Why young British Bangladeshis should also care about Bangladesh’s 2018 General Election

By Fariha Munim.

Growing up, Bangladeshi politics was a constant discussion point in our household as they were in many Bangladeshi homes throughout Britain. Two women, each adorned with simple or elegant saris, looking like they would drop dead any moment had fascinated the minds of uncles, aunts, fathers, and mothers over tea and biscuits in the evening for over 20 years.

What a wonderful blend of British and Bangladeshi.

(Yet, don’t let their dress detract you from the impressive fact that politics in a largely patriarchal society was dominated by not one, but two females from opposing sides in their bid to lead one of the world’s largest ‘democracies’ by population.)

As a History graduate today, I can’t say that I was never interested in those political debates waged at home, because I always was. However, I grew severely pessimistic about what was going on in Bangladesh as I got older. Politically, the country seemed like a lost cause and I was simply content to go on and spend holidays in luxury there over the summer like I had done since I was a child. Politics was and still seems like a lost cause in Bangladesh. The causes to exactly why, are still up for debate. Did I grow apathetic? Yes. Was I happy about my apathy? No.

From an outsider lens, Bangladeshi politics is close, and also so distant from me. This is a take into why, someone who can not even vote in Bangladesh still takes an interest into Bangladeshi politics in 2018 and a message to why younger British Bangladeshis should also be aware of the situation.

Today, millions have tried to vote in Bangladesh’s 2018 General Election. Bangladesh is the 8th most populous country in the world with over 170 million people inside its borders. This is the first time in its history that the same party could be “re-elected” into power. However, as part of election practice almost in Bangladesh, fair elections are not being waged.

Today, on the 30th December 2018, ballots have been stuffed with fake votes in the port of Chittagong minutes before the election opened to the general public.

People have been coerced to vote in ways that do not meet the standards of democratic voting behavior. The link attached here in translated English talks about how a young woman was followed inside a voting booth, is coerced to vote for the ruling Awami League which is defined by a symbol known as a ‘nouka’ (boat). The follower eventually moves aside but can see what party the woman voted for, and publicly then proceeds to tell her in front of other public voters that she did not do the right thing by voting for another party. This is a micro-aggression that has happened in bouts up and down the country. Yet, the effects of such undermining only serve to create a sense of oppression.

Communications inside the country surrounding election related covering have been banned until after the vote in the hopes to stop the spread of ‘fake news’.

Many views from British Bangladeshis are that Bangladesh works on a system of corruption that is suited to Bangladesh. Yet, for the educated middle and upper classes, this is becoming increasingly challenged as a way of governance. In Bangladesh, these are the groups that have traditionally led the way for active change in the past and have been shunned for it. Shunning these groups was used as a colonial tactic by Pakistani military authorities during the 1971 War of independence where student groups, doctors, professors, teachers and journalists were murdered on the grounds of Dhaka University.

People are not settling for anything less than democracy as a result of being educated more and more on the values of democracy preached in Bangladesh’s constitution and held up in the curriculum as a reference point of good governance.

The least I can do, from my privileged position as someone who can sit in the comfort of her own home without fear of prosecution or arrest, is to speak freely about the situation of a country so many people my age want to see change for.

1/3 of Bangladesh’s population is of between 18–35, with 18 being the voting age. Bangladesh has achieved a youth literacy rate for the ages of 15–25 of just over 87% which means that the language of democracy is well within bounds to be understood. This is a major reason as to why we are seeing such outrage as democratic expectations are not being held yet believed by so many as an achievable end Bangladesh can achieve.

People are being arrested for what they post online. Freedom of speech has been tampered with on severe scales. People are being coerced mentally to vote in specific ways. The violence on streets has not been explored here, because this is a common occurrence in Bangladesh but should really take us all with shock like if it happened in Britain. Younger Bangladeshis want change, and as an ally, the least we can do is support them achieve their goals.

Had I been born and raised in Bangladesh, I would not be writing this with such boldness that I am now. This right to speak freely should never be seen as a privilege but as a right. People are being denied this, despite believing in its inherent worth — they are wanting the world to see, so the least I can do?

Give Bangladesh the attention that I have the voice to give. So can you.

Racism in Britain? That’s not breaking news

By Rahma Hussein

A week ago, an article published by the Guardian showcased a new study into the widespread extent of racism in Britain today. The findings of the study are hardly surprising, and certainly does not reveal anything that we did not know already. People of colour have always been raising issues about racism and its huge prevalence, but what is the most common response that we receive? “Racism doesn’t exist anymore!”, “You can’t always speak about race”, “I love all kinds of people, both black and white”, “I am colour-blind, I don’t see colour!”

