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 2 focuses on a deep and direct dialogue between Co-Director Darakshan Raja and Dr. Sahar Shafqat on the healing after personal loss to state violence, the links between Pakistan and the U.S., the spectrum of Pakistani identity, and the notion of belonging and safe spaces.
Darakshan: One of my fears is always the targeting of our activists in the United States and a state assassination of our comrades is very chilling to me. How have you been able to heal yourself? You’ve lost a very dear friend and she was huge for the country, and a huge inspiration to so many people in the Pakistani diaspora. I look up to her. Yet, you are still going back and putting yourself in this work. How did you find that place to come back into the work because I always fear the loss of people who are my dear friends to this work. That's one of the worst scenarios to lose a dear loved one in doing this work. How do you find the courage and the will to go on? You show up here and you show up to so many places and the state is always targeting us.
Dr. Shafqat: Her name was Sabeen Mahmud. I think part of it is denial. There’s a part of me that thinks that she’s still alive somewhere, she’s somewhere else. It feels hard to acknowledge that she’s gone. But I have to remember that she was a friend, and was so brave, smart, critical and amazing. But she is not alone. In some ways she was well known because she came from a certain class and so she became well known to a certain kind of person who then has access to international progressive circles. So there’s a reason why we all know her name. There are many other activists whose names I don’t even know and those people have always been there and those people will always be there. I really sincerely believe there are always people who are willing to resist injustice and oppression. Sometimes the numbers are small and sometimes the numbers are bigger but most of them are nameless. I think that is what gives me strength, to remember that I am not alone
There are people resisting all kinds of oppression and misogyny in every corner of Pakistan and every corner of the United States. There are people who are constantly doing these things. I think that’s what gives me strength. I think the other thing that gives me strength is that, there have been times in my life where I have felt totally defeated, disheartened, disillusioned and that paralysis was awful. I realized what always makes me feel better is action. There’s a quote, “The antidote of despair is not hope, its action.” I think for me when I am active, is when I actually begin my healing. I think that’s where it comes from. The work hasn’t stopped, the needs are still there and there are still people who go on. They are still doing it. That’s what I really admire. There are people who have just devoted their whole lives, and continue to do the work and get no recognition. I mean they should get recognition. But, they are doing it because of the issue and not for personal fame.
On the links between Pakistan and the U.S.:
Dr. Shafqat: So when I was growing up in Pakistan we used to call Pakistan the 51st state because it was such a close ally to the United States that it was practically like part of the country. Literally the political leadership, which was the military leadership, was doing everything and anything at the behest of the United States, so that’s what I grew up with and you know that wasn’t just while I grew up. That’s been a historical connection with Pakistan and the United States. As a result culturally, growing up that was the thing, it was flooded with American culture. When it came time to think about college, I was a child of privilege, extreme privilege. I was going to a very elite school, and most of the people in that school went overseas to a university to study, and most of them came to the United States. That’s how empire works. Empire constructs itself as the epitome of where you want to be, it has gobbled up all of the resources so standard of living is high. But also things like rights and freedoms and civil liberties, those become possible at the heart of empire. Because in fact, they are denied elsewhere. So of course America seems like this amazing place, and of course I wanted to come here, I mean everyone wanted to come here. There’s a reason for that. It’s because the material resources and the freedoms that everyone says we’re so lucky to have, we’re not lucky to have them. We have them because we have denied them to other people around the world. Or course this is so desirable. It’s exactly the way that in the 1800’s people in Africa wanted to go to Paris, which becomes the attractive place to be. That’s how I ended up coming here. There were some folks in my class who went to the UK, but it was just not cool anymore to go to Britain. And then a small group of people stayed in Pakistan, but that was an elite class of people.
Darakshan: It’s really fascinating to hear your journey into America compared to my family’s journey and what that looks like. I’d love to hear more about the piece on class privilege. There are many people now that I meet in the Pakistani organizing community in the United States, not across the board, but that do identify and say that they come from class privilege in Pakistan. How does that play out in terms of your politics, you resisting? I find it interesting because, at least when I was born in Pakistan and I was growing up, many of the elites, from class privilege, had all gone to American universities, had American education, could speak English, even so that even speaking Urdu, which is the local languages or any of the tribal languages was looked down upon. So if you wanted class mobility, if you wanted a job, if you wanted to be seen as anybody with any respectability you had to speak English. It was to the point where parents were like don’t learn your own language. I’m interested to hear that class complicity aspect as well, that is happening and how to challenge that.
Dr. Shafqat: There are lots of different immigration journeys. Just a reminder, it’s also because of the way the American immigration system works. There’s like only very few limited points, paths into the system. The path that I came in on is called the “skilled immigrant” or an immigrant who has education and has skills and qualifications that are desirable. So I’m that so-called “good immigrant”. But the vast majority of people that come into the United States come [through] family. In that sense, there’s definitely a class element. But I think that tends to be more middle class immigration. So it makes sense that people that come in, in this “skilled immigrant” category, those tend to be people who have a lot privilege because it actually takes that kind of privilege to immigrate to the US within the "skilled immigrant" category. That’s who the system recognizes; it recognizes the fact that I spoke English from age 0 or whenever I could start speaking; the fact that I went to these elite schools and the fact that I did not do metric, I did O levels and A levels, which is a British degree, which because I went to private school, I could. My school opted out of that. If you are state government institution you have to do the degree, which is not considered valuable or as valuable. That landed me in an elite college here and that landed me on a track to get a PhD. Don’t get me wrong, I worked my ass off but I started [pretty high] so I have gone far, and at the same time I haven’t gone far.
