A conversation with Mostafah Henaway, Nandita Sharma, Jaggi Singh, Harsha Walia, and Rafeef Ziadah, originally published in the 30-year anniversary issue of Fuse Magazine, www.fusemagazine.org.
* Rafeef: I am an indigenous woman from Palestine, specifically a 3rd generation Palestinian refugee. This identity captures everything for me: the identity of a Palestinian nation; my relationship to Palestine, which is one both of being at home yet in exile; that the displacement of Palestinian refugees is multigenerational; and that I have now become a settler on Turtle Island, although I do not identify as being Canadian.
* Mostafah: I identify as a second generation Egyptian. It is hard to identify as Canadian. When you are younger you are told you are part of this Canadian society, but as you grow older that identity starts to unravel as you realize you are not really wanted as part of Canada. The notion of Canadian multiculturalism is a myth; being Canadian is a white identity.
Identifying as a Muslim would also not be accurate, as it does not encapsulate the element of culture for me. I do identify culturally as an Arab particularly given the shared political struggle of the Arab world. But I identify most specifically as Egyptian because that is where my family is from so there is a sense of familiarity and it is also the identity my parents have ingrained in me. The national identification with Egypt is part of the vagueness of the attachment I have to Egypt because as a second generation Egyptian, I do not have an attachment to a specific region within Egypt. It is so complicated when you are born here, you struggle with the question of identity your whole life and being second-generation becomes an identity in itself.
* Harsha: How I identify continues to change and often depends on the context. I don’t always use ‘woman’, or ‘of colour’, although I do have a strong affinity to those realities and struggles. The only descriptive identifier that I consistently use is being South Asian, which I use in the sense of physically and emotionally being connected to my home in India and as a specific cultural identifier. I feel a tangible connection to the different parts of South Asia that I have spent years growing up in and where my families are from. They are the only places where I feel a tangible sense of home and belonging as much of the rest of my live has been spent in temporary and precarious migration, which has legally, socially, and psychologically denied me the right to claim a home anywhere other than India. If the context requires it, I will also identify with different political groups and movements that I am or have been part of. But I usually tend to keep identifications really short.
* Jaggi: I do not volunteer my identity, but will answer when asked. And depending on the context, I share parts of my identity, which are ever-changing and evolving; but nothing fully captures it. To give some examples: in some contexts, I would describe the backgrounds of my mother and father; in other contexts I describe my politics and the organizing I am involved in; or I describe where I am born and where I live or where I have been; in some situations, I talk about my aspirations and my dreams; in certain places I seek common ground with others; in other contexts, I emphasize those parts of my identity that make me different. These are mutually reinforcing answers and all together they constitute how I identify myself.
So, my partial response would be: I was born and raised in Toronto, my mom is a nurse originally from a tribal area of India called Chattisgarh, and my father is a cabbie originally from the Punjab; my sister and I grew up with a single mom. I’ve lived and organized in Montreal for the past decade, which is my political terrain of struggle. I’m a no borders, anti-capitalist, immigrant and indigenous solidarity organizer. I’m a writer; I’m an activist; I’m an anarchist. And, I feel everything I just said is still incomplete.
* Nandita: That is a very hard question. My identities have changed so often. The more I think about it, the less there is anything I want to do identify with. I used to be a ‘Woman of Colour’, ‘South Asian’, ‘Feminist’, ‘East Indian’ but I don’t like any of those identities anymore. The identity of Queer is still okay as it involves an element of resistance while also offering a challenge to the politics of identity by being an evolving identity, but now queer is becoming more of a replacement term for LGBT. I prefer to identify through practice rather than imposed identities. When you read the history of where dominant identities came from such as race and nation, you see how those identities were created to destroy solidarities.
For me, inspiration comes from those who identify through active practice; for example the Diggers who were resisting theft of their commons and they came together to grow food where land had just been stolen as a way to reclaim the commons. I find it inspiring that people were able to come together based on a shared practice of being producers, which was historically seen as the greatest threat to the modern capitalist order. I think identities based on shared oppressions are more abstract and less useful than identities based on shared practice.
* Rafeef: I think it depends on where people are at in their struggle. As Palestinians who are going through a national liberation struggle, the reclaiming of our national identity is central to the struggle given that the Israeli occupation is premised on the annihilation of the Palestinian identity. But identity does become exclusive, for example a Palestinian national identity is very gendered and also class-based. For example there are significant class divisions between Palestinians in the refugee camps, 1948 Palestinians, and 1967 Palestinians. There is also a narrative of the veiled Muslim Palestinian woman which is the counter-orientalist discourse of what and who an Arab woman is supposed to be.