These responses are incredibly problematic to say the least – mostly for the reason that it completely refuses to acknowledge the existence of racism. Racism is now apparently a thing of ‘the past’, and there is no way that people are discriminated against due to the colour of their skin in the twenty-first century. Lived experiences of non-white people are completely erased to make perpetrators feel comfortable and to  avoid responsibility to a problem they are the prime contributors of.

According to the report,

43% of those from a minority ethnic background had been overlooked for a work promotion in a way that felt unfair in the last five years – more than twice the proportion of white people (18%) who reported the same experience.

You can read the article here.

38% of people from ethnic minorities said they had been wrongly suspected of shoplifting in the last five years, compared with 14% of white people, with black people and women in particular more likely to be wrongly suspected.

Publishing statistics on a well known problem does not in any way make this an “exclusive” discovery. We all know that racism exists in British society in all corners of life – from work, education, communities and even within families. This has always existed. Much more perplexing is the level of intellectual dishonesty surrounding discourses regarding racism – attempts at erasing British colonial histories, immigration policies and attitudes which are undoubtedly racist. Measures such as “stop and search” taken by those in significant positions of authority, such as the Metropolitan Police, which disproportionately targets Black men more than any other demographic, do so under the guise of ensuring “safer streets”. We all know this is racist. Another example of racism practiced under the guise of “safety” and “counter-extremist” within both society and academic spaces is the government sanctioned PREVENT strategy – disproportionately targeting Muslim students who deemed too opinionated or outspoken, therefore dangerous and threatening, even possibly hinting at possibilities of becoming ‘influenced’ by extremist tendencies. But hey – it’s totally ok to invite fascists onto campus because free speech and we should encourage healthy debate at whatever costs, even if it compromises the safety and wellbeing of minority and marginalised students (KCL, I’m looking at you here).   

I. am. so. done. with this ridiculous double-standard. Next time we speak about racism, don’t dismiss us. Don’t tell us that we are sensitive, and shouldn’t ‘see’ things in the context of race. Don’t tell us to stop playing the ‘race card’. Racism is alive and kicking – and it is about time that your pride (yes, you non-poc folks) is placed aside and create meaningful solutions to problems which has characterised British society throughout its history.


Cover photo credits: Washington Post photo illustrations/ UPI photo

Making History – but what now?

By Team I RISE.

The midterms had one clear defined success and that was female representation, with a record number of women winning seats in the House. We also saw the election of the first two Muslim congresswomen, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and the first two Native American women in Congress, Sharice Davids for Kansas and Debra Haaland for New Mexico. These were only a few of the women who made US history.

This change led to the monumental achievement in the midterms, more than thirty five women of colour are now the faces of change in U.S. politics.This defining moment did not take place in a vacuum, it was through a long periodof raising awareness of these women – of their goals, aspirations and promises of how to bring about a greater change. Social media such as Instagram allows voters to follow these candidates, to almost go on a journey with them as these candidates regularly posted their day-to-day activities in the run up to the midterm elections. To be able to have a closer and somewhat personal look into the lives of these candidates is empowering as it allows voters to feel more confident in their choices of who to vote. Social media has yet again, shown its potential and power to influence the outcomes in the political and social sphere.

This means that knowledge of the wider world and connecting with people of different faiths and backgrounds has become easily accessible. This power of the social media phenomenon has played a crucial role in the awareness of these women of colour. As a woman of colour, myself, I did not know or find out about these women through conventional forms of news, rather it was through social media. Apps such as Instagram have provided a platform where voices of people of colour can be heard loud and clear and such platforms allow a community of like-minded people to come together to make a change.

However, along with the celebrations and excitement of this surge in female representatives in official positions, there also came pessimism and questions regarding how entirely revolutionary and immense is such a change in US politics? Can these women really turn around and alter America’s long history of institutionalised sexism and perhaps also racism? It is a common historical trend that progressive politicians (especially Democrats) are passionate and mindful when it comes to positively changing domestic issues within their own states yet the same cannot be said when it comes to foreign affairs. The same politicians very rarely embrace anti-imperialist positions. But then again, can we really expect those who entrench themselves within US politics to really hold these views when the foundation of America is based on imperialist ambitions and the only way the US knows how to maintain its global hegemonic power is through violent, foreign intervention.

