Sustaining the Onslaught of ‘Footware’

Last week i shared an article on Twitter titled ‘Freedom of expression, a shape-shifting tool’ that listed some of the comments i had received in response to ‘This ‘free speech’? no thanks’ published earlier. This is the paragraph containing those comments:

‘After my response appeared on Straight.com, I was put in my place several times regarding my race, gender, skills and social status: ‘you, a person without any noteworthy accomplishments to her name… I wonder if your point has any validity to it whatsoever.’ ‘This writer has less than zero understanding of Western History, and how capitalist power and systemic racism work.’ ‘This is awful writing, I can’t believe this is considered a serious contribution to our public discourse around these issues’, ‘typical nauseating beyond far left viewpoints’. I also bagged various titles including dictator, ignorant, fascist, a Soviet-era speechwriter, but most agreed that I was someone who for sure was ungrateful for the rights she enjoys here in the ‘West’. And then: ‘What’s the daft woman’s alleged point?’ ‘the garbled word salad you wrote’, ‘What a load of tripe’.

As i was posting it, amid fresh comments and LIKES, i received the following message from Poet Jónína Kirton:

‘The things that people said to you @RafiqueFauzia made me want to cry, especially since I know you, love you & feel you are one of the most brilliant woman I know. They are WRONG… so wrong. I am not one to push guilt on others but they should really feel ashamed of themselves.’

First, my mind prompted me to chuckle, and i did, because it was as if i was caught red handed. I wasn’t feeling hurt, I was just dutifully responding to each comment the best i could while appreciating its literary merit or an interesting thought or to notice if the comment was based in elitism, racism, sexism, or whatism. Then the chuckle ended, and in one flash i was reminded of two instances that had happened a few months apart in Toronto in the 1990s. The first had occurred with my friend poet/publisher/activist Fahmida Riyaz (1946-2018) who was visiting from Karachi. I asked her how it was going over there, and she gave me a contemplative gaze, and in all seriousness said, Har qism ki jootiyan parri hain mujhe. Boot, fauji boot, pumpi, running shoes, hawai chappal, sandals, chotti airri, oonchi airri…: ‘I had all kinds of footware thrown at me. Boot, army boot, pumpi, running shoes, flip flops, sandals, short heel, high heel…’. The rest of the evening was spent on improving the list of footware that we had received on different occasions, and we experienced laughing fits going into tears and then back.

The second flashback was a visit from my friend author/educator/activist Rubya Mehdi, who was either on her way to Copenhagen from Lahore or had recently visited there. So, i asked her how did it go in Lahore, and without a moment’s hesitation, she said Uff, buhut jootay parray: ‘Uff, i took a lot of footware’, and that led to another evening of crazy laughter and tears.

After, i responded to Jónína:
‘You always touch something deeper with your words, @JoninaKirton. First, i had to inquire about my own feelings around them, and I was amazed to find that ‘hurt’ is not there, that in fact i enjoyed the ways of expression of most of them. Why? There’s another post in there.’

And, without giving it any more thought, i set out on the route that Jónína had pointed to. Why? Because i know her to be an instinctive healer of the self and others; check her tweet, it’s a tender message of strength encouraging me to proceed, if i needed to or wanted to. My tweet: ‘It has begun, i’m already telling you all about it. Thank you for creating this space for me to go over this- what can i say, sadness.’

As women in any part of the world, we take an incredible amount of verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual and physical abuse simply for being women. This abuse is doubled and tripled when some women disagree with certain familial, religious or social values and when they refuse to follow the dictates. Additional layers of abuse are added when women are anti-government or anti-state activists working for equality and fairness. The three women above, Fahmida, Rubya and myself were and are guilty on all three counts, and then some. Tangle it with class, caste, race, color, gender, ableism, ageism, and you may end up with a lot of abusive experiences. So much and so many and so fast that it would not be possible to process them all in real time. In fact, the way life happens and because it is painful and debilitating to process and confront abuse, a lot of it would remain unacknowledged, unmarked and unprocessed.

i’m not sure how Fahmida, Rubya, Jónína and other women i know, may have dealt with verbal abuse in the long term, but we all may have had to ‘thicken’ our skins enough to be able to throw the larger portion of it to the side. Throw it to the side instead of responding to it or to get drawn by it unless it was a tactic to do so. For my part, as a youth i had created a space just outside of myself to deposit all the indignities or the ‘footware’ thrown at me. I call it the Dome of Sadness, and it contains all the abuse i have suffered as a girl, a young woman, a woman; for being my kind of a writer, and, for being a certain kind of a person.

