What Will People Say?: On The Fear Of Being Seen For Who We Really Are
In private, we live our lives, but always with a hint of shame
In the early spring of 2017, Hasan Minhaj dropped Homecoming King, a comedy special so damn sincere it collectively resonated with audiences around the world, winning him a shiny Peabody and a new Netflix TV show. It was the first time (in America), I watched a brown man's comedy special and his brownness wasn't the elephant in the room, an accidental by-product of his very American birth. Instead, here it was, being celebrated.
And part of that celebration was linguistic. Minhaj had helped pioneer the art of saying Hindi, in a Western pop cultural stratosphere, with a cadence usually reserved for the romance languages. The way you'd flaunt French with a veneered opulence, saying croissant like some folks say LaCroix. With a similar sense of pride, Minhaj speaks Hindi as if it's always been in the American lexicon, defying the colonial shame that has locked brown folks into some subliminal social purgatory. It's okay to talk about a lota on Netflix, because who doesn't know what a lota is, right? All languages require respect—especially his own—and of careful, examined intonation.
A phrase Minhaj famously normalized is Log Kya Kahenge? Which directly translates as: What Will People Say? In Bangla, the language of my parents, it's: Manoosh Ki Bolbe? The tenor is the same, however.
Homecoming King rests many of its comedic observations on this weighted phrase familiar to many a brown child. Its haunting, ubiquitous attack has been leveled against many of us by our parents when our personal actions were deemed "too radical" for the familial unit. If you didn't know: Being born into brownness comes with the idea that we are all walking brand ambassadors of the manicured existence into which we've been bred. Posed often as a question, Log Kya Kahenge is actually an accusation, one that exposes how often surveillance (of self, and of others) plays into brown communities. It's a reflection of how we've accepted this reality, much like we've accepted the state's surveillance—from every FBI joke we make about being watched, we've normalized our own oppression.
It surprises me that our entire relationship with our parents, and our community, hinges on the fear of being seen for who we really are. Not the avatar—or the shaadi.com bio—but fully fleshed out beings of struggle, and consequence, and utterly beautiful failure. That's where our humanity resides, in the magical wonder of being imperfect creatures that are constantly learning; we are all in the Sisyphean task of being a human, and bound to our parents in a way that borders on sycophantic. We crave their approval, and when they ask What Will People Say, oftento a relatively inoffensive act to most others, we worry—what will they?
Iram Haq, a Norwegian-Pakistani filmmaker made a movie with the same title (Hva vil folk si in Norwegian) in 2018, and even across languages, the sentiment is also the same. The film focuses on the life of Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) who is caught with a boy in her bedroom by her father (played terrifyingly well by Adil Hussain). The next few scenes seal Nisha's fate in an unforgivable way. She is kidnapped by her father and brother, escorted back to Pakistan (where, clearly, nobody has sex) and forced to start a new holier life where she shares a bed with her girl cousin on the floor, and passes time on abandoned rooftops, confused and frustrated.
Haq captures the loneliness of being a young woman in Pakistan. It's stark as Nisha turns and turns, locked in a daze, trapped with no feasible outcome. Soon she finds an escape. In the dark of the night, while everyone sleeps, she leaves only to witness the bleak dangers of the crepuscular outside world of leering men who see women only as bodies worth abusing. She finds her way back home to have her patriarchal aunt threaten her: Any funny business, and you're out. Days later, her uncle hands over a matchbook, then her passport, to make sure she burns it. She doesn't, so he takes a match to it, soon the pages of pale blue plastic fade into a ravaging smoke, a metaphor for both the price and fickleness of freedom.
