Bold: How do we tell our untold stories?

Trigger Warning: This episode contains themes of sexual violence, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, racism, self-harm.

This is the penultimate episode of the season! So this week, I am looking at the experiences we may not share. We all know the incredibly heavy weight of bearing an untold secret.  There is nothing so heavy as having something significant to get off our chest, and being unable to share it, often because we think that it will be poorly received.  But we also know how incredibly freeing it can be when we do.

So what stops us from sharing?

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Gabrielle Deonath is a Guyanese-American Muslim writer and editor. First published at age 16, she penned personal essays on her experiences navigating the world as a Muslim teenager. She served as an assistant editor at Brown Girl Magazine for five years and is an editor of the company’s first-ever print anthology. Gabrielle hopes to continue to give a voice to those without a platform and create authentic representations of minorities and marginalized communities through storytelling. Her next book venture, titled Shukr: An Inspirational Dua and Gratitude Journal for Women, is coming to a bookstore near you in Spring 2022.

Kamini Ramdeen-Chowdhury is a Guyanese-American editor and writer. She works at theSkimm as a senior news editor, covering stories to help millennial women live their smartest lives. She also aims to spark conversations about first generation American identity in her writing and art, found at Paulo Grand. She’s formerly worked at Brown Girl Magazine and Verizon Media. Untold: Defining Moments of the Uprooted is their first anthology together.

Special thanks to Jessica John of @speakitjess ministry

Here are some of the resources from the show:

In Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger, the writer details her relationship with her body over her life. In this short interview, Gay critiques socially constructed beauty norms and how weight has been left out of the new culture of acceptance.

Alya Mooro spoke to womena®Media about her life navigating the world as a third culture kid, overcoming the stereotypes around women, her career in journalism, and most importantly, how writing “The Greater Freedom” was a journey of self-discovery and losing the fear she had around societal expectations. The process of researching, introspection, and writing allowed her to answer the many questions she had growing up.

Books looked at this week:

Co-editors Gabrielle Deonath and Kamini Ramdeen-Chowdhury: Untold: Defining Moments of the Uprooted

Roxane Gay: Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

Alya Mooro: The Greater Freedom: Life As a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.

Transcription

Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 51 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

I can’t believe it but this is the penultimate show of the season, so in this episode I want to talk about all of the untold stories that we don’t get to talk about. The stories we share with one another are important. They provide context and history. They connect us with the past and the people around us. They offer insight. They transfer wisdom. And they provide inspiration.

The stories we choose to share as individuals and as a society are important to our development. But equally important are the stories we choose not to tell. The stories we choose to withhold from others (and ourselves) are incredibly significant. And whilst there are so many biographies outlining this, I’ll be looking at the stories that people have personally shared, that they’ve been either afraid, guilty, ashamed, or just lacked the right platform to be heard. As a result, this episode has a few trigger warnings.

With that being said, here is Jessica John of speakitjess ministry on her own untold story.

JESSICA JOHNS

Thank you for sharing Jess.

Our first book is edited by Gabrielle Deonath and Kamini Ramdeen Chaudhury, with Untold: Defining Moments of the Uprooted. This Brown Girl Magazine anthology showcases 32 emerging voices, who share deeply personal moments relating to immigration, infertility, divorce, mental health, suicide, sexual orientation, gender identity, racism, colorism, casteism, religion, and much more, all while balancing the push and pull of belonging to two cultural hemispheres. Deonath is an assistant editor at the magazine with a new book coming out in Spring 2022, whilst Ramdeen Chowdhury was managing editor until 2020 and is the senior editor at theSkimm. They were both kind enough to speak to me this week. Here’s a sneak preview, but find the full interview on www.howtobe247.com or on the YouTube channel.

KAMINI AND GABRIELLE

In the foreword, written by author Tanuja Desai Hidier, she says so many of our battles are built into our very skin—where we are often encouraged to keep them, simmering, silent. And for brown womxn: an even more prevalent pressure to keep mum. Accommodate. Assimilate. Blend in, dumb down. But choosing silence is a risky business, especially when the voices given the vastest arena are those that would stifle the most vulnerable.

