#GrandparentsNotTerrorists

In case it wasn’t obvious, my grandparents are not terrorists. If  being a great gardener, generosity, walking barefoot across land to earn for your family, and going across the world alone to look for a better future is some form of terrorism, then I must be behind the times.

Trump’s Muslim ban (because let’s be honest, that’s exactly what it is) cannot be excused with laughter, however. These are real people’s lives. I am glad I am not faced with American border control, with my stamps from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but being British with a red passport brings a privilege that can skip me extra questions.

Watch my video to hear my account of exactly why my grandparents terrify me. Prepare to be shocked; it’s difficult stuff.

 

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Beyond the Binary: Why are non-binary people important?

Image of trans* pride flag (blue, pink, white) – Flickr: TorbakhopperCreative Commons

You might have heard of me. I’m Maria Munir, and I told President Obama that I’m non-binary on live TV.

Many people do not understand why my body is unrelated to my gender.  I should add that normally my blogposts are a little less erratic, and presented better. But I need to be simple and clear with you so here is everything in my own words, where I have no word limits or time constraints.

If you’re interested in definitions, here’s a link to some guidelines on definitions of biological sex, gender, gender identity and expression.

I was born with a female body, with XX chromosomes, and I’ve never had any gender reassignment surgery and nor have I been diagnosed with anything like gender dysphoria. I’m telling you this because the world seems obsessed with my body.

There are people who believe non-binary is a sexuality (no, it’s a gender identity, sexuality doesn’t matter and I haven’t discussed it publicly). There are people who believe this means I am lying about my identity as a non-binary person, or that this is a conspiracy theory led by the BBC (that one made me laugh so hard) in order to brainwash society. Please re-read that out loud. People seriously believe that.

Gender is not an illness, nor can it be medically defined. Granted, there are those who suffer from gender identity disorder (or dysphoria), but this is not a prerequisite for being non-binary, and nor should there be shame if someone is ill. Furthermore, those who are non-binary are just like everyone else in that they too can suffer from mental health issues, but once again, this is not to say that to be non-binary is always to be mentally ill.

Your biological sex is determined by doctors and scientists (and society). Mine has been determined as female, since you all seem so voyeuristic and keen to know. Your gender is also a social construct, but science does not have any impact in its identification.

Non-binary people reject the traditional norms of man and woman. For me, this manifests itself in not believing my body has any impact on my gender, my characteristics, or my day to day life as a human being.

To be non-binary is to be outside the traditional gender norms of the binary concept of man and woman. Politically speaking, gender is a barrier one must overcome. Gender is discriminated against, especially when it is transgender people we’re talking about. Don’t get me wrong; we must not erase gender. We must not seek to homogenise everyone and class them as the same gender, as that takes away from their dignity and autonomy. Instead, we should respect difference and variety, and work to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities to access what they need, and to have their equal rights respected.

As a non-binary person, the freedom is yours to self-define. I have friends who are non-binary men, non-binary women, non-binary genderfluid, non-binary gender neutral, non-binary agender, and so on and so forth. There is no need to hold everyone to the same standards and expect everyone to be some kind of hybrid as though it’s a negative thing. Intersex people exist too, so do people who have surgery, and there is much pluralism in gender identity which we as society should be mindful of.

Nearly a quarter of a million people in the UK are non-binary, according to an estimate from the Non-binary Inclusion Project. Under Equality Act 2010 in the UK, non-binary people have no recognition. Therefore, there are probably even more people in the country who are non-binary, and you may even be one of them. In fact, there was a recent Parliamentary inquiry into this.

Someone else’s gender need not have an impact on your life. But we should be respectful of each other.

Just as you wish to be referred to as a man or woman, or you want people to use he or she, others like myself want to be referred to differently. I want you to refer to me as non-binary, even though I have a female body, and I want you to use they/their/them when referring to me. If this angers you, then please don’t expect me to engage with and educate you when you don’t want to listen to me respectfully. It’s not my duty to spend my entire life educating one person. I believe it is my duty to help those who are being discriminated against, by getting them recognition and appropriate help.

Education is something which you should also try yourself, because it is unfair to put the burden on a minority to educate you if you do not even allow them the same platforms or recognition as you. How are they then supposed to educate you convincingly?

