this article was written as part of the author’s tutorial on migration, mobility and borders
With my university graduation approaching, I am often confronted by the question of what to do after I graduate, and inextricably tied to this is the aspect of geography: where shall I go? To me, both academia and the corporate sector sounds like capitalist hellscapes, with limited opportunities to apply what I learn. My thoughts about where to settle are further complicated by my undergraduate studies, because of which over the last three years, I have lived in San Francisco, Seoul, Hyderabad, Berlin, Buenos Aires, and now London, in bouts of four months.
In The Black Jacobins, a book about the history of the Haitian Revolution, Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James writes, “The first step to freedom was to go abroad.” Here, James prescribed travel to the non-white people of the Caribbean. He argued that travel was the antidote to a deep sense of inferiority in the Caribbean people resulting from generations of subjugation by white, colonial powers. So, James elaborates, “they had to clear from their minds the stigma that anything African was inherently inferior” to develop a West Indian national identity and to advance the project of decolonization.
“Freedom” means something different to everyone, with ideological commitments playing a prominent role in these meanings. I will not attempt to prescribe a universal definition. Instead, I can describe my idea of freedom which is grounded in my experience of growing up in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In Dhaka, my experience of freedom, or lack thereof, was felt most direly in my status as a female-gendered person. From a young age, I was constantly put down, physically violated, and policed according to hypocritical body standards. My actions invited scorn from religious conservatives, liberal middle classes, men, women, and peers alike who thought my personhood came second to my gender role in a patriarchal society. Beyond this, there was my perceived obligation to obey my elders as a young person, and so my freedoms were bounded on at least these two fronts. My disadvantages were only compounded by the absence of a father figure in my Hindu-Muslim household. I was made to feel my existence living with a single, working-class mother in a predominantly homogenous Muslim country was unusual, at worst, a mistake.
I have wanted to subject myself to a profound amnesia: to forget Bangladesh.
The consequences of patriarchy are a pervasive reality in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) found that 94% of Bangladeshi women report being sexually harassed in public. Poor women in particular, including those from rural areas, face multiple oppressions owing to informal labour markets, lack of access to quality education, and unpaid, productive work in addition to care work. Yet, these poor women are economised as an “untapped resource” under neoliberal development models which additionally impose on them the responsibility to lift their families out of poverty, calling it “empowerment”. Non-Bengali Indigenous women, deprived of formal recognition, subject to landlessness and a lack of civil rights, face further challenges at the intersection of indigeneity, gender, and food insecurity. Gender-variant peoples are not spared from similar challenges: human rights initiatives have not redressed the marginalization of the Hijra people in social and economic spheres, who as of 2015, were denied government jobs because they failed a genitalia-based medical examination.
As a consequence of my personal experiences and the grim statistics on gendered oppressions in Bangladesh, I agree with James about the imperative of going abroad, but my aims are different. I desire no development of national consciousness. In fact, I have wanted to subject myself to a profound amnesia: to forget Bangladesh. Embarking on my final year of college, my feelings have not changed. What difference could three years make to my rigid sentiment?
Often, I cannot express how Bangladesh alienated me without a nagging feeling of guilt. Previously, Bangladeshis, at home or abroad, have bombarded me with notions of “pride in one’s background.” I was told that it was no problem to strive for achievement and residence, even citizenship, under Western capitalism, but I could not forget where I came from. I was accused of self-hate and over-exaggeration, and sometimes, I was ridiculed.
On the other hand, my cousin in Bangladesh would occasionally complain about my privilege of education. According to the line of thinking my cousin shares, men in Bangladesh are sexually repressed due to conservative norms, and they lack the education required to make feminists out of them. Conversely, I am privileged, with an understanding of my rights, which can only result from a certain type of education. “There are no role-models for me, ” he protests. While this rationale overlooks the decades of organizing by gendered minorities in Bangladesh without my type of privileged education, such as women-led labour unions in the garments sector, what difference does it make to the question at hand? I feel estranged from the place of my birth, disempowered to make changes there, and I wish to remain abroad, anywhere but there.
However, I will concede the challenges of critique. Consider Monica Ali, a Bangladeshi-born British writer, who is best known for her book, Brick Lane. The book portrays the life of Nazneen, a woman who grew up in rural Bangladesh and then migrated to London in an arranged marriage with a significantly older man. Later featured as a film, Brick Lane faced severe backlash from Bangladeshi Muslims in London for its portrayal of their community as “ignorant and sexist”. Though my first instinct was to protest the unfairness of those accusations, a history of racialized murders and Islamophobia inflicted on the Bangladeshi-British community, which has only escalated since 9/11, made me reconsider. Perhaps, Ali does have a responsibility to censor—or at least to more carefully construct—the narrative, and so do I. Is it worth the trouble?
Thus, at the same time as I reflect on my background and the details of my storytelling, I have also been on the search for other homes during my semesters abroad. I found communities where I felt comfortable in San Francisco, Hyderabad, and even Berlin and Seoul despite the language barrier. However, the bureaucratic hurdles of applying for residency or citizenship in any of these locations have discouraged me. Furthermore, migrant women to the Western locations are often expected to present themselves as victims of misogyny from elsewhere and show their willingness “to become modern subjects (women) in accord with a white European sense of gendered agency and of state belonging”. In other words, I worry that as I look, the new cultures have and will look back at me with an unwelcoming, pathologized gaze.
Is it worth the trouble?
I believe the most promising candidate for a place I could belong to is a place that I have yet to visit. During my semester in Germany, on an overnight train ride to Switzerland, we stopped for a few hours in the city of Erfurt. I sought refuge from the cold November wind at a coffee shop, where I remember staring at my reflection in the glass walls, nothing else to do, as the most captivating melody began playing on the café speaker. I suspected that I’d heard the song before, the kind overplayed in social gatherings and restaurants, but something about the moment made me feel a puzzling sense of attachment. I traced the origins of the song, and the following semester, when I was in Argentina, I began to read more about it; I learned about the Buena Vista Social Club and more generally, about Cuba, prompted by the writings of an Argentine Marxist revolutionary.
Gradually, as I learned more about Cuba, more things began to resonate with me—the Cuban revolution became an inspiration for me in how it stood against barbaric US imperialism, its ethos of medical internationalism, its commitment to racial justice, its guarantee of equality regardless of gender in the Constitution (Article 43), and its political leaders’ willingness to admit their faults and proactively take steps to support sexual minorities. Cuba is no idyllic gender heaven, but remarkable progress has been made since the revolution. Most importantly, Cuba’s resilience as a socialist political symbol for freedom makes me feel that the challenges are more surmountable in Cuban society. All of this has circulated to bring me to my answer to where my search for home could lead to, and relatedly, who I am.
The colour of my passport is green. The colour of my skin is brown. The colour of the flag on my wall, however, is blue, white, and red. When people ask me where I am from, aspirationally, my response is, “Havana.”