Donate to support Native communities

In the wake of the nasty bullying of a Native Elder, Nathan Phillips, by White male private school students, this is a post that offers various ways to support Native communities, causes, orgs, and families. Thanks to friends for the suggested orgs (Nadiah Mohajir of HEART, Kelly M. Hayes for the links via her tweets at @MsKellyMHayes):


How not to rescue Muslim women

This post is from 2009, so it is almost 10 years old. It is an edited and updated version of a Religion Dispatches article.

I was visiting a coffee shop on a rare break from parenting my toddler. The barista was chatting with his associate, Tiffany, a local student.

Tiffany was unhappy with one of her professors. The professor claimed that girls in the Middle East – yes, generally, in that entire region – were being married off at early ages, with barely any education at all. But the professor went a step beyond outrage. She called upon the international and American community – via her undergraduates, if you please – to save Muslim women in the Middle East. America, the professor entreated, should penalize Middle Eastern nations. Any country that disadvantaged women to the extent that they could not easily pursue careers, and where they were married under family arrangements instead of purely personal choice, should not receive U.S. aid.

Heck, under that principle, I thought, we should go in and save Pakistani men too because plenty of them marry spouses selected by their parents. My brother married a wonderful woman that my parents found for him, while I (the daughter) traveled to the United States and married an American.

Naturally, that afternoon, I gave up every attempt to jot notes for the public lecture I was preparing. I dedicated myself to studiously being the weird woman eavesdropping on the baristas’ conversation.

I had mixed feelings as I listened to the two young people disagree with the professor. “So she says that American authorities should publicly criticize countries where women are married off early, and don’t have rights to choose their own husbands, and have to get arranged marriages,” Tiffany said. Peter chuckled rather unenthusiastically. Tiffany threw her hands in the air. “You know?” she said. “She thinks we should go in and change what people in other countries do, and how they treat women there.”

“Why should we go in to change what they do?” Peter said. “Who died and made us president of the whole world?” “Exactly,” Tiffany said. “And it just doesn’t make sense for us to try to change how they feel. Why should they accept our point of view, when we think they’re wrong? Maybe they think we’re wrong because we meet people and marry whoever we like.”

“What they’re doing might be relevant to where they live, and their culture,” Peter said. “Maybe women in the Middle East don’t need as much education. Why should we force them to get more education and to marry late?” “Well, don’t we have enough problems of our own right here?” Tiffany said. “Women don’t get paid as much as men do, and women get turned down for jobs because they’re going to get married and pregnant, and women don’t get treated equally to men at work here either.”

“There’s another side to the problem,” Peter said reflectively. “I wish the whole world could agree on basic moral values today, so we could all enforce them collectively. The UN was supposed to help us achieve that dream of universal human rights. But we’re far away from agreeing on any moral and universal values today. Least of all on women’s rights. Other cultures and other religions will just do things differently, whether we like it or not. What we can do is live up to our own principles of equality and leave the rest of the world alone.”

“People in different cultures will never agree on certain things,” Tiffany argued. “It’s just something we have to live with, and stay out of people’s business. Would we like them to interfere with our values and our lifestyle? Of course we wouldn’t. So why do we expect them to welcome us with open arms and say, ‘Oh, please come and turn our societies upside down. Please change the way we work. Please make us do things the opposite from how we do them. We love America and we love equality. We love feminism. Come and teach us how to do it.’”

As the two baristas chatted, agreeing on culturally relativistic values on gender, I struggled on my private darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of discomfort and delight.

When a young American calls for non-interference in “their” business because “they” are different, I am relieved and disturbed. I contrast the non-interfering liberal Peter with a former student, a large young Midwestern former GI. “Saddam is the Antichrist, and we’ve got to go in and fight him,” that student told me solemnly.

So yes, I like the tune of non-interference. A little. In relative terms. But the background harmony assumed total difference. People in the Middle East were different. They treated their women differently. They treated their women unequally. That’s the way “they” like it. Let “them” be. We, here, we like it different. We’re all feminists around here. We like our human rights and our nightclubs. They like their arranged marriages and their veils.

The combination was sort of Samuel-Huntington-with-Edward-Said.