Urdu term ‘jootay parrna’ means ‘footware lashing’ and it is used for verbal abuse, ‘mild’ assaults, and ‘light’ physical battery- the three things most South Asian children become aware of early on as these are the three most used method of disciplining them. The English terms, ‘shoeing’ or ‘shoe throwing’ do not quite express the ‘cultural’ significance of ‘footware lashing’ where it means one or all of the following:
Mild swear words: declaring humans in question as belonging to and/or originating from nonhuman species, especially dogs/bitches, donkeys, and owls.
Medium swear words: a vast canon pointing to and highlighting individual physical attributes such as ‘four eyes’, ‘one-legged’, ‘one-armed’, ‘stick’, ‘fatso’, ‘trans’, ‘no-eyes’, ‘boy-nor-girl’.
Hot swear words: declare women, young women, even girl children, to be whores, sluts and prostitutes while men, young men, even boy children, are accused of fucking their mothers, sisters, daughters, etc.
Name calling and Character assassination: constitutes Hate Speech that levels serious allegations of religious, sexual, social or political wrongdoing leading to violence.
Non-life-threatening battery, physical abuse and assaults with or without  make-shift weapon; slaps, kicks, punches, hair-pulling, baton charges, lashes, burns, acid throwing…

Please note, the abuses listed above are not the products of any of the South Asian cultures but of patriarchy. Similar themes run through all languages and cultures of the world. And this reminds me of a space where for some time, it was possible to view South Asian Muslim culture-specific verbal abuse in one place- Author Salman Rushdie’s page on Facebook where everyone could express themselves freely about the alleged blasphemous content of one of his novels. ‘The unreason, intolerance, violence, bigotry, threats, and the filthiest verbal abuse- it was all there.’ But we can’t view it anymore, it was discontinued in the 2010s.

Most of the Footware lashing i have received is hidden, and that’s what Jónína Kirton encourages me to address, to take the time to see the part where years of abuse is stored- the part that i think is situated outside of myself. In her tweet, she tosses a warm, soft and colorful shawl at me to get me on my way. There can’t be a better time for it.

The Dome of Sadness had no door, i had to dig one to get in. So much clutter! There was about 34 years of Canadian racism, over two years of British racism in Britain, decades of British racism in Pakistan. Racism mixed with Islamophobia and misogyny, the extent of which came out to me when i was filling out a form last year for a research project on Islamophobia. Extreme prejudice experienced from some white editors over the years. Barriers to employment. Unpleasant family situations, abusive men, in-laws, gossip-lovers. Character assassination in Pakistan, abuse received on the streets of Lahore. The dome was full of all kinds of insulting words and cruel thoughts, spoken, written, published. Violent actions, gestures, body language. Photos, videos, audios, detailed flashbacks. Images, paintings, drawings. Poems, prose. High piles of mixed media. Some marked, some unmarked. But looking at each, i knew what it was about. It was about something that i had already endured and i had already survived. It can teach me somethings and it can increase my understanding but it can not harm me anymore.

Well, this is a belief i have though it may not be entirely true. What i find here cannot harm me in the ways that were intended perhaps by the abuser, but it can still harm me in other ways. In case of unmarked abusive incidents, for example, it can harm me to suddenly find or accept that it was abuse(!), and in certain cases, it can exact a cost from me in the present.

