Tags: Activism, Feminism, India, Islamophobia
Creating Kalaashakti, a series of workshops centered on spiritual activism and healing, was a personal labor of love. The spiritual activism of these workshops was an experiment in a different kind of anti-violence, one that increased our inner fortitude to be with suffering and know it intimately, and open ourselves to healing in community — all the while reclaiming a public space of our very own.
I planted the seeds of Kalaashakti in two places. First in communal Gujarat, in the “post” conflict of the brutal, anti-Muslim genocide of 2002 which left thousands of Muslims killed and hundreds of Muslim women sexually violated. Second in California’s Bay Area, where law enforcement and FBI surveillance incessantly police Muslim public spaces and Syrian refugees fleeing violence are met with xenophobic U.S. governors and despicably low admission quotas.
“Kalaashakti” means art + the feminine principle of creation. It was meant to shift focus away from masculine modes of dismantling unjust external institutions and shift towards the self-transformative tools that can aid us in imagining a more just future. Spiritual activist practices are intrinsically anti-heteropatriarchal, anticolonial, and anticapitalist. They allow us to reclaim our knowledge, power and personhood through self-inquiry. The healing arts, alongside meditation, movement and mindfulness formed the ground of Kalaashakti, strengthening our ability to be with and know suffering more fully. With that new-found knowledge, we could arrive at knowing interconnection and compassion too.
Kalaashakti was forged by my internal and innate need to heal and be seen as whole. It originated from a deep commitment to know myself through others and increase intimacy and vulnerability. Ironically, it was the disavowal of my own Muslim identity that eventually led me to spiritual activism, and it was silencing and internalized shame that lead to my poetry and art activism.
I grew up in white, conservative Ohio, as a child of Indian immigrants, and as a grandchild of poor, traveling imams. My dad was a disabled painter, my mom a full-time caretaker. I grew up in a Bohra Muslim community with corrupt, patriarchal religious leaders who thwarted free thought and pushed a narrow vision of Islam. They saw themselves as the gatekeepers of the community and made us outcasts when my brother married a Catholic woman. When I contested their refusal to perform the marriage using scriptural evidence, they demanded I never read an English translation of the Quran again.
I again experienced first-hand the effects of intergenerational trauma when, as a young child, my own experience of sexual assault resurfaced and my mother told me not to tell anyone, prosecute or seek justice, because telling my story publicly would bring more shame and stigma to the family. Silence compounded upon silence. Poetry became a way for me to survive, to exist even after being beaten down by present misogynists and pulled at by battered ancestors of the past.
The violence I suffered in my home and at my masjid caused me to renegotiate my voice and identity. I refused Islam as a religious institution. As I entered my freshman year of college right after 9/11, I acknowledged it only to combat Islamophobic ideology and hate. I sought my own interpretations instead and majored in Arabic.
Eventually, I moved to Syria, the first majority-Muslim country I had ever lived in. My studies in Syria lead to an investigation of legacies of French colonial violence and its role in perpetuating honor killings through colonial law. They also led me to transnational feminism. Afterwards, I moved to Los Angeles for a PhD in Gender Studies. My scholarly inclinations were to understand structural and systemic violence against women, and as my scholarship met practice, I became rooted in local community struggles against gender violence and for immigrant rights. All the while, I longed for a Muslim community that had inclusive visions of Islam and infused their spirituality with calls for social justice.
In 2010, I decided to reconnect with my homeland of India and the history of anti-Muslim violence in my home state of Gujarat. I recognized the reach of U.S. empire and ideology and how intimately Islamophobia in the U.S. was connected to communal violence against Muslims in India. At that point in my intellectual and activist trajectory, I only knew certain strategies for anti-violence — to lie down in the middle of the street and block buses from deporting and prisons from detaining, or read and write about horrific accounts of gendered violence and the systems that perpetuated them. Because my family was unable to afford frequent trips during my childhood, I had been separated from India for 15 years. When I sought to fund my own trip in 2011, I received a research grant through my privileged access to institutional resources. I made the journey because I wanted to meet my family and step out of estrangement.
In fact, I made the journey for many reasons — because I had studied violence directed at Muslim women in many Middle Eastern contexts but never within my own home state. Because of the silence from my Gujarati, Muslim family. Because of the stories I never heard. Because I had extensively studied Islamophobia and Gujarat, India was yet another important site that was inextricably bound to anti-Muslim violence in the U.S. And because of my desire to find a home in Islam and in a whole, dignified self.
