I was a paranoid mum when my daughter was growing up. Raising her in a city/country/continent far removed from where I was raised made me paranoid. My daughter always knew which two people in the world she could trust implicitly, no matter what. One of them was me. I went through every scenario in my mind that could potentially harm her and told her how to save herself if that happened. This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. As a woman of colour living in Perth in the 80s and 90s during the ascent of Pauline Hanson, I needed my daughter to be prepared for the day someone would tell her to ‘go back where she came from’ as this happened to me on a reasonably regular basis. I also needed to warn her about the effects of drugs, alcohol and under-age sex, (this was the 90s after all). I attempted to enrol her in judo, karate and ju-jitsu classes but she drew the line at that. Once, I became hysterical because she was five minutes later than she said she’d be. She learned early to tell me things I don’t remember ever telling my own mother. Only people who had been through a stringent vetting process were considered safe to be around her. One of them was me.
I worried so much about the effects this policing of her young body would have on her. But what choice did I have? How could I raise her as I had been raised? In a country and a time so far removed I may as well have grown up on a distant planet. My mother had a relaxed parenting style. (I was her third and whatever paranoia she may have had was well and truly over by the time I arrived). And we were good girls, by and large, with no concept of drugs, sex and rock n roll. Our rebellion consisted of sneaking out for a movie when we were supposed to be at school. Or stealing loose change so we could buy berries from the old woman who wasn’t allowed inside the school. But we were never warned about what a tricky world it is to negotiate when you are young, brown and female. We were never instructed on how to protect ourselves when we were fondled and touched by people considered ‘safe.’ We did not know that our words would be automatically discounted because we were girls so we chose not to say anything. We had no idea that girl bodies were fair game to every male in the vicinity. We only learned about these things when we went to college and acquired a vocabulary for that which we felt but could not describe.
Yes, I became a paranoid mum because I had a name for all those things I did not want my daughter to know. Patriarchy mostly, and all that it covers, hides, discounts, allows, promotes.
And now, as a young woman, my daughter tells me that she knows how fiercely loved she was. How protected. How cherished. ‘You raised me without burdening me with gendered expectations’ she said to me once and my heart stilled at that. Of course she slashed at restraints. Of course we clashed. Of course she tested those boundaries. But she knew how to fight back. She knew how to prevent people from burdening her with their expectations. Sometimes she stopped me. That’s how I knew I could stop policing her body.
I have been doing a bit of that lately – neglecting the blog, I mean. I’ve been immersed in submissions for two journals I’m currently editing (both, as guest editor). Then I was distracted by the fabulous Perth Writers Festival which coincided with my sister’s soul-warming visit. And finally, I’m pinching myself because I actually have a publisher for the story I’ve been living with for almost ten years; the story that became the novel that I submitted for my PhD. The year so far has been busy!
I find I’m happiest (and saddest) when immersed in the stories of women who triumph against odds. Most of my PhD research was linked to stories of survival and as I edit the special issue on Female Genital Mutilation for Cafe Dissensus, I find myself drawn back into the spirit that enables women to go on, often after everyone else has given up. But I feel angry as well, especially when I see and hear women being heckled or abused for doing what they can in order to circumvent the awful misogyny, that in Australia at least, seems to be just waiting in the wings to swoop.
At the recent Perth Writers Festival, I was privileged to attend a panel discussion with the fabulous Charlotte Wood, author of The Natural Way of Things. When the time came to ask questions of the writers, who included Helen Ellis and Guinevere Glasfurd, a man in the audience stood up and instantly made me ashamed I was breathing the same air as him. This man told Charlotte Wood that most of the characters in her novel were “pathetic” and one of the main characters, Yolande, “was just like a man” and that’s why he liked her. Charlotte Wood maintained her grace and composure but some of the women in the audience that I spoke to afterwards wanted to howl with rage or shout him down. But we didn’t. We behaved like nice girls; ironically Wood had started the discussion by saying that she didn’t write about nice girls.
So why do women play nice when men don’t? Are we taught perfection and niceness instead of bravery and fairness? And why is our silence always construed as weakness? As I transcribe the interviews and read the testimonies of the women who have come forward to speak of female circumcision, I hope this will change. I hope our voices will be louder than the ones that shout us down. I hope we will continue to say uncomfortable things and I hope that my voice doesn’t falter the next time I need to raise it.
Lay your flag on my wall, their bodies, those streets
Baghdad. Beirut. Sydney. Paris.
Name the things that terrify you
Jihad. Sharia. Muslim. Refugee.
Inside cities crowded with impromptu shrines
Lay your flowers. Words. Tears. Prayers.
Cry quietly or howl with rage
Plead. Applaud. Dismiss. Condemn.
This is how we grieve.
The third leg of my journey took me to the nation’s capital, Delhi. We arrived here just before the spring festival of Holi and a friend invited us to her house to experience this riotous explosion of colour, food and drink. My friend and I had been at school and university together, then gone our separate ways and countries to grow up and raise our own. And in her high-rise apartment, watching the festivities below, we remembered our younger selves tenderly. Our daughters are now older than we were in that time.
As I write this piece, Indians have just voted in their big, noisy, democratic general election. Everyone had a political opinion, usually a savvy one, about the state of the nation. A woman on the train said to me that Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great grandfather had all been Prime Ministers of India, was a joke. ‘And we don’t need a comedian to run the country,’ she said. ‘What about Modi?’ I asked. ‘Oh, he’s scary,’ she replied, ‘and we don’t need a villain either.’ And there it was – the complexities of deciding between a weak secular-minded leader and a strong right-wing nationalist leader, reduced to the simple binary of a Bollywood movie. There were other characters in the cast too – an actress from the south of India, a man who wore a cap and had ink thrown at him at rallies, the incumbent Prime Minister who had disappointed a nation for too long and the Italian born mother of the latest hopeful from the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.
‘I am a Muslim,’ the cab driver on my first morning in Delhi said when I asked him who he would vote for. ‘For the first time I’m scared. It doesn’t matter who I vote for. Modi will become Prime Minister.’ On a different cab ride, this time to the 12th century Victory Tower built by a Muslim king, another driver switched off the engine impatiently in a traffic jam and blamed ‘immigrants’ for the state of his city. ‘I grew up here,’ he said, pointing to the ugly flyover to the right of us and the decrepit buildings staggering to the left of us. ‘There were fields here, flowers, trees – peacocks roamed here – then the immigrants came in from other states and ruined my city.’
I looked out at the Islamic buildings we rolled past, Qutub Minar, Jama Masjid, Red Fort, Humayan’s Tomb and wondered what Delhi would look like without its Muslim heritage and the tourist dollars those buildings brought in. ‘It’s good you don’t live here,’ the driver said, twisting around to flash me an unexpected smile. ‘It would break your heart.’
Posted in Books and writing
Tagged books, Delhi, history, Identity, immigrants, India, literature, memory, place, travel, writing