On Oct. 12th, a Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Sahar Shafqat joined Co-Directors, Dia and Darakshan, along with our intern, Amirah, at the Washington Peace Center office for a critical conversation that lasted over two hours. With the depth of the conversation, we decided to produce a two-part edition in order to capture the honest vulnerability and intimate look into the global to local connections that are so important to movement and community building.
Part 1 features navigating Pakistani, Muslim & Queer identities, trans-national organizing and militarized U.S.- Pakistani Relations. This also includes deep and direct dialogue between Co-Director Darakshan Raja and Dr. Sahar Shafqat on connecting as Pakistani Muslims and what showing up means for them both in the movement.
Dia: Thank you for joining us for a Critical Conversation, especially leading up to the Global 2 Local Connections event next week which you are the featured speaker on. I'm going to start with a few questions but really wanted to honor a dialogue between you and Darakshan to dig deeper. Sahar, can you share with us a little bit about yourself, your story and your work?
Dr. Shafqat: I was born and raised in Pakistan and that really gave me a lot. So I come from a lot of privilege and I was raised in a lot of privilege in Pakistan. I think being in that space as a queer person, and I was aware of my queerness very early in life before I had language for it. And as a woman, I think that instinctively gave me a critical sense because I would question a lot of things. And then you know there are other things that are impossible to ignore growing up in a place like that. The class divide, the poverty, the ways in which the state is so complicit in the exploitation of people around you. And they justify that and I became very instinctively distrustful of narratives that glorified certain systems of exploitation as ways to actually help people. Like for example, if I did not employ all of these servants than what will they do, like domestic work. Then what will they do? They’ll be destitute because they are incapable of figuring anything else out. That’s just a way to actually maintain that system.
But anyway when I came to the US for college and my undergrad was a very elite liberal arts college, so that was very problematic, but the one thing that I did get there was language for a lot of my politics. Like for what I had been instinctively feeling and it kind of all come together and I think also the distance from Pakistan. It’s really hard to not get caught up in nationalism when you’re living inside something like that; that distance really allowed me to really fully question a lot of things I had grown up with. And that also has stayed with me because I think it has made me extremely, not just distrustful, but really opposed to nationalism because I see the dangerous ways in which nationalism perpetuates that system. So in terms of like activism I think that I have been involved in lots of different efforts. I find myself being drawn to class issues, I was really active on my campus, and still am, in an effort to put in a living wage and I have also tried to really, and that’s just one example. We have not been successful, we’ve gotten a big bump for the lowest paid. But we’re still working on it. We could get it up more but I have also been involved in anti-war activism but I think what I really have become convinced of is local activism and really try to work on having impact on these cases that happen on an everyday basis. I think that’s where we can actually have an effect.
I think the one thing I have been uncomfortable about that I am slowly coming to terms with is activism that involves advocating for me, for Muslims, for queer people. Like I did a lot of South Asian activism and a lot of it was focused against the Hindu right wing organizing in the United States. I have also done a lot of queer organizing but that just felt a little bit removed. But I think since 9/11 I have been really trying to become comfortable with advocating for queer Muslims. I’m not sure where that comes from, but I think part of it is recognizing that I think I am uncomfortable because I see myself as somebody who had a lot of privilege so it feels weird for me to talk about ways in which I don’t. So that is sort of an ongoing process.
Dia: So you kind of segued into the next set of questions about navigating intersectionality through your activism and in being a professor as well. Is there more that you want to speak to that in terms of your intersectionality of your identity in the work you are doing?
Dr. Shafqat: Yeah. I think the biggest or the sharpest intersections right now for me are being Muslim and queer. I’m not an observant Muslim and I thought for many years that I wasn’t really Muslim and of course I am and still was but I thought that there was for me to just foreground queerness. That was ridiculous. I think that really came home after 9/11, so I think the ways in which I view my intersectionality is especially with MASGD with the queer Muslim organizing because that also means thinking about faith, thinking about culture, thinking about race because Muslim is a hypothetical category in the United States.
Darakshan: There was something you said earlier about feeling uncomfortable centering your Muslim identity as the most important, and I see that in myself and other Muslims I come across. It’s the idea that the centering of Muslim-ness is not the most urgent issue or it’s not the most urgent thing and that we must be first in solidarity with everybody else because their struggles are more severe and serious and that the Muslim struggle isn’t. So I want to hear a little bit more from you about that path, that journey. It’s also interesting that you mentioned the faith identity, because there’s also a racialization of being a Muslim. How have you navigated that? Also, to be queer and Muslim you are on the margins in the Muslim community. However, you are being thrust into a community, a society, where you’re Muslim-ness, you are seen as a representative for everyone. How have you navigated being on the margins, but still advocating for the Muslim community, pushing the Muslim community on their homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia, and also pushing non-Muslims on all that as well and on their Islamophobia and xenophobia. That’s a lot to navigate.