I put myself in the public eye because I know that people all over the world are suffering. Suicide hotline calls are up in North Carolina because of the Bathroom Bill. My own friends are faced with isolation and homelessness for expressing their gender. This is unacceptable.

To those who believe I should make an effort to make myself look different so that you can “tell me apart”, please re-evaluate your choices in life. If I want to wear certain clothes or jewellery, that has no impact on my gender and does not entitle you to assume you know better than me. Furthermore, just because I have a female body does not mean I am inviting you to make judgments. On the one hand, you argue that we should homogenise and only be men and women. On the other hand, you’re annoyed that I don’t “look non-binary”. I wear what makes me comfortable, and would you believe it, the reason is because my body is separate to my gender.

If you are judging the way you should treat me on my body, then that is sexist. You believe that I should behave a certain way because of my body, and that is wrong. Please stop projecting your lack of understanding onto me in the form of harassment. If you believe that non-binary people do not exist, pinch yourself, because I’m real, and I’m really very serious about making sure we combat discrimination in a progressive way which recognises the rights of people with different genders from across the world.

I understand that this may come across as preaching, but actually, I’m just an ordinary person and I just want to help others. I am not on an agenda to force you to de-gender yourself or to make you change the way you lawfully live. All I am asking is, do not harass others (as it is against the law), and please allow people to campaign for their human rights.

That is all.

 

Why White Must Never Be The New Black

Flickr: Tom Benson, Creative Commons

Forget cultural appropriation, forget whitewashing, and forget colonialism. Whether or not you believe that these terms are still relevant today (and I believe they are), you can’t argue that race politics is a thing of the past.

I mean, take a look at the situation with Zoe Saldana and the row over her playing Nina Simone in a biopic. It’s almost as though Hollywood, scared by the fact that Chris Rock is so funny that he goes over their heads, have decided to pitch a black actress who they are pretty sure wouldn’t have a hard time scraping an Oscar. All they need to do is black her up a bit, add a flat prosthetic nose, and she’s on her way to golden glory. It’s unfair, both for black actors and Nina Simone.

Was it really so hard to cast formidable actresses like Viola Davis? Saldana has said that playing Simone means a lot to her. That’s nice. I’m sure it means a lot to the darker actors who end up playing slaves or murderers. They probably agree that an iconic black woman, like Nina Simone, means a lot to them too. The fact that Saldana’s politics haven’t always matched Simone’s is irrelevant. Okay, so Saldana doesn’t see colour (maybe that’s why she got cast), and colour is kind of, you know, integral to Simone’s recognition, but at least Hollywood didn’t go one step further like it did with the 9/11 Michael Jackson film.

It’s not okay to get white people to play black people. Even if it’s Joseph Fiennes and the black person had a skin condition which made their skin lighter. It’s not okay to look at the colour of a real, human being’s skin, and just pick the most palatable shade and then colour them in a bit. These actors may be no Rachel Dolezal, but they’re not a substitution for someone’s identity. Hollywood just can’t get it right. First, they cast a white person as a black person with light skin. Then they cast a lighter black person as a darker black person. Is it me, or is this symbolic of the obsession with whiteness?

The danger of ‘whiteness as success’

Let’s think about this. Why do ethnic minority people need to stick to their station, or change radically, in order to be successful, or even understood? Here are a few examples:

Zoe Saldana – played Gamora (Guardians of the Galaxy, green woman) and Neytiri (Avatar, blue woman). Saldana’s problem is they never seem to paint her right.

zoe_saldana_-_guardians_of_the_galaxy_premiere_-_july_2014_cropped
Wikipedia
She has had some great roles, sure. However, that does not reduce the fact that directors and producers think it’s okay to make her more appetising, a sexy alien, by adding a dash of something else. Oh, and let’s make sure that her characters always need rescuing by some white man who’s doing her a favour and making her less primitive somehow. Because that’s not how colonialism worked at all.

