Her Own Words: My Mother’s Story of Resistance

By Mashal Khan

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.

My mother in front of her work at an art reception.

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.

My mother Nazia in Pakistan.

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.

My mother working at ICAA
My mother working at ICAA

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.

My mother explaining the concepts behind her work at an art reception.
My father, my brothers and I in front of my mother’s work.

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