Wednesday, November 22

Feminist Aunties

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Where did you find feminism? From whom did you find feminism? My project in Living a Feminist Life was to tell my feminist story: the story of how I became a feminist; what I have learned from being a feminist. To tell a story can be to find things out; what comes up along the way can teach us about that way.

A story starts before it can be told. When did feminism become a word that spoke not just to you, but spoke you, spoke of your existence, spoke you into existence? When did the sound of the word feminism become your sound? What did it mean, what does it mean, to hold onto feminism, to fight under its name; to feel in its ups and downs, in its coming and goings, your ups and downs, your comings and goings? When I think of my feminist life in this book I ask “from where?” but also “from whom?”

From whom did I find feminism?

I will always remember a conversation I had as a young woman in the late 1980s. It was a conversation with my auntie Gulzar Bano. I think of her as my one of first feminist teachers. I had given her some of my poems. In one of them I had used “he.” Why do you use “he” she asked me gently, when you could have used “she.” The question posed with such warmth and kindness prompted much heartache, much sadness in the realisation that the words as well as worlds I had thought of as open to me were not open at all. “He” does not include “she.” The lesson becomes an instruction. To make an impression I had to dislodge that “he.” To become “she” is to become part of a feminist movement. A feminist becomes “she” even if she has already been assigned “she,” when she hears in that word a refusal of “he,” a refusal that “he” would promise her inclusion. She takes up that word and makes it her own.

I began to realise what I already knew: that patriarchal reasoning goes all the way down; to the letter; to the bone. I had to find ways not to reproduce its grammar in what I said, in what I wrote; in what I did, in who I was. It is important that I learnt this feminist lesson from my Auntie in Lahore, Pakistan, a Muslim woman, a Muslim feminist, a brown feminist. It might be assumed that feminism travels from the West to East. It might be assumed that feminism is what the West gives to the East. That assumption is a travelling assumption, one that tells a feminist story in a certain way, a story that is much repeated; a history of how feminism acquired utility as an imperial gift. That is not my story. We need to tell other feminist stories. Feminism travelled to me, growing up in the West, from the East. My Pakistani Aunties taught me that my mind is my own (which is to say: that my mind is not owned); they taught me to speak up for myself; to speak out against violence and injustice.

My first book, Differences that Matter (1998) was dedicated to my aunt, Gulzar. She told me she was touched by that dedication and that warms me. And in Queer Phenomenology (2006) I wrote about her in to the body of the text. She appeared first very briefly in a description of growing up in a mixed home, a home shaped by more than one heritage; a home that is meeting space between cultures that might ordinarily be kept apart:

The contours of mixed-race spaces are not so smooth in the face of how things arrive. Already there are arrivals that are unexpected, creating rough edges in the contours of this world. Its like you can see the creases, which then means that the cover fails to cover, fails in the act of providing a covering. So objects and bodies disturb this picture, creating disorientation in how things are arranged. Comments made about “our complexion;” letters that described unknown cousins whose names became familiar; visits to Pakistan that open up new worlds, new tastes, and sounds and sensations on the skin; the excitement of the arrival of my Aunt from Islamabad, who they said I was so “alike;” all these experiences of being at home and away were lived, at least sometimes, as wrinkles in the whiteness of the objects that gathered. They gathered, but did not always gather us around. It is not that the disturbances meant that things no longer had their place; it is just that the objects did not stay still, as they came into contact with other objects, whose “color” created different impressions. Color wasn’t just something added, like a tan adorning a white skin, as it redirected my attention to the skin, to how the surfaces of bodies as well as objects are shaped by histories of contact.

In this description is an indicator of something: kinship as a promise of likeness between myself and my Auntie. We might think of this kinship as feminist kinship. Later (as I will come to later) I have thought of this kinship as feminist snap.

I spoke more in this text about my Aunt:

Mixed orientations might cross the line not so much by virtue of what we receive (the proximate objects that are given to us as if they were different sides of our inheritance), but in how we receive the histories that are behind our arrival. It is no accident that when I left home, I felt that this other side of my history became more available to me. I reinhabited the world by going to Pakistan, after I left home. This time in Pakistan reoriented me, allowing me to embrace Pakistan as part of my own genealogy, giving me a feeling of having more than one side to draw from, or even more than one family history behind me. In my own story, this connection to my Pakistani side was mediated through my connection with my eldest Aunt, who did not marry, and who was deeply involved in women’s activism. When we get redirected, we often have people behind us, those who offer us life lines, without expectation of return, helping to pull us into another world.