Despite my good intentions to connect and recover knowledge about myself, power dynamics and my Western educational privilege meant that fissures and follies were inescapable. One week after arriving in the pre-monsoon heat of Ahmedabad in 2011, I realized a distance in experience with Muslim women survivors of 2002 that I could not bridge. So, I fell, regretfully, in line with consumptive practices of colonial research that merely extracted stories from “natives.”
For example, I wrote in my field notes:
After leaving Gandhi Hall and a meeting with Muslim women working on “children’s education post-riots,” we arrive in the Muslim quarter and in the thick crowd of topies and ornis, Rihanna bhen, with dark kohl outlining her bright, intense eyes spots us and leads us to the Saath office. She motions for us to take a seat and wait, straightens her pant cuffs and, draining a metal cup into her throat, looks to a group of gathered women: Han, Bol (Yes, speak). I watch her dust off a calculator with the edge of her khemis, dirt settling and unsettling quickly here. She designates a group leader and they arrive at a sufficient loan for this month and its layered on top of the small and large tragedies of the last few years. While signing a stack of requests, Rihanna bhen glances up long enough to tell me she’s taking me to Anjum colony, one of the buildings where displaced Muslims were relocated after the 2002 riots. I know I’m not ready but have no idea what preparation means. I brace myself and say, “It’s a way to begin.”
Rihanna bhen assumed I was just another foreign riot-tourist, wanting to see the afflicted colonies and be regaled with tales of tragedy and escape. As Rita bhen, a counselor from the feminist, Baroda-based NGO, Sahiyar said, “Foreigners would come and keep asking about 2002, keep picking scabs, and survivors didn’t want to talk about it again….[sometimes] after having to talk about it again they stay in a trance for a week.” I did want to hear stories about the communal violence but not through haphazard gatherings with women randomly assembled in the relief colonies to perform for Western researchers. As I awkwardly stumbled through my first group interview, which was with 8-10 women gathered on an open balcony with men leaning in from doorways and my dad sitting next to me to help translate, the responses to my questions about gendered violence and its effects were brief and vapid.
I felt reckless in my approach. Even if there were no truly safe spaces, this was not the mode and environment in which I wanted to engage with these women. I realized that neither would this approach be an effective method to gather information nor would it allow for the compassion and ethics I held as core values in my research. Kalaashakti was stirring and asking to be manifested in its place.
When I first met the organizers of Sahiyar, almost a half-year later, I felt I had found my political home. In the midst of organizations fighting for reparations through an unjust and bureaucratically exhausting legal system, Sahiyar stood out with their community street theater performances, communal harmony trainings in schools, and rare offerings of family counseling. When I proposed Kalaashakti to Sahiyar’s co-founder and executive director, Trupti Shah, she trusted the value of the storytelling-centered approach and invited me to lead weekly sessions with the Muslim women fieldworkers that would replace their mandatory trainings.
In conceiving of my methodology and curriculum for the Kalaashakti workshops, I drew from and built upon theorists, thinkers and creatives such as Gloria Anzaldua, Lata Mani, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Mary Watkins, and Helene Shulman. I defined Spirit and spirituality as a trust in mysterious sources, in otherness that is oneness, and an inextricable link to something beyond and above and often unseen. A return to Spirit, then, could alleviate the symptoms and loss of isolated suffering and, instead, reintegrate, rehumanize, reinsert compassion and empathy, and bring us closer to the wounds of others as reflections of our own.
The liberatory arts are a natural vehicle for that intimacy with injury, cultivation of compassion, and safe approach towards re-embodiment. I discovered that this holistic approach to gathering stories of trauma and healing, in order to elicit and affirm multiple intelligences and ways of knowing, is absolutely crucial to understand and transform the trauma in Muslim women and gender non-conforming people’s experiences. As Elaine Scarry declares about the healing arts in The Body in Pain, “…physical pain destroys meaning, since pain has no object: it is not ‘of’ or ‘for’ or ‘about’ anything. Therefore… the opposite of pain must be creativity. Every human act of ‘making’ is a movement away from pain. The antidote to pain is imagination: our ability to make meaning.”