 

Chris Rock – successful comedian, with hits like Everybody Hates Chris, and presenter at the recent Oscars. Oh Chris, what are we going to do with all the ribs you cracked at #OscarsSoWhite this year? I mean, the uncomfortable looks on people’s faces, when they were unsure whether to laugh or not, certainly made for reassuring(?) evidence that Hollywood really doesn’t know what to do with actors of colour. This account from the Oscars website just says it all. No doubt, Rock isn’t perfect. But he did this right. When you have an audience full of people who apparently want diversity, but people of colour aren’t involved in the conversation, how are you going to expect them to be able to lead the way in their own liberation? Give the people a break; we’ve had to deal with enough whitesplaining as it is.

Just about every Pakistani or Muslim actor of colour- I’m really struggling, actually. I’m trying to think of a Pakistani or Muslim actor who hasn’t played a terrorist in films or TV shows I’ve watched. My Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts will tell you I consume a lot of film and TV, yet I’m struggling to think of inspiring roles that Pakistani actors have had.

terrorist-gq-2015-01
GQ: 7 Muslim Actors On America’s Terrorist Typecasting
Is this a coincidence? I think not. Just look at the fact that anyone vaguely brown gets chosen to be a terrorist or linked to terrorism somehow. Or that shows like Homeland like to focus on how brown people and Arabs are always the problem. Or that the media gets scared when brown people go viral, regardless of whether they are Muslim. Oh, and it’s funny how the parents of brown people in films always seem to have a South Asian accent or something. Why does the assumption exist that ‘immigrants’ can’t have accents local to the place they now call home?

Facebook star, Showry – Now this is someone I can get behind. Showry’s videos are essentially a big middle finger up at the white concept of Koreans-must-be-cute-and-well-behaved. It’s a racist, sexist, and frankly damaging convention which Showry works to tackle. The ‘mukbang’ trend of eating for audiences inspired her to put a feminist spin on the matter, and challenge the stereotype of the hypersexualised Asian female. If only Korean actresses didn’t get cast in really cutesy roles, right? (Though it’s hard to think of many non-men Korean actors…). Margaret Cho broke with the image of cute Korean in The Interview and still ended up stuck with a stereotype, but at least they picked a Korean actress for that film. But the attitude of “it could have been worse” simply won’t cut it; not now, not ever.

So it’s kind of obvious from my short foray into problematic film stereotypes that some kind of effect must be filtering down to us Z-listers. But that’s a whole new kettle of fish. For now, we have to fight the notion that actors of colour must simply take what the white people give them and accept it’s for their own good. We must actively challenge the idea that actors of colour have to stay in their lane and play to stereotypes. We must ensure that people aren’t picked to play people of colour because their lighter skin is more appealing, or because there’s a “shortage” of darker actors with the same, if not better talent.

White must never be the new black, brown, or anything else in between. Hollywood has a long way to go before the rest of the world can have a chance of correcting its social conventions.

 

Image problems start at birth

Flickr:Mariyan Dimitrov, Creative Commons

Going to keep this relatively short. Who knows what gender a child might be, but for the purposes of what is to be discussed, I’ll refer to the child with she/her/hers.

Several things struck me about her. She looked so calm as she rested, occasionally smiling or stretching in her sleep. I felt so lucky to see a life in someone’s arms. But I couldn’t shake a little bit of sadness that tugged at the bottom of my throat.

This child is going to grow up with so much pressure on her shoulders to conform to an image, even if it wasn’t her own. Take, for instance, the obsession with the weight of the baby. Sure, for health reasons, medical professionals like to check the baby is a “healthy” weight. Yet everyone asks about the weight of the baby, sighing and tutting. I can’t help shake the feeling that this is just the beginning of an image-obsessed life.

Another absurd example is people poke a baby’s nose. Literally, they try to stretch it, making it longer and thinner. As a baby born with facial palsy, I knew there would have been several attempts to make the paralysis on my left side go away. But the nose? What is wrong with a baby’s nose?

This poor kid. She probably doesn’t know it yet, but she’s in for a tough ride. When babies are born in the Pakistani community, the immediate instinct of older relatives is to either frown or smile over the baby’s skin colour. Pale = yay. Dark = nay. In fact, people spend their entire life cracking jokes about how one child was born darker and therefore uglier than the rest.

Already, people are probably wondering how hairy the baby is going to be. Seriously. It seems you have to be perfect without actually doing anything about it. It’s not just about the appearance, though.

