In this interview, Saba Fatima, Associate Professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, talks about growing up in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto becoming Prime Minister, Asimov and Harry Potter, doing math for fun, moving to Ohio to go to college, how a nuclear crisis put her in a tough spot financially, guidance from Shari Stone-Mediatore, 9/11, Muslim American scripts, shock and awe, being a computer programmer, going into grad school at Binghamton not knowing what to expect, black power, social justice, working with Lisa Tessman, having kids in grad school, postpartum depression, talking to her kids about philosophy, Star Trek, mock interviews, Working at SIUE, epistemic harm and microaggressions, the immigrant tax, the suppression of Shia in Saudi Arabia, the good and bad aspects of the US, whether her religious and personal views are in sync, #MeToo, Black Panther, Mad Max, Russian Doll, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Trump, and her last meal…
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Karachi, but within a month or so, I left for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I spent the first nine years in Jeddah. While we lived there, we would travel back to Pakistan twice a year, because my father worked for an airline and the tickets were discounted. My memories of Jeddah are quite pleasant. We used to go to Makkah and Madinah a lot (they are the two most sacred religious sites for Muslims). He would be tired from work but would always make time to take us out somewhere, like skating to the seaside (it was mostly a concrete seaside). A lot of my memories are of food as well: shawarmas, Arab style chick peas (very vinegary), mutabaq (bread and eggs cooked together), ruz bukhari, etc. Later in life, I realized that life for my mother was quite limited in Saudi Arabia because of restrictions on women, and immigrant Black & Brown women in particular.
We eventually had to move back to Pakistan because I used to go to the Pakistani consulate school, and Pakistan was ruled by a dictator at the time, Zia ul Haq. Toward the end of his tenure, he made all consulate/government schools Urdu medium. We spoke Urdu quite well, but not well enough to do math and social studies in it. We moved back to Pakistan to have access to English medium schools (they were unaffordable for us in Jeddah).
When I first moved to Karachi, I hated everything about Pakistan. Everything tasted funny and we missed our dad (he stayed back to continue working in Jeddah). I think we made our mom miserable. My mother managed all five us by herself and we learned a lot about what it means to be a strong woman from her resilience at the time. But over time, I began to love Karachi, and loved spending my formative years in Pakistan.
Any major world events that had an impact on your life and worldview before college?
One of the political events I remember from my childhood is Bhutto’s win to become the first woman prime minister. We were in Saudi Arabia, visiting our dad at the time. It’s not like my parents were diehard PPP fans (Bhutto’s party - Pakistan People’s Party) but I do remember my parents being happy that finally we had a democratically elected leader. Zia-ul-Haq, the previous ruler/dictator, had also conducted massacres of Shia villages, so we were also happy that he was gone. That was the same week that Saudi Arabia had won some football (soccer) match and football victory celebration is one of the few events that Saudis are allowed to have street gatherings/demonstrations for. So we were stuck in traffic, and everyone was honking to celebrate the Saudi football win (a rarity ;)), and we were honking with them because Bhutto was the new prime minister. I remember thinking giddily as a child, if only they knew why we were honking!
Ha! As a teenager, did you enjoy high school? Did you get into any trouble? Favorite subjects in high school?
When I moved to Pakistan, I didn’t do so well in school initially. It was very isolating. I think it was my eighth-grade math teacher who made us practice so much that I became superb at math. Because of my new found confidence in math, I also came to believe I was good in physics. So those two became my favorite subjects and I excelled in them all through high school. I even ended up taking Advance Math in O levels and Further Math in A levels. I was so in love with math that I would wake up in the middle of the night and do math randomly, like one reads a novel. In retrospect, as we all know, a good or bad teacher can make all the difference.
In high school, did you speculate about the nature of numbers or the laws of nature?
I did attempt to read A Brief History of Time, but I don’t think I got much. I just loved doing math!
Fair enough! What books were you reading as a kid?
Did you start thinking about philosophical issues, reading the science fiction?
I probably did, but I sure didn’t call it philosophy back in the day.
Where did you apply to college? Why?
I applied to few top colleges in Pakistan. I applied to the United States because other students in my school were also applying to the U.S. My criteria for application was simple: the college or university had to waive its application fee for international students in need. I got an almost-full tuition ride to a small liberal arts school (Ohio Wesleyan University) and it was cheaper to go abroad than stay in Pakistan.
I imagine the adjustment was difficult?
I was very sad to leave my mom and my siblings. I cried all the way to America.
Sad! So, what was the plan?
I thought I was going to major in computer science (like my older brother) or math or physics (because I was good at it). In the end, I never took a physics course after the first semester, was two courses short of math major – because I wanted to quit paying living expenses for the college and get a job a semester early – and majored only in computer science.
Smooth sailing in college?
Right before my freshman year started, Pakistan conducted a nuclear test in response to India’s nuclear test. As a result, there was a massive devaluation of Pakistani currency. This meant, much of what my parents had saved for us became useless. During my first year of college, my father’s employment ended. The two events combined meant that I had to figure out my living expenses on my own. I managed to get approved for a work permit and held two to three jobs through any given semester.
Working while going to school can be a burden…
I did work a lot through college. And some of the folks I would encounter at these jobs were awful! But I had a wonderful group of friends. I loved my best friend Aisha. She was my rock. And there were others who were just as wonderful as well. My group of friends kept me sane and safe. I think I was (undiagnosed) depressed at the time as well. But you do what you have to do to get through the time. My friends and I would eat our meals together, just hangout, and watched movies on dorm TVs (none of us drank alcohol, so our hangouts were pretty PG by U.S. college standards).
Ha! Did you get the opportunity to go back home during breaks?
I didn’t get to go back in all my breaks (affordability issues). I think maybe if I had gone home more often, both my mom and I would have been so much happier.
Favorite classes in college? Inspirational teachers? How did you get into philosophy?
Ohio Wesleyan was life changing; in particular, my humanities classes and my off-campus interactions had a tremendous impact on me. I learned a lot. I’d like to think that I became a more informed person about issues of difference. Professor Shari Stone-Mediatore was instrumental in my time there because she was/is so authentic to her values. She lives what she preaches and is a genuinely nice person. Also, I never felt like her project (this is when a person in a power-differentially located position thinks they are going to save you from you, from the claws of your oppressive and backward culture, and propel you to success - I hate that paternalistic crap). Shari taught wonderful feminist theory classes and I feel forever indebted to her.
Were you religious? Are you religious?
I was religious in college and since. I have become more religious in a spiritual sense after coming to America. In Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Islam permeates life, so it was easier to be Muslim in some sense. In America, I had to make conscious decisions about matters of the faith.
9/11...what was that day like for you? Where were you? What were you doing? In general, what effect did 9/11 have on your college experience?
When 9/11 happened, I was in a psychology class conducted in a computer lab (I was a psychology minor). Someone had pulled up the news on their computer. I thought it was either a movie or it had happened in a developing nation (like bad plane navigation systems or something, I am not sure what I thought). I certainly didn’t think it was in NYC.
Many white students felt uncomfortable living with international brown folks. I remember seeing images on TV of Palestinians celebrating 9/11 as evidence that Muslims are a heartless people. The images turned out to be fake (duh!) but the damage was done. I had a male feminist teacher, who I really respected. He called me in for a talk. I thought he was going to ask me about how I am doing in the aftermath. Instead, he wanted to know where I stood on terrorism! That was a real wake up call. My dad called me up soon after and told me not talk politics with anyone (reminds me of my paper on Muslim American scripts – either just keep repeating patriotic scripts or don’t speak at all). To me it seemed that no one was interested in conversation at the time, there was just rage and revenge. One year later, I remember the day that Bush announced that the United States was going to war on Iraq….I watched the images of ‘shock and awe,’ an entire country decimated, one of the capitals of Islamic knowledge and history reduced to rubble, (literally) countless dead, and the satisfaction in some, and indifference in others, to their deaths. But I digress. Thankfully, I was only a few months in college after 9/11, because I graduated in December 2001, instead of May 2002.
How Binghamton (grad school) came to be is still a mystery. It wasn’t a clear or straight path at all. My first job as a programmer had a super racist boss (in the interview he asked me what I thought about how barbaric Palestinians were… what can I say, I was desperate for a job). It was while working there, I decided to get my applications ready for something more fulfilling – grad school. But then I was laid off because the visa process was too much for his small company (he laid off another international person at the same time). I was so beyond broke after that, had a soon-to-expire visa, restrictions on where I could work, and no clear direction. All of that threw my plans in a limbo because I just wanted to survive. Shari told me about SPEL program at Binghamton. My letter of acceptance with funding there gave me that sense of direction.
What did your parents make of your decision to pursue grad school?
My parents were supportive about my decision to go to grad school for philosophy. My mom was worried about my financial prospects after my PhD. She was more right about that than either of us knew. Overall, my mom simply wished me to have a better life than hers. My dad was happy as long as we knew what we were doing with our lives.
Yeah, it can be difficult to get a grip on what the life of a philosopher is like…
I had no clue how bad the job market would be. I think if someone had told me, I wouldn’t have picked philosophy. I had serious misconceptions about the job of philosophers. I thought you change the world through your thoughts and writings. Ha! (I know that’s true for the superstars). In actuality, I write something (which itself takes me a longtime with a 3/3 teaching load), it takes forever to get it published (some of it has to do with what I write on – I mean is it even philosophy?), and very few people ever read what I have written (the two reviewers and the journal editor, maybe?). I still write, because I enjoy thinking through things. I was right about one thing: teaching. I do feel like I am making some difference in few of my students’ lives. I do think that I am opening some minds, much like mine was opened in college. So I am hopeful.
When you ask whether what you do is philosophy, what do you have in mind?
I am not sure. It is just a feeling. When I begin a project, I seem to almost always begin from lived experiences. By the time I get to submitting it to conferences, the paper doesn’t talk like a philosophy paper, rather seems to draw on real-life issues marginalized folks face. Sometimes even after what feels like a million R&Rs, I still think that I have written something for an in-depth magazine and not for a philosophy journal – actually, that was a real comment I once received on my one of my now-published journal article and it has always stuck with me. I love Kristie Dotson's How is this Paper Philosophy?.
How would you describe Binghamton, to a person who has never been?
Binghamton is super-duper cold, and there is not a whole lot to do there. Good school though.
Was grad school what you expected? Did you feel prepared?
I had no well-formulated expectations of graduate school. I was definitely not prepared, especially since I didn’t know anyone who had been to graduate school in the United States and I was only a philosophy minor in my undergraduate. In retrospect, I should have sat in multiple grad and undergrad philosophy classes just to absorb the basics. When I was on campus, the person in charge of grad students was very hands-off, so at the time, there were no workshops or guidance on publishing or teaching etc. I have heard things changed drastically once the charge transferred hands to other faculty.
Inspirational teachers and classes? Books?
I loved all of Lisa Tessman’s classes at Binghamton University. She is a very structured lecturer and I enjoyed that format. She was instrumental in shaping in my research interests. I loved reading up on the way that our character interplays with difficult moral dilemmas (it was her virtue ethics class that eventually motivated me to write my paper on why it is very difficult for physicians to have a good character in today’s medical settings). I was heavily influenced by Philosophy of Race class with Tessman as well. In fact, I would rank the book, Black Power by Ture and Hamilton as one of the most inspirational books that I have read and that ended up giving me direction for my dissertation. Another class that influenced me heavily was a course on liberation theory with María Lugones! It was a learning experience in so many ways! For example, it was so interesting to figure out the dirty and sticky interplay between being a social justice theorist and what it might mean to actually resist oppression in real life. María Lugones’ book, Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes is another text that has influenced me immensely as a scholar. Outside of Binghamton, I really looked up to Marianna Ortega in how she has navigated the academy as a woman of color with integrity.
What was your dissertation on?