And, even as Kalaashakti Gujarat blossomed as a healing arts workshop space, and as an alternative to traditional ethnographic interviews, I was challenged to differentiate between the life experiences of the participants and my own. Although I resonated with their accounts of violence and connected it to patterns of anti-Muslim violence in the diaspora, our conditions of threat and survival were different. Even as I was pulled towards multiple homelands, I didn’t live under the anti-Muslim laws, policies and threats of the Gujarati political and justice system. The potential to bond with the narrators of the stories I witnessed in a shared struggle was an alluring and romanticized desire for connection. In reality, I could not fully imagine the stakes for these women in their struggles for healing, as the contexts, extent, and continuance of our wounds differed greatly. My temporary presence was too ephemeral for engaged solidarity.
Upon returning to California after my second fieldwork trip to India in two years, having completed my fifth workshop series — my heart broken by a perpetual leaving — I asked myself why I chose the shifting grounds and locations of transnational activism. And I asked, if I made a similar call here would others like me, separate and seeking, answer? Perhaps that’s why my collaborator, Zuha Khan, and I established a Kalaashakti Bay Area chapter in 2013 for Muslim women and gender non-conforming people.
I was again driven by longing to belong as well as by a responsibility to be rooted in the local. I traveled to the Bay by bus or train almost every month for half a year, this time with no intention to collect, document, transcribe. Instead, I was met with co-hosts and co-facilitators that offered food and guidance. I was open to an unfolding process, one without objectives, that instead listened for organically emerging topics. Our collective experience was less easy to pinpoint, both in terms of shared trauma and in terms of ancestral lineage and geographic paths of migration and resettlement. Being a Muslim diaspora in the West meant we were scattered and that our traumas had no unified epicenter, making our hybrid identities both a challenge and magnetism in our coming together.
Read part 2 here.
What a vibrant team of healers to get the great honor to serve and hold space with! Saturday's wellness clinic brought together reiki healers, massage therapists, ayurvedic practitioners, acupuncturists, card readers and meditators with communities in Lancaster impacted by police violence. I lead a workshop on movement, breathing, meditation and the healing arts. A mother brought her three children and shared how the ringing of the bell invoked memories of her own Buddhist mother attending temple. And so the bell was infused with all our elders and lineages. And when I asked what community resilience looks and feels like to them, they painted winding paths folding onto themselves in vivid colors, the cleansing flow of rivers, and hands held under a sunset gradient. We closed our circle with a weather check-out and folks shared how their previous stormy or cloudy or windy internal weather conditions were now met with slivers of sunlight, with some steadiness and calm. DPN's Wellness Clinic was a rare moment when giver and receiver blended into One. I felt uplifted, not depleted, by caring for and with and cultivating more compassionate hearts for the thriving of us all.
Such a joy to co-facilitate this space with Neelam Pathikonda and circle up with the queer South Asian fam of Satrang! We lead folks in reflection and ritual, letting go of what doesn't serve us and the dead weight of 2017 -- dissolving doubt, limiting beliefs, shame, fear and self-isolation. And then we called in some nourishment in the new year. Painting rocks with reframes -- sacred, hopeful messages to orient ourselves around and align with our divinity. And to place on our altars because humans were made for forgetting. And remembering.
“Do you wanna join us for meditation?” I asked.
“Naw. I’m too angry.”
I had caught him, mid torrent, his throat still strained and stretched from volleying, “Stop killer cops!” and “Justice for Ezell Ford!” across 1st Street. But no one responded and the words bounced then rolled still under the shade of trees. Unnoticed by the assembly of mourners. Mourning the French journalists of noxious lure, of churning hate bait, breeding new “terrorists” from the Muslim ghettos of relegated scum. Their caricature hands and satire voices were cut short. And this crowd, this massive crowd, gathered in the lawn of city hall in front of gallant salutes of LA’s finest in blue. Children perched on shoulders to peer at the pomp and honor showered on provocateurs who had no problem feeding the public fear. Feeding them misunderstanding. Zombie mob hate. Immigration Invasion. Mass immigration from the THIRD world. NON European. Fertile infiltration. Litters of criminals. North African French Muslims. American Blacks. So their pens, protected. And our brown and Black children’s laughter and play sucked in to avoid reprisal. For living and undoing silence. The vigil for Hedbo reporter lives lost continued. Turning away from the Black life and lives taken across the street by police that now pushed papers.
How barbaric and unjustified these terrorist assassins. All Muslims should apologize. How insensitive and aggressive these Black protesters. All Black people should abide the law, be grateful, and settle down.
How disgusting to unsee humanity and blink away your neighbors’ suffering; to only grieve those that look like you. To grieve what you claim are the liberties they stood for when it was always and only your right to be blind.
I looked deeply at my Black brother.
“Everyone needs a break from anger.”
