Responding to Soundcloud introductions, by Colby-Sawyer College Femtechnet DOCC 2016 students

Dear Alexa, Ashley, Bibek, Emmett, Karen, Mardia, Natasha, Tavi:

Thank you for sharing your introductions with me. There were points in each one of your pieces that I could relate to, either through similarities with my own experience, or in solidarity with your struggles. I noticed a common theme throughout all of your introductions: the desire and necessity to be your true self.

But what does it mean to be true to yourself when your ‘self’ is constructed through comparisons to dominant societal power structures? For example, what would be the implications of my ‘brownness’ in a world that did not normalize, prize, and reward whiteness? What would it mean to be queer in a world without heteronormativity? What would it mean to be a citizen in a world without nationality? Are the scopes of our identity limited by the hegemonic gaze, or can we exist autonomously despite these things?

I have been grappling with questions about whether I am/will ever able to create my own consciousness, independent of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (bell hooks). Can we exist without social comparison? Even my identification as a futurist centers the present.

I was not as brave as you in my introduction. I did not talk about the ways in which I am vulnerable or have been marginalized due to different facets of my identity. I am a Pakistani-born, transnationally raised (in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) third culture kid. I completed my undergraduate education at Wellesley College (not too far from you) in Psychology and Sociology, and graduated in 2013, where I was an international student and a ‘legal alien’. It was the first time I really considered what ‘feminism’ meant to me — beyond a very abstract notion of ‘shared sisterhood’. I learned to ally myself with post-colonial, globalized, Islamic feminisms — the essentialized concept of ‘gender’ took a back seat to other, more salient aspects of my identity.

After I graduated, I moved to Washington, DC and worked at a think-tank doing research on gender equity, human rights, and policy — with a particular focus on the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) region. I worked in DC for a year, writing and publishing policy briefs and attending panels on global issues of injustice, all the while not being paid adequately for my work, or given sponsorship by my employers — the irony was not lost on me. Despite being really good at my job and starting new initiatives, due to the fact that I was on a year-long extension to my F1 student visa (called OPT), I was not able to stay in the U.S. It was hard for me to leave, when it seemed like all the opportunities that I had worked so hard for over the previous 5 years were being so callously taken from me. (For those of you who are not international students, please do some reading about this! I also made a short documentary about international student struggles when I was at Wellesley.)

I moved to Canada as an immigrant two years ago, hoping to carry on the trajectory that I had started on. However, when I arrived, my previous work experiences and education basically meant nothing. I might as well have spent the previous 23 years of my life on Mars. It was painful and unfair, and the hypocritical rhetoric of Canada being ‘nice’ and welcoming to immigrants made it almost impossible for me to even voice the injustices that I was dealing with. I went from being told that I could do anything if I tried hard, that I could be anything if I got good grades and pushed myself, that I was capable and valuable and worthy — to being reduced to a statistic, a stereotype, stripped of opportunities. My lived experience felt like it didn’t fit with my identity — an identity I have worked so hard to build and come to terms with.

I am a Pakistani citizen, but I have never lived in Pakistan. I have always been acutely aware of my foreignness, the degree to which I am trespassing, and the ways in which my body/mind/consciousness are being exploited and tokenized. I have always lived in the margins, on the literal borders/las fronteras. Always constructing my identity/individuality in opposition to the dominant, navigating the contradictions of dual consciousness. Always having to decenter hegemony, to code-switch between cultures, countries, languages, politics, expectations. It’s tiring.

Pretty for a fat girl. Articulate for a brown woman. Progressive for a Muslim. “Oh wow your English is so good!” “You don’t even have an accent!” “You don’t even act foreign!” “Oh, but you’re not like the rest of them!” “Do you have a nickname? Saaaamaaaaaaa. That’s so hard!” (It’s pronounced Sum.Ah by the way. Really not hard at all. Coming up with little ‘tricks’ to help people. “It’s like Summer without an ‘r’.” — or just like Summer in a Massachusetts accent. Or, “can I get some-ah that?”)

