Sharmin Hossain on Caste Apartheid and Cultural Amnesia

Updated March 29, 2016 1:34pm PDT

This week’s Dope Woman to Know is Sharmin, an incredible and dedicated femme fighter, artist, healer and activist. 

Much of her community organizing work relates to her own identity as a Bangladeshi woman and the importance she sees in preserving cultural memory frequently lost through coping with community trauma passed through generations.

There’s so much inspiration to gain from our foremothers. As a Bangladeshi femme woman, what inspires you most? What informs your politics?

Growing up as a Bangladeshi Muslim in Queens forced me to confront the ways imperialism was shaping the geopolitical climate post 9/11, and how the expansion of the military and police forces were integral to understanding the genocidal military practices throughout the Middle East and South Asia. Jackson Heights has a deep history of South Asian organizing—when the NYPD expanded their racial profiling and counter-terrorism programs, Queens residents were targeted heavily.

Growing up in one of the most vibrant communities of color in the world, I learned young that femmes of color and immigrant communities have the solutions to the socio-political issues prevalent in our communities, particularly around resource generation and collectivizing efforts. It was in Queens where I met powerful women like Desis Rising Up & Moving leader Shahina Parveen, who has been fighting against the U.S. government incarcerating her son on falsified charges. 

In Queens, I met Central American street vendors who collected cans overnight, helping our communities recycle while working hard to provide for their families. Our community has found survival strategies without the support of the U.S. government, and I've never felt more love than I have in Queens. It's in Queens where I feel the most beautiful in my dark skin and thick body, because of the resilience and beauty of the people of color, immigrant and queer communities that flourish here. 

This place is abundant with vibrant energies, because people here have had to survive through displacement, migration, lack of language access, and everything in between. 

You’ve done work with Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Dalit Women Fight. What is your relationship with the group? What is your relationship with casteism as a Bangladeshi-American woman? How does the caste continue to function in the diaspora and outside of the subcontinent?

In the past decade, Hindu fundamentalist violence has skyrocketed. People in India are being murdered and surveyed for eating beef. [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi is working with the Silicon Valley tech world to create this image of “Incredible India” while ignoring the fascist violence on the ground that is stealing land, resources, and history from Dalits, Adivasis and Bahjuans. 

Free speech has been effectively squashed in Bangladesh and India—this is due to the Brahmin casteist societies that are organized to repress dissent in efforts to maintain their class privilege. The struggle to end caste apartheid is a struggle to end this violence.  

Caste has never been an issue South Asians organized around, because it confronted the privileges accumulated by upper-caste South Asians throughout the diaspora. Caste was never addressed as a defining point for how we all failed to organize together: time and time again, every single non-profit has had upper-caste leadership, Brahmin feminists led South Asian studies departments, and upper-caste leaders created the trajectories for NGO organizing throughout the diaspora. 

I learned young that casteism operated in how Indo-centric spaces neglected Bangladeshi resilience, and how upper-caste feminism dictated the heteropatriarchal dynamics that occurred throughout many of the South Asian organizations I've worked with. 

Caste blindness operates as a deafening silence in our communities; many of the initiatives led by South Asian activists fail to recognize their economic and caste privilege as a point of contention for the work they do. Instead of working to defund Hindu fundamentalist organizations, caste-blind organizers are blindly accepting the support of Brahmin organizations whose agendas are centered around maintaining caste hegemony. 

The Indian right wing has consolidated resources and power in our diaspora. Hindu fundamentalist organizations like RSS and BJP (the party that current PM Modi belongs to) are funneling resources and millions of dollars throughout South Asian institutions, and these patterns are evident in Hindu temples, yoga spaces, and South Asian movement spaces. Caste violence also works with Islamophobia, as the occupation of Kashmir is maintained by the same Indian government that works with Israeli military forces stealing land and rights from Palestinian people. 