When your newborn baby is reliant upon you for everything, you’re stressed out of your mind. You don’t have the energy to argue, especially with silver-tongued grannies and granddads who won’t listen to anything you have to say on the matter. I don’t know what it’s like in other communities, but in my Pakistani community, we have a huge hurdle to overcome in terms of encouraging self-esteem and discouraging bullying. Parents should not give their children a complex about how they look. It’s ridiculous to think that degrading someone’s appearance in order to “make them better” comes under the subject of “tough love”. No; it creates sad people who lead sad lives trying to live up to your ever-changing, unrealistic expectations. Is it any wonder mental health issues are so rife within the community?

It’s hard enough getting communities to loosen up on their gender expectations. Girls must be quiet, pretty, and obedient. Boys must be strong, faithful, and spirited. Forget the non-binary, forget those who don’t care about the gender stereotypes, and definitely forget the people who don’t prescribe to religious doctrine. Unfortunately, the children will grow up having an image foisted upon them, often with violence and emotional abuse.

I notice that a lot of these image problems are projected onto children by adults who have the same image problems and have grown up thinking that way. Something about self-improvement makes people say all sorts of horrible things. It shouldn’t be that we live to a ripe old age regretting we didn’t elongate our child’s nose enough. But I’ll say this with certainty: your child is not an image of yourself or anyone else. Let them be a child, and teach them to be strong enough to withhold all the stupid ideas of image people will press upon them their entire lives.

Teach them to be their own person; that’s all they will ever ask or need from you.

My Education: A Right, Not A Privilege

Flickr: GAC | AMC, Creative Commons

My education is a right, not a privilege. This does not mean I am not privileged to be sat in my university bedroom, typing away into the blogosphere on my laptop. But my inherent right to an education cannot be rescinded; it’s indivisible, and it’s mine.

I have viewed myself to be lucky to have had such a brilliant chance at education in comparison to many others. The postcode lottery of being born in Britain, next to an outstanding school (Ofsted’s words), did me good. I got to go to school to do ‘important things’ like become a prefect, or try for university, and now I am on the cusp of graduating with my BA in Politics with International Relations. Don’t get me wrong. My situation could have been a lot worse. I only have to turn around and look at my cousins in rural Pakistan to know that I’m lucky to be here. I understand the value of education, and a good one at that, but every day, society reminds us that we do not ‘deserve’ to study or make something of ourselves.

Let’s break this down.

  1. We have the right to go to university. This means that we do not have to gain the permission of my parents to go to university. The inherent right to go to university or pursue any type of education has been, and always will be, ours.
  2. Just because society controls us, doesn’t mean they own us. A human being is not a commodity to be warped to personal benefits. We are in no way a luxury good to be paraded in front of ‘lesser beings’, or to be promoted for being ‘above’ everyone else. Society may coerce us into agreeing with them and making promises for the sake of surviving until the next day, but that does not mean that society inherently owns us. We are our own. No amount of emotional blackmail or guilt-tripping from society can take that away from us.
  3. Society degrades all women to being playthings. It is not for society to decide our future. It is not for society to deem what is suitable for us in terms of career or prospects. It is not for society to remind us, again and again, that they can click their fingers and a bewitched ring shall appear on a woman’s finger. It is not for society to exercise that power in order to coerce women into doing your bidding. It is not for society to dangle the carrot stick of education in our faces, and use it to make us conform. How dare society cite marriage in any scenario, except for one where we consent to it happily and freely? How dare society dangle marriage as a punishment for those women who do not submit; as something to steal women’s independence? How dare society tell us that marriage makes women submissive, and that it is to be used against women in every situation? I do not stand for such a crass attitude to people, where marital status is decided at society’s whim. Women must never, ever submit to these demands, no matter how much society threatens us. Regardless of the body parts women have, women are first, and foremost, human beings with human rights. Women are not society’s in any sense of the word, and neither is anyone else.
  4. Don’t congratulate yourself on not forcing women to get married. Yet. It’s rich for society to be able to imply that they are for equal rights between men and women. It’s preposterous that, through the three words of “But I didn’t” society can insinuate that it should be applauded for not physically stopping women from going to university.
  5. A woman’s life is not a trophy for society to show off. Society repeatedly tells us not to work, to not get a job, and to not bother doing anything extra.