The other frustration for me is that people, our own people say things like “Why do they do that type of work? Why do they drive a taxi?” The thing is that they don’t have any options. I had the options I do because of the privilege I came in with and that’s because that’s what the system rewards. One way you can challenge privilege is by shutting down respectability politics. One of the things I have been thinking about trying to do is organize immigrants like me, so-called “good immigrants”, to own and claim undocumented folks because there is no difference between us. But there are people like me who think there is and I am constantly fighting these people who are like, “well I did it legally” or “I did it this way or that way” and that is completely an artifact of a system. It is no credit to you that you are where you are, but that’s respectability politics because people like me want to believe that if we talk about how smart we are, how educated we are, and about all the nice things that we have then somehow mainstream America will like us and will accept us. But mainstream America does not see any difference between me or the cab driver or the person that speaks Punjabi who is from Pakistan or the hijabi woman who is a stay at home mom. No difference whatsoever and this desire to play into respectability politics is pointless, it’s just wasted. I mean, who is that white person who is going to make that distinction. I don’t know who that person is; I have never met that person. Especially in these moments like Orlando and San Bernardino. moments where everybody is a xenophobe. It’s actually a struggle for everyone in this room, like how do we push our communities to not play into respectability politics. It’s hard, but we got to do it.
Darakshan: I know for me this idea of home and safe spaces is something I think about a lot, especially given my own experience losing my access points to Pakistan and places I grew up in because of patriarchy and all that is connected to the military state, which is the way patriarchy flourishes. Being now at this point in America where there is a politician and very real anti-Muslim hatred, bigotry, and violence that says we are to be banned, we are to leave and that “you don’t belong here”. I’ve been thinking a lot about my personal feelings of belonging. What does belonging mean? What do roots mean? What does safety mean? What does home mean? I struggle with that a lot because I feel that there is no physical space that I can touch as a Muslim woman that I can say that I can put my roots down and just feel calm. I feel like borders are being closed off to us and there’s no place I can think about, that is safe for me physically. How do you relate to that question and what do you think about it?
Dr. Shafqat: So I definitely will follow up with you on that. In that region in Pakistan where the drone attacks happened where the US bombs Pakistan with drones, it's the most public covert program ever. Is the place where Pashtuns live and the way it continues to be justified by the local elites as well as America is because Pashtuns are "barbaric and savage and violent". That’s totally what my paper is about, and we can talk about that later. But, my parents have an immigration story. My father is from what is now India and my mother is from Lahore. She comes from privilege and her father was working for the civil service and was stationed in Delhi. They also came, but very different because they flew across. It was fairly safe. My dad had to go to Bombay and then they got on a ship and they came across, it was a pretty perilous journey. And they left actually a year after independence but they did not intend to leave. It was only until things started going against Muslims, that they decided to leave. But my queer cousin, who is part of the family as well, they also migrated at the same time. So her mom was like a year old or something and the story is that she got cholera or some terrible disease and so they had to get off the train because the baby was really sick and they actually thought that she was going to die. So they all got off the train in some place, that train went on and the people were massacred on that train. A day or later, the baby recovered and they go on another train and that went safely through.
This was a story that I grew up with and this was a story my cousin, who I never met, grew up with as well and I feel like that trauma exists for me as well because the thought is just horrifying, it’s terrifying. It’s interesting because it's only recently that I realized that I kind of retraced my dad’s immigration story, in the sense that he came to Pakistan, lived there all his life but he is so completely a creature of Agra he talks about it all the time. I mean it is probably like omnipresent and I realized that is probably what I do. I am from Karachi, I am from there and I talk about it a lot. We migrated to our respective homes around the same time, so I think that for me home is really complicated; as I think it is for him. In a way I think that I was kind of subconsciously prepared for that. It is hard living in two places and what I have tried to do is make connections with other activists and artists back home in Karachi and so I am really deeply connected to a lot of people there, but I don’t live there. That’s the part that is hard to manage, being in multiple places at once, it’s a blessing, but it’s also a real challenge. But I think this idea of safe space that is something I am really working through right now because I think that is a challenge for me also.
On trying to find safe spaces:
Dr. Shafqat: Basically, I think starting with the San Bernardino attacks and definitely with Orlando. There’s this beautiful piece that someone wrote after Orlando about the gay club as a safe space and it’s kind of hard to explain to a lot of straight folks what a gay club does for you. I remember the first time I went to a gay club and it was so scary. Like oh my god am I going to see someone that knows me, like will I get outed whatever. This was small town Texas, all white and yet there was something so completely exhilarating and liberating about being in a space where actually you were completely affirmed. The thought of that safe space was violated like that was really painful. I am really thinking about what that means and I think the best answer I have come up with is that we have to create our own spaces.
No one is going to create those spaces for us and even then I don’t know if we are ever really safe. That is the part that is really hard. I think for everyone in this room, there really are no safe spaces, despite our best efforts. And that night when Orlando happened, you came over to my place and we hosted an Iftar last night. When the attack happened we started getting text messages, that day was just insane, a lot of folks that we had invited were like oh do you want to cancel, do you want to postpone or whatever. And we thought about it and I was like actually you know what, no this is like the moment we need to see each other the most. Like if there is ever a time when we need to meet up in person, this is it. I think if I didn’t have that space that night...I got a lot of strength from that. We talked a little bit about it but actually we mostly didn’t and that’s exactly what we all needed. I don’t know how we deal with the fact that we will never be safe.