Dr. Shafqat: I think that I’m sure I have learned from you. Shoutout to Darakshan. I think it goes back to what I said earlier about thinking that I could separate my different identities. Just thinking back to when I was really young, when I was in college and saying some really naive things. I was just learning America. I had just arrived and I didn’t really understand, I was learning race, like what American society really is and I had no idea how things operated. So I really thought that one could kind of force out those things. I think as an immigrant especially I think there’s a fantasy that one can fall into that you can reinvent yourself and be who you want to be and that is not true at all because you enter into a society and a culture, into America, and America already has an idea of who you are, what you can be and how you should behave.
For example, as somebody who is not really observant, I was raised in an observant household and I have a lot of affection for my Muslim faith and I observe a lot of those traditions and I get a lot of my values actually from how I was raised like charity and community, like those are the things that I observe and are part of my Muslim faith. I don’t know what word to give that, religion, religious, I don’t know but it’s definitely practices from my faith tradition that I observe. I fast, but I had this fantasy that if I’m not “religious” than I am not a Muslim and that was never true. But I was living in this fantasy and I think it really got most rudely shaken during 9/11. And I think 9/11 really crystalized this moment when it actually doesn’t matter what you believe and what you think as long as people think you are Muslim, you are Muslim. And of course in that category falls Sikh people, people that are vaguely brown kind of fall into that category, some Black folks fall into that category and I think what I have really seen is this racializing of Muslim identity. That’s not actually about what you may be but is all about what you look like, in some ways how you dress, where you are from. It’s not really about White Muslims. It’s not at all actually. You know when Donald Trump says “I want to ban all Muslims” he is thinking of a very specific racialized category. I think it makes perfect sense to me that America is so racialized that it actually has to impose that racialized lens onto whatever is going on, even if it’s not. And of course Islam and Muslims are not new in America, it’s sort of a new concern or a new threat in terms of perception of mainstream American culture. So that’s one part of it. The second part of it is that you asked in terms of pushing the Muslim community, I think it’s something that I have been really interested in doing for a long time in terms of pushing the mainstream Muslim community. The spaces that I tend to occupy are not mainstream Muslim communities and that has been by choice. But I think the other moment that really changed that was Orlando this summer. You know I just realized that it is no longer a luxury for me to engage mainstream Muslims, it’s actually a necessity.
Darakshan: I’d love to hear more about what you did in Orlando, because I’ll say as someone in the Muslim community, the work that you did, the statement that MASGD (Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity) put out, the way you showed up and others, It was the first time that I saw mainstream Muslim leadership pushed to A. acknowledge the existence of queer Muslims and B. also acknowledge that there is homophobia within our community. And that to me is a serious narrative shift, a serious community shift. People who never wanted to push this. I will even call in my own “social justice Muslims” where there is an idea that Islam means there are no queer Muslims and that we were pushed and challenged. That if we truly want to be inclusive and we truly say “Justice for Muslims” that we mean all Muslims including queer Muslims. I’d love to hear more, because I’ve seen how powerful of a moment that was and how it taxed you and how it put a burden on y’all. The way I saw you rise up, it was incredibly moving and inspirational because you could have easily thrown Muslims under the bus and perpetuated the narrative that we are inherently homophobic and queerphobic and transphobic, but you didn’t. You provided a more nuanced way. So if you could talk a little bit more about that.
Dr. Shafqat: You were definitely part of that moment because I will just say that, one thing we never expected was for the allies to come out of the woodwork, I have known you Darakshan, not well, but even then I’m not sure that I would have ever expected the kind of support that you showed us. It just, I will start crying if I think about it more. Someone needs to give her a medal, a cookie, even though we aren’t supposed to do that. So that was actually really powerful. I think it goes back to intersectionality. I never stopped being Muslim, even when I thought I did, I just never stopped being Muslim. I think for mainstream Muslims, what they maybe had not realized is that, that stays with me no matter where I go so it’s them actually that I’m carrying wherever I go. Whether I am going into a queer conference, they’re with me when I go into that space. People see Muslim, they don’t separate me from mainstream Muslims. Even if that’s what those leaders think that is what’s going on and so I have always carried that. Even when I thought I wasn’t, I have always carried that. I think it is very clear to me, as clear as it can be, in the most like explicit ways, it has been, that my liberation has to be the liberation of all Muslims. It has to be, because queer liberation hasn’t done it for me. I go into these spaces like Creating Change which is the largest LGBTQ conference, and I have been going to that conference 5-6 years now. That is not a welcoming space. That is not an affirming space at all and again it doesn’t matter if I am observant or religious or not. Many of my fellow queer Muslims friends are observant and very religious. But that doesn’t even matter, like it’s clear that there is no space in Creating Change for me and it’s because of who I am and what I bring into that space. You’re right there is a temptation to throw mainstream Muslims under the bus, but that would be throwing myself under the bus. There is no way I could, it’s actually impossible to do that. There are probably some people out there, in fact I am certain there are some queer Muslims out there who are doing that, but it’s not going to liberate them. So I think it wasn’t something that we struggled with when it came time to write. In terms of our immediate, instinctive response, it was clear that, in Orlando, there is no way we feel like Muslims are to blame. This was a horrible human being, violent, and he did what he did for many different complicated reasons and I don’t know if Islam is one of them. But, regardless, but there’s no way for me to be liberated without actually claiming Omar Mateen. He was actually part of my community. The victims that he massacred were also part of my community. It was a no brainer.