It’s wonderful to finally see some melanin in official positions especially when they belong to women. However, it is crucial that, considering the history of democratic reformists,we do not instantly assume that this will bring about radical change. The very racist institutions of US governance remain intact and, until these are altered, very little radical change will come to materialise. We can just hope that these women embrace progressive politics nationally and internationally and play integral roles in putting pressure on changing some of the institutional problems that US is based upon.

Why Decolonise? Are white, male thinkers no longer important?

By Thahmina Begum.

What a bore, right? Just another self-righteous, brown student demanding special treatment and is on a mission to eradicate whiteness and though she complains about the corrupt, greedy West, she still chooses to live here. This is obviously (partly) incorrect. Those who interpret ‘decolonise’ as synonymous with erasing white people or, in the context of academia, removing the work produced by upper-class, white men, are clearly part of the bigger problem. This issue of ‘decolonising’ syllabuses has gained more prominence and backlash in recent years but one of my first interactions with it was this particular article. Gopal, so eloquently, put my thoughts into words when she speaks out about not only the lack of diversity in the types of thinkers that university curriculums consist of but also this assumption that Western-born knowledge is universal and the centre of all valuable wisdom.

“Decolonising the curriculum is, first of all, the acceptance that education, literary or otherwise, needs to enable self-understanding. This is particularly important to people not used to seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of conventional learning – whether women, gay people, disabled people, the working classes or ethnic minorities.

Gopal goes on to say:

“Knowledge and culture is collectively produced and these groups, which intersect in different ways, have as much right as elite white men to understand what their own role has been in forging artistic and intellectual achievements.” 

Now, some claim that incorporating more thinkers of colour, to ‘diversify’ the syllabus, will decolonise university modules. But I don’t think this is enough to develop a broader and in-depth analysis of the complex structures and intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class and ability in literature and political thought. An educational experience goes beyond just the module outline and encompasses the values and knowledge learned and deconstructed and play a crucial role in validating social and political institutions. Therefore, this is about more than just adding one or two writers of colour into a lecture; more importantly, this is about moving beyond the Western canon, particularly in political thought.

In other words, if you teach a curriculum and it consists of only the work of white males, this would undoubtedly perpetuate the incorrect idea that knowledge is inherently Western. This further exacerbates the false claim that Western values and its philosophies are applicable worldwide and gives the impression that there is a general identity or history that we all share. This neglects and undervalues strands of literacy that are produced in other parts of the world and, as a result, post-colonial thinkers are overlooked or seen more as a counter-argument to mainstream literary work, rather than part of the main argument itself. This division in whose contribution is valued is unsurprising since throughout intellectual work, historians in the global South have continuously needed to refer to events and publications on European history for validation whereas European historians produce their work in obliviousness of non-Western history without having the quality of their work questioned.

The absence of thinkers of colour is too often considered a norm and left unchallenged and by continuing to teach academic literature in this way, we are maintaining this Eurocentric framework which is not only limiting but is also an inaccurate way to learn history. This Western canon, for instance, teaches political theory in a way that ignores the importance of race in determining your socio-economic position and therefore such theories exclude the experiences of BME people. In his book Racial Contract (1997), Charles Mills criticises the ‘social contract’ that is created in European societies, arguing that it is intrinsically racist since it validates and encourages white dominance over so-called subordinate populations. He insists:

[The social contract] “is always differential privileging of the whites as a group with respect to the non-whites, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources and the denial of equal socio-economic opportunities for them” and “all whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, not a contract in which non-whites can be a consenting party.”

Such raceless notions that are ruling political theory and works of literature will first need to be acknowledged and critiqued to expose the real character of our world and the corresponding historical deficiencies of its normative theories and practices. For instance, one example of this Eurocentric, raceless model of political thought is evident in the work of Edmund Burke. Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) puts forward his stance against the abstract liberal ideas of human rights and natural equality that the French Revolution was established upon. He believed any attempt to build a new society based on such non-concrete concepts is harmful since society itself was a complex structure that had been sewed together by ancestral traditions. This belief in preserving traditions to support the fragile nature of society and his view of politics as an empirical science, based on past wisdom and experiences, meant that Burke was critical of revolution and believed it must always be the last resource of thinking. My intention behind mentioning his view on revolution is to portray how Burke’s position is one of privilege as a beneficiary in the status quo and therefore he can afford to sustain the very traditions and structures of society that placed him at an advantageous position. Truthfully, while Burke may have supported the rights of a ‘legitimate’ rebellion, he upheld the authority of Empire and cherished the rights of British imperial sovereignty.

