If women are art then Rokeya Qaiser is a masterpiece. And as she sits across from me, bangles clinking, hands expressing anxiety, dark hair rippling down her shoulders, I know that I am in the presence of some sort of model—or muse.
Do you have any role models/people you look up to?
“My mother, my grandmother” the names spill forth, “I came to feminism and I identify as a feminist and whatever little I think I am today as a person through stories, narratives, education, scholars, and people I’ve read over the years—those are also my role models: Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Atiya Hosain, Ismat Chughtai, Rashid Jahan. The Middle Eastern feminists are very inspiring: Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, Nawal el-Saadawi… These are people from whom I’ve learned and been very inspired.”
Her words became a map—each name a tack of human suffering, victory, and experience. Each name colored in a city, state, region, country, or war-zone—giving them life, giving them narrative. “I’ve also been very inspired by a lot of scholars in the West. I see a lot of them as role models as well. Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, to some extent Toni Morrison. They’ve shaped the way I think and feel about many things… Oh my God I forgot the Iranian feminists: Homa Hoodfar.”
It’s uncommon to meet an individual with such concentrated knowledge trapped inside of their heads. And though she’ll likely not admit it, Rokeya has a god-like mind—pure, enlightened, angry, and restrained. And like God, I think that if she was to rain her thoughts down indiscriminately on the masses, it would be hell on earth for non-believers. “I don’t think I’ve said anything about my mother and grandmother. I don’t share a lot in common with my mother. I don’t think I have her saintly patience or goodness. She has those qualities that I don’t have: kindness, patience, and a level of stoicism that gets her through life with a great amount of dignity and humanity. Maybe that’s why I admire her so much. I think I have more in common with my grandmother who was defiant and chaotic and rebellious in many ways.”
Do you call yourself anything? Do you have any labels, tags, or roles that you like to refer to yourself as?
“No.” She spoke with a stubborn conviction. Her words were her decision, “there are [labels] that I feel trapped by and [labels] that I cannot avoid. You are reminded every day as you walk the streets that you are a woman. I am reminded every day in many of my interactions with people that I am a Muslim. I find a lot of strength and practical empowerment in the category feminist. I find that it serves my purposes. I don’t think that it is the best, most approachable, or accessible word but I know what it stands for and what potential it has so I use it.”
Rokeya is silent for a moment. She seems to be evaluating and correcting possible oversights. She continues and her voice touches the air, thoughts fully developed before leaving the womb, “If I do think of myself as anything I like to think of myself as a writer. By that I don’t mean creative writing. I don’t mean novels, short stories, or poetry. I just think of writing as something that I do that works for me.”
Who do you write to? Why do you write?
In that moment, a soft tinkling stirred the air. Her phone was ringing. It seemed out of place but altogether appropriate, “I write to make sense of things that bother me and things that I don’t understand. I can work things out when I write them down. I think in writing… I think if I did not write I would die” she laughs softly, embarrassed, “I know that sounds very dramatic. But there are days when there are so many words and thoughts pushing up against each other in my head that they must come out at one point or I would go mad. I write because if I don’t write words would haunt me. I write to exorcise myself… I also I write because I don’t know how to do anything else. All I’ve ever done in life is read and write—I have literally no other life skills” I wondered if Rokeya recognized that writing was not only a life skill but a life-saving skill—CPR for the mind.
Do you feel your womanhood? Do you feel that your womanhood is relevant?
“Beyond biological function, we create “woman-ness” and “man-ness”… I have an interesting dual relationship with womanhood. On one hand, it is annoying, irritating, and sometimes oppressive—things that people assign to me, expect of me. These are relevant because they have real consequences in my life—when other people or institutions try to shape how I dress and behave. But, there are also parts that I enjoy. I enjoy the company of women more than those of men. I enjoy female spaces. I find them comforting and uplifting. I think that, were it not for my circle of female friends, I would be lost… I am secure in my womanhood, with or without men. I enjoy the superficial trappings of womanhood. I love jewelry. I love nice clothes. But, I also like to break out of those molds.”
How does your country/community treat you?
“I belong to many communities—but on the whole, I believe that they treat me well. By communities I mean: Muslim communities, communities of women, communities of feminists (not necessarily the same thing), and communities of academics. On the whole, I feel life has been good to me. But if you’re talking about country that is a very different question.” She becomes hesitant, wary, and then brave, “I think that India is becoming a more and more intolerant place for all kinds of minorities and marginalized communities. It is becoming intolerant for anyone who says something different or new.”
She ends there. If there is one thing that Rokeya has taught me, it is to respect silence and empty space. We sit, breathing and absorbing words unsaid. The ceiling fan above reminding us of place and time.
How do you treat your country/community?
“I think that I neglect my communities. I engage a lot with women and Muslims. But perhaps I need to do more.” She pressed a fist into her open hand, flushing her palm with blood, “I need to make a greater effort. And I perhaps need to learn and understand more. I just don’t think I spend enough time with or on some of my communities. I don’t know how to treat my country because in my head and based on how I was brought up, India has always been a democracy where multiple voices can thrive…This seems to be disappearing now. In some ways, I feel as if I have shut myself off. I don’t know where to begin. The problems feel so big at this point… I don’t even know if there’s anything left to retrieve.”
There. I’d glimpsed a mental conflict.
She continued, pointedly, “…except when there are certain moments of someone else’s resistance. Like student protests or Dalit communities. Those things give me hope and make me want to persist.”
There. The thoughts that break up fights in the minds of the conflicted.
Do you have any phrases or quotes that you live by?
A lot of them seem to be from Orhan Pamuk- the Turkish novelist- because they are so self-reflective and they talk about writing.” She paused… thinking. Her dark brows furrowed and I could tell she was sorting through her mind files—pulling, contemplating, “I had a roommate who once told me to, “shut up and do my work” I find that that has helped me a lot. Whether I feel absolutely exhilarated or disheartened—I find that just shutting up and doing my work… helps.
She twiddled her thumbs slowly, deliberately. Her hand movements reminded me of Sherlock Holmes. But, he was god-like, too.