Hence since 2008, Brown Girl Magazine has made just this sort of marginalised storytelling its trailblazing mission. Originating as a feminist platform for young South Asian womxn living in the U.S., Brown Girl has bloomed its audience across gender identities, age groups, and geographies, all the while honing its focus on embracing intersectionality, challenging cultural stigmas, deepening, and widening the definition of brownness—and breaking the silence.

Some stories that particularly stood out for me were Born Untouchable written by
Meera Solanki Estrada, who is the co-host and executive producer of Kultur’D. She describes the painful experiences of her father, and her grandfather growing up in the Dalit class or “untouchable”. From humiliation to abuse, being forced to be segregated to study, Estrada and her father address the trauma directly, in a bid to heal wounds. It culminates at an International Women’s Day event where he attends, and she talks about his experience. I shed a tear reading that he received a standing ovation.

There were a number of stories that were particularly traumatic and addressed mental health and suicidal ideation in the South Asian community. This includes lawyer and writer M.K. Ansari’s experience about the time she was in a mental health facility for an attempted suicide, as well as writer Subrina Singh’s bipolar disorder and dealing with the tragic murder of her older sister.

As a British- born Asian, Harrison Road was particularly depressing for me, hearing about how even immigrant families voted for Brexit, despite being exiled from Uganda, and being unwanted in the UK as well.

Fertility and women’s health also played a significant part, for women who struggled to get pregnant to others dealing with a diagnosis, stage four cancer and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Often, seen as a taboo subject to talk about despite so many women facing this.

And the LGBTQIA stories from Rita Sengupta, Nova A., and Raksha Muthukumar just showed how much we still need to fight for equal rights. Muthukumar describes the deep loss of her best friend Kirby Jackson, who was an African American, transgender woman. She died by suicide while she and and the author were at Georgia Tech. Muthukumar talks about her fierce friendship, the injustices perpetuated by the institutions, and the subsequent funeral.

This collection delves into the things that we don’t always talk about in mainstream society or South Asian circles. With stories centering immigration, infertility, caste, coming out, marriage, mental health, domestic violence, parenting our children and our elderly, grief, self-belief, and the journey to self-love, untold honors our watershed moments. And relays the tale of a boundless community. These chronicles are universal. And yet: Each, unique. Because brown itself is an infinite identity.

The next book is from prominent writer Roxane Gay, who is also associate professor of English at Purdue University. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is a personal, open-hearted account of what it’s like to live with a body that’s frowned upon by society. Here she is speaking to The Atlantic, which has a beautiful animation to go with it, so check it out on the howtobe247.com website.

ROXANE GAY

Dr Gay was born to a family of Haitian-Americans who lived in Omaha, Nebraska. In her early years, she was raised Catholic and believed that if she did well in school she could grow up to be a respected doctor.

However, when she was just 12-years-old, Dr Gay was raped by her boyfriend and a group of other local youths. The event was devastating on many levels: since she had already been intimate with this boy, what she experienced was a heavy feeling of shame – as if the attack had been her fault for defying the values of her Catholic upbringing. As a result, she couldn’t bear the thought of telling her parents about the rape. So, she kept it to herself and continued to bury this secret deeper by overeating more and more food.

In the year following the attack, Roxane was sent to a prestigious boarding school where, away from the watchful eyes of her parents, she could eat as much as she wanted. In her mind, food wasn’t just a way to punish her body; she believed that the more she ate, the bigger she’d get and therefore the less vulnerable she’d be to another attack.

Dr Gay was already old enough to understand that fat women aren’t what society thinks of as desirable. So, as she quickly began to put on weight, part of her knew she was becoming sexually invisible to predatory men. As a result of guilt and shame however, she fell into a cycle of abusive relationships.

