Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Why I Won't Stay Silent In The Face of Injustice

Some of you have asked why I'm making a fuss about the racist attack on my sister, my friend & me from a few days ago. So I'm sharing my Facebook status of a couple of days ago to explain what I'm hoping to achieve:

"In the last 48 hours, the sheer number of the messages of support, love and concern that I've received following that horrible racist attack on Sunny, our friend & me (thankfully they weren't hurt physically) has reminded me that I am privileged to count some wonderful people as friends and family. People from all around the world have reached out to express their shock, their support, their regret, and their love. For that, I am grateful.

There is another element in these messages, though, that worries and deeply upsets me; that so many people's messages included their own experiences of suffering racist abuse, whether in London, in the UK, or in other parts of the world. It infuriates me that this is something that people I love & care about have had to experience. It angers me that so many messages suggest that "this is just the way of the world." And it reinforces my resolve to not let this slide.

Bringing my assailant to justice is just one part of it; making sure that the Met Police change their behaviour when confronted by such an incident is more important for me. I am privileged enough to have a voice, to be the "right" kind of person whose concerns can get airtime & attention, and it is my duty to make sure that the next time someone calls the police after being attacked they are treated with more compassion and sensitivity.

And finally, as someone with a voice, it's also my duty to make sure that I challenge the sort of vile discourse currently playing out in the UK media, where immigrants are being demonised and racial hatred is being legitimised through the comments of all major political parties. Because to stay silent in the face of injustice is to be complicit in it.

Thank you all for being such amazing friends."

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sexism, Sexuality and that Damn Oscars Song

Seth MacFarlane’s hosting of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony is, by now, a well-critiqued car crash. The articles here, here and here are well-argued, analytical and clearly document why the racism and sexism his jokes were based on is deplorable. 

But one aspect of his routine that might have been overlooked is the chorus that supported MacFarlane during his opening number, We Saw Your Boobs. MacFarlane, a trained singer and pianist, was backed in that crass and tasteless number by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA), an organisation that, according to its website, has the vision to sing “for a future free from homophobia and all other discrimination”.

Well, here’s the thing. Agreeing to sing a song that propagates entrenched discrimination in an industry that is hardly known for being diverse and supportive of equality seems like a strange way to fight discrimination. That is where the GMCLA failed, and failed quite spectacularly.

But this is the stinger: not only did the GMCLA fail in fulfilling its own vision; its participation as a willing accomplice in an awfully sexist performance is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon: discrimination in the LGBT community itself. 

To be clear, I am not accusing the GMCLA or any of its members of being consciously sexist. What I am asserting, however, is that their actions are part of a wider phenomenon, whereby a minority community that faces discrimination itself adopts and entrenches other discriminations that the majority community perpetrates. For example, think of ethnic minority communities that may discriminate against disabled people. Or in this case, gay white men demonstrating sexism. (I’m staying away from racism within LGBT communities in this piece, because that is a massive can of worms in itself.)

People like to believe that communities that have historically faced discrimination are supposed to be more accepting of other minorities. This is both na├»ve and simplistic. By that argument, there would be no black people who were homophobic, nor lesbians who had a problem with Muslims. 

The point is this: an individual identity is made of multiple strands: gender, race, sexuality, nationality, education levels, etc. A ‘community’ (German, university alumni, LGBT, Methodist, etc) relies on fostering a collective of people on the basis of one or more elements of their individual identities. Just belonging to one community does not immediately rid its members of their ties to other communities. It also does not remove the prejudices and biases that their membership of those other communities might bring. 

It is therefore normalised for most gay men, regardless of their sexuality, to propagate the sexism inherent in societies. Just because they may not be sexually interested in women does not mean they still do not have male privilege; this privilege may be ‘diminished’ by the discrimination they themselves may face for their sexuality, but it still exists, in different forms. 

Gay attitudes reflecting sexism and misogyny have been discussed recently in several articles (see here and here for good examples) though there is need for more systemic research into this area. For example, the ubiquitous fag hag stereotype in Western gay culture is a good example of this, where a woman who is purportedly unable to ‘land a man of her own’ supposedly seeks out gay male companionship. There is also extensive (though arguably anecdotal) evidence of gay men privileging their own access to female bodies, using their supposed lack of sexual interest as licence to grope women’s bodies (Isaac Mizrahi at the Golden Globes being an excellent case in point if you need illustrating.)