I compare Burke’s conservatism with Frantz Fanon’s argument for revolution and the need of violence to overthrow the exploitative nature and psychological inferiority of the colonies, to exemplify how traditional disciplines within political thought and philosophies of European Enlightenment were inherently ignorant towards understanding the societies of the colonised nations. It was common for European colonisers to sermonise this enlightenment humanism to the colonised, while simultaneously denying this in practice. For thinkers like Fanon, complacency in existing conditions was not an option. His book The Wretched of the Earth (1961) is a summation of his experiences of colonialism and provides a synopsis as to how race is a primary axis of oppression and inequality and is linked to other intersections such as class. Fanon even critiqued Marx and Engels’s trajectories of capitalism and revolution as focusing largely on class and as inconsiderate of race:

“Looking at the immediacies of the colonial context, it is clear that what divides this world is first and foremost what species, what race one belongs to. In the colonies, the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”

To redefine the scope of political theory yonder the occidental, many comparative political theorists argue, and I agree, that this necessitates a reflection upon the status and meaning of political life as not restrained to a geographical setting but in a global arena.

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Image credits

Though academic curriculums traditionally consist of white male scholars, when feminist theory is discussed, it is common to explore the work of liberal, white feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, particularly A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Wollstonecraft, despite her thought-provoking and important ideas on the civil rights of women, like many Western thinkers that overshadow political theory and literature, she does not consider the importance of race, or even class, in her philosophy. Wollstonecraft simply believed that women should not be excluded from political or civic employments as this undermines morality and natural rights. However, her stance was confined to middle-class women, since she regarded them as in the “most natural” state (that is the least corrupted by either wealth or poverty). But this class of women tended to be predominantly white. Therefore, by pioneering Wollstonecraft’s work as the main text within feminist political thought, the conversation disregards the experiences of non-white and poorer women.

Black feminist, bell hooks criticises this very framework of understanding and teaching feminist theory; she disapproves of Friedan’s Feminist Mystique being heralded as having paved the way for contemporary feminism.

“Like many white women who dominate feminist discourse [and] articulate feminist theory, Friedan has little or no understanding of white supremacy as a racial politic, of the psychological impact of class, of their political status within a racist, sexist, capitalist state.”

hooks claims that Friedan’s exclusionary feminism saw victims of sexism as college-educated, white women, “who were compelled by sexist conditioning to remain in the home” and these “specific problems and dilemmas of leisure-class white housewives were real” but were not “political concerns of masses of women [who were] concerned about economic survival, ethnic and racial discrimination.”

I believe this to be very similar to issues surrounding Wollstonecraft’s feminist discourse, since her insistence on allowing women to work neglected the experiences of non-white and poorer women who worked labour-intensive jobs and did not have the privilege in choosing to remain at home. Like most traditional literature which perpetuate a false universal identity that we all share, a central tenet of conventional feminist theory is the proclamation that ‘all women are oppressed’ which implies that there is a common experience. However, in reality, and throughout history, factors such as race, class, sexuality and religion have created an assortment of experiences which define the degree to which sexism oppresses individual women. Feminist theory and more female thinkers do indeed need to be incorporated into the discourse as a part of the decolonisation process. However, the aforementioned points must be taken into consideration, in order to successfully do this. Past feminist refusal, as seen in Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, to draw attention to, or even attack, racial hierarchies have not only repressed the relation between race and class but have reinforced white supremacy. Therefore, it is imperative that, when studying thinkers like Wollstonecraft, it should not be assumed that her feminism is applicable to all women, but rather an understanding that intersections, such as race and class, are prevalent through the study of non-white feminist theorists.

Evidently, this decolonising process in academia is beyond just incorporating a diverse range of thinkers. It is about disposing the notion that Western history is shared globally and accepting that there are significant intersections (race and gender particularly in this piece) that need to be included and taught in academia. This should not be interpreted as an attempt to eliminate the work of white, male thinkers but an acknowledgement that non-Western thinkers are not mere counter-arguments of the main conversation. Rather they should be perceived as part of, and integral to, the main discussion within academic studies.