“My anger’s keeping me warm.” He said.
I spread out the blanket my Jiji had sewn; royal purples, midnight blues, spring greens to cushion us from the cold of grey. Our circle kept wiggling outwards, making room for more. An elderly woman in a chair. The lead organizer’s four children. I brought the bell from Deer Park. Cedar wood and Rosemary essence. Shawls to cover shoulders. Hafiz. Whatever portable trinkets so I could carry sacred with me. It’s hard to temper your voice, know when and how to insert instructions between horns and sirens and concrete geysers. We checked in with what filled us with happiness and out with hands clasped, filling lungs then letting air tumble out in cascades of laughter. Laughing yoga, my 8 year old guru requested. In between we sat. Breathed. Released. Tried. We adjusted numb feet, scratched elbows, straightened and slouched. I asked them to take a break from movement, from crafting and challenging and strategy. A break to catch their breath, and let it touch the parts that hurt.
Towards Building a Progressive Coalition: India 2014 Elections | Satrang and South Asians for Justice, LA
It was incredible to witness, as South Asian attendees and a few Asian allies entered the event, how, immediately, coming together and exchanging stories of shock, grief and outrage sent smiles and laughs rippling through the gatherers, showing that listening and being heard had an amazing power to bring peace and solace. Set against the backdrop of an art installation on communal violence in Gujarat featuring stories of Muslim organizers from Sahiyar, a women’s rights organization in Baroda, Gujarat, and Sahir Raza’s photography taken in the aftermath of the 2002 genocide, our facilitators Shyamala Moorty and Shruti Purkayastha lead us through a movement ice breaker. Both trained in theatre and dance, Shyamala and Shruti asked us to assess how the traumatic results of the 2014 Indian elections have been written into our bodies.
After these embodied check-ins and introductions (including preferred gender pronouns), we launched into the awareness-building portion of the evening. Four intersectional topics were covered: the history and present of communal violence in Gujarat and Narendra Modi’s rise to power; homophobia, sexuality and the reinstitution of article 377; neoliberalism, development and Hindutva; and connections between Hindu nationalist campaigns and electoral politics in the U.S.
The first speaker, Naazneen Diwan explored how gendered violence was employed during the 2002 genocide in Gujarat, as eliminating Muslim women as the carriers of culture, ideology and future generations brought Hindu nationalists and fundamentalists one step closer to eliminating the undesirable Muslim element in Indian society. She discussed how the 2002 genocide and targeting of various minorities in Gujarat (including Christians, Dalits, and Sikhs) was a politically lucrative move for Modi and that even after his recent election to Prime Minister, violence and terror against the most vulnerable communities continue. Diya Bose followed, discussing how the neoliberal policies that Modi so fervently stands by, have drained public resources for decades while pandering to patriarchy and devaluing women’s labor. She further debunked Gujarat as a model of development and prosperity for the rest of India, highlighting that Gujarat’s growth rate was far from extraordinary (being on par with other states, including Kerala) while it performs below average in human development (access to water, healthcare, education). Asad Haidar considered the 2013 reinstitution of article 377 which criminalizes homosexuality and makes gay populations vulnerable to harassment, extortion by law enforcement, assault and increased silencing. He discussed how this 2013 decision had the influence of a coalition of conservative religious groups behind it, which leaves us to wonder how the ruling BJP, a conservative Hindu nationalist party, will continue to fan the flames of homophobia. Taz Ahmed, our final speaker, mapped the rise of Hindutva in the U.S. citing the 1980’s and 90’s as rife with Hindu right youth camps funded by the RSS and VHP. In the post-9/11 era, she examined the ways Hindu Americans have distanced themselves from brownness and Muslimness, seeking cover in assimilation and ally-ship with growing Islamophobia.
Every part of the event was designed to bridge personal reflections with collective shared experiences. Time was carved out between each speaker to channel stirring intense emotions into art-making. We picked up markers, colored pencils and crayons and drew, wrote, diagrammed whatever spoke to us and that we would carry out of that room. The partnered sharing that followed allowed for a more intimate way to dialogue. Our closing activity was a collectively constructed collage, in which we took all of our creations and positioned them based on connections and resonances. We discussed the common threads, what was emerging through these expressions and circled up. Our check-out circle was a call to how we might feel moved and compelled to build further and what those conversations and actions would look like. The energy to carry this work forward together was effervescent and a historically devastating moment in Indian politics and human rights felt more manageable to bear, as isolation dissipated and solidarity grew in its place.