As well, in many ways human mind is its own free bird, it can reach branches and tress that one may not want to get to, for example, to instances of my own abusive attitudes, behaviors and actions toward others. A tough reckoning, tougher than taking abuse itself, it is to acknowledge that i am guilty of abusing others too.

So, the somewhat perilous adventure has begun and i have been wandering around here for the past few days. On my way out right now, i am going to rename it as ‘Abuse Registration Office – Shipping’, and in the coming days, i’ll work at it.

I know, its a boring title and the place looks like a huge warehouse but inside… don’t bet on it.

Fauzia Rafique
July 27, 2020
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This ‘Free Speech’? No Thanks!

Photo via @SinEmbargoMX

An open letter signed by 150 intellectuals and activists that was published July 7, served as a jolt to this morning’s peaceful tea ritual. It is a short container of many huge triggers that left me wondering as to where do these people live- the people who drafted, signed and published this letter- because by the end of it, it sounded even more ridiculous than ‘make america great again’ (maga) as it laments the loss of things/situations that did not even exist.

Without naming the #BLM movement, and i believe, the #MeToo, it says that this ‘needed reckoning’ has also ‘intensified’ conditions that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences and constrict the free exchange of information and ideas. Then, the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters is self-righteously upheld. Forgive me if i repeat some of it- our norms of open debate and tolerance of difference? Where have they existed in this society? The sacred cow of free speech, justice and open debate that is supposed to be threatened by the current mass movements for equality rights never existed in this society, never for the majority of its people. While, it for sure has existed for the ruling elites, the people who hold power and sway in different areas of this social system. Or is it that the signatories believe that the phrase ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and the incident associated with it, was an example of ‘open debate’ and ‘tolerance of difference’ or if it was ‘justice’, because that’s what previously existed and that’s what still exists here.

This letter seems to be written, published and signed in a vacuum where no colonization of this land took place, there is no history or impact of slavery on this society, no usurpation or genocide of Indigenous people occurred; where the system is not based on racial profiling or gender and other prejudices; Komagatamaru did not happen, Chinese head tax wasn’t extracted, Japanese internment did not take place. People of color don’t face prejudice, and White Privilege does not exist. It was all good till #MeToo and #BLM movements began. Denial that a highly exploitative system governs the world that does not allow any democratic rights to a large majority of people. The refusal to acknowledge that they themselves may be fully invested in perpetuating this repressive system.

There’s so much ‘holier than thou’, it may beat even the writings of regular Mullahs in citing empty slogans and self-aggrandizing statements. ‘As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.’ ‘We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom’. ‘The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.’ ‘The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.’

And, you know who they are defending?
Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.’ Most of them are traditional power holders in their fields who are now being threatened with reprisal for what they have been doing for years against vulnerable people in their respective areas of influence (‘just clumsy mistakes’) in order to protect this system. Now they are faced with this inconvenience to be responsible for their views and actions with the so-called ‘vogue for public shaming and ostracism’ and where it has now become ‘all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.’

Amazing, that most of these people who are opinion leaders, celebs, and groundbreakers to the left of at least Donald Trump, choose to support the status quo. They are literally supporting White Privilege, male domination and impunity based on class/position. But what a spoilt-child syndrome. They want to continue to enjoy the privilege of exploiting others without being accountable for their ideas and actions that were historically used against those ‘others’ in this racist/sexist/intolerant system. ‘As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.’ and, ‘We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.’

But listen to this: ‘If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.’

Yes. The ‘very thing’ on which their ‘work depends’ is this system of privileges guaranteed for a few at the expense of the rest, and this is what they must defend to keep their own personal positions.

I certainly cannot support any part of this open letter.

Fauzia Rafique
July 8, 2020

Published July 9th at Georgia Straight
Also view my article on the content of the Open Letter ‘Freedom of expression—a shape-shifting tool‘, published July 17th at Georgia Straight.
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A Daunting Treasure of Hundreds of Handwritten Letters

Deliberately unfocused photo by Mariam Zohra D.