 

Header image credits: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Ostracising Communities: An Ofsted-Approved Guide

Some weeks ago the head of Ofsted, the government-run department in charge of overseeing state schools, announced that inspectors would now begin to question young girls who wore hijabs to class.

The word ‘question’ in and of itself is an outright understatement. Perhaps ‘interrogate’ or ‘grill’ would be more accurate, since the intent behind this questioning is clear. Ofsted are looking for signs that the girl has been forced into wearing a hijab and that she has had no say in the matter. They are looking for indications that the child will become radicalised or, potentially, has become so already. Apparently it is not enough to scrutinize every adult Muslim you see walking down the street—now you must question the intentions of every six year old you stumble across as well.

These changes in Ofsted ruling play into the government’s recent policies regarding the Prevent agenda, a strand of their counter-terrorism strategy. In theory, Prevent was put in place to provide support for those who are at risk of being radicalised, but in reality it has resulted in Muslim students and young people feeling even more isolated from modern British society, thus having an entirely counterproductive effect. The more the government singles out and discriminates against young Muslims, the more ostracised they will feel and the more likely they are to resort to radical means.

In the same manner, the singling out of young Muslim girls, especially at such a young age, will result in them feeling the same way—that they are not like the other children, that they are different or somehow in the wrong, and it is likely that they will not even understand why. It is ironic that politicians and various right-wing parties make arguments about Muslims not integrating into British society, when the reason Muslims feel ostracised is largely due to the doing of the government itself.

Ofsted’s argument regarding their decision is that young girls wearing the hijab promotes their “sexualisation,” since the hijab is not usually worn until the onset of puberty, but this is not always the case. For myself, and many other young Muslim girls, the hijab is an article of clothing worn to convey their cultural identity or simply so they can look like the other women they know. In the same manner that young white girls put on oversized heels and messy lipstick to imitate their mothers, Muslim girls do the same by wearing hijabs, and they should not be singled out because of this choice. There is no malicious intent nor secret agenda behind it.

This is not to say that some Muslim girls are not forced to wear the hijab. In certain families, cultures or locations, this is the unfortunate truth, but very rarely is this the case for most young Muslims in the UK. The actions of the few should not become a standard upon which the government can judge the actions of the wider community, and this applies not only to the hijab but also the broader issues that affect the Muslim community. The more the government puts into discriminating against Muslims, the more stifled Muslims will feel. It’s as if they are Britain’s dirty little secret.

I find it difficult to imagine that a young Sikh boy who wore a turban to school or a young Jewish boy who wore a kippah (skullcap) would be asked the same questions or treated in the same way—or indeed that their clothing would be a point of conversation at all. This is where the problem lies. It is always, always Muslims, and the same issues are stressed and laboured upon over and over again for no good reason; it is merely scapegoating, the act of having someone to point a finger at when things go wrong.

You could argue that I’m overreacting, since I do have a personal stake in this. I was one of those girls, who wore a hijab to school, except back then it was only a piece of clothing and not a political statement. Unfortunately, now, we live in a climate where every step, every breath, every move a Muslim makes is questioned and questioned until they are either convicted—falsely or otherwise—or they are scared into giving up their identity, their spirit, and melding into the meaningless grey masses.

Bareerah Sayed is a third year English student at King’s College London, and the Political Affairs Editor for I RISE Magazine.

My Week as a Muslim: A futile attempt at addressing Islamophobia in Britain

The first time I tried to watch My Week as a Muslim, I cried during the opening scene and slammed my laptop shut within twenty minutes.

It would be easy to dismiss this Channel 4 documentary as a misguided, shambolic failure and sweep it under the rug with a roll of the eyes and frustrated exasperation as we wonder when mainstream media will represent the Muslim narrative accurately. But I hesitate to do so. My Week as a Muslim has served as a troubling platform for bigots to validate their pre-existing Islamophobia, whilst undeservedly being allowed a voyeuristic view into the lives of a loving British Muslim family.

My Week as a Muslim follows the journey (read: series of racist monologues) of Katie, A Normal White Woman™ from Cheshire. Katie is welcomed into the home of Saima Alvi who is a British hijabi living in Manchester with her four children. Their two worlds collide and a shocking revelation sparkles in Katie’s newly racist-free eyes: Muslims are people. Before Channel 4, I didn’t know that.