Through her experiences, Dr Gay did discover that she was bisexual, but the women she dated were never able to meet the emotional needs she had at the time. And she couldn’t deny the fact that she was attracted to men. However a pattern of abuse continued.

There is very little sympathy in America for people who are overweight. She says the moment Dr Gay leaves her home, she is always trying to take up as little space as possible. But the people she crosses paths with don’t see her as someone trying to mind her own business and go about her day. They see her as a fat lady who’s taking up too much of their precious space.

Generally, the only time an overweight person is acknowledged in public is when they’re berated. The message she has received time and again is that she must change if she wants to be accepted. There is little understanding to why someone may gain weight, including complex emotional reasons.

On popular reality shows like The Biggest Loser, we’re told that people should do whatever it takes to lose weight. But while the contestants on this show are made to compete to see who can lose the most weight to win a prize. Audiences take pleasure in watching fat people being forced to exercise until they puke and collapse, all so they can fit society’s image of an acceptable body.

One thing that has been particularly humiliating is the way complete strangers use her weight as an excuse to interfere in her life and make decisions for her. From telling her what to eat in the supermarket, to providing inadequate stairs and seating for her. As a result, she has preferred to stay in small towns to avoid unwanted attention.

In the end, Dr Gay is finding ways to try and treat herself with more kindness and accepting her past. A big step in the right direction was taken when she found healthier ways to lose weight. For a few years, Roxane was binging and purging – eating a lot and then throwing it all up, otherwise known as being bulimic. But now she’s cut back on the junk food and is cooking more healthy recipes at home.

On the other hand, it’s important to her that she loses weight for the right reasons. Part of her wants to change society’s attitude toward body politics and let other women know that happiness needn’t be so closely attached to your dress size. She’s also aware that losing weight can cause her panic attacks, but she knows why this is the case, and that she doesn’t need to use it as a form of protection anymore.

The next book is from Alya Mooro, a British Egyptian journalist, who wrote the book The Greater Freedom: Life As a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes. It chronicles her struggle to forge her identity from the two cultures that raised her. Here she is

ALYA MOORO

As an Arab girl growing up in Britain, Mooro often felt caught between two cultures. In predominantly white Britain, people of color are often subject to lazy caricature. That’s why people who aren’t white are often confused with other people from the same background.

Mooro personally experienced this. At school, she was often confused with other brown girls in her class: another Egyptian girl, as well as a girl who was half Pakistani and half Italian. 

But Mooro isn’t the only one who has struggled with proactively defining her identity. What “Arab” means has always been unclear: even UNESCO and Wikipedia list different numbers of Arab states. Many nationalities in the Middle East traditionally don’t consider themselves Arabs at all, a feeling shared by Egyptians too.

Diaspora Arabs have had to define their identity in a new way, though. In the melting-pot of London, surrounded by so many other nationalities, Arab identity has crystallized. Mooro’s Middle Eastern neighbors and her own family bonded over their similarities, in contrast to the white, British norm.

But even if Mooro and her friends identify as Arab, that doesn’t mean there’s a place for them. Arab girls growing up in the UK are often forced to choose between identifying as white or black. This happens in highly segregated schools, as well as on official forms, where “Arab” often isn’t an option.

Looking for role models, she observed that mainstream media doesn’t portray realistic versions of Arab characters. For instance, while representation has gotten better since 9/11, it’s only because there are more stories about terrorism – and Arabs are relegated to playing terrorists.

A study that analyzed television shows in 2015 and 2016 showed that 92 percent of scripted shows had no season regulars of Middle Eastern origins. Of the ones that did, 78 percent appear as terrorists, agents, soldiers, or tyrants, and 67 percent spoke with an accent. This is especially harmful for children, who see only distorted versions of themselves reflected in the media.