It appears as if i am from the last generation of people who find ourselves in possession of hundreds of hand-written letters, and the realization comes right about now since there has been more time to look through paper filled boxes- perhaps from the Seventies- because of the ‘stay at home’ routine.

This is the continuing story of that small but highly benefic box from the 1976-78 that got left behind in the UK, and that was safe-kept by my dear friend Tim Hume and his partner Carolyn Hume for 36 years till they found me on the internet and sent it to me in Vancouver in 2014. I call it a ‘benefic’ box because it is full of uniquely valuable things- manuscripts, letters, photos. Already, i have retrieved, written and published Keerru, a novella based on a manuscript of a novel that i had begun writing in Lahore in the mid 1970s. I feel lucky because to me, that handwritten manuscript with no copies, had been lost.

When i got the benefic box in 2014, i was delighted to go through manuscripts and photos but not the letters. Now, not only that there is more time but the time is of being nearer to death, i thought, i’ll sift through my stuff to reduce the work of my beautiful children (Love You Forever) in clearing it after i move on. Wow! Some of those letters are so beautiful, and i don’t mean just the handwriting, some of the words and expressions are prolific and profound.

At the base of this is a sense of immense gratitude i feel as i see in front of my eyes the written proof of the love and support i received just in a couple of years in the UK. Also, because these letters are only a part of what was since some have been lost and some were returned to the sender; and, because this does not include the notes and greeting cards i got from people in the UK, later in Toronto, and now in Vancouver. No wonder, i did not perish at any of those times and places.

This pile of hand written and snail mailed letters was a lifeline for me and my baby daughter, and it was led by two people who had nothing in common but me, my mother and a guy who i wish not to identify (though if you like, you can see him as a fictional character in a humorous story titled ‘The Unnecessary- SahebaN vs. the Heternal Domination Loop’ in my novel ‘The Adventures of Saheban: Biography of a Relentless Warrior’). The lifeline contained letters from my sister, sister-in-law, my young and little nieces and nephews, even from my brother and brother-in-law. Letters from my dear friends, Rubya Mehdi, Ismatra Ahsan, Shahida Tabbassum, Riffat Naheed Farooqi, Bee Lee Sabuctageen, Shahnaz Alvi, Asia Arshad and Kausar Jamal sustained me throughout this time.

Please accept my gratitude, love and warmth.

The point is, what do i do with them now. Send back to sender? Recycle? Leave them for my children to deal with? What a waste. May be i can use them in fiction or something like that. Any ideas and thoughts will be appreciated.

Fauzia Rafique
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Not from the Elite but from the Street

Today, i received the very best award this World can offer me. A profound recognition that comes not from the Elite but from the Street- my name on a placard in a rally for this year’s Mother Language Day in Lahore.

But that is not all. It adds my name to a list of women who have had a deep impact on me through their art- Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Amrita Pritam, Sara Shagufta, Amrita Sher-Gil. Wow.

International mother Language Day
Nasreen Anjum Bhatti’s language Punjabi
Amrita Pritam  Punjabi
Sara Shagufta Punjabi
Amrita Sher-Gil Punjabi
Fauzia Rafique Punjabi
Punjab Lok Sangat Lahore / WDF Lahore

Ramsha Ashraf with Naveed Alam and Waqas Ahmad Shahbaz; Ayesha Ahmad in the first photo.

And the cherry on top? The placard is propped up by activists i love and respect. How sweet can it get? Happiness and contentment on the International Mother Language Day 2020.
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Happy or not / Grateful or what?

It’s as if i’m a passed away author, fifty or so years have gone by, and now my work is in the public domain. Some writers and publishers are crazy about my Punjabi novel ‘Skeena’, so they go ahead and convert it from Shahmukhi script to Gurmukhi, edit it, get someone to create a brand new cover page, dtp it, print it, and send it to a bookstore near where i live.