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It opens with Saima and her family, standing side-by-side in their living room as they prepare to pray with an uncomfortable Katie looking on in silence. Saima’s youngest child begins the prayer in Arabic, proclaiming ‘Allahu Akbar’, meaning ‘God is Great’. Katie’s face crumples into fear, her jaw hanging open in shock and disgust. The scene is heart-breaking and infuriating. Katie has the gall and entitlement – awarded to her by a lifetime of being white – to stand in the living room of her host and openly prickle with fear at the phrase, ‘Allahu Akbar’. It’s not news that this phrase has been tarnished by extremists – terrorists and The Sun alike – to harangue Muslims. But if the intention of this documentary was to dispel the misconceptions Islamophobes cling to, why re-enforce these misconceptions? Why construct a blatantly fake, gratuitous situation which only deepens the very wounds which it seeks to heal? Why remind British Muslims watching that our faith is inherently feared and shunned?

The programme continues to follow Katie as she attempts to assimilate into the Birmingham Muslim community with the guidance of Saima. But nothing stops her from spouting her vitriolic abuse at and about Muslims: ‘banning burqas, banning headdresses would make people feel a lot happier, a lot safer’ because, as she admits, ‘I wouldn’t want to sit next to them [visible Muslims] because I would automatically assume they’d blow something up’. It always shocks me that women who claim to be so liberated, so free, so equal to their male counterparts – let’s not even get into their fear of the word ‘feminism’ – are so quick to ban burqas and impose clothing rules on women. Isn’t that exactly what they are so proud to represent: freedom? So why aren’t Muslim women free to wear what makes them comfortable? We don’t all need to be wolf-whistled on the street to feel confident and comfortable in our bodies. But that’s Western Enlightenment for you.

But the most infuriating and politically-deaf moment of the programme – and that which has received the most attention – is the moment Katie was brownfaced. Brown foundation is sprayed onto her skin as yellow teeth and a large nose mould are fitted onto her face. It is a disrespect on so many levels. Not all Muslims are brown Pakistanis. As a Pakistani Muslim myself, I was enraged at the effortless conflation of Pakistani and Muslim, validating the assumption that brown = Muslim. Sometimes, yes. But the producers conveniently forgot about black Muslims, white-passing Muslims, and white Muslims, in order to fulfil their controversial-for-a-good-cause martyrdom. The producer Fozia Khan oversimplifies the issue in her Guardian article, writing that Katie only ‘puts on makeup and changes her clothes to pass as Muslim’. It is not simply makeup; it is a symbol of oppression, ridicule, and a dismissal of centuries of racism – all the more pertinent considering British colonialism. It is not simply clothes; it is a signifier of faith, of modesty, of commitment – all values which Katie only two weeks ago would have assumed was a cover up for an explosive device.

It completely erases the authentic Muslim experience and instead places an undeserving bigot in the centre of a pseudo-emotional journey of self-improvement. Instead of educating viewers and curing ignorance, it selects an overt racist who is all too quick to change her views and is therefore painfully inaccurate compared to its thousands of viewers who are most likely unconvinced. In doing so, My Week as a Muslim perpetuates a over-valuing of racists and a de-valuing of real Muslim stories: we are encouraged to not sympathise with the words of Muslim women, but with the words of a white woman whose mother cried in fear when she saw her wearing a hijab.

My Week as a Muslim is a disappointing and counterproductive representation of the Muslim experience. But, since it is so detached from the Muslim community, there is one thing I am looking forward to: the intelligent, thought-provoking responses of Muslim women across the country who are righting this wrong.

(One example of this is Sabeena Akhtar’s collection of essays written by British hijabis, Cut from the Same Cloth. Fundraising page here: https://unbound.com/books/cut-from-the-same-cloth)  

 

Sara Malik is a BA English graduate from King’s College London, and is the Assistant Editor & Photographer of I RISE Magazine. 

Chuskipop – Celebrating Desi Feminism

Modern India has been ravaged by rampant misogyny – from the abominable rape culture to the hypersexualisation and objectification of women in the Indian Film industry. Every chauvinistic nook and cranny found in India stems from deep-rooted cultural issues, unfortunately imbibed in Indian society today.

Although there are a myriad of intersectional feminists who are fighting to dismantle the pillars of patriarchy, they seem to lack a certain brand of feminism that has been missing from India for so long – a brand of feminism that combines fighting against the oppression of women in India and simultaneously fighting for the sexual freedom, financial independence and greater recognition of the strength and power of your average Desi woman.

This void is steadily being filled by Chuskipop, an hour long, biweekly podcast by Sweety and Pappu, two proud Indian women who are unapologetically vocal about their body, sexuality, intellect and the power they yield as brown women.