So did the GMCLA think about the sexism that the song they were performing at the Academy Awards? Quite probably not. In the same way that a gay man might not think racial profiling at an airport is a bad thing. Gay people are people first, and they are victim to the same fallibilities; unthinking prejudice being one of them.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A New Visa Form

For those of you who follow this blog, my Twitter feed, or generally interact with me, you will probably know that I am about as anti-imperialist, post-colonial and post-modern as they come. As such, it may not surprise you that I often (and vocally) take umbrage at writers and commentators from the "West" who may choose to express an opinion about the lives and experiences of men and women in a way that either misrepresents those experiences, privileges their own backgrounds, experiences and narratives as a meta-narrative normative that is homogenous and one to aspire to, and/or elides relevant voices or experiences if they do not fit into their own perceptions of the matter under discussion.

So it was not without some disgust that I read this article that appeared on the Huffington Post, in which a white western woman has a conversation with a cab driver in Luxor, Egypt, that - somewhat incredulously - extends to discussions of sex and how the protagonist, a poor, "enlightened" Eygptian taxi driver, having been made aware of the pleasures of sexual intercourse with "sexually liberated" European women, was dissatisfied in Egypt, given the "widespread" prevalence of female genital mutilation. Hailing from the Nick Kristof / Thomas Friedman school of neo-imperialist writing, the writer as liberal investigator is basically nothing more than a misery tourist who, on the basis of limited interactions with the "natives", returns home triumphant and full of insight that we are to accept as absolute, factually accurate, and effectively the last word. 

My disgust with the article, not to mention the high visibility it was receiving by virtue of being on a site like the Huffington Post, was matched by Sara Salem, a blogger that I have recently started interacting with online. Our shared opprobrium was quickly turned into a satirical discussion around the need for a new style of visa questionnaire to weed out such visitors to the non-Western world. (Ironically, most Western commentators, travelling on first world passports, do not require visas - at least short-term ones - to visit many of the countries they formulate ill-informed opinions about. This asymmetry of access, obviously, only works in favour of Western "tourists", unlike most intellectuals from the third world, whose global movements are closely curtailed and systemically restricted by international visa regimes.)

So here, in no particular order, is a list of questions that both of us felt would be appropriate to ask anyone looking to visit Egypt (or indeed any other country of interest to white Western commentators) to screen out ill-informed and poorly thought out articles of the sort that triggered our initial disgust.

  1. Are you, or have you ever been, an utter idiot?
  2. Do you enjoy saving people?
  3. Are you aware that Egypt is no longer a British colony?
  4. Please list, along with weight, any imperialist burden that you carry. Use additional paper if necessary.
  5. What are your thoughts on Thomas Friedman and Nick Kristof?
  6. Are you completely dismissive of your own privilege?
  7. Do you have fantasies of wearing a burqa while in Egypt 'to see what it feels like'?
  8. Do you like appropriating voices in your professional life?
  9. Are you aware that harems are a fiction of your collective white imagination?
  10. Are you, or have you ever been, an advocate for Ayaan Hirsi Ali?
  11. Are you aware that the term 'Mohamedan' is no longer in use?
  12. Do you believe that Islam is incompatible with Western values?
  13. Will you be asking locals why they hate you and why they personally carried out 9/11?
  14. Will you seek out meaningful human interactions, on the basis of which to extrapolate sweeping generalisations?
  15. Will you keep asking about 'Sharia' in a terrified yet knowing tone?
Feel free to send in more that you think might be worth including on our questionnaire!

(PS - Sara has since written an excellent rebuttal to the original article, which you can read here.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

In Which I Write About Those Posters...

Some of you might have heard about those ads that have appeared recently across the New York subway system. After originally declining to post the ads, the MTA was forced by a court order to accept the ads and display them across the subway network earlier this week. Almost immediately the same ads were countered with stickers that marked them as “racist”. Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy was subsequently arrested after an altercation with a pro-poster activist that involved a camera and spray paint.