The funds that are upholding these governments are paying out multi-billion dollar weapons manufacturing companies and military contractors that are bombing Nigeria, Waziristan, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq in efforts to expand the U.S. War on Terror. These issues are inextricably connected: the Indian government is a perpetrator of violence on all fronts, and the struggles of Dalit liberation are connected to the liberation struggle of Muslims who are struggling to resist imperialism on the homefront. 

In Bangladesh, the same is prevalent - bhadralok politics (transliterates to 'gentlemen') dominates cultural organizing spaces; non-profits and funding circles adhere to the respectability and heteropatriarchy of caste. When Dalit Women Fight embarked on a North American tour during the summer of 2015 inviting collaborators across the world to demand an end to caste apartheid, Thenmozhi Soundararajan asked me to be the Logistics Coordinator of the ten city tour. I had the honor of meeting the delegation at the INCITE! Colors of Violence Conference earlier that year, where I learned from these amazing activists who were on the ground responding to caste based sexual violence. These women are educating thousands of people on the horrors of Modi's Hindu fundamentalist India and the rising fascism led by the Brahmin class. They are calling for an urgent redistribution of resources. They have caused ripple effects on South Asian movements across the globe. 

You also speak a lot about anti-blackness, which I obviously appreciate. What is the relationship between Brahmanism/casteism and anti-blackness? 

The caste system seeps into every single relationship in South Asian diaspora—our marriages are based on 'who comes from a good family,' women are subjugated under caste heteropatriarchy which seeks to maintain 'purity' in the guise of deeming Dalits impure, and white supremacy works effectively within caste privileged spaces as anti-Dalit and anti-Blackness. 

Thenmozhi taught me that the anti-Blackness in South Asian spaces comes from the anti-Dalitness in our legacies; caste oppression existed for 3000 years before the British decided to colonize the subcontinent, and white supremacy worked in tangent to caste apartheid. Brahminism upholds purity through anti-Blackness. When Corey Jones was murdered by a South Asian police officer Nouman Raja in Florida, it spoke to the legacy of anti-Blackness in Indian communities working for institutions throughout America. 

Casteism deems Dalit people—who are more often than not, the darker people in the Diaspora - as spiritually impure and morally repulsive. The Indian Communist Party was so repulsed by the darker skinned Dalits, they murdered thousands of them in efforts to ban them from the Party. 

Anti-Blackness maintains the hegemony of white and light skinned people to maintain positions of power and respect. In South Asia, darker skinned people, especially non-cis men are subjugated through the violence of caste rape, discrimination and violent labor practices. More often than not, domestic workers, unskilled laborers and scavengers in South Asian community are darker skinned. Communities with Black ancestry, whether it be Indo-Caribbean or Siddi communities, are excluded from social services, resources and economic mobility in our diaspora. 

In South Asian spaces, darker skinned women are violated regularly by our own people, similar to the experiences of Black femmes in non-Black spaces—the disdain for dark skin is expressed through the marriage, labor and migration systems. 

You’ve recently begun working with the Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project. Can you briefly describe the project and it is so specifically important for young Bangladeshi folks?

The Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project was birthed out of a hope to have Bangladeshi femme centered collective healing process. It is a two-fold initiative: a digital archive to store the political memories and stories from our living ancestors and a public theatre project. We are collecting narratives, photo albums and oral histories from Bangladeshi visionaries who are offering the generations to come a socio-political perspective of the variant positionalities in the current geopolitical climate.

Bangladeshis are a resilient people. We have survived genocide and ethnic cleansing, and continue to feel the vibrations as we migrate and build Little Bangladeshi communities all over the world: from Detroit, Jackson Heights, the Bronx and Brooklyn. There are over 70,000 Bangladeshis in New York alone, and we have limited spaces for our histories. The Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project is a collective space to reconcile that history.

You can follow the Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project on Facebook and on Twitter at @bangladeshistry.

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Zoe is a womanist INvested in black communities and continually DIvesting from the violence of respectability politics and all things pertaining to structural whiteness.