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Chuskipop, “the Brainchild of Sweety”, as Pappu endearingly calls it, was created by Sweety as a “creative outlet to deal with the stress of moving” to Canada, far away from loved ones. Sweety, an artist based in Canada, decided to reach out to Pappu, a writer based in the Middle East and a childhood friend, to create something special, something that would help them connect with other Desi women all around the world. Pappu recalls being initially terrified and simultaneously flattered that Sweety chose to reach out to her. “I tend to be an introvert and I’m not the kind of person to openly voice my opinions a lot – but something stirred inside of me, which prompted me to say yes”.

We wanted to create something entertaining, raw and rebellious – something that celebrates Desi Female friendship”, quips Sweety. “We did this so we could create a safe space online, to voice our dissent through creativity”.

What’s interesting, puzzling and slightly melancholy is both women have decided to remain anonymous, adopting traditional Indian monikers Sweety and Pappu. “Well, both of us were born in the Middle East so we still have family there and Pappu still lives there – living in the Middle East, it’s kind of scary”, Sweety ponders, with slight discontent. The lack of freedom of speech and oppression against women in many parts of the region discouraged the Chuskipop duo to openly speak out. India’s conservative nature acted as an added deterrent – “a lot of our topics may not be taken the right way, especially in relation to relatives; we just didn’t want to run the risk of rubbing someone in the wrong way”.

Chuskipop’s popularity is evident from its steadily increasing social media following, which is no surprise at all. The hilarious, authentic podcasts range from topics about periods to the archaic concepts of marriage in the Indian community – topics that are incredibly relevant and relatable to the majority of Indian women, who want to speak up but may be scared of the repercussions it may bring. When talking about the possible expansion of the Chuskipop brand, Sweety mentions working towards making short films and animated shorts while Pappu talks about wanting to collaborate with specific charities who are involved in elevating the already powerful feminist movement in India.

The Chuskipop duo are also incredibly passionate about helping social causes, ranging from women’s empowerment to increasing the rights of the LGBTQI+ community in India. When asked about whether they had any interested in joining the Indian political scene, both of them fervently deny having any interest. “India has a very intense and frightening political landscape that neither Pappu nor I see ourselves being a part of. Although, we absolutely want to be part of the overarching social justice movement and fight alongside our peers, who need our support” muses Sweety.

In addition to the podcasts, Sweety also creates a very distinctive flavor of artwork that is inspired by 70’s, 80’s and 90’s Bollywood Heroines. The backdrop of the artwork consists of these golden divas, draped in heavy kajal and colourful prints, is fronted by powerful quotes such as ‘A woman does not have to be modest in order to be respected’ and ‘Behind every successful woman in a tribe of other successful women who have her back’. “We have been getting so many requests for prints, so we might work on that”, says Pappu.

 

The juxerposition of the quotes with the many actresses representing the stereotypical, submissive Indian woman is a direct hit to the Indian film industry and to the patriarchy that is, unfortunately, ruling India today.

Talking about 90’s Bollywood Heroines leads to Sweety reminiscing about her childhood and how almost every Bollywood movie was written through the ‘male gaze’ and male point of view – “it was honestly exhausting and boring. Growing up in the 90’s and being exposed to rape scene after rape scene was incredibly harmful for young girls – I grew up feeling very confused about sexuality and couldn’t process as to why men kept on physically abusing women in every single Bollywood movie I watched”.

“What frustrated me even more was every movie showing the Indian hero stalking his heroine until she succumbed to his advances and magically fell in love with him. The violent rape scenes, men slapping women to put them in their place or trying to steal their honor – it was horrifying. If this is all Indian men watched growing up, no wonder they feel like they are entitled to a woman’s time”.

Talking about whether the Indian film Industry has been sexually empowering towards woman, Pappu adds that the difference between objectifying women and sexually liberating them is “simple a matter of finding out who is writing/directing the specific movie and who its being written for. More often than not, Bollywood masala films with “Item songs” are written and directed by men, with men in mind as the audience”.

Although, Sweety does mention watching positive Bollywood sexual role models such as Helen, Rekha and Sridevi, woman who would “dance and strut around, blending naturally refined sexuality with power, humour and a whole load of sass”.

One of the aspects that are admiring and refreshing about Chuskipop is how sex positive if is – India, like most South Asian countries, is a very conservative country, where sex is a taboo subject in most households of almost every socio-economic level.