My feelings reminded me of the fall of 1996. Just as I felt in the café – stimulated, troubled, confused about my feelings – I had felt in my graduate classes.

I had just arrived in the U.S. that summer, and was very unsure of myself. I had much to say, but I struggled to find my thoughts and words in the conversation. I felt like I wanted to speak a different language.

For me, the struggle became an issue of how to insert myself into the conversation. How was I to reexamine the very bases of the discourse and then to re-examine the conclusions? How could I bring the incisive debate to a grinding halt and deconstruct the binaries – binaries that were foundational to the discourse? How could I challenge the very basis of the debate? And how, then, could I offer the same conclusion, but with a different emphasis? Or how could I offer a new perspective on the whole debate and face the blank surprised faces?

My baristas happily ranted about their professor and I agreed with them against the professor but I was struggling with the very basis of their opinions.

Neither one of my baristas, for all their liberal, distant, hands-off respect for “other cultures,” had even vaguely entertained the notion that norms of gender equality could possibly be shared by strange, brown, Muslim folks in distant lands.

As a Muslim feminist from Pakistan – where feminism is local, and has many colors, and isn’t always called “feminism” because “feminism” is owned and run by White women who bring White men in fighter planes – I felt wracked with discomfort.

I heard the baristas’ assumptions about Middle Easterners and Muslims. I thought of Pakistani activists, scholars, lawyers, theologians, politicians, and laypeople that habitually allied themselves with egalitarian causes. I thought of women who stand up for equality and gender justice and, for their commitment to those ideals, deal with much harsher realities on the street and at home than middle-class American women do. It hadn’t occurred to my baristas that “those people” had already come up with ideas, strategies, and jihads to try to change patriarchal norms and oppressive customs. It hadn’t occurred to them that brown and black folks who spoke funny languages were sometimes engaged in a life-and-death struggle to change societal practices. Weren’t they all swarthy, bearded males featured shouting furiously about America on the cover of Newsweek?

And then there was the professor. She was so filled with outrage over oppressive practices that limited women’s choices that she wanted the United States to engage in a political war with those countries to change what they did. So little did she know about the local contexts, and so little credit did she give them, that the only hope for them lay in marines from Alabama, Mavis Leno, or President George W. Bush (whose mythical CV features only one entry under “feminist activism,” and that entry is labeled “Afghanistan”).

When the white knight knows so little about his damsel in distress, how does he expect to rescue her? When she turns around and tells him to call her “Ms.” and to stop telling her what to do, will he be outraged at her ingratitude? When she says she’s quite happy wearing a traditional outfit, thank you, but could she please get maternity leave, will he snort in disgust at his charge? When she wraps her head in a veil and stands up for her Islamic prayer, will he throw up his hands at her inability to throw off Islamic slavery? When she says why thank you for your help, but I need my husband out of Guantanamo and my son needs asylum, and then I’d like to open a Qur’an school for girls—what will he say then? When she says she’s got her own ways of effecting the revolution, and it doesn’t involve selling out brown men to America, will he decide against trying to rescue her after all?


Dear Marie Kondo

Dear Marie:

Let me start by saying that I did try to read your book, but failed to get past the first chapter due to an intense desire to smash something. I also tried to watch your show, and our entire family collapsed in snorts of laughter. But I did try.

I have questions.

I could hug all my clothes, and feel for the spark of joy, which you characterized as “ching!” I have a wardrobe full of vanilla, okay clothes that do me just fine, yet do not bring me sparks of joy. There are a few pieces that “ching!” softly but for some of those, the “ching!” is barely audible. What about my non-spark clothes? Do they remain in my wardrobe, or do they occupy a limbo space in a bottom dresser drawer? Do I put them on probation and meditate over them?

Also, if I throw away all my non-spark clothes, what happens when I need to get spark clothes? Will you set up a joy-go-fund-me?