Tomorrow is a new day, and I am determined, moreso than ever, to achieve everything for myself and everyone else.

Education is my right. It is your right. It is not a privilege. Every time someone decides education is theirs to administer or judge, stand up against them. When they say those things, they negate everyone’s ability to be educated to the standards they wish to be educated. Every time someone decides it’s a privilege, we dilute the right of billions of people worldwide, and tell them that we do not care about their fight for education. I am lucky that my parents are so positive and so encouraging of my educational pursuits.

Education is a right. Don’t let anyone tell you, or anyone else, otherwise.

The rhetoric of hair

Flickr: konka*, Creative Commons

Disclaimer: I am no expert on hair politics. I’m tired and am always happy to be corrected.

Body hair is natural for most people. It grows fine and thick, and just about everywhere. Your face is covered in tiny little hairs, and no matter how hard you try and shave, laser, epilate, wax, or thread, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Growing up, I was faced with conflicting ideas of what kind of hair is good or bad, and how your gender presentation affects the kind of hair you’re allowed to have in different places. It’s interesting how we find it difficult to balance removal versus appraisal, and how both can be taboo simultaneously.

Culture and Body Hair

Being a person with Pakistani heritage, hairiness is accepted, by doctors and the public alike, to be in my nature. Whilst I grew up around women who were naturally not very hairy, and men who were really hairy (my family is like that), I felt isolated when I looked at that beard and moustache in the mirror, wondering why I couldn’t be like my mother or my sister and have a “normal” face. I was allowed to try and remove it were herbal remedies. One such remedy involved crushed seeds mixed with water to be put on the affected areas overnight, and scrubbed off. It never worked, except for painfully tearing out the odd hair.

At the same time, I was praised for having long, flowing locks of head hair, and when it started to fall out, many remedies including nightly oil sessions were sought out to stop me from losing so much hair.

There are a lot of confusing messages surrounding hair. It depends on the culture, but there are strange dynamics in play. One cannot have hair in the wrong places, but is also discouraged from changing it. Similarly, if one does not have hair in the right places, one has to encourage it to grow. It’s interesting that when I search for “body hair” on Google images, the photos are predominantly of men with hairy chests. Too much hair is considered a sign of an untidy, unclean, and unkempt person. Yet, a lack of hair is considered equally taboo.

Balding is generally conceived to be a problem between the binary genders. Male balding, so to speak, is considered to be both a natural part of life, yet also a topic which is less acceptable among younger men, who are often affected by it. Similarly, a lack of chest hair or facial hair is considered to be a regressive sign, pointing out that man has not reached puberty, or is somehow “less masculine” for the lack of hair.

It seems to me that, in conceptions of “male” and “female”, we have similarities in that there are areas considered to be acceptably hairy for both, but they are often the reverse of each other. However, this stereotype is harmful and damaging.

Hair Politics and Mainstream Media

I was never a fan of dyeing armpit hair, because firstly, when it’s dark hair, that takes a lot of effort. Secondly, it felt like an exclusive campaign which limited participants to being objects of fashion magazines, rather than making a statement on body hair politics. I do however wish I didn’t feel self-conscious about my hair to the extent where I felt confident enough to let it all flow gently in the breeze. However, hair politics this year has been dominated by the interpretation of cultural appropriation and fashion trends.

When I saw images of the Kardashians and Jenners sporting cornrows, my first instinct was not moral outrage. It was to see what members of the black community felt about the trend that was popping up all over the Daily Mail, and in other newspapers. Some reacted favourably, saying culture is there to be shared. Others stated it was appropriation, and played back into the image that #whitegirlsdoitbetter, and a few said that this was not a battle to choose in race politics. Whilst that is a huge generalisation of the array of opinions on this matter, and I cannot purport to be an expert of any kind on black hair, it’s not difficult to see why hair politics is fraught with problems.