I’m not blogging, though, about the poster, its contents, Islam, Islamophobia, or the Israel / Palestine question. I’m not even going to talk about the strategies employed by the poster posters, or the anti-poster protesters. This post, though, is about something much simpler: the language used by the protesters to counter the messages of the ads. I despise the language of the ads as much as they do – by speaking in terms of “civilised” vs. “savage” humans, the poster lobby displayed  their appallingly essentialist view that the conflicts in question can be painted very clearly in terms of a (clearly identified as Western Judeo-Christian) cultural entity as being superior to that of its more “savage” (also clearly identified as Eastern Islamic) opponents.

Notwithstanding the sheer arrogance and hubris that such cultural imperialism demonstrates, which I would hope are clearly apparent to most intelligent, rational and critical adults not living in the 18th or 19th centuries, the response to the ads are just as problematic. Posters were defaced with stickers carrying the words, “Hate Speech” and “Racism”. On Twitter, anti-poster protesters are using the hashtag ‘#ProudSavage’ to tag their tweets and register their opposition to the messaging.

But these words themselves are inadequate to address the posters, and for a number of reasons. I have no issues with the phrase, “Hate Speech” – while most provisions for the freedom of speech do not carry the guarantee that audiences of said speech have a right to not be offended, they also do not guarantee that speech that is incendiary, reactionary or designed to promote and promulgate hatred, bigotry and exclusion will not be called out.

However, tagging such hate speech as “racism” is not so straightforward, because by doing so, it makes the simple mistake of conflating religion with race, and this is a fundamental error when referring to globally prevalent faith systems like Islam that are truly multi-racial and multi-ethnic. Implying that Muslims are savages is one thing; to call it discrimination based on race is not accurate. Call it out as “anti-Muslim”, “anti-Islam”, or simply “bigotry”. But racism it is not.

There is an argument that some make – that in modern discourse, “Muslim” is often shorthand for Arab/Middle Eastern/South Asian people who are discriminated against on the basis of their colour. As a single South Asian male born in Pakistan, I have been equally subjected to the “random security checks” at US airports, and also spent a few years on a “special database” that required me to go through secondary screening every time I flew to the US, so I am sympathetic to this argument (thankfully, that changed a couple of years ago, so it’s far less traumatic to fly to New York for work these days.) However, if the point to be made is that the posters misinterpret the concept of “jihad” in Islam and reduce it to the narrow and misguided espousal of violence that terrorist groups advocate, then conflating Islam with “Arab/Middle Eastern” etc only ensures that similar errors of analysis and understanding are being made by the protesters.

Which then brings me to the hashtag, ‘#ProudSavage’, which can easily be understood as a way of appropriating the vocabulary and labels of the pro-poster lobby as a way to subvert it. Twitter is particularly good at this (only last week a similar exercise took place with the hashtag ‘#MuslimRage’, in reaction to a more than slightly ridiculous Newsweek magazine tweet.)

There is a difference, however, between the two. In the latter case, Newsweek made a sweeping generalisation, that was countered with satire (an excellent collection of which can be found here.) In the former, to refer to oneself as a ‘Proud Savage’ is akin to the appropriation of the pejorative “nigger” by the African American community and worn as a badge of pride, rather than one held with irony or sarcasm.

My problem, here, is that appropriation of the language of the “oppressor” only makes sense when the oppressed have limited resources or cultural space to develop, formulate or embrace their own. So if we were in a different century, when both sides of the poster debate did not have similar levels of access to education, media space or other communication tools, to co-opt labels would be a rational (and often only available) strategy. In today’s day, however, to do so is limiting on the part of the anti-poster lobby, because it allows the pro-poster crowd to set the parameters and framework of the debate. A far more powerful and independent response to being called “savage”, in my mind, would be to create an opposing narrative, without letting the perpetrator establish the narrative, language or tone of engagement.

So, to conclude what is probably a fairly rambling post, protest, by all means. Just be sensitive to language, vocabulary and labels. Because even though, unlike sticks and stones that will break your bones, words can enslave your mind.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Diplomacy - Even Unto Its Innermost Parts

Even as I write this, media sources are rife with speculation that the United Kingdom, keen to lay its hands on Julian Assange, who is currently hiding at the Embassy of Ecuador in Central London, where he formally made a claim for political asylum, will revoke the diplomatic status of the embassy, which in turn will allow it to enter the building and arrest Assange.