Sweety believes that India has a long way to go to become a sex positive nation for both men and women. “The nation harbors a very sexist and uninformed idea of women’s sexuality and it shocks me that we come from a culture that used to be very sex positive but is now so fearful of discussing a subject that is so natural and primal – sex plays such a big role in our daily lives”.  Although, she has hope that things will eventually change, Pappu adds that India needs a massive overhaul in social norms and the media’s portrayal of women. “The government can possible play a bigger role in education people about human sexuality, as long as they are well informed about it.”

But, for India to move towards becoming a more progressive, sex positive society, the horrifying and uncontrollable rape culture needs to end. “Sex being a taboo subject does play a small role in fueling rape culture, but it stems more from our patriarchal society and a strong desire for Indian men to be in constant control. The average Indian men is raised to believe that they are entitled to a woman’s body and her time whereas the average Indian woman is raised to be quiet and subservient”, says Sweety.

“Also, there is a strong tendency for victim blaming – the fact that the Indian legal system does not even recognize martial rape shows how broken our system is”, says Pappu. She adds, “When it comes to consent classes in India, our sex education does not impart clearly instructions on asking for consent and giving consent. We constantly mention on our podcast of how traumatic the extended rape scenes of 90’s Bollywood were – it was such a weird, hypocritical time where natural acts of showing affection were considered scandalous while no one batted an eye over rape scenes. Although, I can’t really say that the movies nowadays are any better”.

Marital rape not being considered illegal in India, when a spouse is over the age of fifteen, a fact which has sent shockwaves of disgust all over the feminist movement in India. It is also an issue that visibly angers the Chuskipop duo very much.

“Honestly, I’m used to conservative Desi women playing into the patriarchy”, sighs Sweety.

Maneka Gandhi, the Union Cabinet minister for women & children has justified this (might I add pathetically) by stating that the international definition of marital rape ‘can’t be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs etc.’. Sweety adds, “I’m not sure why illiteracy and poverty should be an issue, because martial rape can happen to anyone, regardless of their caste and creed. Obviously Maneka Gandhi has it very, very wrong, either she’s incredibly uninformed or playing a political game of chess. I know she used to be against marital rape, so I wonder if someone is pressuring her to say otherwise. There’s definitely no exceptions when it comes to marital rape – a man does not have any right over a woman’s body, no means NO. I’m not sure when it will be overturned, but from reading the news, there’s enough dissent around this issue so I’m hoping that things will change soon.

Pappu explains that “The most dangerous tide against the feminist movement in India is in the form of those who knowingly or unknowingly prescribe to an inherently patriarchal view of the world. Their inculcated social mores and codes are from a patriarchal standpoint. The fact that Maneka Gandhi, as the Minister for Women & Child Development, with her inherent patriarchy fails to recognize the basic human right for example the right to your own body, is shameful to say the least”.

Pappu and Sweety are also invested in changing the racist and ridiculous standards of beauty, embedded in Indian culture. Sweety described not even being shocked at VOGUE India’s decision to put Kendall Jenner as the cover model for their 10th anniversary.

“They’ve always been tone deaf when it comes to women of colour. VOGUE India is fixated on the same archaic concept of beauty – that light skin is more attractive and that brown, Desi women don’t have a place in this world. They are perpetuating the concept of India women, with their brown skin, curvy bodies and thick lips are just not good enough.”

Sweety also outlines the inherent misogyny in putting Sushant Singh Rajput, a Bollywood actor with Jenner. “Why did they replace Rajput with Channing Tatum – oh yeah, Desi men have to have a place in Indian society, why not cater to Indian male ego”.

I ask whether we’ll be able to know the identities of these two modern day Jhansi ranis.

Sweety answers, with a lot of conviction. “When we are ready to come out, we will”.

“I guess anonymity does have its inherent benefits – one of them is that the listener to place us to be anyone. We could be that girl riding next to you in the subway or that someone sitting across you at a café”, Pappu mentions.

Hopefully, one day, their candor will bring eventual change in India, enabling them to express their thoughts openly and freely.

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All Photos by Sweety and Pappu of Chuskipop

You can find Chuskipop on social media:

Website:  http://chuskipop.com/

Instagram: @chuskipop

Twitter: @chuskipop

 

Antara Dasgupta is a third year Chemistry student at King’s College London, and the Culture Editor for I RISE Magazine.