I’m not kidding.
Gurmukhi edition of novel ‘Skeena’ now available in India and Canada

Last month, Rajwant Chilana, an author and the owner of India Bookworld in Surrey, contacted me to say that Skeena’s Punjabi edition had arrived and he invited me to come and see it. First, i thought, the bookstore has acquired the Shahmukhi edition from Sanjh Publications in Lahore but then I remembered that when someone from a Sikh cultural background says ‘Punjabi’, they mean Punjabi in Gurmukhi script, just like when someone from Muslim cultural background says ‘Punjabi’ they mean Punjabi in Shahmukhi or Arabo-Persian script.

I went and saw it, it was in Gurmukhi. Skeena’s Punjabi edition got published in India after twelve years of being published in Pakistan and its Gurmukhi edition got published after eight years of getting published in Canada (script conversion and editing by Surjeet Kalsey, limited edition, Libros Libertad 2011). It took so long because as an author i was unwilling to pay the printing costs as is still customary in Punjabi publishing. Indeed, it is a compliment to me and my work that a group of people invested their time and money to bring out a nice edition, and now it is finally available to all Punjabi readers, and that makes me very happy.

Yet there is this feeling of taken-aback-ness, curiosity, and i must admit- some amusement. In this scenario of un-asked permissions, un-authorised script conversions and un-acknowledged royalty rights, the aspect that intrigues me the most is the brand new cover art. Indeed, the woman on the cover is sitting in a much favored pose for women on book covers in South Asia, the popular ‘waiting-bride’ pose.

Covering Skeena

Below is the original cover art of Skeena: a stylized depiction of a woman lying on a bed with an open book, her body tattooed with decorative shapes and newsprint, with a background of minarets and moon.

Painting by Ahmad Zoay, Cover design by Sadaf Chughtai

At the back, to point to the possibilities of how a woman’s person may flower, and, to counter the male gaze, the figure is turned upright- thanks to graphic designer Sadaf Chughtai in Lahore.

I am grateful to publisher Amjad Saleem Minhas for giving me the right to choose the cover art for the debut edition in 2007, and later to Manolis Aligizakis for keeping it for the English edition in 2011. I had chosen it after going over hundreds of paintings and drawings. This was important to me because my novel Skeena traverses a delicate line- it is based on the cliche plot of a young Muslim woman who is brought up in a Punjabi village and she arrives in Canada via an arranged marriage- in this cliche plot original real life characters breathe, reside and flourish changing the nature of the plot and its situations. The cover art expresses a part of Skeena’s essence, and it serves as a caution to people of a conservative traditional mindset to not pick it up. I was also aware that it can alienate a portion of Skeena’s ‘natural’ readership of women who may find it hard to pick up the novel, buy it and read it in public- but, there always is a first time.

What we have on the cover of Gurmukhi edition now is a realistic projection of a Muslim woman from lower middle class or from the more conservative sections of middle class. Nice art work, i especially like the thoughtful expression on the woman’s face where she seems determined to figure things out for herself, the soft colors and contours of the image provide a palpable base for her efforts. It depicts the apparent or outward mannerism of Skeena at least as it is in the first three sections of the novel. But Wow! Catch me if i fall, what a transformation. If the original was a caution because of a woman’s sprawling non-pornographic nudity, than this is an invitation because of the harmlessness of the fully-clothed safely-sexy ‘girly-book’ look. Indeed, based on the cover, it can easily pass for an A. R. Khatoon or a Razia Butt kind of novel that feeds into and perpetuates most of the entrenched systemic myths and prejudices about women and people in general.

A few years back, a friend in Lahore who had immensely enjoyed reading Skeena, asked a woman who was studying it for her research, to encapsulate Skeena and she had instantly responded with ‘She is a rebel’. View it here:
it’ll-live-for-a-long-long-time-a-comment-by-younas-khan/

Given that it is the same novel, let’s see if the ‘invitation’ works better than the ‘caution’, as we know that Skeena’s Shahmukhi edition is Pakistan’s all-time best-selling Punjabi novel since 2008.