I've been monitoring the commentary in mainstream media, and have not surprisingly found most UK commentators missing the wood for the trees in this issue. So let me try to spell out why, if the UK government was to carry through with this purported plan, we'd be going down a very dangerous route in international relations.

(Caveat lector: I am neither a government nor public service official myself, nor do I represent any governmental entity. Having said that, I grew up in a diplomatic atmosphere, as my father served in multiple embassies around the world in a diplomatic capacity. The issues of diplomatic immunity, therefore, have very personal resonance for me, especially as there were a few postings that my father undertook which were in incredibly hostile countries, both for himself and his immediate family)

To put it very mildly, Assange is a non-issue in this entire palaver. Regardless of the merits or demerits of the case against him, he is a bit player in a wider political game. Conspiracy theorists, anti-governmentalists and supporters of his cause may (rather, will) claim that the rape charges that have been filed against him in Sweden are politically motivated and intended to silence a man who has become a political liability for major Western governments around the world through his Wikileaks campaign. 

This is not to absolve him of the rape charges. But, by walking into the Ecuadorian embassy in June 2012, Assange was relying on an internationally established protocol - that the embassy of a foreign, sovereign nation is deemed inviolate, and is also deemed to be above the laws of the host country. 

This protocol is clearly spelt out in the Vienna Convention of 1961, which establishes international norms for consular and diplomatic relations between countries. Without going too much into the intricacies of legality, as a UN document that has been ratified by over 185 signatory nations (including the United Kingdom) the document has significant weight. 

One of the key provisions of the Convention is highlighted in Article 22, which states that "The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission". In the current context, therefore, the only way that UK personnel could enter the embassy would be with the express consent of the Ambassador of Ecuador.

The UK Foreign Office indicated yesterday that provisions exist for it under UK law to suspend the diplomatic immunity granted to the Embassy by virtue of a national law. Again, without going into the specifics of national law superceding international convention, this could possibly stand muster, though I wouldn't bet on an international arbitrator accepting this argument. This is specifically because the UK has itself in the past relied on and taken advantage of the immunity granted to its personnel in embassies overseas. In addition, the UK has, like all other nations that are party to the convention, relied on the privileges granted to its diplomatic staff by virtue of the convention, and taken great umbrage if these have not been met. For example, in 2011, the UK took strong exception to the failure of the Iranian government to provide adequate protection to the UK Embassy in Teheran and not prevent it from being stormed by protesters. To then turn around less than a year later and revoke the diplomatic immunity granted to another country's embassy raises significant concerns of UK exceptionalism.

Furthermore, the UK government could not possibly expect that its exceptionalism, were it to proceed as feared, would go unchallenged, either in international courts, in diplomatic fora, or worse still, through a more pernicious loss of standing in the global arena. That is the problem with adopting an exceptionalist policy - one needs the might and international clout to carry through, and the UK has been in a state of gentle international decline, not just militarily, but also economically. As such, its actions, whilst arguably carried out against a country of "little significance", would be of great significance for its relations with other countries. While I doubt that any third state would raise explicit concerns, you can be pretty sure that most embassies would not waste time in sending circulars back to their capitals with a clear risk and threat analysis for themselves in light of unilateral action by the UK against an embassy it was hosting.

The question, then, to ask is why exactly the UK is willing to act in contravention to all established international norms to chase down one man. Even if Assange were to be granted asylum by Ecuador, he would eventually have to leave the embassy in order to leave the country, thereby leaving him open to arrest and extradition (the only exception to this is if Ecuador, in a political masterstroke, were to appoint Assange as UN Ambassador, which would grant him diplomatic immunity globally, and not require the assent of the UK government.)

That, of course, is a question that only the UK Foreign Office can answer.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My First Book

Perhaps it’s apropos for a week in which the London Book Fair kicks off to write this blog post.

This is a post about reading. And about the very first book that I ever read, by myself, to myself. 

