Creating Kalaashakti, a series of workshops centered on spiritual activism and healing, was a personal labor of love. The spiritual activism of these workshops was an experiment in a different kind of anti-violence, one that increased our inner fortitude to be with suffering and know it intimately, and open ourselves to healing in community — all the while reclaiming a public space of our very own.
I planted the seeds of Kalaashakti in two places. First in communal Gujarat, in the “post” conflict of the brutal, anti-Muslim genocide of 2002 which left thousands of Muslims killed and hundreds of Muslim women sexually violated. Second in California’s Bay Area, where law enforcement and FBI surveillance incessantly police Muslim public spaces and Syrian refugees fleeing violence are met with xenophobic U.S. governors and despicably low admission quotas.
“Kalaashakti” means art + the feminine principle of creation. It was meant to shift focus away from masculine modes of dismantling unjust external institutions and shift towards the self-transformative tools that can aid us in imagining a more just future. Spiritual activist practices are intrinsically anti-heteropatriarchal, anticolonial, and anticapitalist. They allow us to reclaim our knowledge, power and personhood through self-inquiry. The healing arts, alongside meditation, movement and mindfulness formed the ground of Kalaashakti, strengthening our ability to be with and know suffering more fully. With that new-found knowledge, we could arrive at knowing interconnection and compassion too.
Poetry became a way for me to survive, to exist even after being beaten down by present misogynists and pulled at by battered ancestors of the past.
Kalaashakti was forged by my internal and innate need to heal and be seen as whole. It originated from a deep commitment to know myself through others and increase intimacy and vulnerability. Ironically, it was the disavowal of my own Muslim identity that eventually led me to spiritual activism, and it was silencing and internalized shame that lead to my poetry and art activism.
I grew up in white, conservative Ohio, as a child of Indian immigrants, and as a grandchild of poor, traveling imams. My dad was a disabled painter, my mom a full-time caretaker. I grew up in a Bohra Muslim community with corrupt, patriarchal religious leaders who thwarted free thought and pushed a narrow vision of Islam. They saw themselves as the gatekeepers of the community and made us outcasts when my brother married a Catholic woman. When I contested their refusal to perform the marriage using scriptural evidence, they demanded I never read an English translation of the Quran again.
I again experienced first-hand the effects of intergenerational trauma when, as a young child, my own experience of sexual assault resurfaced and my mother told me not to tell anyone, prosecute or seek justice, because telling my story publicly would bring more shame and stigma to the family. Silence compounded upon silence. Poetry became a way for me to survive, to exist even after being beaten down by present misogynists and pulled at by battered ancestors of the past.
The violence I suffered in my home and at my masjid caused me to renegotiate my voice and identity. I refused Islam as a religious institution. As I entered my freshman year of college right after 9/11, I acknowledged it only to combat Islamophobic ideology and hate. I sought my own interpretations instead and majored in Arabic.
Eventually, I moved to Syria, the first majority-Muslim country I had ever lived in. My studies in Syria lead to an investigation of legacies of French colonial violence and its role in perpetuating honor killings through colonial law. They also led me to transnational feminism. Afterwards, I moved to Los Angeles for a PhD in Gender Studies. My scholarly inclinations were to understand structural and systemic violence against women, and as my scholarship met practice, I became rooted in local community struggles against gender violence and for immigrant rights. All the while, I longed for a Muslim community that had inclusive visions of Islam and infused their spirituality with calls for social justice.
In 2010, I decided to reconnect with my homeland of India and the history of anti-Muslim violence in my home state of Gujarat. I recognized the reach of U.S. empire and ideology and how intimately Islamophobia in the U.S. was connected to communal violence against Muslims in India. At that point in my intellectual and activist trajectory, I only knew certain strategies for anti-violence — to lie down in the middle of the street and block buses from deporting and prisons from detaining, or read and write about horrific accounts of gendered violence and the systems that perpetuated them. Because my family was unable to afford frequent trips during my childhood, I had been separated from India for 15 years. When I sought to fund my own trip in 2011, I received a research grant through my privileged access to institutional resources. I made the journey because I wanted to meet my family and step out of estrangement.
In fact, I made the journey for many reasons — because I had studied violence directed at Muslim women in many Middle Eastern contexts but never within my own home state. Because of the silence from my Gujarati, Muslim family. Because of the stories I never heard. Because I had extensively studied Islamophobia and Gujarat, India was yet another important site that was inextricably bound to anti-Muslim violence in the U.S. And because of my desire to find a home in Islam and in a whole, dignified self.
Foreigners would come and keep asking about 2002, keep picking scabs, and survivors didn’t want to talk about it again….[sometimes] after having to talk about it again they stay in a trance for a week.
Despite my good intentions to connect and recover knowledge about myself, power dynamics and my Western educational privilege meant that fissures and follies were inescapable. One week after arriving in the pre-monsoon heat of Ahmedabad in 2011, I realized a distance in experience with Muslim women survivors of 2002 that I could not bridge. So, I fell, regretfully, in line with consumptive practices of colonial research that merely extracted stories from “natives.”