A feminist auntie as a life line.

Writing my feminist story has allowed me to register how much it mattered to me to have feminist aunties. In Living a Feminist Life, I have brought my Auntie into the story because she was already there. I write in my chapter,”Feminist Snap,” echoing my words from before:

Snap can be a genealogy, unfolding as an alternative family line, or a feminist inheritance. I often think of snap as what I have inherited from my Pakistani aunties. My sister talks of her daughter as having Ahmed genes, and I know exactly what she means; she means she is another point on a line of snappy women. She means: like me, like you, like our Auntie’s, this girl has snap. This girl has snap: maybe she too is a survival story. I think of my own family and the work that had to be done to keep things together, the work that women often did, to hold on when things are breaking up. We might, reflecting back to my discussion in the previous chapter, be haunting by those breaks, even those that we did not live through ourselves. In my family’s case, I think of Partition, how a country was broken up in the after-life of colonialism; how borders became open wounds; how an infection can spread. Family stories were passed down about the trauma of Partition; a Muslim family leaving their home, fleeing to Lahore, a long hard train journey, arriving, creating a new home from what had been left behind by those who, too, had fled.

We might inherit a break because it was survived. A survival can be how we are haunted by a break. When I think of this history of breaking, I think especially of my relationship to my eldest auntie Gulzar Bano. I mentioned in the introduction to this book how my own feminism was shaped by our many conversations. My auntie — who was most definitely snappy — did not marry. The family explanation is that this not marrying was because of Partition. A national break can be interwoven with a life story. Gulzar was deeply involved in women’s activism as well as campaigns for women’s literacy and education in Pakistan. She was a poet, too. Her words were sharp like weapons. When our lives don’t follow the lines provides by convention, we still have people behind us, those who offer us life lines, without expectation of return. Becoming close to my Aunt, with her passion for feminism and for what she calls in our family biography “WOMAN POWER” helped me to find a different political orientation, a different way of thinking about my place in the world. In a conventional genealogy, the woman who does not have a child of her own would be an end point.

Snap, snap: the end of the line.

In a feminist genealogy, life unfolds from such points.

Snap, snap: begin again.

Begin again: it is a promise, a hope.

I hope that I too can be a feminist auntie: at home, or an academic auntie at work.

To be a feminist auntie or an academic auntie is to offer alternatives by how you live and in what you do. To be a feminist auntie or an academic auntie is to work to enable others to speak out and speak against the violence; those that are enacted by individuals, those that are reproduced by institutions that are hostile to those who challenge that violence.

Feminist aunties can be an alternative support system. We need to create our own support systems. The costs of fighting against institutional violence are high.

Last year my Auntie Gulzar died. I feel her presence in her absence; I feel her energy in my hands as they touch the key board. I wrote a poem. I am not a poet. I wrote her a poem when she died because she is a poet.

A poem can be a hand. A poem can weep, too. A poem can be for you.

“The Words of an Aunt”

A poem for Gulzar Bano

By her loving niece Sara Ahmed
The words of an aunt
Can breathe life
Rummaging away
In the uncertain thoughts
The confused picture
A mind trying to grasp
That which retreats
Until you see things again
Clear and crisp
You asked me once
I don’t know if you remember
You had read one of my poems
The poems of a young girl
Casting words out too quickly
Because she had been taught
What not to attend to
“Sara” you asked me
“Why do you use he?”
“When you could use she?”
And I heard in your gentle question
The word anew
The world anew
He is not she
Nor we
She is she
We too
And I learnt
How to use words again
To register my presence
To sharpen with precision
As a girl, as a woman
To announce
Here I am, here she is
Here we are
Through a word
A world
Through a word
You were my first feminist teacher
Who taught me words could be weapons
How we could crafts worlds
Through words
How we could register violence
In what we send out
In what we do not send out
Your warmth, your wisdom
Was like a promise made
A life that could be lived
By what we refuse
What we seize
You taught me that feminism is a spark
We can be lit up by it
How we claim our minds
As our own
How we reach each other
So that even if we stray
We are not alone
Even though you have left
You are guiding me
The words of an aunt
Shimmering with life
Are a path
A way of following
Without being led
Challenging, finding, holding
A memory preserved
Can be a leaky container
Spilling all over you
The words of an Aunt
How I pick myself up again
How I make my way through

This post originally appeared in Feminist Killjoys.

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