It’s no secret that it’s difficult to maintain black hair if you want to conform to unrealistic beauty standards set by a hair industry which mostly caters to caucasian hair. Relaxing and straightening is a pain, and afros are seen by some to be a sign of laziness. Furthermore, weaves are political in that some shun the idea outright, and others believe it’s a great way to be in control of how your hair looks. All of these ideas boil down to one collective thing: hair is political because of conformity being seen as a means to erase or cover up identity.

Fashion turns hair into an objective thing to look at. That’s fine, and I can’t pretend that I don’t buy into glossy magazines on occasion and think about how beautiful people’s hair is. But when there is a history of oppression due to the way people’s hair looks, it’s difficult to ignore the stark difference between how reality differs depending on your culture or background. It is predominantly because of a consumer culture, where the desirable is the unattainable. We are sold the idea that we should have that which we do not already possess; as though somehow, we are not good enough, because everyone else has more than we do.

The same can be said around the politics of hair. It is seen desirable to imitate the hair of others for the ability to simply fit in with current trends. Yet, what these magazines and photoshoots fail to acknowledge is the political significance of hair. For some, their hair is a means of expression which can stand up against the stereotypes they are told to conform to. For some, their hair is a means of showing that natural hair is beautiful, and that a history of oppression and degradation need not reduce them to changing their hair for the sake of fitting in. For others, it’s simply an opportunity to take charge of how their hair is portrayed.

Hair and Identity

No matter what you think about how people should wear their hair, put it away. Because that is not a decision you or I can make for someone else. If there is anything to be learned from hair politics, it is that people have the right to have the hair that they naturally possess, and that no amount of changing, waxing, dyeing or chopping can allow you to take their identity away. You can be black and have a weave. You can be white and have cornrows. It doesn’t change the fact that you’re subject to entirely different beauty standards and pressures.

In each community, regardless of the background of that community, there are people who oust each other for not being “something-enough”. By doing this when it comes to hair, we isolate people from the outset and cause the debate around identity to become convoluted.

I am not my hair, but at the same time, I am. I think hair politics needs to move away from how people treat their hair physically, and focus on the inherent mental effects that cause people to view themselves as inadequate in the first place. That can only really begin to happen if our own communities stand up and accept the people who are different for whatever reason, and celebrate them as being enough by virtue of being alive.

 

Don’t force children to get married

Flickr: Marian, Creative Commons

I can’t laugh about it anymore. Not a day goes by when I’m not gripped with anxiety about the future of Pakistani children. I do not wish to use this as an opportunity to compare my situation to another’s, or to belittle the horrible grievances so many have to suffer through in society. Forced marriage is no laughing matter, and neither is the physical and emotional abuse which often feature where forced marriage is concerned.

According to Plan UK, 1 in 3 girls in the developing world is married by her 18th birthday. The Forced Marriage Unit, led by the Home Office and Foreign & Commonwealth Office, published a report on their findings from 2014. In it, they establish over 88 countries where forced marriage was a concern, and 23% of all the cases were domestic (i.e. in the UK), involving “no overseas element”.

Whilst the majority of campaigns against forced marriage understandably focus on underage girls in developing countries, there is something to be said for the fact that at least 46% of last year’s cases were with victims aged 18 or over, and a further 32% of adults’ ages were unknown. That is potentially 78% of cases with victims aged 18 or over. Whichever statistic you choose to consider, that is still a huge portion of adults finding themselves forced into marriage with few avenues to explore.

All things considered, there must be a proportion of adults in the UK who are suffering from abuse related to forced marriage, many of whom will be students at university, worried about their future. Whilst I do not wish to belittle the experiences of those outside that demographic, I think that my insight as a university student should allow me to focus in a little on university students.

Within my region from Pakistan, I am acutely aware of cases where people have been forced to get married to someone they barely know, ending in divorce, running away, domestic abuse, and at worst, murder.

These individuals were bright, had their whole futures ahead of them.

 

Intrinsically, we need to challenge the authority of the community and the parent. No matter what religions or diktats say about the power of the community, it’s not good for anything unless it’s tolerant and accepting.  A community where people are looked down on for not being married or for choosing to marry someone they want to wholeheartedly marry, is not a healthy community. It’s an animosity-filled, hateful environment which people need help to get out of, and fast.

