Over the next few months, we will be featuring articles and conversations from our Behind the Dust Visual Series Mediamakers. This is the fifth in the series.
Lately I have been feeling like an imposter – not quite good enough, specifically in relation to my art practice. I think it comes from comparing my work to so many successful and talented photographers on Instagram. In the age of social media, I often feel disillusioned because I am not yet where I want to be; getting caught up in the follower count, the likes and the business side of creating art.
When I feel stuck or out of place, I tend to go back to my roots, which often starts with my mother, Nazia. She was in her early twenties when she immigrated to Canada with my father and two young children. Before moving to Canada, she studied visual arts at the University of Peshawar in Pakistan. Her enrollment was quite unusual for a conservative city like Peshawar, especially since she was a young, married mother of two young children. My mother told me that she was probably the only married woman in her co-ed class at the time, as the majority of married women from her class background stayed at home as housewives taking care of their children, while their husbands worked.
With the support of my father, my mother continued her art practice within the first few years living in Canada, working as an art teacher and school coordinator at Immigrant Culture and Art Association (ICAA) in Hamilton. I vividly remember my parents taking my brother and I to these art classes in which my mom would teach us and other immigrant students how to draw still life, paint and use our creativity in a variety of different ways.
I think without these early experiences I would not be the artist I am today. She inspires me to take on political themes within my work and to create for my community and other women of colour, who often get misrepresented or not represented at all outside the oriental and white gaze. She has often become the subject of a lot of my projects that deal with issues of identity and belonging, which is funny because when I was younger I would be the subject of her early artwork.
For this short documentary titled “how can you think you can save her, when you don’t even understand her,” I chose to focus on themes of resistance, belonging, agency, voice, existence beyond binaries and homogenization, honour, orientalism and little acts of resistance that women of colour, specifically non-western women, undertake in their lived experiences/existence in order to survive and resist imperialist, neo-colonial, white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal systems and structures of oppression.
Ever since our immigration, I had unconsciously understood my mother a victim of her circumstance due to her experience of getting married at the age of 15 through an arranged marriage process. I viewed this experience through an orientalist gaze, I didn’t believe that she had much agency in her life, that her life circumstances were a combination of decisions she had no part of, decisions such as going to school after marriage, immigrating to Canada, having children, etc. I took away her agency and voice, without actually listening to her tell her story. Like many white western feminists, I saw her in a way that I could easily digest with my binary way of thinking. I saw her as oppressed, voiceless, a victim of Islam and outward patriarchy of Pashtun culture, just like how most white women in Canada saw me.This project in part, was a way for me to actually listen to my mother speak about her own arranged marriage and find within her experience the nuances and complexity of the situation. In my mother, I find courage, strength, resilience, faith, compassion, power, love and revolution.
The story of my mother who was born in the Mountainous region of Swat Valley, in Northern Pakistan and had an arranged marriage at the age of 15 can easily be co-opted by the West to push their imperialist agenda, if she is not the one telling it. Arundhati Roy states that “there is no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.” My mother does not need you or me to speak for her, to victimize her, to save her. She can and will tell her story on her own terms.
Mashal Khan is an emerging documentary filmmaker and photographer. She was born in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan and along with her family immigrated to Canada in 2002. Mashal graduated from the University of Toronto with a Hon. Bachelor’s of Arts with distinction in equity studies, sociology and art. She values freedom, justice and equity and within her work she hopes to subvert the white and/or male gaze that has often spoken on behalf of marginalized women of colour. Whenever she creates work, Mashal keep this quote by Arundhati Roy in mind: “there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” @mashalkkhan
In digital spaces and beyond, women of colour are taking charge of creating new representations and documenting personal histories that resonate across diasporic experiences.
On September 27th, This is Worldtown reveals the full work of seven emerging media-makers taking charge in telling new stories about migration, space, healing and love at our group show, Unbound: Stories from Behind the Dust.
The Behind the Dust series is a portal into a world that is curated and created by Women of Colour, showing the possibilities of imagining beyond convention, and “behind the dust” of inflammatory and one-dimensional portrayals of communities under fire. As a collective, the media-makers are Muslim, Indigenous, Black, Women of Colour conveying in-depth visual stories about their communities, celebrating the fullness of experience in all its layers. What does it mean to visiblize these experiences? How are we learning from the past and creating for the future?
Come and celebrate new forms of storytelling, shifting and changing old and tired narratives at Unbound: Stories from Behind the Dust.
Over the next few months, we will be featuring articles and conversations from our Behind the Dust Visual Series Mediamakers. This is the fourth in the series.