Mooro says Arab women are under tremendous pressure to look good, but it is defined by European beauty standards. As a young woman, Mooro felt alienated by the images of beauty around her. European physical traits are considered more attractive, for reasons spanning colonialism to the proliferation of the internet. One of the first things Mooro learned was how to conform to the standards of beauty around her. But for someone in her body, conforming to European standards of beauty is difficult and painful.

For most Arab women, their typically curly, thick, and black hair is viewed as a problem to be dealt with. For example, when she was 13, as a means of fitting this standard, Mooro started chemically straightening her hair with poisonous ointments that burned her scalp and eventually even caused hair loss. To this day, she has never done anything important, personally or professionally, with her hair in its natural state.

When it comes to body hair, the typical routine for Arab women is to remove any and all body hair below the eyelashes with hot wax on a biweekly basis. It’s a painful rite of passage for girls as young as nine, according to Mooro’s aesthetician. Though this is slowly changing.

Mooro then had to move to Cairo, Egypt when she was 13 years old, attuning her to the unique contradictions faced by young Arab women. She says in Middle Eastern societies, nothing is more policed than a woman’s sexuality. Behavior is regulated by gossip, and everyone is the jury. In Cairo, a woman can’t walk down the street without being cat-called, regardless of how old she is or what she’s wearing. The burden of abstaining from sexuality – while looking sexy at all times – is placed firmly on girls’ shoulders. 

The social regulation on sex means that natural rites of passage are furtive and hasty, which makes them feel sordid. When they moved back to the UK, she brought the internalized jury of Middle Eastern society back with her. She started acting out at home, chafing against the relatively strict boundaries set by her parents, especially her 9pm weekend curfew.

As she and her friends started exploring their own sexualities, her two cultural identities came into opposition. For Arab girls, she was taught, sex is dirty and shameful. But for Western girls, it’s not a big deal to sleep with someone you like. For her, guilt was inextricable from sexuality.

When she first slept with her friend’s boyfriend at the age of 15, it was under conditions of questionable consent. But because he’d made her promise not to tell anyone about their relationship, she didn’t share her concern around the questionable circumstances with anybody. Moreover, she’d been raised to think that all sex was wrong, not just the kind they’d had. Eventually, word got out and she was branded various insults at school.

She says some women are murdered by their families when news like this comes out; as many as 5,000 per year worldwide. Fortunately, Mooro’s mother’s response was to give her the “sex talk.” Less fortunately though, not only was it over a year too late for them to be having this conversation, it also completely ignored the role of women’s desire in sexual relationships. 

In hindsight, her mother admits that this approach wasn’t optimal. After all, her mother is just as susceptible to the invisible jury as she is, and was really just relating what her own mother had told her. Subsequently, Mooro undertook some hypnotherapy and has been able to have a much more healthier relationship with sex.

When it comes to marriage, she says Arab women face impossible expectations that completely disregard whatever their individual wishes might be. Not only is the expectation that they get married in the first place, women must marry young, marry the right person, and shoulder the burden for sustaining the marriage for the rest of their lives. In a survey of over two thousand respondents across the Arab world, divorced women were usually blamed for failing to keep their husbands happy.

For the majority of Arab families, the expectation is that young people will marry someone who looks like them, and share the same beliefs. Marrying someone of the same religion is also a common cultural expectation. In many Arab countries, this expectation is backed up by laws that don’t recognize inter-faith marriages. If, in theory, Mooro were to marry a non-Muslim and have children with him, their marriage wouldn’t be recognized in Egypt. This means their children wouldn’t be able to get Egyptian birth certificates, and she wouldn’t be able to legally share a hotel room with her husband.

It’s taken her many years, and a lot of heartache, but Mooro has finally realized that the longest relationship she’ll ever have is the one with herself. So, it’s worth putting in the effort to make it a good one.

Caught between rising Islamophobia in Britain and her Muslim cultural identity, Mooro tried to de-emphasize her religion. After taking a poll on her Instagram stories, she realized that many diaspora Arabs feel the need to qualify their Muslim identity as “moderate” because they’re living as minorities in Western countries. For Muslims in the Middle East, though, religious identity is much more fluid.

