement for Black justice; they will dismiss the movement to protect Black bodies from state violence as somehow ill-mannered and angry. And their cliches merely veil their solidarity and their alliance with White supremacy.

Here is a powerful response to one of these liberals.

A few recommended readings on the subject:


Goodbye, Abdul Sattar Edhi.

Goodbye, Abdul Sattar Edhi. You were a simple man, a gift to the poor, the hungry, the disposse13606764_10208473712813347_331618934240130614_nssed, the neglected. The abandoned infants, the injured unable to pay for an ambulance, the dead without anyone to bury them, – all found refuge and help with your network of charitable work. Your organization asked nothing in return. You relied only on donations. You lived a meager life in material terms, but your impact is astounding. You never asked if the one in need was Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, or anything else. Never cared if she was sinner or saint. Pakistan still desperately needs your work to continue, and I feel like our nation has become orphaned. May you rest in peace and power.


Eid Mubarak. From my Korean neighbor.

13620156_1047146315332385_6370323829582661468_nThough I wasn’t feeling great today, I decided this morning to head out for the Eid prayer and have a proper Eid with friends. Eids are bittersweet for me, as I feel like a divided person, between Pakistan-Eid and US-immigrant-Eid, and I often struggle between now-and-then, there-and-here.
So we were rushing out to the car in the rain, to begin the hour-long drive to the Eid Prayer at the University of Chicago. Suddenly, our Korean neighbor, who speaks little English and with whom we have exchanged a handful of words – ran out in his shorts, and called to us. Svend asked him what was up and he waved Svend off, and ran toward ME. Confused I went to him. He pressed a $5 bill into my palm and said softly, with a crooked smile, “Coffee,” and ran back to his house.
I am keeping that $5. It has all kinds of meaning to me. My parents would have given me Eidee (traditionally, a symbolic amount of money is given as gift by older relatives and friends). They are not here with me; I feel like God sent my Korean neighbor – whom we know VERY little – to bring me a sense of connection. Since then we’ve all been puzzling over that gesture: does he know about Eid and Eidee? Does he know we’re moving from this house, so he’s trying to say he appreciates us? Does he know we’ve been going through trying times? Maybe all of those. I don’t know. But I felt like the heavens had split open and smiled upon me in the form of a $5 bill.
A blessed Eid to all of you from all of us – family and community.