Sometimes, watching the people we love – our family – speak with rose-tinted glasses about the countries they once lived in ushers in a trickling feeling of diaspora and longing. Being raised in a different country, there is a distance from their perspective and experience. Our people travel far from their homelands in hopes of finding places they can call home. A place where they can root themselves and build new communities that connect them to “back home” while creating new cultural traditions.
This uprooting, planting, and growing in a new country is a process that we, as young first-generation and second-generation people, are distanced from but also are so naturally embedded in. It is only when we inquire about this multirooted existence that we learn about ourselves, our people, and our parents. We know there is another place we call “home”. We grapple with who we are, our hyphenations, and realize that we are just the product of experiences that go well beyond our years and understandings.
With this in mind, we want to bring our study closer to home by interviewing our mothers — Valena and Shamis — about their experiences through Canadian immigration. Both first generation Canadians, one from the Caribbean diaspora and the other from the African. We ask questions about who they are outside of who we know them as and we learn about their dreams, their realities, and their hopes for us (and our generation).
Aleia: Can you tell me your name and where you’re from?
Valena: My name is Valena Robinson. I’m from Dominica and I am first-generation Canadian.
Shamis: My name is Shamis Hargahfeh and I’m from Kenya.
Aleia: Why did you move to this country?
Valena: I moved here because my mother was here; I thought there would be better opportunities. I wanted to go to school, I wanted to do something different with my life, so I thought I would come to Canada because my mom was here and I had a lot of family here as well.
Shamis: I moved here in the late 80s. I just finished high school and […] my reason was to go to school. I wanted to pursue an education and get a university level education in Kenya. I want to add that, really, a reason to move was also for opportunity. Where I’m from, we were basically considered second-class citizens and not too many opportunities for people with our origins, so coming [to Canada] was first, getting an education, and the second thing was for opportunity.
Aleia: Do you consider Canada home to you? If not, where is “home”?
Valena: That’s a funny question because when I’m in Canada I call it home but when I’m back home in Dominica, as per what just happened, I call it “home.” When I’m talking to people about “home,” I’m generally referring to Dominica, it just depends on what the situation is. For me, Canada is just a place where I live but Dominica is where I’m from. So that is “home”.
Shamis: Yes for sure! I’ve lived in Canada longer than anywhere else that I’ve lived in my life. Let’s look back: when I was in my hometown, I lived there until I was 16, then moved around a little bit to a few colleges and finally in Toronto, and I’ve lived here for 30 years. So yes this is home, and even when I travel and I go back home I look forward to coming back.
Home to me is really here in Canada — and yes we keep talking about going back home but when we’re there, we’re visiting. In my opinion, we’re visiting family or friends and maybe reconnecting with our old family members. But really, this is home for me.
Aleia: So Valena, do you kind of feel like a push and pull type of thing? Not like an identity crisis but more like you’re in between both. Or is it really a situational thing where you really just don’t want to explain yourself to people?
Valena: Uhm… There’s no push and pull because I’ve been in Canada for more than 30 years so it is home so there is no push and pull and it’s not really situational either… it’s just you’re born and bred in a place so you automatically think of that place as your home, anything else is just transitional. It’s natural to think of that place where you’re born and bred, where your family is and everything, as home.
Aleia: What were your hopes and dreams before coming to Canada and did they realize?
Shamis: I would say absolutely! And I think you’ll be getting very negative messages as to immigrants and stuff but I’ve had all positive experiences being here. I came and achieved my goals of going back to university and earned a degree, which earned me a job. I’ve been with an organization, which I’ve been in different sectors, that I’ve been working with for 25 years. So yes, my hopes and dreams have been overachieved. I don’t think I would be able to do this from back home as well as being in a role where I am recognized for my role for what I do and the contributions I make to the organization.
Valena: I wanted to go to school that was first and foremost for me. I remember when I was back home and I just finished high school and I met a woman who was 65 years old and I always tell this story. She worked with the government for many years and she decided when she retired she was going to go back to school and take courses and make herself better. I thought you know, “that is what I want to do, that is going to be me: I want to go to school, I want to realize all my dreams.” I thought if I came to Canada I would be sure to get all those dreams realized. Well, on arriving to Canada I must say it wasn’t what I expected and was very difficult. I went to school but I didn’t seem to be able to achieve the things I wanted to because there was always some kind of obstacle, there was always some sort of bridge you had to cross, there was something you had to do to realize those dreams. It never seemed to happen for me. I can say that it’s only in the last few years that I’ve really been able to step up and do the things that I wanted to do and I’m slowly now in my later years beginning to see things come to pass. Canada is not an easy place to live. When I first arrived there was a lot of… you know, you get the sense that people don’t really accept you for who you are, you’re always trying to struggle and trying to make it. Every step you took forward you took two steps backwards. It was a long hard journey and there are still things that I want to do, that I need to do but this is Canada. That’s what it’s all about. Sometimes I think if I were back home I might be so much further.
