I’m a community organizer addressing men’s violence against women within the South Asian immigrant community.
“We have to connect with women’s organizations nationwide and learn about what they are doing. How do they speak to men and boys about this issue?” asked my supervisor. As I began to call my colleagues, I kept being directed to the same man who was an advocate on this issue.
We spoke a few times over the phone but our first meeting was at a domestic violence conference where we had both been invited to speak about our respective efforts to engage men. “Hi!” he said, extending his hand confidently to engulf mine in a firm handshake. “We’ll be meeting over at that table to discuss the details for tomorrow’s panel. Would you join us?” I excused myself from a conversation with a colleague to join him at the table.
He spoke of his work at a women’s shelter and how men’s violence against women was, in fact, alienating and destructive to men as well. But, a man at the helm of a shelter’s outreach efforts was unheard of. Many panelists and attendees were vehemently opposed to a man leading any aspect of the women’s movement. I initially concurred, but, over time, I came to realize that men’s role as the primary perpetrators of violence against women necessitated that they become an active part of the dialogue toward change.
There was much learning that came after that panel discussion, particularly as the two of us began to date.
I was petrified. You see, I felt that being in a relationship would dilute my identity. I wanted to follow my own path. My mother and my friends repeatedly reassured me by saying, “Don’t worry! You are not surrendering your power of thought and independence.”
So I prayed with all my heart – not for any great revelation or simple answers – but for courage and strength. I knew I needed to divine the founding pillars of our relationship, which would form a bridge between our partnership and individual identities.
These are the five pillars I discovered:
He is continually supportive of my “overworked and underpaid” life as a community organizer. It is refreshing to have a partner who believes that I am capable of changing the world, even if it is grossly exaggerated. This was a dramatic change from the men my parents had introduced me to in the past.
One Wall-Street type was shocked when I replied to his repeated queries about my work by stating, “No, my full time job is to advocate for survivors of domestic violence.” He was disappointed that I had opted to use my Business Administration degree for such “do-gooder” ends.
With a background in Engineering, my current partner is familiar with such responses, so we’ve learned to support each other when our friends or family members chide us on our career choices.
As our relationship progressed, the challenge of monthly overage charges on our wireless bills made us consider using the same carrier. This was a significant moment in our relationship because it indicated to my parents that I was investing in this relationship for the long term. After all, I had just signed a two-year contract for unlimited mobile-to-mobile calls and text messaging!
We used our unlimited minutes to discuss the possibility of a truly matriarchal society, the representation of women in global politics, the deleterious effects of pornography and romantic comedies on relationships, feminist interpretations of motherhood, and documentaries on politics, war and occupation.
Gifts of Love
One fact that continues to boggle some friends and family members is why I have not received a diamond ring, a 24-karat gold set or even a kangivaram sari from him yet. I couldn’t possibly wear those without thinking of most of their well-documented links to child labor.
I much prefer the gifts he gives – ceramic mugs and plates he “bakes” for me with quotes of Arundhati Roy, buttons that read “meri beti, meri shakti” (my daughter, my power) to raise awareness about the rising rates of foeticide in Northern India, framed photos of Palestinian children he took during his service trip there, and many, many books on issues ranging from gender violence to the tirades of Huey Newton in Boondocks.
His heartfelt gifts show me that he understands what is important to me.
Deeds of Service
When Ramzan came around, he decided that he would fast for the whole month with me, partly out of curiosity but also to understand the spiritual practice. Raised in a traditional Tamil Brahmin home in India with few interactions with practicing Muslims, he quickly found fasting to be a painful and efficient reminder of everyday privileges.
That month, I learned to appreciate him for his willingness to take part in things that are important to me. And, thankfully, his enthusiasm extends to chores around our home.
Many inquisitive Muslim colleagues asked, “So, will he, you know… convert?” They find it odd that a Bengali Muslim would marry a Tamil Brahmin. Conversely, my Hindu colleagues welcome the relationship, seeing me now as one of their own.
This dynamic struck me as strange and I wondered if our marriage would still engender barakah if he is not Muslim. Come Diwali we decided it would be important for him to meet my family and for us to have the blessings of our parents. “We are happy that you have found a like-minded partner and we wish you all the best,” said both sets of parents. Their validation affirmed our marital and spiritual bond.
As we continue our struggle in love and life, we’ve learned to appreciate our rules of engagement, which are entirely informed by our experiences as Indian and Bangladeshi, as recent immigrant and member of the 1.5 generation, as Hindu and Muslim, as activist and organizer, as singer and dancer, and as man and woman.
The course of the relationship has seen requests for a change of his dak naam (nickname) by my family members, the opportunity to give many a adorer naam (affection/love name), unbridled ethnic chauvinism over classical literature, rampant nationalism over our respective national cricket teams, and direct challenges to the religion and culture we were raised with. And we haven’t even had kids yet!
But, when we do, I know we will instill the same sense of respect, love and dignity in them that we espouse in our life together. And while I tease him about how spoken Tamil sounds like a handful of rocks in a tin can and he jokingly observes that every Bangla word begins and ends with the sound “sh,” we know that the five pillars we defined for our relationship will always support us and our experiences.
R. Karim is a community-based organizer for issues of violence against women, pay equity, and immigrant and refugee rights in the Greater Los Angeles Area.