If only it was easy to get communities where this is considered the norm to change their attitudes. Arranged marriage is also often synonymous with forced marriage in the eyes of many. The pressure and guilt associated with each rejection mounts until someone cracks. If one is found out to have someone else in mind, then immediately, an intervention is called with religious leaders and family members to convince the person otherwise and to choose an appropriate person.

Even if there is no direct threat of violence, an arranged marriage can still be a forced one. It can be a marriage of convenience, to help you leave home, or to help you find some financial independence. It can be a means to escape your temporary situation and hope for the better, because you can’t think of an alternative. An arranged marriage where it wasn’t truly out of choice, but came with heaps of pressure and guilt is certainly not, in my opinion, a free marriage. A free marriage is one where you have wholeheartedly chosen to marry someone, without having to think about the consequences in the community. A forced marriage is much more like one where the only way to go is to say yes, for fear of repercussion or isolation.

I can no longer be an apologist for my community when it comes to arranged marriage. I know in certain cases, people consent to having matches found and would happily marry one of their family’s choices. If that works for you, that’s great. But lots of people in this world do not have the right of choice.

Marriage should not be something to trade your freedom for.

Pakistan needs Independence- of thought

Flickr: Umair Khan, Creative Commons

Happy Pakistani Independence Day. Pakistan Zindabad. I hope you are all celebrating with your families and friends, eating mitthai and sharing the magnificence of Pakistan. One nation, one soul. But if Pakistan wants its soul (and citizens) to be zinda (alive) for a long, prosperous life, then it needs a new kind of independence- one of thought.

A nation which broadly follows Sunni Islam, the image of Pakistan is better defined by bitterness, greed, and jealousy. Some of you will gasp.

“A Pakistani, a British-born one, is telling me I’m bitter, greedy, and jealous?”

Well, not exactly. I’m talking about our image. That thing so many people seek to enshrine in diamonds, glittering with sacrifice, to show it off to anyone who will look.

This is the downfall of Pakistan.

It is embedded deep within our culture, and is carved out of the mountains of stone in people’s hearts. Sacrifice runs in the blood, and is spilt too easily. Our dewy complexions hide beads of sweat, glistening with the reflections of onlookers. We are not sculptures, but statues: unyielding, stuck in a time where we do not belong, a symbol of decay.

The problem within us is not the invasion of new, Western ideas (because a lot of them are not new as it is). It’s not our colonial past and our brutal separation from India. It’s not even our continuing spate of failing governments, marred by assassinations but hiding behind a thin veil of democracy. The problem is our reluctance to shape a future in which people can just get on with our lives. We need to move on, past the old, tired ideas, and make ourselves independent. We need the citizen to be separated from the government. We need the villager to be separated from the village. We need the body to be separated from the mind.

Pakistan is obsessed with what it thinks everyone is saying about them. There is an inherent suspicion within the country. Whether it’s the government and the fear of fraudulent intentions, or the neighbour who has a big mouth when it comes to your big arguments, Pakistan is trapped in an endless cycle of being suspicious and having suspicion cast upon it. The same can be said for our international reputation when the government is accused of pandering to the Taliban or other extremists. Likewise, when parents are certain that their child did something wrong because so-and-so was spreading unverified news about them, Pakistan contributes to its own demise.

Instead of worrying about what other people think, let’s focus on creating something we are proud of. A nation which is held back by backbiting is not a magnificent one, no matter how insistently you pretend it is.

If the small-scale attitudes of Pakistani communities were to improve, this could eventually lead to more trustworthy, socially responsible governments. Yet, Pakistan takes offence when anyone suggests it changes itself, much like a parent whose child makes a valid point.

I see it everywhere. However, Pakistan is damaging its future by controlling every single aspect of people’s lives.

By focussing on what others think, we chain ourselves. In a society which supposedly follows mainstream Islam, judging others rather than leaving it to the judgement of Allah is our main problem. We take too much time deciding to do things in a way others would admire, even though people with negative attitudes will pick apart even the most perfect tablecloth and say it’s stained, because no one can win that argument. You can go back and forth, arguing about how clean it is, and those with unclean intentions and a lack of capacity for rational argument will insist on saying it is dirty for the rest of their lives.