Aleia: What advice would you give to future generations moving countries?
Valena: People are always looking for something better. They say the grass is greener on the other side. But if you can make it in your own country, I mean, well, it’s good to travel it’s good to know other places but if I had to do it all over again I would not leave my country. I know that I would’ve been somebody if I stayed back home, I would’ve been able to go much, much further. Sometimes I wonder why people leave their country and come here. Canada makes it so hard for people these days; for immigrants these days. When you come, your education has to match that of candy, you have to go through so many hoops to become a citizen of the country. It takes an immigrant so many years to become a citizen. It’s only then that your benefits kick in. But even at that time, you’ve lived so long in the struggle that it only continues even after you’ve gained permanent residence or citizenship. I just think people need to think carefully before they make their decisions. I know there are so many reasons people come to Canada but I feel like if you have opportunities in your country where you can rise, you would be better off staying in your country. I can’t say what would have happened if I stayed back home but sometimes I wish I stayed home and made a life for myself there. Travelled, yes, but stayed home. I can’t really give someone advice because everyone’s experiences are their own, everyone’s path is different. It’s a double edged sword, it’s always a double edged sword. I just know if I had the choice again, I would have stayed. Canada for me, has not been the success story that I wanted.
Shamis: For me it was very different and this is something that [Samah] and I always talk about is keeping an open mind. If you keep an open mind and you focus on the important things — if it’s for a job you focus on your career and building your skill sets — you will be able to achieve your goals right here. As an immigrant, you get to come across cases where there may be racism or bias but let your merits speak for itself. Get educated, keep an open mind and let your credentials speak for you. That’s how I was able to achieve my goals in my organization and overall in life, in my personal life as well. Achieving my goals, not dwelling on the bias, racism and negative thoughts; just keeping a positive outlook. As you focus on the positive outlook your life becomes positive as well.
Aleia: What do you hope for your children (the next generation of people from your ethnic group)?
Shamis: I think the children born from migrants are different, and I see that from both of you. There’s no urgency to earn your degree and get a job and be independent. So what I would say is focus on completing your education. If you want to go into post-graduate programs I think my advice is get yourself a job, and while you’re at the job maybe pursue a master’s degree because most of the time I see people rushing into masters but really it does not suffice what they wanted to do. I suggest getting into the market, seeing what they want to do – maybe within two years – and see what interests them before they go do their graduate studies.
Most of the kids who were born here have their parents that help them out but at the same time have an urgency to be independent of your parents. From what I can tell, when we were here we were basically forced to grow up earlier because at 22, 23 we were in a new country, dependent on ourselves. We were coming up with our rent, coming up with our budget for food, so again, I don’t see that type of urgency for young children of migrants. So the focus is education, get a job, get a good merit, let your work speak for yourself and be independent.
Valena: I hope that they’ll be able to put aside the negative around West Indians, Black people, but mainly West Indians. Slowly, West Indians are rising above. West Indians are very ambitious because as children they’re told or it’s beaten into them that they have to make something of themselves. West Indians are very disciplined when it comes to education. They are like that because they know what they can achieve based on that education. And so, a lot of West Indians have come to Canada and travelled the world and succeeded in rising above and I hope that the generations coming up can want that for themselves. See themselves not just as West Indians, not just as Canadians, but successful people and strive to reach those goals.
content creator and producer, samah ali’s work specializes on topics of diaspora, culture, and identity conceptualization. she writes, speaks, and documents all while throwing witty remarks and curating an eclectic meme gallery . she is a film buff, music fanatic, and tea enthusiast.
Inspired by youth, beauty and rich cultures, Aleia Robinson-Ada is a photographer, artist and visual storyteller living in the city of Toronto. Aleia values culture and history deeply, for her, photography has always been a way to tell intimate, adventurous, bold and historic stories. She believes photography has given her a platform to share and create work that speaks to the world around her. Aleia focuses her photographic skills on, but is not limited to, portrait, documentary, photojournalism and her personal favourite, travel photography. Aleia started her own company, Aleia Robinson Photography, in 2014 and continued with a strong momentum for the past three years.
Over the next few months, we will be featuring the projects from our Behind the Dust Visual Series Mediamakers. Hersarong by Shazlin Rahman is the first in the series.