So, yes, struggles do ultimately need to be fought on the basis of liberation not identity. Within activist circles for example, some people claim more authenticity to a struggle by virtue of their identity. I do not believe that simply by being a Palestinian, I should lead the Palestine solidarity movement in Canada. I believe that Palestinians do, however, lead the movement based on the power of the arguments they make and their commitment to the struggle.
* Harsha: I think it is a constant battle between embracing identity as a sense of empowerment and realizing the pitfalls of identity. I do not think that identities based on shared oppressions are simply abstract; they are often based on some common lived experience, particularly the experience of marginalization. The assertion of anti-oppression identities, such as those based on race and gender/sexuality, are intended to be challenges to an exclusionary dominant order. The Canadian nation-state claims a racialized national identity that excludes indigenous people and people of colour, so the reclamation of those identities is a way to insert a sense of self worth and dignity into those daily struggles.
Yet those identities, for example the homogenous ‘people of colour’ identity, are also imposed; as Western imperialism continues to define itself as “us versus them”, we face greater pressures to accept narrower definitions of self. For me, the identity of ‘South Asian’ can be equally socially constructed and exclusive, leading to a fundamentalist defense of the insider/outsider dichotomy. This is not to deny that there is a shared sense of history and tradition within the South Asian community, but the idea of ‘purity’ is constantly invoked against those who contest particular cultural narratives, in particular women and queers (for example the argument that ‘homosexuality is a Western import’). Another problem is when those identities become detached from the actual struggles and take on a life of themselves. I find that the strength of an anti-oppression politic- that is to insert a radical analysis on privilege and systems of domination- has often resulted in a fetish of identity politics that can be self-absorbed, alienating, and stifling of political debate. Or even worse, politics based on identities alone lead to assumptions of greater shared affinities with each other despite significantly different class interests within the capitalist system or despite possessing fundamentally different values, perspectives, or opinions. This is in essence, a form of tokenization.
Being able to strike that balance of being able to go beyond static identities *yet* be rooted in a necessary anti-oppressive and anti-capitalist politics ultimately does come down to organizing: being actively involved with others and building relationships in the politics of struggle; fighting oppressive and exploitative systems; creating and transforming how we interact with one another; and reconstituting our communities along shared values and ideals.
* Jaggi: I embrace the dynamic nature of identity. Being skeptical of “identity” — which I feel is inherently limiting — does not mean I am not grounded in who I am and what I want to be. But, I prefer to let my actions speak for themselves. “Identity” also imposes a false commonality. For example, there are many folks that I describe as “brown faces in high places,” and they live comfortably within a neo-colonial, apartheid reality. They do nothing to oppose oppression, but rather insidiously re-define oppression to uphold their privileges, or are part of upholding neo-colonial apartheid. I share no affinity with those people with whom I supposedly share an ethnic “identity”.
* Mostafah: Within Egyptian identity, there is an ideal created that is a middle-class and religious kind of identity. This imposition does get policed internally for people and people deal with that conflict by trying to fake that identity rather than saying that these borders are policing me. For example being queer is being a ‘bad Egyptian’ so there is no belonging anymore. That policing is a form of violence that is quite effective. However, despite the criticism of cultural border policing, I feel that I need to claim some sort of heritage that does not feel imposed. The identity I am trying to pull towards is easier in the diaspora as it is less rigid. Although it is based on the national identity of being Egyptian, it is both a reclamation of that identity- of the Third World within the First World- as it is a rejection of what that identity is supposed to be.
- Mostafah Henaway is a second generation Egyptian who has been involved with Toronto Taxi Drivers Association, Solidarity Across Borders Montreal, Block the Empire Montreal, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, and the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid.
- Nandita Sharma is an activist scholar who is part of a loose network of no borders groups that challenge the legitimacy of national border controls with their regimes of citizenship and also work to ensure that everyone has the ability to both “stay” and to “move” as they so desire.
- Jaggi Singh is writer, activist, and anarchist living and organizing in Montreal. He is a no borders, anti-capitalist, immigrant and indigenous solidarity organizer involved in a wide range of movements.
- Harsha Walia is a South Asian organizer and writer currently based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. She is involved in migrant justice organizing, feminist and anti-racist collectives, South Asian community organizing, indigenous solidarity, and anti-imperialist networks.
- Rafeef Ziadah is a 3rd generation Palestinian refugee who lost her parents in the 1982 Massacre at the Shatilla Refugee Camp. She is member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid and Sumoud: A Palestinian Political Prisoner Solidarity Group, and a political science student in Toronto.