Kalaashakti rerouted the exploitative objectives of institutions like colonialism, EuroAmerican control over land, resources, knowledge, and cultural identity, and heteropatriarchy the dominance of men and heterosexual norms, through meditative pauses and re-embodiment. These practices loosen the grip of colonial and heteropatriarchal messages and framings inscribed into our breath and bodies that tell us, as Muslim women and gender non-conforming people, that we are inviolable savages. Reconnecting to our breath and bodies in a safer, self-proclaimed way, while interrupting the torrent of oppressive usurpation of our mind and body, can allow us to establish a freeing relationship to vital aspects of ourselves long used for others’ gains.
Mediation asks participants to reflect on the current state of their emotions and body. It is a return to the sensory experiences of the body and encourages the body to speak and express its inherent intelligence. I believe that embodiment is even more relevant and necessary with survivors of trauma; Muslim women’s bodies were targeted in the 2002 Gujarat genocide in calculated and cruel ways. This assault on bodies has been an assault on the integrity of the entire Self, mind, body and spirit, with the aftermath of trauma being etched into violated bodies and psyches alike. When one incurs trauma it is literally inscribed into one’s cells, into one’s biological body, as asserted by the author and educator Carolyn Braddock. Since the Muslim woman’s body is the site for both egregious anti-Muslim attacks as well as healing, I combined meaning-making, art exercises with re-embodiment through writing reflections to ask how being attuned to one’s present senses can aid in releasing bodily inscriptions of trauma. Reconnecting to our breath and bodies in a safer, self-proclaimed way, while interrupting the torrent of oppressive usurpation of our mindbody, allowed us to establish a freeing relationship to vital aspects of ourselves long used for others’ gains.
Every Kalaashakti workshop session began with sitting meditation, often accompanied by pranayama (breathing exercises). We frequently took meditative moments when resurfacing stories caused overwhelming emotional responses. Through touch, holding hands or sitting back to back, there was an intention to re-establish connection, presence and grounding in the moment, with attention to the sensations and experience of the body.
As I brought in meditation as a ritual to begin each workshop, the women, without explanation, shared with me their own practices. The Muslim neighborhoods in which KS Gujarat was conducted were infused with consistent and unwavering calls to prayer, five times a day, every day. During the Azaan, there was a pause I was not familiar with, a pulling on of ornis in respect and a profound interruption of preoccupation and busyness of mind – a reconnection to stillness, spiritual meaning, and perspective. This was their meditative moment, one that I was now being invited to share with them as a daily and reliable ritual.
The sensory writing exercises that I also introduced in KS Gujarat were a way to enliven the senses and make meaning from the everyday traumas inscribed onto these women’s bodies. The short writing prompts asked women to reflect on pleasant and unpleasant sensory experiences, engaging the five senses in re-embodiment.
One field worker, Zeinab bhen, recalled a memory of touch: giving her elderly mother a bath. She described how that touch of bath water and wrinkly, worn flesh evoked tenderness, respect, and giving back. In this sensory reflection, she summons the significance of caretaking for elders and a demonstration of daring vulnerability by both elderly mother and adult daughter in confronting the cycles of change, growth, and life and death.
Hajjar bhen wrote about the curious sound of the airport loudspeaker when sending her mother off to Hajj, an epic and celebratory moment. Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is the pilgrimage to Mecca, the site where the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) built the Ka’aba, and is required only for those that are physically and financially able. With the low socioeconomic status of most of the women in the workshops, being able to afford the journey is not an easy feat, thus intensifying the momentous departure. This pilgrimage may be the only time they embark on a trip outside of India and perhaps their first and only trip to the airport. In her telling, Hajjar bhen describes the muffled static of the loudspeaker announcement as a modern beckoning to a reunion with an ancient land and structure. The field worker and her mother were crossing over into the territory of the elite, most of which, like me, can claim multiple homelands and fluidly maneuver between them. She would return from this momentary subversive act of mobility a Haji.
In KS Bay Area, our collective traumas were not so clearly delineated. One evening, one of the KS Bay Area participants sent me an article about khatnah with a suggestion our next workshop session explore its themes. I cried and shook reading about scars my body did not share, but that many female elders, whose homes and genes I did share, had. Reading the article brought a practice of misogynistic violence into my consciousness carried by swells of fresh air and light, and that circulation of knowledge where there had been ignorance brought with it fresh, intense pain. I decided we’d devote an entire workshop session to exploring the themes of bodily trauma, intergenerational scars, and reclaiming our bodies and sexuality. The point wasn’t to coax participants into disclosing they had been circumcised and lay out the grisly details of the injury, but to acknowledge that the self-knowing that is necessary for self-transformation is collective and that healing can happen and be supported by community.
