My feminist consciousness was born in the kitchen.
I am 16 and my friend and I have our hands in a sink full of overflowing dishes after a dawat at my house. Elbows immersed in soapy suds we methodically wash korma and biryani grease off Corningware plates as South Asian Aunties rush about making chai and chit chat. The chai is ferried to the men who of course are served first, fuelling a seemingly endless onslaught of more washing and drying.
I wipe a wisp of hair off my face with my elbow and declare to my friend, “When I get married I want my husband to make ME chai.”
My friend laughed sympathetically, in agreement or wonder I’m not sure. A Pakistani man making chai or anywhere near the kitchen, at least in our circles, was like seeing a rainbow unicorn. It just didn’t happen. Besides as good Pakistani girls, chai-making and dishwashing was valuable training for what was really our ultimate vocation: marriage.
As a teenager, reading was the lifeline that opened my horizons beyond soap suds. Literature was the hand that came out of the page and took mine, the hand that understood. In the beginning novels provided escape from reality, relief from boredom, freedom from restrictions. It didn’t matter if the characters were as relatable as watching aliens in space. As long as they did stuff. Stuff that a girl from a conservative Pakistani family couldn’t do, but might vicariously experience.
As a teenager, reading was a lifeline that opened my horizons.
For me it was Anne Rice’s world of bloodsucking vampires, Emma Harte’s rise to ruling a business empire and dreamy Anne of Green Gables. I related to Elizabeth Bennett’s trail of uninspiring suitors, Jane Eyre’s loneliness, willingly drifted off into Tolkien’s Middle Earth and pondered the Meaning of Life with Dostoevsky. I developed a feminist consciousness with Simone de Beauvoir and later transformed that consciousness with the works of feminists of colour like bell hooks. Reading shaped a way of looking at the world as filled with nuance and endless possibility, full of histories and meaning, and a myriad of ways of living and seeing.
Art begins with the perception that something is wrong with the world. Most artists are at odds with society. They live with the knowledge that the world as it is does not cater to them. Whether it's the Bronte sisters and Mary Anne Evans writing under pseudonyms, it is the nagging feeling there is a need to speak even and especially where there is no space to, where the world itself seems militate against who you are. It is humanity’s foot dip in wet cement, an attempt at immortality, a rebellion against transience and decay, a reach to the heavens. Like an echoing call in an empty forest, it’s a way to make sense of things, even if no-one is listening.
Books made sense of the world for me, it helped give shape to a nebulous cloud of half-formed questions and desires. It paved a road to self-determination from the limitations of a South Asian working class adolescence in the western suburbs of Sydney and the wider white world that circumscribed it.
It is the nagging feeling there is a need to speak even and especially where there is no space to, where the world itself seems militate against who you are.
Every feeling, from loneliness to anger to curiosity, I could find a salve for in books. I knew what I couldn’t find a mirror for would be in the books of the future, written by my generation, currently wandering the internet and existing in the hyphenated margins of western society.
It is why I felt attracted to a career in journalism and writing. I was fascinated by how contested competing truth claims were, the way information was strictly guarded, words carefully crafted to create ideas and stories to impact the way we think. Words full of power, both weapons and shields, they could illuminate or obscure, create sympathy or antipathy.
Much of the rhetoric of the media growing up was directed at people like me. I stress ‘at’ rather than ‘to’. We were the problem - the non-integrating Muslims, migrants, misogynists, terrorists, misfits, unenlightened ones. This racism ironically mirrored what it felt like being a girl in a traditional community - being indirectly addressed and talked over, your life analysed and dissected and directed by others, your own feelings and emotions ignored.
Today I write and my words and feelings matter - they are read and considered by others. They are a maybe a tiny drop of colour in a river of social narrative that changes the constitution of the whole, just by existing.
Like many western Muslims, growing up in the shadow of September 11 created a sense of urgency around identity.
This is why authoritarian regimes burn books. It is why extremists target female schools. It is what fills Boko Haram and the Taliban with terror. Art create questions, sows doubts and wonder, lights a path to an unknown place. A girl who reads is a girl with ideas. In a world where control over women can be either subtly or violently enforced; from conformity to social ideals to rigid laws circumscribing physical control, it is the rebellious mind, the outsider, the fusion identity that has the potential to be the biggest threat to 'us and them' narratives.
This fusion outsider was so many of us - children of migrants in the west. I remember reading Dickens and Austen while eating biryani. My morning fasting meal was Vegemite on toast. I watched Beverley Hills 90201 and Bollywood movies. I listened to qawalli and Bob Dylan. I read Germaine Greer and Kamala Das. How could I reconcile myself without imploding?
I read. I read and was comforted and discomfited. I was intoxicated by the Idea. In my early 20s, I devoured the internet, finding solace in other hybrids blogging their way to make sense of the world. We were the in-between generation, Salafis and Sufis and seekers, who derived inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Rumi, Amina Wadud and Naomi Woolf, Alama Iqbal and Hafez.
Years later, now in my 30s, I still don’t pretend to have the answers. But I know that empowerment begins with the question. It begins by becoming comfortable with not having a place, but being in the in-between place where things don’t always fit. Beyond the jagged edges of certainty, filtered with humility, somewhere outside. It is the seekers that meet me there, with the mystery of their fusions and contradictions I am at home with.
It is these conversations and books, and the secret worlds they opened up for me that has sustained and shaped me.
April 23 is UN International World Book Day.
Sarah Malik is deputy editor of SBS Life. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahbmalik.