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Maesha Meto: on Being a Muslim Woman in America, Grassroots Politics, and the Timing of Trauma

Maesha Meto: on Being a Muslim Woman in America, Grassroots Politics, and the Timing of Trauma

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On her work: I currently work at a public defenders office! We work in family court (neglect & abuse proceedings). It’s different from any field I’ve worked in before but the very heavily racialized parallels between all systems of power are so stark and so deeply ingrained. 

On her future career: I keep saying I don’t know when people ask this question but I think I get closer everyday. A lot of things have happened in my personal life in the past year that’s exposed me to different systems of injustice perpetrated against a wide range of people who’ve happened into my life in some way or the other. Namely - the criminal justice system and the deteriorating state of our mental health institutions + mistreatment of patients admitted there. I’m pretty angry about them both so they’re on my immediate to-change list. I mainly want to research, write, travel, organize, drink coffee, and repeat. 

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On politics: I have a couple of feelings about the current political climate of the US. I think I should firstly say that although I’ve worked a little in political campaigns and consider myself a political person, I’m not interested in electoral politics. I’ve found that politicians have historically and presently been really, really disappointing. I will vote because it’s a privilege for me to be able to do so when so, so, so many people are disenfranchised but I can’t honestly say I believe any politician will commit to projects that will benefit my community. I just haven’t seen it happen. I haven’t studied that it’d happened. I believe in the power of the people. I believe in real grassroots activism, community building, and building a new system from ground up because what we have now is so broken. My feelings about the political climate directly relate to this. The momentum for a movement just does not exist today even though so many egregious events occur everyday. If ever there was a time for us to be able to build and sustain a movement, it should be now. It’s frustrating when people don’t care or aren’t paying attention. I’d be naive to say that’s the only reason disadvantaged people are bearing the brunt of our political mistakes but it’s literally one of the biggest reasons. I’ve reading about activist movements around the world in the 1900s. People were so political. You didn’t have a choice not to be, I suppose. But why do we think we have the choice not to now? Also, it’s interesting to me too to observe how much social media impacts our politics. Almost everyday our clickbait news headlines & political small talk center around tweets that Trump has made. 

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On being a Muslim woman in America: I am a Muslim woman in America. I think that’s a charged political statement but not as charged of a political statement as it is that my sister recently began wearing a Hijab. I can’t make this conversation about me - I’m not visibly Muslim. I have many friends who are and their experiences of verbal and physical assault greatly outnumber my inner fears about my visibly Muslim family interacting with a largely accepting New York City. I can’t remember 9/11 - we’d just moved to New York and I was 5 years old - but I can remember how people looked at my dad when we walked outside together. There was one time he was walking me to school and a man spit in his direction. This was in a neighborhood that was entirely black and hispanic. A couple months after Trump was elected, my dad was assaulted outside of our apartment and fractured a bone in his arm. I got calls from my distraught mother while I was at school. In the ambulance, my dad was told that 911 was getting 300% more calls because of Islamophobic attacks right after that election. Islamophobia is often portrayed as being white centric. That’s a mistake. Growing up in my neighborhood was hard too. We’re all looking for something to channel our anger and confusion into and for some people, that’s other people. Today, though, I think we also need to have more discussions on why people can’t be more cool when I say I don’t drink or smoke or….etc. Just a lifestyle, doesn’t make me docile or fascinating and I’m so tired of hearing “I wish I could do that”. It’s really...not...that big of a deal

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On heritage: I’m really proud of our language. The history of my ancestors fighting to be able to speak it is very gruesome, bloody, and awful but that makes me more emotional about knowing how to speak it. There are a lot of things I dislike and this has a lot to do with societal norms that I’ve observed. A lot of misogyny, a lot of parents comparing their children to other children, the system of having maids in Bangladesh, the income disparity (!!!!), the awful and tyrannical government, and censorship. 

On her greatest work-related accomplishments to date: I think being campaign coordinator of Bob Gangi’s mayoral campaign was really, really cool. He influenced a lot of my political opinions because he’s just such a great dude. I also really liked working at Agent Provocateur. It was just retail but AP fantasized a world for both the consumer and the shop girls that really makes those of us who left still miss it. 

On choosing not to wear the hijab: When I was younger, I thought I’d want to wear the hijab eventually. I connected it to reaching some sort of zenith of my spirituality. I think, even now, some part of me hopes I eventually will because I still connect the two. However, from my readings, I understand that the headscarf itself is a cultural phenomenon. Hijab in the Qur’an refers to modesty - both of the body and of the soul and is also a gender neutral term - but it doesn’t provide a detailed analysis of what that looks like. This doesn’t detract, though, from women who wear the headscarf because they feel that connection or that sense of empowerment. I really respect my defiant Hijabi friends (and sister) for sticking a middle finger to the Islamophobic status quo.

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On advice for being more involved: Go on Facebook, click on events, look specifically for political talks and meetings and go to them! Alternatively, join a grassroots organization and keep up that involvement! It’s okay to stop going to meetings if you’re not interested in a movement but if you are, stay consistent! Take your friends. Build that momentum. Also, have those challenging conversations with people who have different opinions but keep an open mind so you can learn from those opinions too. We have a tendency, when political, to be egotistic about our opinions. What does that do besides breed more divisiveness?

On negative relationship experiences: Unfortunately can’t think of any woman who hasn’t had a negative and/or abusive relationship. I learned several red flags from just 1 person and then some more subtle ones from someone else. I can’t think of better advice for any person in (emotionally) abusive relationships except trust your gut & also your friends. And more long term we definitely need a societal and institutional paradigm shift in our response to victims of emotional, sexual, and/or physical abuse so people feel more safe and comfortable leaving a relationship that’s unhealthy.

On the best thing that has ever happened to her: My baby brother being born 4 years ago. He’s truly the world’s best person and I love him.

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On not being “traditionally feminine”: It doesn’t make sense to me for there to be a standard or certain expectations for what “feminine” looks like. I’ve never met two of the same womxn much less people so for there to exist a box for an entire spectrum of people simply because of our sex isn’t an interesting idea. Growing up, I’ve definitely felt particularly drawn to being more feminine because the other girls would bully you if you weren’t. In retrospect, I wish I’d been headstrong enough to just not care but even today, I don’t think I’m fully there yet. Now though, I find myself subconsciously trying to be less feminine since I’m often told that I’m very much so. Except by my parents - they think I’m not feminine enough. Always living in a paradox. 

On the perfect woman: The perfect women to me are all radical leftist women who organize. All women of color authors and artists and activists. All outspoken, smart, and political womxn period. 

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On representations of women today: I don’t know if this is naive of me but although there may be certain niche representations of women in the media, I think society is doing an okay job at moving to be more accepting of all kinds of womxn. But more importantly, I think womxn are moving to be more accepting of themselves. So I think it would be lazy and inaccurate to pinpoint a standard or a few standards that exist across the board - although, I will say, that a concerning number of people definitely still believe in traditional femininity. I was talking to a friend whose biggest dream is to be an actor and she was describing the paradox that actors of color face when confronted with marketing themselves to appeal to the slowly growing roles for “minority” or “different” faces/looks but also catering to the overarching white-washed media that is looking to fill a diversity quota. I think white women are pretty fairly represented in the media but women of color are clearly not except in fetishized or highly racialized roles. One asian woman in a role that’s specifically designed around her ethnicity in an otherwise entirely white cast is what we don’t want. Represent women of color in roles that aren’t exclusive to her ethnicity. Stop centering your Indian character around remarks about her being Indian and hot! 

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On the best memory from high school: Senior year of high school, I submitted a poem to the Random House annual writing competition not really expecting anything to come of it but ended up winning best of borough in Brooklyn. That was really cool. Getting affirmation for something I wrote was really the world’s best feeling.

On being objectified: I don’t think I can remember a time when I didn’t feel objectified. Once, a white man (who was a friend at the time) said to me, “Maesha, why are you worried about the future? You’re good looking, you could literally get any job you want” - almost as if to say I had it easier than him - A. White. Man. I still remember this arguably innocuous but also so blatantly degrading and stupid thing he said although it was years ago. 

On catcalling: In the 6th grade, my best friends measured catcalling as a sign that they were hot. It’s bizarre to think about now but I have to say, catcalling is a regular part of my life. I know to just look straight and keep walking. It gets scary, though, when strangers get really close to you to hit on you. Years ago, this guy posing as a beggar on the train sat next to me and asked if I wouldn’t want to take him home with me. There was almost no one else on the train and he was so persistent. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared or uncomfortable in my life. I get really overprotective when it happens to my sister or my friends, though. 

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On her favorite books: My favorite book of all time is Nabokov’s Lolita for the simple reason that I’ve still to read prose that’s even slightly comparable to his. Lolita was such a disturbing story but focusing entirely on the plot without any regard to how every single sentence was crafted by expertise and beauty would be very lazy and would discredit his art. Right now, I’m reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. I also really recommend Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete!

On positive female role models: I have so many, this list would be inexhaustive. My mother, the world’s strongest human being. My sister, probably the wisest and most empathic person I know. My best friend, Shadia, the most goal oriented and introspective person I know. My best friend, Maavia, who is always so, so, so giving and selfless. I would do the women in my life a disservice if I didn’t say the ones who have been consistent have really made me the person I am. 

On advice for future generations of women: The world needs more passionate womxn with power. I would love to see an entire polity shaped by feminist theories and by womxn holding office and by activist womxn organizing and by womxn in high positions of administration in hospitals, courts, schools etc. My advice is to pick a passion and not let society deter you in any way from chasing that passion. So often, we are discouraged from choosing certain (or any) career paths in favor of something practical or in favor of something “feminine” or taking into consideration future “duties as a mother/caretaker”. Try not to let any of that change your perspective or convince you that your passion isn’t worth going after. 

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On sexual assault: I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who hasn’t been or hasn’t known a victim of sexual assault. At first, it was one of the most comforting things because after my experience, I felt very alienated and dirty. I was very young and I couldn’t comprehend entirely what was happening except that I felt really uncomfortable with it. I didn’t tell anyone until years later in the 8th grade after my best friend opened up about her experience. Throughout the years, many more of my friends have opened up to me. A lot of them were also very young. My experience made me extremely overprotective with my little sister - to the point where I became irrationally and obsessively worried if she so much as liked a boy. A lot of people dismiss the many women who are publicly coming forward with their stories of sexual assault from many years ago because “they happened so long ago”. You never really let it go despite how long ago it was. I wish trauma could just be suspended along with events in your memory, stowed away in that little time frame. Unfortunately, it effects you for the rest of your life. It catches you off guard in the midst of very banal and mundane tasks. Also, you always remember who it was. Having a daughter is probably the most difficult thing that could happen to a mom in a world that she too well knows is ridden with men assailed as great despite blatant allegations of sexual assault. But it’s like I said, we need more womxn in power to make a huge paradigm shift. Break this entire patriarchal system down and build it up again the right way. 

Follow Maesha:

Instagram: @baewakoof

Twitter: @opodhartho

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