For example, I wrote in my field notes:
After leaving Gandhi Hall and a meeting with Muslim women working on “children’s education post-riots,” we arrive in the Muslim quarter and in the thick crowd of topies and ornis, Rihanna bhen, with dark kohl outlining her bright, intense eyes spots us and leads us to the Saath office. She motions for us to take a seat and wait, straightens her pant cuffs and, draining a metal cup into her throat, looks to a group of gathered women: Han, Bol (Yes, speak). I watch her dust off a calculator with the edge of her khemis, dirt settling and unsettling quickly here. She designates a group leader and they arrive at a sufficient loan for this month and its layered on top of the small and large tragedies of the last few years. While signing a stack of requests, Rihanna bhen glances up long enough to tell me she’s taking me to Anjum colony, one of the buildings where displaced Muslims were relocated after the 2002 riots. I know I’m not ready but have no idea what preparation means. I brace myself and say, “It’s a way to begin.”
Rihanna bhen assumed I was just another foreign riot-tourist, wanting to see the afflicted colonies and be regaled with tales of tragedy and escape. As Rita bhen, a counselor from the feminist, Baroda-based NGO, Sahiyar said, “Foreigners would come and keep asking about 2002, keep picking scabs, and survivors didn’t want to talk about it again….[sometimes] after having to talk about it again they stay in a trance for a week.” I did want to hear stories about the communal violence but not through haphazard gatherings with women randomly assembled in the relief colonies to perform for Western researchers. As I awkwardly stumbled through my first group interview, which was with 8-10 women gathered on an open balcony with men leaning in from doorways and my dad sitting next to me to help translate, the responses to my questions about gendered violence and its effects were brief and vapid.
I felt reckless in my approach. Even if there were no truly safe spaces, this was not the mode and environment in which I wanted to engage with these women. I realized that neither would this approach be an effective method to gather information nor would it allow for the compassion and ethics I held as core values in my research. Kalaashakti was stirring and asking to be manifested in its place.
When I first met the organizers of Sahiyar, almost a half-year later, I felt I had found my political home. In the midst of organizations fighting for reparations through an unjust and bureaucratically exhausting legal system, Sahiyar stood out with their community street theater performances, communal harmony trainings in schools, and rare offerings of family counseling. When I proposed Kalaashakti to Sahiyar’s co-founder and executive director, Trupti Shah, she trusted the value of the storytelling-centered approach and invited me to lead weekly sessions with the Muslim women fieldworkers that would replace their mandatory trainings.
In conceiving of my methodology and curriculum for the Kalaashakti workshops, I drew from and built upon theorists, thinkers and creatives such as Gloria Anzaldua, Lata Mani, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Mary Watkins, and Helene Shulman. I defined Spirit and spirituality as a trust in mysterious sources, in otherness that is oneness, and an inextricable link to something beyond and above and often unseen. A return to Spirit, then, could alleviate the symptoms and loss of isolated suffering and, instead, reintegrate, rehumanize, reinsert compassion and empathy, and bring us closer to the wounds of others as reflections of our own.
The potential to bond with the narrators of the stories I witnessed in a shared struggle was an alluring and romanticized desire for connection.
The liberatory arts are a natural vehicle for that intimacy with injury, cultivation of compassion, and safe approach towards re-embodiment. I discovered that this holistic approach to gathering stories of trauma and healing, in order to elicit and affirm multiple intelligences and ways of knowing, is absolutely crucial to understand and transform the trauma in Muslim women and gender non-conforming people’s experiences. As Elaine Scarry declares about the healing arts in The Body in Pain, “…physical pain destroys meaning, since pain has no object: it is not ‘of’ or ‘for’ or ‘about’ anything. Therefore… the opposite of pain must be creativity. Every human act of ‘making’ is a movement away from pain. The antidote to pain is imagination: our ability to make meaning.”
And, even as Kalaashakti Gujarat blossomed as a healing arts workshop space, and as an alternative to traditional ethnographic interviews, I was challenged to differentiate between the life experiences of the participants and my own. Although I resonated with their accounts of violence and connected it to patterns of anti-Muslim violence in the diaspora, our conditions of threat and survival were different. Even as I was pulled towards multiple homelands, I didn’t live under the anti-Muslim laws, policies and threats of the Gujarati political and justice system. The potential to bond with the narrators of the stories I witnessed in a shared struggle was an alluring and romanticized desire for connection. In reality, I could not fully imagine the stakes for these women in their struggles for healing, as the contexts, extent, and continuance of our wounds differed greatly. My temporary presence was too ephemeral for engaged solidarity.
Upon returning to California after my second fieldwork trip to India in two years, having completed my fifth workshop series — my heart broken by a perpetual leaving — I asked myself why I chose the shifting grounds and locations of transnational activism. And I asked, if I made a similar call here would others like me, separate and seeking, answer? Perhaps that’s why my collaborator, Zuha Khan, and I established a Kalaashakti Bay Area chapter in 2013 for Muslim women and gender non-conforming people.
I was again driven by longing to belong as well as by a responsibility to be rooted in the local. I traveled to the Bay by bus or train almost every month for half a year, this time with no intention to collect, document, transcribe. Instead, I was met with co-hosts and co-facilitators that offered food and guidance. I was open to an unfolding process, one without objectives, that instead listened for organically emerging topics. Our collective experience was less easy to pinpoint, both in terms of shared trauma and in terms of ancestral lineage and geographic paths of migration and resettlement. Being a Muslim diaspora in the West meant we were scattered and that our traumas had no unified epicenter, making our hybrid identities both a challenge and magnetism in our coming together.