This is my maternal grandmother; I call her Mok. In this photo she is preparing a dish—the one called seri muka, I think—surrounded by my cousins and me, keenly observing. In other photos Mok can be seen holding one of my cousins when they were babies, bouncing my little brother on her knees, tending to the yard while my cousins and I played behind her, serving up some food or posing for a photo on Eid while we sat cross-legged obediently around her. More often than not, the faded sepia and yellowed Kodak prints usually show Mok tending to our surrounded by one or more of her grandchildren.
For the last few months, I’ve been carefully digitizing old photos of Mok. These images show, in my mind, the strength and resilience with which Mok navigated her life—as a young girl in British-ruled Malay peninsular, as a teenager during the brutal WW2 Japanese occupation, as a young mother in newly-independent Malaya and, up until her death, as a grandmother to a predominantly female brood of grandchildren. I needed to preserve her legacy for posterity and to remind myself of what strength, beauty and resilience looked like for Malay women like my grandmother and me.
When I google women’s labour, the top three search results were the 1940s “Rosie the Riveter” poster, black-and-white images of predominantly white women working on assembly lines or marching with protest signs or white women who had just been in labour.
I find these images deeply unrelatable because, at the surface they depict mostly white women. They are also primarily framed from the feminist perspectives of the global West with women courageously demanding equal rights or taking their rightful place in the labour force. I feel the same way about images of women on the front covers of magazines and news spreads.
While these images are powerful and reflect, to some degree, increasing rights for a certain segment of the female workforce, they are not images that resonate with me as an immigrant Muslim woman of colour. This is why I’m driven to explore what labour looks like for women like my grandmother. I found them in my grandmother’s legacy and in present-day women batik-makers in East Coast Malaysia.
Unsurprisingly, a different image of labour emerged.
Mok’s was a quiet kind of strength, less muscle-flexing like Rosie the Riveter and more like gentle strokes on a child’s head. Her labour is imbued with beauty, most evident in her work making batik sarongs, a work-from-home cottage industry still in practice in east coast Malaysia today. Mok never marched in the streets—at least, not to my knowledge—but she did tread a well-worn path between her house and the local batik manufacturer’s workshop, carrying heavy bundles of fabric printed with wax batik motifs.
Mok would walk across Sultanah Zainab Road to the batik factory owned by Haji Wan Abdullah (Aji Wé Doloh in Kelantanese) near her mother’s house and next to a tributary of the Kelantan river. She would come home with one kodi—a bundle containing 20 pieces of fabric printed with motifs in wax—carefully balanced on her head. The weight of each of those cloths and all the wax would bear down on her head, her neck and down her spine.
Mok would never send her daughters to the factory; most of the workers were men and the girls wouldn’t be able to stand up to their teasing. Instead, they would help out at home, colouring in the shapes of curling leaves, creeping vines, blooming frangipani and roses, and stylized peacocks and roosters. The pre-mixed fabric dyes supplied by the factory came in little jars and the colour palette was limited, but the three girls’ creativity was limitless. Mok would sometimes help with the more intricate techniques, like shading in the creases of a flower petal or the deep crevices of a bud. One piece of properly coloured batik earned the family ten cents Malaysian. Sometimes there’s a break in the wax outlines and the colours would bleed, ruining the fabric. There are several tricks to correct that, mama told me, and sometimes Haji Wan Abdullah would excuse it since it wasn’t the girls’ fault. Sometimes the fabric wasn’t useable, and he would have no choice but to deduct a few cents from their pay.
It sounds like a negligible amount today, but Mok and her three daughters—of which my mother is the youngest—were so industrious that they managed to make surplus income and broke the family’s generations-long cycle of poverty.
The batik sarong is one of the most common pieces of clothing for Malay women and can be found in different variations all across the Malay archipelago. A typical sarong measures between 100-110 centimetres wide, 180–220 centimetres long and is sewn together at both ends into a tube. Batik sarongs are commonly worn as a bottom for both everyday wear and special occasions.
This type of individually-made batik sarongs are difficult to find today. The ones I found in the markets of Kota Bharu were made cheaply in factories, mass produced in big quantities and sold by the bolt to retailers. The more profitable hand-drawn batik, or batik tulis, are now more popular. It can be made quickly and customized according to trends in colours, varying qualities of fabric, and a variety of motifs. Nevertheless, I found many things haven’t changed about women’s labour in the batik industry.