What is potentially the saddest reality of Haq's film is that there's nothing surprising or shocking about this film. As a young Muslim femme, I've seen it all firsthand. How the will of sanctity strikes you down. How many bodies are cloaked not for actual piety, but out of fear. The compass that directs so many South Asian cultures is what will people say, an unsaid suffocating dictum that controls the mechanics of everyday society, putting an emphasis on the morality of outsiders, creating an unjust and an unregulated system where everybody is a judge, jury, and executioner. As I watched it with my partner, a black American man, he paused halfway through and said, "This is a horror movie." Why watch Saw when you can watch the machinations of abuse in a family that disguises such things, surreptitiously naming them "care" or "love."
Keeping us docile in the continued face of unresolved and unfettered violence.
I imagine, like myself, more than a few brown kids feel like they could have done without such pressure. The impending doom of being incapable of impressing the unimpressible is quite a burden to carry. If South Asian parents, collectively, were an American Idol judge, they'd be Simon Cowell. In a constant, perpetual state of dissatisfaction. The occasional growl, the sometimes head nod, the rare gem of a toothless smile.
Though I can't speak for over a billion people, I can lament. When I was younger, Manoosh Ki Bolbe became a constant reminder of self-checking, of self-surveillance, knowing that to be brown meant to be on watch, constantly. Then, in my late teens, I didn't care anymore. I wanted out. I wanted to live my life, so I began to rebel.
After writing for almost a decade, and finding relative success early last year, my father asked me whether or not I wanted to return to law school. This is after many years of not talking to my parents, of choosing to declare that, with all due respect, they didn't know what was best for me. I was called selfish, I was regularly attacked over the phone by my mother. Despite not wanting to, my father questions himself thoroughly, wondering if he's a failed parent to have such a petulant daughter. He's sincerely afraid of what people will say.
I was born out of the womb not really caring what people thought. My parents would often detail funny information about me at dinner parties: Like when I once asked a group of older white women who were staring at me intently while riding the bus, if they were doing so because I was exceptionally beautiful. I was four. Or, when the one time when I was getting my Australian citizenship I told the mayor of Brisbane I didn't want it, because I was Canadian, and that was enough citizenships for me. I was eight. They liked the punchiness I had in reserves. But, once I hit my early teens, expectations of me changed. My mother wanted me to be quieter, more docile, masking it in language like "women aren't supposed to be so loud," going out of her way to compliment "sober" women, the opposite of me.
The irony is, I didn't grow up in an especially conservative household. My mother prayed five times a day, my dad just prayed magribprayer, so the fourth one of the day. I never learned how to read the Quran in its entirety, but I went to Arabic school, every Sunday, a shoddy class taught by Bangladeshi moms who housed no verve, and had no explanation for my curiosity. At home, my father made me watch documentaries on the Al Hambra, Granada, and the Muslim rule of Spain. I learned about Ibn Sina, the original renaissance man, and I was astounded by the sheer fact that Islam had offered the world so much of its valuable knowledge—from algebra to modern medicine.
Through this, my love of Islam grew thick like a branch, sprawling with twigs and lush leaves. I related to all the parts that didn't feel ugly about my religion, like the philosophy that paralleled Rumi's devotion. The thought of hellfire felt dramatized, how could a God most merciful, full of clemency, allow such a thing? I theorized what God was nightly, as I started getting visions.
I saw my dead maternal grandfather in the backyard's long grass of our blue home in Sydney. Only minutes after he died in a bed at his home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, surrounded by a mosquito net-like layers of a sari, next to the controlled devastation of his wife and youngest daughter. Years later, I'd smell the jasmine of my maternal grandmother's perfume waft past me as I sat on a bed in my apartment in Outremont, Montréal, her dead just the year previously. I started seeing spirits regularly, and I began to communicate with them, learning the language of the vast conscious divide. This meant my capacity for spirituality expanded, I started to see things more holistically, I started to believe (I still do) Islam is bigger than what we've distilled it down to. All faiths are. Being close to God—no matter in what faith—is a divine transaction.