Micro-aggressions that add up. Expectation of having to represent everyone who occupies ‘woman’ ‘brown’ ‘Pakistani’ ‘Muslim’ ‘millennial’ ‘first generation immigrant’. Ignorant comments that I am supposed to educate my oppressors on. Backhanded compliments I am expected to lap up with appreciation. Construct me as a submissive, Orientalist fantasy up until you realize that judging me against stereotypes is your own delusion; that I won’t play nice and be your native informant. Then I become: angry, stubborn, misandrist, ‘reverse racist’ (my personal favorite), just so…intense.

Self Portrait, Samaa Ahmed, 2016. I use my visual arts practice as a process of activism, or “artivism” as coined by Chela Sandoval, Guisela Latorre, and M. K. Asante.

So, why can’t I just be grateful that I am being ‘included’, tolerated, given a space to sit at the table by the liberal feminists? Because being physically present is not the same as being represented. Being visible is different from being respected or understood. Being invited to sit is different than having space to talk.

It’s the difference between policies of ‘colorblindness’ compared to the actual heavy lifting of anti-racist work. Colorblindness does not require white people to confront their privilege — it just helps them insulate themselves. That’s why talking about anti-racism makes people defensive, because it requires individuals who have never been able to think of themselves as anything but ‘normal’, ‘neutral’, standard, to see themselves with a label: white. For the first time in their lives, they too can be ‘other’, and they realize they implicated in perpetuating supremacy. While that is a powerful realization, I hate having to coddle people, and walk them through their discomfort.

Just because you are not woke and never realized you were white, and the truth of it is shocking to you, does not make it new for me. I didn’t get a choice or opportunity to ignore my ethnicity. No one held my hand and said: “Okay darling, are you ready? This is what it means to be racialized, gendered, foreign. People will be especially judgmental towards you post 9/11. Oh, I know you were only 10 years old when it happened, but it’ll define your opportunities for the rest of your life! Good luck, sweetie!”

As many of you have mentioned, being visible as ‘other’ is not always a good thing. It is an exercise of privilege to expect someone else to make themselves visible, to put themselves out there, whether demanding someone “out” themselves in order to be liberated or expecting marginalized groups to create societal/legislative/radical change. Who gets to be visible while maintaining their safety? Many of you referenced this specific quote by Lugones: “Disclosing our secrets threatens our survival”. I say let us shift towards a politics of “letting in” versus “coming out”. Not everyone is entitled to our stories, our emotional labour, or our bodies. We can choose who knows what and how much.

Politics of identity are complex, especially when our experiences and communities are so intersectional. We all possess some privilege, and it is a constant effort to make sure we do not oppress others in the process of empowering ourselves. Who do we erase or displace when we make space for ourselves?

There were lots of discussion about challenging heteronormativity in your introductions, which is so great, but let us not forget about the power of pink-washing and homonationalism. Let us not minimize or ignore interrogations of race, nationality, citizenship/documentation, ethnocentrism (the presumption of Westernness, Americanness, English-speaking-ness) when we talk about issues of social justice. Let us be cognizant of how corporations, politics, and socio-cultural movements can co-opt and/or appropriate the struggles of others to further their own agendas.

Who do we mean when we talk about ‘women’? Who do we exclude? Who do we think of when we talk about ‘queer rights’? Who do we exclude? When do we talk about ‘society’ do we only mean American or Western society? Do we assume everyone is a citizen, or that everyone has access to citizenship rights? When we think about ‘cultural practices’, do we ever interrogate our own? What do we legitimize as ‘theory’, who writes it, in what language, and where is it available? Who do we think of as ‘oppressed’, and who are we to ‘save’ them? Who do we think of as ‘subjects’, and who do we think of as ‘actors’?

For me, that is the hard part about feminism. What do you do now that you have become so aware of all of these things: these injustices, this vocabulary, this vast literature? How do we use our knowledge to empower ourselves without it becoming overwhelming? How much of the world’s problems can we take on as our burdens to shoulder?

Thank you for bringing up lots of important questions. I certainly do not have the answers, but I hope that we can continue to build coalitions and alliances, and complicate what it means to be a feminist.



Here are some readings/pieces that have been transformational to me: