Herstory by Professor A.L.I.
I have been duped; both my career and my education have been farcical parts of a grand lie that is perpetrated by an insidious system, which perpetually emboldens itself through the enforced inequity and disenfranchisement of its binary opposites. Patriarchy is this evil, as it remains rooted in maintaining an illusion of male superiority in order to tip the scales in the favor of power structure and systems of knowledge that favor its interpretation of the world. Like an overgrown and incessant vine, it chokes out the life of our mother earth, with the very umbilical cord that gave those who would champion its cause relevance in the first place. Its branches can be seen in pronouns replicated by misogynists throughout time, the presumptions of normalcy of gendered language where words like MANkind means human being and HEroes are almost always “he’s”. It manifests itself in the strange fruit of a gender wage gap and power imbalance. The leaves of this evil plant spread from west to east, north and south, and the privilege of shade that it gives men is the strongest form of privilege globally, period. This is why, under the weight of the realization of this, I find myself, as a man looking into the mirror and seeing the lie of my career choice to be an educator of history stare back at me—I was trained to be a HIStorian, meaning that I was actually trained to focus the light upon men, at the expense or at the absence of the feminine. Herstory is therefore my attempt to not only make amends, but to help focus the light on those that deserve it and elucidate truths that are shrouded from the masses who unknowingly perpetuate a mirage of masculine superiority when they invariably participate in the systems manufactured by patriarchy for this purpose. Herstory is a refocusing of the lens upon those who gave so much, never to be acknowledged for their contribution. It is a challenged to “his” story, and a conscious attempt to rebalance the scales in favor of a just exposition of our collective human story.
Let us begin with the tale of Thillaiyadi Valliammai, who died, over a hundred years ago on February 22nd, 1914. Known as Valliamma, she sparked a movement that had an impact upon the planet, yet her name is unknown to most. She remains a footnote in the history of men who take credit for the inspiration she gave humanity and her profound impression upon the herstory of our planet is dismissed by pseudo-academics as unworthy of study. She is hidden behind the aggrandized icon of a racist and shrewdly evil politician, who was also a sexual abuser of young women, yet is refashioned by HIStory as a wise sage and pundit, one to be revered and considered great, and a role model for all of huMANity.
This is her story:
Valliamma was a young Tamil woman and a daughter of Tamil migrants (who were part of an early Tamil diaspora, which saw slavery re-legalized in a new system called coolie labor and which led to the spread of Tamil people throughout the planet) who found themselves in the apartheid regime of South Africa and here is where her story begins. Valliamma did not realize she lived in an apartheid state when she was young. In the early 1900’s women could not even vote in America, let alone feel they had power in the colonial world, or within an apartheid regime at that—and yet as a teen, Valliamma found herself protesting laws that were directed, ultimately at her womb, and those of other women. Anti-marriage laws (promoting Christian marriages) and anti-miscegenation laws were designed to reaffirm patriarchal power structures. Valliamma’s Tamil community was disproportionately affected by the former and in a patriarchal society, where women were already powerless in so many ways, by creating a law that makes marriages null and void, women are doubly targeted since “unmarried” women, especially those who have children or are pregnant could be classified as prostitutes and thereby be abused, imprisoned and/or expelled from the country and the only way out of this predicament by subjecting oneself to a marriage in the church meant that women had to endure another layer of subjugation under the masculine power structure and iconography of the Christian church in South Africa.
Valliamma was a teenager who, along with her mother Mangalam, decided to march from Transvaal to Natal, with women protesting the apartheid state. This march was illegal, as workers needed passes to even leave certain areas, and she was arrested. It was here that Valliamma started to develop a conviction for the idea of non-violent resistance and begin hunger fasts. This was long before Mandela, Bobby Sands, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mohandas K. Gandhi ever engaged in such practices. Even Gandhi had to acknowledge the inspiration he took from Valliamma, who he’d consider the first satyagrahi (a practitioner of satyagraha, or “the force of truth”, aka non-violent resistance).
In subsequent protests she was arrested, sentenced to three months hard labor, and spent her last days in Martizburg prison. She was offered clemency, but refused. It was this conviction that compelled, Gandhi, a young lawyer in South Africa at the time to visit her. He writes in his Satyagraha in South Africa:
“Valliamma R. Munuswami Mudaliar was a young girl of Johannesburg only sixteen years of age. She was confined to bed when I saw her. As she was a tall girl, her emaciated body was a terrible thing to behold.
‘Valliamma, you do not repent of your having gone to jail?’ I asked.
‘Repent? I am even now ready to go to jail again if I am arrested,’ said Valliamma.
“But what if it results in your death?’ I pursued.
‘I do not mind it. Who would not love to die for one’s motherland?’ was the reply.
“Within a few days after this conversation Valliamma was no more with us in the flesh, but she left us the heritage of an immortal name…. And the name of Valliamma will live in the history of South African Satyagraha as long as India lives.”
Some assert that Gandhi’s input in the creation of the modern flag of India, was designed with the color scheme of Valliamma’s sari, which she held up, not having a flag of her own during one of her non-violent protests.
Clearly Valliamma has had a profound impact in the way human beings could change the world—and her impact on South Africa, South Asia, and movements all over the world including our own Civil Rights movement have manifest in ending colonialism, segregation and ultimately apartheid, yet her simple grave is shadowed by the monoliths erected for the champions of those other movements, but none more so than Gandhi, who has become its symbol.
In this past century when the human being who had the greatest impact on those last hundred years was posed by TIME magazine, the finalists were Einstein and Gandhi and I found myself both incredulous and overwhelmed by the sheer weight of ignorance the world had about this man.
Gandhi was far from being the embodiment of truth that HIStory would have you believe—if you ever sat with my father, he would give you an earful on how Gandhi single-handedly destroyed any hopes for Tamil and Dravidian peoples for having their own state, lied to them and re-imposed an Indian (Hindi) based hegemonic structure over them—this of course is my personal bias towards the man, although it is bolstered by my detailed reading of his writings, which belie his shrewdness as a politician. He was a lawyer by training and the great irony of him being called the founder of satyagraha is that he frequently spun lies to effectuate his desired effect on the concept of India.
Gandhi is championed as a symbol for equality when he actually fought for the enforcement of inequity in South Africa and later in South Asia. If you read his South African writings you will find a man who was clearly prejudiced towards blacks, and racist, in that he emboldened the systemic framing of the African in the eyes of the European colonial masters with whom he was “educated”. He states in a writing dated Sept. 26th 1896 that “ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.” The term “kaffir” is akin to the n-word in the American context. Yet even though Gandhi’s clear prejudice has come to light in his prolific writings, he remains a symbol for champion for a quality that he truly did not embody in mind or action.
For those of you who may feel my critique harsh and cite examples of how Gandhi championed the cause of the “untouchable” only further the argument. It was Gandhi who first labeled this community as harijan, or “children of God” and many in the west clouded by white liberalism have praised this as an attempt to uplift a community that was downtrodden in South Asia. The term harijan itself is highly problematic, at best it is a term that sweeps all Dalits (yes this is the proper term) in a Hindu hegemonic framing and at worst it is linked to an earlier term of devadasi/a, which ultimately means bastard. It referred to the illegitimate children of the priestly class that often lingered near Hindu temples according to Dr. Velu Annamalai. Gandhi was not interested in equity nor equality inasmuch as he was interested in the creation of an “India” that merely shifted control from European elites to Indian ones—a light brown patriarchy in exchange for a purely white one.
Finally there is Gandhi the saint—(trigger warning) who held a practice of sleeping with young, nude women often teenagers in his bed, which Gandhi argued increased his spiritual energies. Gandhi did not engage in sexual intercourse with these women and some dismiss this as tantric practice but there are several expositions about these girls, who experienced all the after effects into adulthood of sexual abuse and molestation.
“Gandhi was married at age 13 to a girl about his own age and at age 37 took a vow of sexual abstinence. In spite of this vow, he found a need to fondle prepubescent and early adolescent girls. He took such girls to bed with him to overcome, he said, his “shivering fits” in the night. His female companions, who came from his inner circle — all certified virgins or young brides — entered his bed naked in order to warm him with their bodies. Some of them also administered enemas to him. Among the young girls, there was rivalry as to who would sleep with him, and one of his girl disciples reported that his bed companions had a difficult time in restraining their sexual impulses since he often rubbed against them and touched them in erotic places. Although his closemouthed house guardians were fearful of public reaction if news of these “pedophilic” sexual interactions were publicized, Gandhi continued to engage in them until his death. Gandhi did not have sexual intercourse with them, but obviously the touching and feeling were very important to him. If he had lived in the United States, he would have been sentenced as a child molester” (Bullough, 1981).