This happened many, many years ago. It was an oddly iridescent autumnal afternoon in New York City. I was in the library of a school on the Upper East Side, surrounded by classmates as we made our way through our readers. I remember looking at a hardbound book, the cover an odd aquamarine green, with a large brown/white chick on it, purportedly frolicking in a treetop nest.

It was a book I knew well; I had been introduced to it some weeks back by a South Korean classmate who could already read. She had read it out to me, the story a tragic one of a bird that hatched while its mother was away and who then went on a long, arduous quest that covered several pages encountering strange and wonderful animals and machines, to which it always posed the same, distraught question.

Shawn had read the story out to me, one to one. We had already decided that we were dating. So what if we were only six? This was life in the Big Apple, and one moved quickly, before a Puerto Rican called Carlos or a New England WASP called Douglas moved in. Her name was Shawn, and she was a child model for magazines and catalogues. Yes, it was that kind of school. (To be fair, we were both the best looking ones in that class, and it was inevitable we’d have ended up together. Not to mention the fact that her mother, on having met me on a number of parent-student occasions, was in love with me too)

Anyway, I digress. Shawn had read out the contents of this book to me, and I was stricken. Madly in love with the idea of being able to pick up a book, any book, and being able to read, to decipher it, to understand what mysteries it held within, held a strange and wonderful allure.

Several weeks after that first instance, I found myself standing in the same library, my eyes looking for that green hardbound cover in a sea of books that lined the bookshelves. I had applied myself to understanding the power of the written word with great diligence, keen to impress upon Shawn that I was not a laggard, but merely that I had spent the past several months travelling the South Asian continent whilst she had been learning how to read during a hot New York summer month (yes, Asian children are overachievers.)

I still recall my eye catching that cover, seeing the distinctive (almost feathered) lettering and pulling out the book. I can still close my eyes and remember the feel of that book, its cover having absorbed the dust of several years of grubby schoolchildren fingers into its paper, holding out a slightly grainy feel. I can see myself opening the book, my chubby six-year old finger tracing the letters of the title as I mouthed out the words that I had learnt together made a sentence.

“Are You My Mother?”

And so was born the greatest love affair of my life. The love of reading; the love of the written word, the love of finding a book to read all by myself, no matter where I was, how lonely or scared or unhappy or bored or tired or unwell or happy or content or just there.

A love to last a lifetime. 

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Run, Buddha, Run

This is yet another explanatory post.

A post to explain my life. My choices. My decisions, and those weird things that make up that tiny part of your life that I inhabit and make that life of yours a little bit, well, odd. And for which, I should add, I apologise unconditionally.

If you're someone who's in my life as a friend or acquaintance, you might have recently have had to deal with my continual chatter about running. About how amazing, fascinating, empowering, etc etc etc it all was. About why I feel the need to enter all these marathons, half-marathons, 10k races, charitable events, etc etc. About my desire - no, my need - to keep running.

I owe you an explanation of this choice. This choice to keep running.

Ah yes. Running.

No matter how I articulate this, there are not enough words to explain why running is so important to me. But by virtue of this post, I hope to communicate why it's so critical a part of who I am today, even though it had a very minor (if barely noticeable) part to play in my life this time last year. 

Maybe I should start at the very end of a long run. For example, about two weeks back I ran a little over the length of a half marathon, which is over 21 km. Not an insignificant distance, but which I cannot say is either terrifying or even weirdly challenging anymore. But, the very first time I ran that distance, every single footstep, every time my foot hit the ground, I was motivating myself to keep going, telling myself that I couldn't quit, that it would be worth it when I finished. I had no way to know I'd be able to last the course; nothing except the sheer stubbornness of my head telling my legs to keep moving.

Maybe that's the first part of why I run. Because I know that it is a straightforward way to keep pushing myself. To identify a personal hurdle (a distance, a time, a personal best) and to to challenge it. For someone as utterly competitive as I am, running allows me to compete with the only worthy and evenly matched opponent I know: myself. Every time I start a run, I have only my own track record to contend with - my own personal previous best, my history, my legacy. 

And that is a legacy worth breaking.