My dissertation was on the Muslim American political identity.
Did your views on sex and gender change in grad school?
It’s a kind of hard to assess my previous self. I think when I was 18, I probably thought gender was binary. So that’s definitely changed! I also know that I have gained a lot of nuance over the years about how patriarchy, misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc. work in tandem. So while I may not remember what my exact views were, I have been called in/out about things over the years or learned from excellent writing on the subject, and I am actively learning how to listen in these moments, and to sit uncomfortably with the shame of messing up – and then hopefully doing better.
Did you get a chance to teach?
I did teach throughout grad school, until I got pregnant and moved in with my in-laws.
How many kids do you have? I just learned I'm about to have a kid!
Congratulations! It’s a transformative experience. I have two kids. Both were born during grad school. They both attended my graduation ceremony, which was awesome!
Do your kids influence the way you do philosophy, or does philosophy influence the way you raise your kids? Advice to grad students with children?
I don’t know if having kids has influenced the way I do philosophy, but I do talk to one of my more philosophically inclined kids about his views on anything and everything. We have watched countless philosophy videos together when he was a bit younger. I am also re-watching the Star Trek - The Next Generation series with the kids and afterward, we sometimes discuss ethical and moral issues that the episode raised. I do discuss issues of discrimination and racism with both of them, and I also talk about privileges that this society afford us and that we actively benefit from because of unjust power dynamics.
Big fan of Next Generation! Hey, how did you meet your husband?
Met him in first year of grad school. He was in his last semester of undergraduate. It has been a tough but rewarding journey together.
Do you talk philosophy?
We do not talk philosophy. In fact, after so many years, I have learned, I do not have to be an academic/philosopher 24/7.
In grad school, who else did you hang out with? What did you do in your spare time?
I hung out mostly with other international graduate students. It was the best crowd to be with and to learn from. I don’t drink and sometimes grad student activities end up revolving around the bar. But my mode of fun was generally hosting and going to dinners with other international students.
So I left the campus just as I was about to deliver my first child. This meant that I had no stipend, so my living and financial condition deteriorated. I had done all my coursework but I think I was not ABD yet. After my first kid, I had serious PPD. I think without Lisa Tessman’s support at the time (though she wasn’t aware that I was depressed), I would have been kicked out of the program. I was not making progress as fast as I should have, but she stuck by me.
How did your department prepare you, and how did you prepare, for the job market?
I did do a mock interview with three folks from Binghamton and it was a life-saver. So glad I asked for it. I applied to over 80 jobs. I would have taken any job. I feel very fortunate that my first gig was a TT position in a mostly non-toxic environment, and even now, I am hesitant to apply elsewhere, because precisely because I am quite content at SIUE.
You say mostly non-toxic. What's toxic about it? What's wonderful?
So I said mostly because most folks across the university are friendly & non-toxic. I can research on what I want to and I don’t need to prove to anyone in the university that I am doing philosophy.
But once in a while, someone, in some meeting says or does something and you look around, and wonder if anyone else registered what just happened. Sometimes, it’s disappointing when ‘allies’ don’t even perceive the problem, and sometimes it can make you doubt your own perception (I am actually working on another paper on epistemic harm of microaggression but this applies to macro-aggressions/racist acts as well). Sometime, folks in uni wonder why your reaction is so strong on something so small…its cuz this isn’t the first time its happened!
In general, how have your views of the US changed since you moved here?
I have very complicated feelings on this, but I will state the gist of it here. I came to this country as a student (so had no dependents) and was ready & wanting to go back to Pakistan for a long time. So I wasn’t bound by ‘the immigrant tax’ as much as folks who come here with children sometimes are, wanting a better life for their kids.
The immigrant tax?
‘The immigrant tax’ is essentially the idea that you keep your head down when you encounter racism or other injustices against you or your people, and just be grateful that you are here in this country. The indignities are the tax you pay for being allowed to have your go at the American Dream.