Gendered division of labour in the industry: men draw and women colour, just as they did during Mok’s time in the ’50s and ’60s. The same was the case at Zainab Hassan’s workshop, which seems to grow out of either sides of her house located along the touristy Pantai Cahaya Bulan road in Kelantan. To the left of her house was an area where Akmal, a quiet young man of 21 was quietly drawing batik motifs in wax on yards of plain white cloth. To the right was the colouring area where Juliza (30), Ruhaya (34), and Suzana (39), were busy colouring their own pieces of batik, each stretched taut over wooden frames. Each piece measured approximately 10 feet long and 4 feet wide. At Zainab’s workshop, the women are paid RM6 (about $2CAD) for each completed piece, which retails at about RM100 or more. I was told that there are women who work in drawing batik motifs, but they tend to be the the exception rather than the norm. Women also work in selling, tailoring and embellishing batik fabrics.
The arrangement of labour within the industry is largely informal. There are larger, more prominent batik companies whose employees are on a regular payroll. Nevertheless, there is also a cottage industry of small batik workshops across east coast Malaysia offering less stable and informal employment arrangements.
Most of the workshops I visited employed women who easily leave work to attend to affairs at home and come back without disrupting their work. Juliza lives right next to Zainab’s workshop and her children go to a local primary school just up the street. Suzana’s four-year-old Nurzawanah kept herself busy playing while her mother’s hand moved deftly back and forth between her paint jar and the fabric she was colouring. Zainab also helps some of her workers work from home (as Mok did) when they’re unable to be at her workshop. At Mohammad Nawawi Mat Arifin’s workshop Nur BB Batik—where all the colourists were women—seventeen-year-old Nur Farisa Mohamad Ghani left on a small motorbike to fetch her siblings from school in the middle of working on her piece. Siti Kasim, 41, has been working as a batik colourist for several years at several different workshops, indicating the entry and exit from the workforce to be quite fluid.
On the flip side of this flexibility is the absence of the usual benefits afforded by formal employment. Although the relationship amongst the women batik makers and workshop owners were collegial and relaxed, it’s hard to imagine any of the women I interviewed receiving healthcare benefits, childcare support or paid time off. This is most critical during the monsoon season when east coast Malaysia is besieged with heavy rains and flooding, which slows the traffic of tourists down to a trickle and hampers batik production.
Without infrastructure like indoor drying rooms with temperature control, these informal workshops remain dependent on the day’s weather, even when the monsoon seasons are over. This is why most batik colouring work starts in the morning. By late afternoon, most workshops will be winding down and the beautifully coloured fabrics are on outdoor clotheslines and drying racks, making the most of the day’s sunlight. Zainab told me that a hot, sunny day is the ideal condition for completing batik pieces; an overcast day can still get the dyed fabrics to dry, but work stops altogether on rainy days.
When I first arrived at Zainab’s workshop early in the morning, Juliza, Suzana and Ruhaya were sitting around a small coffee table at the corner of the workshop; I was worried that they might close that day but they told me that they were waiting to see if it will be hot and sunny enough to work. When I returned about an hour later, each woman was busy colouring their own piece of fabric.
I wasn’t surprised to find Hasmah Ismail’s workshop to be quiet and empty by the time I arrived at around two o’clock in the afternoon. She had around 40 completed batik pieces—with motifs drawn by her brother Ramli Ismail—drying on wires and racks around her workshop. Right next to it was her house, originally built by her grandparents, on four-foot-high stilts. Hasmah recalled one monsoon season when the entire village was flooded and she had to do her batik work in waist-high flood waters.
I shudder at the thought of what could be in the murky flood waters while Hasmah worked on her batik pieces. Given the small remuneration women batik makers generally receive for their intricate work, I was even more impressed by her dedication to the work. Although batik is one of the state of Kelantan and Malaysia’s most popular cultural export, this is not reflected in the women’s working conditions.
I grew up hearing about Malay women described as gentle, demure and unassuming. To a large degree I still see that reflected in my grandmother’s legacy and in the women batik makers I met, but that’s just one part of the story. Mok’s work colouring batik from home while teaching her three daughters to do the same was what helped the family break their cycle of poverty. In much the same way, in many small batik workshops in Kelantan, the gentle swoosh of the paintbrush on stretched silk and little taps of brush handles against cans of fabric dyes is what’s keeping Malaysia’s batik industry alive.
These women’s labour is gentle, quietly resilient and intricately woven with beauty.
Shazlin Rahman is a Malaysian-born, Toronto-based freelance writer and artist. She has six years of architectural education from Malaysia and Australia, a degree in Journalism from Wilfrid Laurier University and M.A. in Communication and Culture from the interdisciplinary joint program at Ryerson/York. Shazlin uses photography, abstract art and creative nonfiction to engage her audience in conversations about the resilience of women of colour.