Fauzia Rafique
October 15, 2019

Skeena
Gurmukhi Edition
Script Conversion & Editing: Harbans Singh Dhiman
ISBN 978-93-5231-317-4
India Bookworld, $15
604-593-5967
info@indiabookworld.ca
Sangam Publications, India
sangam541@gmail.com
01764-501934
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‘The Position of Her Power’ by Fauzia Rafique

A painting by Ed Kuris

She was the kind one only sees in an Avon brochure. Light brown hair with a tint of gold, blue kinky eyes, straight nose, full lips, wide mouth and a dimpled chin. A woman she had come across years ago whom she re-called by the name of “that classy bitch”, had once classified her as the ideal woman of Anglo-Saxon lower middle class, quote, unquote. The bitch thought this to be insulting. It was not. Not to her. The only thing she objected to was the word `lower’ with the term middle class.

She was not only an ideal woman, she was also a wise woman. She had made it a point to enhance and preserve this image since her teens. And now, after about 25 years, she had reason to be proud of her efforts. Little things she had started doing then were now habits that she hardly noticed or paid attention to. Every four to six months, she would change the style of her hair to the most appropriate one at the time. Never too conventional, never too wild. What she did not change was its golden-brown colour. Like the deep blue of her eyes, the golden-brown remained the in-thing in hair colour for conventional fashion magazines.

The only thing that caused her some concern was her skin. It was white like the belly of a Salmon. As time passed by, the blue veins under her skin became more and more prominent. She never found the time or money to keep it tanned. But only her first boyfriends might have noticed that it was too white. She had evolved a useful method of delicately applying the correct combination of foundation cream and Oil of Olay on her body after her morning shower. It not only provided a thin transparent veil to the blue, it also gave a healthy and somewhat tanned look to her skin. None of her boyfriends, not even her ex-husband knew she had hair on her upper lip, arms and legs. The only noticeable hair was on her head and between her thighs. And she took good care of both.

She liked looking pretty. It made life easy on her. And pleasant. Except that she was unable to figure out why she had lost three men and was about to lose the fourth. She had wanted each one of them to stay. She knew she boosted their ego just by being with them. She knew they were all proud of having her. So then why did they always leave?

The man she was going out with was finding more and more excuses to spend less time with her. She recognized the symptoms. Last night he was to come and pick her up to go dancing. She wore her black dress with the burning red jewelry and matching shoes. A real sizzler. No one could help but look at her. But he never showed. When she called his place there was that fucking machine with tasteless loud music followed by his best voice saying `I am unable to come to the phone right now blah, blah, please leave your name and number…’. She almost drove to his place to find out why the hell he was unable to come to the phone but then she felt tired. Tired of keeping them in line. Tired of feeling outraged. Tired of the fear of being abandoned. Tired of the thought of dancing, of loud music, of attracting men, of encountering women. She went to bed and quietly slept all night.

Sleep is a great remedy. In the morning she was herself again and aghast at the fact that she had slept with her makeup on. She called him again from her workplace. He was ever so ashamed of his behavior last night but it was unavoidable. And, great news, wait till you hear this one, he had found the job of his dreams in the States and was leaving within a week or so. And then out came a rather weak and totally unenthusiastic `how about coming along?’. She said she was absolutely thrilled and yes, she would think about it. He said he was in an awful hurry and would really appreciate it if she told him by tomorrow at the latest. She said, she would.

She felt heavy. She knew there was no job and that the bastard was taking the easy way out. She still would have swallowed her pride and would have gone to the States with him but she wasn’t as free to do so. She had her mortgage to think about, she was still paying for her furniture. It was difficult to contemplate quitting her job. It paid well and was so easy. She was quite a success as it as well. Her ability to control people was not only used at work, it was also appreciated. She liked controlling people and did it almost effortlessly.

She would sit everyday in front of one of the doors leading to the office where officers conducted prearranged interviews in tiny bare cubicles; files were constantly fed to the computers, and office clerks busily walked back and forth. She loved this office. No alien could enter it without her consent. She unceasingly treasured and guarded the officers, files, computers, cubicles and all.