For lower and middle-class folks, life for many US citizens is better than their counterparts in developing nations like Pakistan or suppressive nations like Saudi Arabia (the two countries I have lived in previously). Bribery is not pervasive at the lower/middle class in the United States – like in Pakistan, and I can practice my faith openly in the United States – unlike in Saudi Arabia.
But, I cannot deny the role that the United States has played in wreaking havoc in the lives of folks in other nations (all in the name of national security, democracy, freedom) and in the lives of minorities in the United States (in the name of law and order).
Today, I feel more secure in voicing my political opinions as an insider. Before, I felt like an outside agitator. One of my undergrads at Binghamton wrote an op-ed piece about me in the school newspaper, stating that as an international graduate student, I should just be grateful for the privilege of being there, rather than voice my opinions on things I perceive as unjust in the US. Now, as a citizen of the United States, I feel like I am not betraying myself or this country for wanting the country to acknowledge and act on its moral compass.
Congratulations! When did you become a citizen?
Midway through Grad school.
Explain why you aren't free to practice your faith in Saudi Arabia, for those who don't know.
This is very tricky to answer. I hope to reenter the country in the future as many times as possible. It is home to the Kaaba and to the mosque of Prophet Mohammad, and as a practicing Muslim, I feel a lot of peace in both spots. But here is what I think I can say:
Al-Rasheed writes that the royal family has a symbiotic relationship with Wahhabi clerics. According to her, the monarchy maintains the appearance of religious legitimacy via Wahhabi clerics stamp of approval. In turn, the state employs particular school of thought clerics and allows them to use of power of the state to enforce their interpretation of Islam. This has institutionalized Wahhabi thought as the only legitimate form of Islam, and everything else is labeled as heretic/innovative. The state is suppressive to anyone that follows manifestations of Islam too far from the Wahhabi form, and is especially suppressive of Shias.
Also, some have documented that the government has been on a mission to destroy religious sites – supposedly in the name of progress and development. However, it is to be noted that destruction of Islamic sites makes it easier to erase history since it does not comport well with Wahhabi ideology and Wahhabi’s interpretation of history.
Are your personal views and religious views perfectly in sync?
As far as religious views: religion is not something we come up with in isolation. Theological rulings become accepted as rulings within an environment of consensus. I can come up with something that seems right to me according to the basic precepts of my faith, but unless many other Muslims (especially Muslim scholars) agree to it, it would not become a norm within the faith. Given this, few of my personal views conflict with mainstream interpretations of my faith, but I personally may not view them as conflicts with the faith and there are other Muslim scholars who espouse views similar to mine on those issues. I fully understand that my ‘interpretation’ has a significantly higher chance of being flawed than the consensus of scholars who have devoted their entire adult life to an Islamic seminary, but the heart cannot accept what the intellect violently rejects. And faith is as much about the heart. As they say amongst Muslims, Allah knows best.
What's your most controversial view?
In my own head, none of my views are controversial at all... they all have epistemic home in some community... but in all seriousness, I can’t think of any.
Of what you've written so for, what stuff would you say is the most important?
That is like asking me to pick a baby. Everything I write means something important to me.
Earlier you mentioned you are working on the epistemic harm of microaggression. Any other projects in the works?
#MeToo within a Muslim American context, American ignorance, and a book on Shia Islam!
Cool! Would you mind describing a bit?
So the #MeToo project is a two part project: The first paper is on the problem of Muslim American women navigating the discussion on sexual assault and harassment within an Islamophobic environment, and the second part is about issues that Muslim women face within their own communities in regards to #MeToo.
In the American ignorance paper, I argue that similar to how racialized ignorance functions on Mills’ view to maintain and legitimate racial hierarchy, nationalistic ignorance serves in the short-run to maintain a certain kind of flawed patriotism.
And Lastly, I have been working on a trade book on Shia Islam for quite some time. It’s a pure passion project that covers fundamental beliefs about Islamic theology, religious rulings on major issues, and basic information on key historical figures, all from the standpoint of Shia Muslims.
Since you started, how have you evolved as a teacher?