But there is another element to my becoming a runner, which I can only explain by going back into my past. And I have to go back to the time that I was a young teenager, living in Namibia, the only slightly effete Indian guy in a class full of Afrikaaner boys and girls. A time that I can now turn around and admit was terribly painful and oppressive in the way that only teenage years can be; a time when being an outsider, of being different, of being unconventional (all those qualities desirable as an adult to differentiate yourself from the crowd) were qualities you abhorred in your teenage years, when being different, unusual, non-conforming even, marked you out, at best, as an outsider, or, at worst, as the one who deigned not to blend in or participate. Or worse still, marked you out as the week's target to be bullied during lunch breaks.

In my case, these were not attributes that I could step away from, and which only served to emphasise my difference from my peers. Add to that my innate introversion at that age, and I was your stereotypically emo teenager. The one who stayed indoors, read a lot, played music, and was pretty studious in class. In another time, another space, I might have become a Goth.

I didn't. I just survived. (Mostly because Indian kids don't make good Goths.) I made do, I did well academically, I somehow managed to get through what I today recognise as one of the most isolated periods of my life. But it was a time when I was the chubby emotional outsider who didn't play sport, who didn't fit in, who didn't actually do anything that all the other boys my age did. And by virtue of the bullying, became someone who was embarrassed of my weight, of being chubby, of being, well, fat. And my inability to do anything athletic reinforced that sense of worthlessness, no matter what I might have achieved in other aspects of my life; who cared if I had a near-perfect academic grade if I was still a fat kid? 

But, as an adult, things have changed. I've lost weight. I've grown comfortable in my skin (well, mostly.) I've learnt to accept myself. And I found pleasure in sports. Mostly because I've realised that the sports that I do best at are the ones where I don't have to be part of a team, a forced commune that encourages bonds and relies on others. I work best when I am on my own, pushing myself, and ultimately, against myself. Other people just.. get in the way. They complicate matters, force you to rely on them, make your performance dependent on their performance. When it comes to sport, I am not a team player. And running has allowed me that avenue of an activity that does not rely on much more than a good pair of shoes, the use of my own legs, and the ground beneath my feet. And I can leave the house, hit the road, and be free.

Perhaps the oddest sensation is now revelling in the sheer physicality of my body. Realising that I can run, I can keep going for distances that previously I thought impossible, that my body will not let me down, that it will work with my will and my mind and together we can do things that are so simple, so natural, and yet unbelievable. I can think back to a particular moment during my half marathon two weeks back, around the time that I had covered three quarters of the distance, when my legs were starting to feel the strain of the long uphill course, when I suddenly got my second wind. Suddenly the leaden feeling was gone from my calves, my feet didn't hurt anymore and I had that characteristic shiver down my spine as the endorphins rushed down from my brain. I could see people lining the course cheering, their faces a mixture of wonder and enthusiasm at the effort that I and so many other runners were making - and there was a sense that I was, for once, invincible.

It was magic. 

And that sense of freedom, of liberation, of knowing that my body is no longer the weak, ineffectual one that I recalled from my teenage years, makes me keep wanting to run. To keep pushing it, to keep finding new challenges, new hurdles, new adventures for us to explore together. After so many years of an uneasy acquaintance between us, I have come to love my body. 

So now, when I run as an adult, when I mark my time down the Embankment in London, when I jog past crowds of tourists surrounding the base of the London Eye, I can see many people look at me with bemusement. There I am, in my running gear (which, no matter what anyone might tell you, is never flattering, but utterly critical for longer distances). There are people who might chuckle at seeing me in running tights, folks who might mock my sweatband-decked forehead, my waterproofs. The oddest looks are the ones I get when I run past Vauxhall and see the dregs of last night's clubbing emerging from the shadowy corridors under the railway arches, while I pound the pavements past them, my weekend mornings now characterised by rising early rather than sleeping in late, hungover and bleary eyed.

But every so often, I catch the eye of a random passersby, who clocks me, sees my solitary state of bliss, and who I know, from the glimmer in their eye, understands.

I of course run past them, imagining myself growing fainter as the distance between us opens up. And if I run past a big building of steel and glass and happen to catch my reflection, I can see the slightest smile playing around my lips.

Because I am, of course, running.