For those probing their minds for culturally relativist arguments, please re-holster your white liberalism for a moment and ask any person from South Asia if this behavior seems appropriate—and if you find no one from South Asia to ask, perhaps you should cut down on your chai lattes and references to yoga till you sort it out—Gandhi was a pedophile and sexual abuser, as well as a racist and political opportunist and so the real question is to ask yourself why he has been championed as a role model for the opposition of all these things?
Gandhi represented patriarchy under the veil of inclusion and equity—and this, I argue is the very reason why he has been championed as a symbol, while Valliamma has been relegated to the annals of HIStory. The Guardian, in an expose of his sexual abuse outlines his real relationship to femininity and feminine power:
“Gandhi believed Indian women who were raped lost their value as human beings. He argued that fathers could be justified in killing daughters who had been sexually assaulted for the sake of family and community [honor]. He moderated his views towards the end of his life. But the damage was done, and the legacy lingers in every present-day Indian press report of a rape victim who commits suicide out of “shame”. Gandhi also waged a war against contraceptives, [labeling] Indian women who used them as whores.”
From victim blaming to the divestment of power holistically, Gandhi envisioned a world that was the most palatable to his male privilege. One in which his own abuse of young girls would go unquestioned by his masses of followers for decades. This is not his erudite narrative, but it is the effect of his influence that finds India, a country he helped to found, one of the lowest on global gender equity indices where rape culture runs through the fabric of social norms and behavior. While Gandhi did not create the patriarchy he clearly benefits from, he reinforces its fervor and strength.
Now try and imagine a different world. Imagine it is Valliamma, who is the symbol for equity, equality and justice that Gandhi is now. Imagine she is the saint to be revered and cast as a role model. Imagine it is her visage that appears on Indian money, just as her sari waves on the flags above its governmental buildings. And imagine her words as the inspirational quotes that adorn trendy t-shirts worn by hipsters and are used by organizations like Challenge Day to effectuate change in the world. What you have imagined is a world stripped of over-arching male privilege where honesty is championed and the mirage of masculine dominance fades away like the false illusion it is.
No longer insult my intelligence by calling me a historian, a student of history or a history instructor—I no longer wish to sit within my male privilege and passively continue to advance a farce upon others through the usage of this nomenclature. Instead, honor academics of this social science who step away from the subtleties of patriarchal exposition with a new title: herstorian.
In my effort to be a better herstorian, the first song off of my soon to be released Tamilmatic album is dedicated to the story of Valliamma, and it follows in my tradition as an artist of telling the stories of the women who never get credit for the impact they’ve made on the planet like Fatima bint Muhammad, Zaynab bint Ali, Assata Shakur and Nana Asmau, to name a few.
Herstory is Valliamma’s story but it is also to story of so many other women, relegated to the footnotes of HIStory– if they are ever mentioned at all. The lyrics track her narrative and rightfully dismiss those who would usurp her impact, as their own. The refrain extends beyond her singular narrative and poses question to the patriarchal hegemons, asking the following questions:
“Why does her name not in history?
Why does she threaten?
Why is she scary?
The power of her spirit, why do your fear it?”
And then goes onto predict emphatically, invoking both Abrahamic & eastern apocalyptic imagery, that “Your leadership [patriarchy] lost, for she [the feminine] shall inherit!”
Tamilmatic is an album that explores the contributions of Tamil people, and is slated for an April 14th, 2016 release date, which coincides with Tamil New Year 2016.
Professor A.L.I. is a socio-political Hip-Hop artist and educator from the Bay Area. His previous works include the following full-length albums: Carbon Cycle Diaries, Emerald Manifesto, Das Ka Rebel, X Factor and now, Tamilmatic.
Special thanks to Lauren Santo Domingo for editing.