I have improved a lot! So much so that I feel bad for my first student batches!! But in all seriousness, I am constantly trying to figure out new ways so that the text can speak to them. Of course, I also try to pick diversified content that would speak to my student demographics (often first generation, low income, rural and urban, and racially diverse).
Sometimes I feel that I am expected to be entertaining while I teach. This makes my teaching challenging in two ways - Firstly I feel like I am working so hard to just to gain credibility as an expert while simultaneously attempting to keep their attention. Secondly, because I feel that the lecture is expected to be entertaining, I often find it hard to create balance between covering (more) course content, and ensuring students remain engaged through class discussion (and of course, it’s not so simple, because half the students haven’t read anything!)
How do you see the future of philosophy? Exciting/disconcerting trends?
I don’t worry about the future of philosophy as much – I do find the push toward exploitative labor practices in academia worrisome. I also think that the current structures in academia make very accomplished folks constantly feel like failures. We never seem to produce enough, be impactful enough. It keeps us constantly working, away from the simple pleasures of life, like family, nature, and knowledge.
In exciting trends, more and more conferences seem to be set up for inclusive discussions, where people are keen on learning from one another. I could totally be mistaken… it’s always good to listen and learn from grad students who are minorities on how to do better!
These books just struck me because they were written from a location so close to mine: Dislocating Cultures by Uma Narayan, Under Western Eyes by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim by Mahmood Mamdani, Toward a Political Philosophy of Race by Falguni Sheth.
Mad Max was so great! Music?
Stuff from another era and culture: few of the classic Pakistani songs (like Iqbal Bano’s Dashte Tanhi and Daagh-e-Dil; Noor Jehan’s Mujhe Se Pehli Si Mohabat; Aziz Mian’s Haye Kambakht Tu Ne Pee Nahee; Abida Parveen’s Dama dam must qalandar), and then some 90s bands Junoon, Vital Signs, and Strings (their early albums). I also occasionally listen to whatever is on the radio, but in general, I don’t listen to music that much.
Aziz Mian sounds like Tom Waits! TV shows?
Pakistan is known for its TV dramas. I have not watched anything recent though, so all my references are old: Unkhai (Unsaid), Half-Plate, Angun Terha (Courtyard), Tanhaiyan (Loneliness), Alpha Bravo Charlie, Dhoop Kinaray (At the Edge of Sunshine), Ainak Wala Jin (The Jin that Wore Glasses!).
I recently rewatched Scrubs. Currently: enjoyed watching Russian Doll, Right now, I am following Law & Order SVU (longtime habit), Brooklyn Nine Nine, Jane the Virgin (last season!), and Grey’s Anatomy (my guilty pleasure!).
Been meaning to watch Russian Doll! What was your election night like, in 2008?
2008 – hopeful for the future of my children in this country – not because I thought of Obama as the messiah who was gonna save us from Bush’s wars, but because it was just so powerful to see someone who was not white to be the President of the United States! It was just…beautiful!
2016 – Despair, we told our kids that morning. We hadn’t been discussing Trump or politics in the house much, but I guess they heard stuff from school. Our son (7 at the time) said to me that morning, “I wish I was a white Christian. Life would be so much easier.” It was the way he said it: so matter of fact. It broke my heart. I live in Illinois, but in a red county. So it was also weird going around town after the election, knowing that people around me voted for someone who professed Islamophobic, racist, xenophobic, sexist, etc. crap throughout his campaign.
Who are you rooting for in 2020?
Trying to stay very open and solely issue driven for now.
I am not Hyderabadi, but I love Hyderabadi food (like tomato kut – a soup type thing or bhaghray baigan – an eggplant dish). It’s also very hard to get a good juicy halal burger. But I think for my last meal, I would want something simple (not in terms of cooking, but in terms of being considered a complete meal in itself): maybe mom-cooked Sindhi Biryani with a good Cucumber Raita.
If you could ask an omniscient being one question, what would it be?
In all earnestness and without any danger of losing my faith: why do some of us suffer so much?
Good question. Thanks, Saba!
[interviewer: Cliff Sosis]