She always sat in a high chair behind a counter that encircled her and the door leading into the office. She had a phone, a ball-point pen and a register. Her world was made perfect by a good-sized smiling portrait of the Queen of England. Though she was quick to see deficiencies in women, she somehow never had a similar view about this one. She had a built-in sense of awe and respect for the Queen that she never found any reason to challenge. And it was only fair. After all this was not just any woman. She was dismayed at the royal choice of Diana and Fergie as daughters-in law of the crown, but she also understood the fact that there were some things that even Queens were unable to control. She kept her cool in that regard.

She kept her cool at all times. She never allowed any of them more than 60 to 120 seconds of her time. If there was resistance to that unspoken rule, she would simply sit and keep on repeating her standpoint without listening to what was being said. She knew what they were saying. If someone was dumb enough, which incidentally most of them were, not to get the message by that time, she would start punching her lines on the phone and get busy elsewhere. But the method she most commonly used was the one where she would unilaterally finish her conversation with one and would turn to the other with a `may I help you?’ uttered flawlessly to mean `what the hell do you want?’.

She had also discovered the benefits of knowing in advance if anyone standing in the line would pose problems. She was a good judge of character. She would know at a glance if they were irritating or aggravating. This way she was always prepared.

The only problem she faced at work was that she could never find any time to think. The line in front of her remained long no matter how efficiently she dealt with them. And the lunch break gave only enough time to eat. She was provided with coffee at her counter. Most of the time she liked this. Who needed time to think? But sometimes, like today, she wanted to think. She had to decide by tomorrow. No time yet she had to make a decision by tomorrow. This dumbo’s 60 seconds are over, she decided and turned to the next in line with her `may I help you?’
`Y–yes–uh–good morning Miss. I–‘
`What is it? Work permit? You have to pay 50 dollars. New rules.’
`Yes. I–I wanted to know if –if my open work permit is here please Miss—?’
`Have you passed your medical?’
`Yes, yes, I want to know if the result is on my file and if —‘
`We do not answer queries about the medical here, Sir. You have to find that out from the Ministry of Health in Ottawa’. She turned to the next, `May I help you?’
`B–but–Miss–‘
`Number is in the phone book, Sir’. She was still looking at the next one in line.
The next in line did not hesitate to come forward.
‘Yes, Sir?’
`Me meet officer, 9:30.’ He offered her a piece of paper.
She was opening her register to check the validity of his claim when her eye fell on a thin woman who was third in the line up. The look on her face unsettled her.
`Your name and file number, Sir.’
`Here, this. Here, this’.
She took the piece of paper, entered his particulars in the register but her mind remained on the woman.
`Take a seat. Your name will be called.’
She turned to the next. Now the woman was second in line.
`You need an interpreter? Which language?’
`Italy. Me Italy.’
‘Wait over there’ she indicated an open space for her to wait. Why do they come to Canada when they couldn’t say a word in English? She wondered several times every day. `May I help you?’ The woman was next after this one. What was it? She looked at her. Yes, it was the look on her face. The same look. Her eyes were clear and she stood as if she was standing in a line waiting for a bus to arrive. Yes she knew that look. It was aggravating. In fact she was disgusted with people like her. Stupid fools didn’t they know it was not a bank or a bus stop? Standing in this line was not a right. It was their Goddamn duty. But some were stupid. In fact they were all stupid. She suddenly hated them all. So many of them looking at her with expectation, with submission, like dogs. She hated dogs. Especially the ones that had no pedigree. She hated them. Her heart pounded and she wanted to be away from them. Away from Toronto. She wanted to be in California, absorbing all the sunshine that her body could need. Lying side by side with him, cooking together, walking together. She might even have a baby. `Your file number in Montreal, Sir?’ She did not have to listen to his groveling speech to find out that he wanted his files to be transferred from Montreal to here.
`Here is your appointment. Bring this paper with you when you come next time.’
‘Thank you, Madame.’