Why Minhaj's special is so particularly appealing is that the punch line isn't this question his parents have asked, my parents have asked, a constant threat... it's actually the breakthrough. It's the challenge of a notion we've all accepted. It's fighting back and saying not only is there more than meets the eye to us, but that there's something valuable in being your own person, who chooses happiness for yourself. There's a reason that all three of us (Minaj, Haq and myself) come from Muslim families, surveillance is a different relationship for many of us.
Watching Haq's incredible artistry ruptured a deep wound I've felt, and feel, for other brown, other Muslim kids. The longing we must feel, what I've felt my whole life, of wanting to be free—but of also wanting to be loved, holistically, for all that I am. Unconditionally. Nisha is young, she's bursting with sexual energy, she wants to know why bodies beat, why hearts tremor, why she feels wetness in places that make her come alive. The natural state of being a human. Not of being bad, or being demonic, but of being a body that quakes with sadness, finds peace at the sound of the azaan, as much as it pulses with desire. I felt that longing once also, disgusted by my own desire, but regardless, I craved affection, love, a tender touch like sunlight.
Depictions of Muslim-ness in media has always been fraught and lacking. Especially when being Muslim in the West means being bifurcated, straddling both your identities until death, unless you choose one over the other. The latter is common, but for me, it has been a balancing act. Being Muslim has always come with a sense of pride, knowing how much we've offered this world, and how much of that has been erased. This recognition has come with a steadied state of sadness, knowing that the fundamentalism of the new Islam, one curated by Western imperialism, has ripped its holiness in two. It's the feeling of watching a math equation go wrong: Faith plus humans shouldn't equal such madness. Such divinity should not cause such pain, such unreserved blood on our hands—such nervous abuse. I lament the children that have been lost to the spiraling tragedy of comparison—of what will people say—that has forced inexcusable and incomprehensible actions. I mourn the deaths in vein that have killed expressive daughters, or sexually fluid sons. I mourn us.
In Haq's What Will People Say, there's a scene at a top of a mountain, the scenic hills crisp with sunlight. Nisha stands crouched as her father holds her by the elbow, even just the geometry of the way he's angled her to the ground screams: bad power dynamic! Mirza, her father, is not an unredeemable figure. In fact, you sympathize with him throughout the film, compassionate to a clause he believes he's signed with God. One where he must kill his daughter before she becomes a slut. So, you loathe him as well. In scenes with Mirza, the patriarchy stinks, miasmic in every shot, like the one where he literally blindfolds Nisha to Pakistan, silent to her concerns, smuggling her into the motherland. To what? Change her? Purify her? The connotation that Pakistanis don't rape and pillage women and children, that its modesty, or Muslimness, has somehow bred better humans is an incredible lie.
At the end of the day, Log Kya Kahenge is a Catch-22. What it really means is do what we tell you, because we know best. So, many of us have been forced to become one-dimensional in our family's presence. We strip ourselves of our interests, what excites us, or stimulates us, our definitions, to become children who care what people will say—in public. In private, we live our lives, but always with a hint of shame. Always with a frustration that we are lying to our parents who refuse to see us for who we really are. I spent years lying to my parents because I knew being transparent would never result in anything. They've decided on their lives, maybe all we need to do is decide on ours?
A couple of years ago when I asked my kinesiologist why I was born into my family, he said: "I think maybe there's a lesson you need to teach them." Seven years later, I watch Nisha toil with her parents' strict boundaries upon her return back to Norway—no phone, no friends, a change of school—a way to disarm her, they believe, of her impure leniences. I remember how traumatic it is to be constantly challenged about who you are, by those who are supposed to love you. How isolating it feels to be born wrong, only to see other young people live their lives fearlessly, or at the very least, honestly. How confusing it is to witness this. I used to feel bitter when I saw children with loving parents. Hell, I still do. But, the older I get, the more I understand that sometimes parents need direction as well. In the end, Mirza understands this. Maybe, he begins to understand that it's not what will people say that God will challenge in the end, but why he ultimately never listened to himself.