For example, several of my non-ching! items are clothes specific to work and formal situations. I do not love stiff blazers and non-stretch work pants. I bought $500 academic regalia when my then-employer insisted on me wearing regalia to graduations (and then laid me off). I hate my academic regalia. It’s a ridiculous, enormous gown and does nothing for my height and body type. In my present work situation, I do not need too many of these items on a regular basis, so the ching! is faded. But you know how it is under capitalism. You are after all a product of said capitalism. You know jobs are unreliable, and people are forced to be mobile. What happens when I need to wear clothes I do not love for the purpose of making a professional appearance? Do I shop for them again? Do I go back to Josteen’s and buy another non-joy gown?

I am 50. I have been through several sizes, after cancer treatment, and I have no idea what size I’ll be in the next couple of years. Should I dump all my not-quite-fit clothes, hoping I will never need them again?

We can’t shop over and over again, when we change jobs, sizes, tastes, life situations, lifestyles.

Poor people have lots of stuff because they have crappy stuff. Rich people have the luxury of having a small quantity of excellent clothing. They also have the luxury of long and short term storage, so their ching! and non-ching! clothes can escape your judgemental gaze.

So quit telling me it’s my fault I have too much stuff or non-joy stuff, or I’m not folding it right, or not thanking my house enough. We are doing our f***ing best.

Instead, go visit Bezos, Gates, the Kochs, Murdoch, and Musk and tell them they’ve robbed us of our joy. They’re holding our ching! hostage.


On not tossing old outdated appliances

One of my favorite things about being here in Pakistan: nobody throws away things that are old, grubby, and ugly. This heater, for instance, is as old as I am. My sister-in-law’s family used it in Iran (her father was an aeronautical engineer who worked in Iran for some years, so they retain some Farsi in their exchanges with each other). The heater has traveled widely. It’s got an ugly bar that hangs down uselessly now, but it works, so here it is, keeping me warm at night.

This sewing machine is also my age. My mother bought it in England where she helped support our family while my father was doing his PhD in Pharmacology. She was a simple young woman who hadn’t learned English as a girl, but who quickly mastered life in Britain to raise children. She’d answer ads for companies and they’d drop off materials and plans, and she’d stitch blouses by the dozen for 8 shillings each. At 80, she is still hemming and mending my clothes on this old Singer.

There are limits to my love; I have prevailed upon them after years of pleading to toss damaged rusty old kettles and grimy old bath rugs. There is a crappy old telephone set I’m eyeing as my next victim, because you have to slam your finger onto each key to make phone calls. I’ll be thinking of it when she calls me from here, when I am in Chicago (inshaallah) Thursday.


The homeland visit as it concludes

In the Lahore Fort near sunset, with Badshahi Mosque and Guru Arjan Dev’s gurdwara in the background.

When you visit your homeland and family for a short time, every day, every hour is charged with emotion. This is amazingly rich, and it is potentially painful too.

So much is happening that never happens in my every life in the US. When I set out for Pakistan, I think to myself, “It’s going to be great. I’ll be the best daughter, the best sister, the best aunt, the best niece, the best everything, every day, all the time. I’ll do the best shopping and get the best outfits, I’ll see my favorite old sights and the sights I never saw. And I’ll spend the entire time, also, at my father’s grave, reciting Qur’an and feeling close to him. It’ll be perfect.”

But life is life.

Life’s a mixed bag. Some days I’m cheerful, other days I’m depressed, overwhelmed by grief, impending separation, the weight of my divided lives that make no sense here. Some days I revel in the old experiences, and other days I yearn for uninterrupted electricity, my car, the public library, and my entire wardrobe. Central heat. Some days I connect with everyone, other days I don’t get it, and nobody gets it. I am alone, I don’t hear them, they don’t hear me.

Some days we reminisce happily about shared joys, and other days I reminisce about times when I didn’t get my way. Some days I’m nice; some days I’m irritable.

Some days I say unwittingly hurtful things that fall not like a summer’s rain shower but a tsunami. Because there isn’t going to be an extended series of days, weeks, and months when you can make up for the irritability. Words land like arrows that fester. Will there be an opportunity to make up for meanness with kindness? Each hour is invested with too much significance for it to deliver.

Immigration is often seen as a process of addition. But there is the subtraction that is never counted. Because dollars and academic degrees can be counted; heartbreak is not quantifiable.

Mortality looms over us. Separations tower over us. The brilliance of these borrowed days in the homeland with family is blinding. But the burden of these days is heavy.