She did not call the next in line. It was her. The one with brown skin and black eyes. She absorbed herself with the appointment register. She needed a minute to set the ball rolling. She felt thirsty for coffee. But it wasn’t time yet. People in this line had apprehensive, disturbed, fidgeting or agitated eyes. Not the calm that this one had. It did not seem proper. No, it definitely was not proper. She couldn’t be a citizen. This was not the place for them. May be she was not even a landed. Let me see what her act was then, she thought.
`May I help you, Madame?’
At that very moment three young children came running towards the woman. And then the woman did something that was never done in that office. Instead of coming forward when she was called she started talking to her children. She made her wait for full 40 seconds. This was something she never took from anyone, especially aliens. And this one was not just an alien. She was an alien from Asia.
`Good morning. I am here for a work permit.’ She said as if she was asking for a pantyhose in a drug store.
‘Your job offer, please.’ She did not look at her.
`Here.’ She had the paper ready in her hand. Her hand remained extended for a while before it was taken.
`Okay, here is your appointment.’
`I need it today. The—‘
`The nearest space I have is for the same date next month.’
`Next month? Who will hold a job for me for a month?’
`May I help you?’ She dismissed her.
`No, you have got to listen to me. I have three children and if I lose this job I will have to go on government assistance. I cannot wait that long. I—‘
`Punjabi or Urdu?’ she asked dialing a number on the intercom.
`What?’
`What is your mother tongue?’
`Punjabi–but–‘
I’ve got you now woman. She felt like smiling. `Oh, hi Cindy. Can we have a Punjabi interpreter out here? Great. Thanks.’ She put the phone down. So, the bitch doesn’t want to go on Welfare, too good for it, eh? She even calls it `government assistance’.
`Why did you ask for a Punjabi interpreter? I can speak a little English.’
She kept scribbling on the paper in front of her. Too good for it as well, eh?
`You asked for a Punjabi interpreter?’ The woman was white.
`Yes. could you please tell this lady we are booked until the same date next month. That is when she has to come back.’
`Certainly’. The interpreter faced the woman and said in English “We are booked until the same date next month. That is when you have to come back.”
`But who will keep this kind of job—‘
`We are booked until the same date next month. That is when you have to come back.’
`I have three children—‘
`We are booked until the same date next month. That is when you have to come back.’
`But you can’t do that to —‘
`We are booked—‘
The woman suddenly turned, gathered her children and started walking towards the door. And that is when she looked back towards the counter. Her eyes full of water. By the time she was out the door her cheeks must have been all wet. So much for parenting skills. Crying in front of her children. The woman disappeared behind the door but she could see her crying in the corridor. In the elevator. In the huge main lobby. On to University Avenue. Hundreds of people looking at her, watching her. She felt a sudden and unexpected urge to run after her and tell her about the other office where she could get a work permit the same day. No, she was not that soft. The creature asked for what she got. People watching. The woman crying. And then they think they have self-respect. It was only proper to do what she did.

Whenever she did something that was proper, she felt good. This was proper. It was good. That is what she liked in herself. She always did what was in her power.

Suddenly, there was no dilemma. She was strong and she had power. No, she did not need him. She would survive without him.

The decision came like an inspiration. Quick, easy and enlightening.
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The Position of Her Power was written in 1988 in Toronto, and 30 years later, i feel motivated to blog it here. Though i was tempted at times to give it a light copyedit but i didn’t (except for removing an ‘a’). The story was first published in Diva: A quarterly journal of South Asian women (V1, Issue 1, April 1988, Toronto), and then in ‘Awakening Thunder, Asian Canadian Women’, Fireweed: A Feminist Quarterly (Issue 30, Spring 1990, Toronto). Most recently, it was selected to be a Finalist for Sequestrum’s 2018 Editor’s Reprint Award. ~ Fauzia

Edward Stefan Kuris is a painter, sculptor and poet who has exhibited his work since 1969 in many solo and juried group shows including Fergus, Elora, Toronto, Quebec, Slovak Republic, Cuba, and Japan. His paintings were used in a film by Academy Award winner Brigitte Berman. He is an Associate of the Ontario College of Art (OCAD) since 1970. Visit Ed’s facebook page.
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