Assuming everyone from the Middle East is a pious Muslim is the same as assuming everyone in America or Europe is devoutly Christian. It’s not based in reality. In fact, frequently restrictive ideologies are as alienating to Muslims as they are to non-Muslims.

Indeed, stereotyping Muslims and its associated Islamophobia has had tragic consequences, including the murder of many innocent people. In the UK alone, there was a 500 percent surge in Islamophobic attacks in the period following the Manchester Arena bombing, in which a man of Libyan descent detonated an explosive, killing 23 people. 

The problem, again, is lack of representation. So-called “moderate Muslims” aren’t prominent in mainstream culture, and so when people see anyone who is Muslim it’s assumed that they are an extremist. There’s no equivalent, popular notion of what a “secular Muslim” looks like. 

Mooro’s embrace of feminism stems from troubling experiences she had in both the west and the Middle East. She says both cultures reduce women to a sum of their body parts.

In the West, it’s convenient to cite Islam as the reason for the gender imbalance in the Middle East. But Islam’s views of women are more complicated than that. In fact, Islam improved equality for women in some ways that it took years for Western countries to catch up with. For example, Islamic countries were the first to allow women to receive inheritance. 

Really, all three major monotheistic religions are products of their own times. The Bible, the Torah, and the Quran all say that women are unclean during menstruation. They reflect the unexamined patriarchy of their times, and have cemented it in ours. 

Immigrants like her have a subconscious certainty that a condition for remaining in their new country is good behavior, regardless of their legal status. This crystallized for Mooro when the UK revoked the citizenship of Shamima Begum, a teenager who traveled to Syria to join ISIS. The British Home Secretary said she could apply for citizenship in Bangladesh, where her parents had been born though she herself had never been. It was as if to say she was less British than other people. 

In spite of this, most people still agree that immigration has enriched modern Britain: only 23 percent of respondents to a 2018 survey believe that immigration has undermined British cultural life. 

Above all, she’s gained the confidence that she can make a home for herself anywhere she chooses. That choice, for her, is the greatest freedom.

So to sum up:

In the Untold anthology, the editors Deonath and Ramdeen Chaudhury shed a light on the authentic truths of living as womxn with hyphenated identities that have only been whispered — until now. The 32 emerging voices share deeply personal moments relating to immigration, infertility, divorce, mental health, suicide, sexual orientation, gender identity, racism, colorism, casteism, religion, and much more, all while balancing the push and pull of belonging to two cultural hemispheres. The aim is to start the conversation, and not let it finish.

Dr Gay says in Hunger that no one wants or deserves to be talked down to or treated as a second-class citizen just because they’re heavy. If someone is overweight, there’s a good chance that emotional stress or perhaps even trauma has caused them to have an unhealthy relationship with food and their bodies. In a just world, society would be sensitive to this fact and not make life worse for people by making them feel inferior and shameful.

Mooro says in The Greater Freedom creating a home for yourself isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s especially difficult for Arab girls growing up in the West. Caught between two very different cultures and sets of expectations, Alya Mooro ultimately forged her identity through introspection, talking to other women of the Arab diaspora, and finding strength in her uniquely blended background. 

There were so many books out there that it was quite difficult to narrow down, so some other recommendations are activist Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ book When They Call You A Terrorist, comedian Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, author Morgan Jenkins’ This Will Be My Undoing, and Stephanie Land’s book Maid is now on Netflix.

I have so many untold stories, partly due to shame, trauma, grief, and the belief that I’d be judged. Maybe I’ll be courageous enough to share it, but only in my own time. Don’t let anyone hijack your experiences, that is one thing I have definitely learned growing up. Will you listen to others? Thanks for joining, and if you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe.

Published by suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a writer, journalist, producer and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC, Channel 4 and for ITV News/ITN. She currently works as a senior intelligence expert.

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