I see this matter as a not entirely straightforward one. Due to the close-mindedness of many within the community, we cannot remove ourselves from our situation and look at what we’ve done. We have raised unhappy people who then inflict their miserable judgements upon others, because they don’t see why anyone else should forgo their duty to be miserable to make everyone happy.

Duty is not necessarily sacrifice. It’s not necessarily negative and foreboding. Real duty is a positive one to ensure that we are a welcoming community of accepting people, who have our own aspirations and encourage others to reach theirs. If this is truly to be the great country everyone pretends it is, everyone, from the village to the city to the capital, needs to ensure that they focus on achieving positive goals.

Just be nice to each other. We don’t need to drag others down to be satisfied. There is nothing preserving about culture except its need to constantly change according to what we do.

Until our community realises that we are the ones responsible for the sorrow and the sadness in our lives, we will live in denial and blame everyone for our misery. No, that is wrong: we should not seek to blame, manipulate, and scapegoat anyone.

Let’s start thinking about the wider impacts of the culture we follow, and do something to ensure we raise strong individuals with individual ways of thinking. Only then can we eradicate the disease of backwardness. Let the people think freely, and be free.

Don’t you want to be happy too?

N.B. I come from a small village near Rawalpindi and visit frequently. Please do not take this as a snapshot of all Pakistanis but those who engage in backward thought.

Why I am not sorry that I am ambitious

Flickr: Chris Roads, Creative Commons

I used to apologise a lot, and in fact, I still do.

All my apologies chained my hopes and ambitions down to the ground. I thought I was grounded, but really I was bound to norms cultivated by seeds of insecurity and guilt. I think it has taken me a while to realise that not every day will be a day where I feel strong enough to fight against all the perceived injustices I face, but at least I am one step closer to being able to wear my dreams on my sleeve. At least now, I can actually have the clarity of thought to realise that there is something wrong with believing you are wrong for dreaming. At least now, I can see the chains that had wrapped themselves around me so tightly that I couldn’t breathe, let alone speak out.

It all started when I was born. A girl, a day late (as per usual), and healthy… except for that facial palsy. So I was already born wrong on three accounts: I was not a boy, I was not on time, and my face was paralysed on the left side. Thus began a lifetime of trying to prove myself to everyone I met, or hadn’t met. Thus began the coiling of chains, like a baby’s finger wrapped around your thumb, reminding you of responsibility you can’t simply shake off.

And since then, I have never been enough.

Why? By simple virtue of being a girl in a Pakistani family.

I have only been praised when it has seemed non-threatening. I can only be congratulated if I am a modest mouse who shies away from everything I have achieved, and disowns it, choosing to cower in the shadow and accept that I am just a stupid girl who was lucky that her parents let her do things.

Never mind the fact that I am ambitious and driven, or that I have sought out so many opportunities for myself. Society tells me that I am lazy and ungrateful. I am impertinent and arrogant. Society says I am something to be beaten into submission and controlled, because if not,  I will become wild and reckless. Western, even.

It’s the life countless people in this world live, simply because no one is interested in Pakistani women, so much as mechanisms with which to exert power and exercise influence. It is degrading, and belittling, and women are made to apologise for it. Even when women have been used completely and utterly, they are still told that they did not do enough to do what they were designed to do.

I am not sorry that I have opinions, ambitions, and a clear heart. I wish to change the world for the better; money, status, or what other people will think are not the driving factors of my ambition.

Do you know what is?

Duty.

For all society has tried to cultivate a negative duty in women where we don’t do things because of duty to be quiet, obedient, and submissive to a culture that bears no relevance to us, we have worked hard to ensure we don’t lose sight of our positive duties. I have been blessed with the privilege of being able to study in the UK, have success in internships and other initiatives, and create relationships that will last a lifetime and ensure I get to where I need to be. Yet, the only reason I have ever done any of this is so I can help other people. Every day, I work for these people. I work for my kindred spirits from across the world who have to face sexism, homophobia, you name it, and feel like taking their life because they do not feel they have one.

So no, I am not sorry that I have ambitions which are clearer and more honest than yours. I am a person. An ambitious person, no less.

You cannot kill my ambition, and you cannot kill a fact.

I am ambitious, and I am not going to apologise for it.