During our gathering we discussed our resonances with the author’s testimony. As the author wondered whether her mother’s decision to perform her cutting was an autonomous decision or a betrayal and who to hold responsible if she found she couldn’t hate her, we talked about the perceived “weaknesses” we resented in our mothers and the fantasy feminist role models that they never became. As the author laid bare the internalized bullshit narrative that taught her to value herself only because men desired her, many of us, queer and straight and all along the spectrum, nodded that male attention was sadly formative in our shaky self-worth.
And then we shifted our focus from the wounds towards reclamation. We watched Muslim transgender doctor, activist and dancer, Maya Jafer, in the trailer of her film, Muhammad to Maya, and we sat with the art-making prompt: What is pleasure? What is sensuality? What kind of relationships do we want to our bodies? One participant painted an intermingling of the elements: the cleansing flow of water, encased in protective earth, and the fire of truth-telling and passion. We closed out our session syncing breath and heartbeats with hugging meditation. And, later, a few of us invigorated our senses in natural elements, taking a walk around Oakland’s Lake Merritt and visiting the sensory garden, submerging our noses and fingers in pungent mint and velvety lamb’s ear.
Compassion lies in the recognition of suffering, in an authentic care for it, and in a desire to alleviate it, in ourselves and in the world. Much of Kalaashakti’s work has been in cultivating compassion and valuing this cultivation as critical and life-saving. Cultivating compassion deeply, honestly, and from a place of intense vulnerability is a defiant act, not only to systems of colonial violence whose mission is to keep us separated from our humanity and the humanity of others, but also to capitalist systems which rely on our fragmentation, our estrangement from our spirituality, in order for productivity and profits to win out. Capitalist systems have forced the most marginalized to prove their worth and receive rewards and just livelihood based only on the soundness of that proof. In capitalism we are disposable as soon as we are not useful. We are not seen as innately divine beings of light no matter if and how we are contributing to “progress.” What would it mean to look at and listen to our wounds and let them be our greatest teachers? In Kalaashakti, we intentionally sought to increase our compassion bandwidth, rejoicing in the mud of the process, not as a means to exploitative ends.
During our first KS Gujarat gathering, after introducing myself and the nature of the workshops to elicit storytelling and provide material for my dissertation, I asked the women what their relationship was to writing and what they hoped to gain from the workshops. I then led them in the first activity: life maps.
I asked them to map out, visually, the most significant moments in their life so far. Bilkis bhen, the one illiterate participant, drew her self-portrait as floating and free-standing in the middle of the page. She said that even though she had all sons, she was the only one she could rely on and that is how it’s been her entire life. She told us she got pulled out of school early, learned carpentry and even how to drive a rickshaw (she was the first woman I had met in India that possessed that skill).
Upon hearing Bilkis bhen’s story, Fatu bhen shared hers with tears in her eyes – she too had her education cut short with the rationale of marrying her off young. Although she was able to dodge an early marriage and appeal to her sister in law for support, she never returned to school.
Maria bhen’s life map showed her tangled up in court proceedings – her husband had married another woman without her consent and, though her brother had been the one who forced her to drop out of school and marry early, he was now supporting her fight in court for maintenance costs for her and her daughters.
During this first meeting, I realized how significant it was that these seven women could attend every Thursday and participate in Sahiyar altogether, considering a common consequence of the anti-Muslim communal violence and the sexual violence many of the community had fearfully witnessed was withdrawing Muslim women and girls from public spaces. I also witnessed the life-affirming connections compassion can compel us towards and how this shared grieving of opportunities lost was key to letting go and healing. We were co-creating a radically different public space where their entire selves were welcome to be seen fully and as intrinsically deserving of rights, wellness, knowledge, safety, and care.
In another spontaneously and subversively created public space, a half a world and a couple years away in a borrowed apartment in Oakland, the four KS Bay Area attendees of our first session sat across from each other, in pairs, engrossed in an emotional mirroring exercise. Emotional mirroring required we put aside our judgments, advice and interjections and listen actively and without interruption; it also required that we tell the story back to our partner in first person, as if we were the ones who lived it. The exercise elicited compassion and resonance for our partner that trickled down to ourselves; it provided a container for witnessing that allowed us to show up with our scariest vulnerabilities. In the art prompt that followed, “My struggle….my liberation,” my compassion bandwidth was once again stretched to ever-widening capacity listening to the process behind my partner’s drawing.
Amina held up two versions of herself; one in which she carried a massive earth suspended over her head and the other in which her body’s frame was filled with patches of green and blue, land and sea. She shared that her liberation is in integrating the planet within her existence and in recognizing and valuing her interconnectedness with all things. In this vulnerable admission I saw all my struggles reflected: my tendency to be weighed down by the injustice in the world. With my hand to my chest, the care I felt for her and her suffering, extended to me and my own. And this act of caring for what mainstream systems of oppression like capitalism have dismissed as unworthy, was a radical expression, a radical recognition that our entire selves are welcome and deserving of love.