Darakshan: I think for me one of the other things that I want to get into is that you have a Muslim identity and you also have a Pakistani identity as well. And I admire you so much because we are talking about trans-national organizing and you are someone I see that has been as involved in social justice movements in Pakistan, within a military context, a military state which means that there are different types of risks that activists take, it’s a different environment in terms of queer folks who are also Pakistani. I’m interested in hearing about the work you’ve done within Pakistan, because I don’t think folks have had that perspective or experience to be organizers in multiple different countries and communities and take on really state violence at the end of the day in multiple spaces. Second, I would like to hear about the connections between the state violence in Pakistan and the support the US provides to Pakistan. What is the inter-connectedness here? It is not a coincidence that Pakistanis are in the United States. We know that migration doors open up to brown folks because there is an interest in that state, to begin with. What is the role we play in really upholding the empire’s involvement and violence against Pakistani people.
Dr. Shafqat: That’s a very rich question. I have been involved in activism and organizing in Pakistan, but I want to be careful because I see my role there as providing support because I don’t live there full time and I want to be as deferential as I can to folks that are actually on the ground. I definitely have been connected to queer organizing in Pakistan and anti-war organizing, as well as labor rights. Again, labor and wage and class issues are just something I am really drawn to. Then I was really involved in the lawyers’ movement which was against Musharraf. That was a scary and exhilarating time.
Darakshan: Can you explain who Musharraf is in the context of the lawyers’ movement?
Dr. Shafqat: Musharraf was the last military dictator in Pakistan. He was in power in 1999. Today (October 12th) is actually the anniversary of when he came into power in 1999. He was eventually forced out of power in 2008 as a result of democratization movement, pro-democracy movement led by lawyers who were really supported by civil society and other activists. So I happened to be living in Pakistan at the time and I became really involved in that movement. I am glad you asked me to clarify because the United States has historically always supported the Pakistani military, including Musharraf who was their guy. Pakistan is strategically located in a region that the United States wants to control and the Pakistani military has historically served as a force that helps the United States to do that. And of course that means that the Pakistani army is doing the bidding of the US and not representing the best interest of the Pakistani people. I will say that the Pakistani army has been a neo-colonial force that has basically continued the kind of colonial control of the people who are often then constructed as these ungovernable savages who are crazy, uneducated, and since 9/11 extremists fundamentalists, and have to be controlled for their own good. That’s the colonial language. We have to oppress you because it’s best for you. Organizing in that context is really difficult because I have been to so many protest in the US and it is a completely different thing than to go to a protest in Pakistan. The spaces, literally the physical spaces you are in are more circumscribed and really aren’t public spaces like they are here in the United States. There is no desire, the state has no desire for spaces like that and so those spaces are all private.
For example in Karachi, in front of the press club. Every major city has a club, it’s not like a country club, but it’s a club for journalists. They have access to it, but the idea of having protestors outside of it is that you want to be seen on the media. That’s how you get the masses. There’s really no actual physical space where you can reach them all. The disruptive protests, for civil society activists is a bit tricky. It is fairly easy for both militants, militant groups, because the army sponsored those groups. So all protests happen at the press club, and they’re always at 4:00pm because you want to keep it late enough in the day so that people can join, but then journalists start going home at 5 or 6 and file their stories for the next day. So there’s this very predictable template, blueprint for how you do protests. Even then, I will just talk about last year, when a dear friend of mine was murdered by the army, by individuals in plain clothes, because she was sponsoring critical conversations about a militant movement, about this uprising in this province of Pakistan. So she was assassinated and we had a protest at the press club and I can tell you that everybody was terrified to show up because when we got there, there was a tiny group of us maybe 100 of us at most, and there were 3 times as many police, army rangers, which is a para-military force. They completely outnumbered us. That’s the kind of environment that just becomes so much more intimidating There’s ways in which the US state intimidates and co-ops protests, and it’s very smart in the way it does that so I’m not saying it’s necessarily great here. But, I think, in terms of the higher level of generalized violence that activists have to face, I think it’s different.
*Part 2 of this edition of Critical Conversation with Dr. Sahar Shafqat continues next week on healing from personal loss to state violence in Pakistan, immigration, and the notion of "home" and safe spaces"
Special recognition of Amirah Grady, Communications and Policy Intern at the Washington Peace Center for providing support on this edition of Critical Conversation.