Supna Zaidi Peery: Who Am I?

Supna Zaidi Peery is an attorney and policy analyst with expertise on immigration, national security, free speech and women’s rights. In her story she shares how her parents’ conservative backgrounds changed her life and perception on traditions as she created her own life in Southern California.

Americans are often accused of being an overly therapeutic, “Dr. Phil” culture. We wear our problems on our sleeves and share our miseries and joys with anyone who is willing to stop and listen. I find consolation in the open culture. It allows me to reflect and ask, “Who am I?”

Growing up, I sat alone wondering if I was the only one that wanted more out of life than the prescribed milestones a patriarchal culture afforded me as a woman — daughter, sister, wife, and one day, a mother. These roles are beautiful, full of love and rewarding. Yet, they only allow me to exist as long as I am anchored to another. Who I am is relative to who the “other” is — my father, brothers, husband and children. I do not exist otherwise. “Who am I?” is the greatest question we can ask of ourselves, not only to understand ourselves, but to understand our role and purpose in society as individuals. Our sense of purpose is grounded in our experiences with family, faith and community. Yet, I never knew where my parents ended and I began as an individual.

I am the daughter of artists who are lovers of Indian actor Dev Anand and American superstar Elvis. They like gulab jamun and banana splits the same. They shop for saris, bindis and blue suede shoes. My parents were raised in the ‘50s and ‘60s before Pakistan was Islamized as a counter to atheism and the Cold War. Unlike my age group, which seems only capable of partisanship when it comes to faith and politics, I marvel at my parents’ ability to proudly navigate their multifaceted identity with ease. But my parents were victims of patriarchy themselves. And their failure to overcome its hold left others hurt in the next generation — myself included.

My mother was named after a Hindu girl, who was the sister of her father’s best friend in India. My father was the coddled son embedded between five sisters. True or not I will never know, but one of my father’s favorite stories from India was the following: He was 4 or 5-years-old and knowing he was in trouble for something, ran out of the house to the street. At the time the family was living somewhere near Lucknow, India. My father knew his mother observed purdah (lived privately behind a curtain) and couldn’t follow him out of the house. While outside there were some British soldiers in the distance, but nearby, on the edge of the road, there was a British soldier cap. My father pulled down his shorts, aimed and fired, laughing the entire time.

Sitting on his favorite armchair decades later in Southern California, he remembered that story and many others that gave me such a sorrowful strong sense of a free spirit that was forever caged by the expectations of a collective culture that relies on the deference of youth to tradition to maintain the status quo. Growing up tradition sounded beautiful. It took me years to understand it represented not love, family and stability, but control, a conscious disregard of individual feelings and goals.

My father lived up to the expectations his culture demanded — taking care of family, his parents, marrying and raising respectful children. He rebelled only in one area — his profession. Instead of following the path asked of him — engineering — he rose from Radio Pakistan to direct dramas and produce the news on Pakistan Television. As a man, whose duty it was to provide for family, he could rebel here so long as he did the first.

On the other hand, my mother’s primary role has always been to be a wife and mother. After she graduated from one of India’s best universities, Aligarh Muslim University, with a degree in fine arts and sculpture, she won a scholarship to Japan to further her artistic career. Just as blasphemy laws are used to manipulate personal disputes, her career ended before it began. My extended family asked: What could she possibly do in Japan as a single woman but end up marrying a Japanese man? Her parents were dissuaded from letting her go and she returned to Karachi and worked as a bank teller until she met my father.

While my father did pursue his passions professionally — traveling to England, Holland and Ethiopia to film — it was never with the love and validation of his family, especially his father. To my grandfather, working late nights in television only opened the door to drinking and women — a shameful and possibly dirty career.

In the United States, my parents started over. Both worked at fast food chains after having dined with diplomats, artists and writers in Pakistan, and eventually they ran their own print and online newspaper. It was meant to be a platform for these liberals in exile — to speak on the politics and society of Pakistan. Sadly, the increased conservatism and orthodoxy that was born from the West’s initial support of the mujahideen trickled down into the immigrant Muslim communities around the globe, including Southern California. The Islamists would not support a liberal, whiskey drinking Shia. My father’s newspaper was blackballed, and my parents struggled for years.

Then 9/11 came. Suddenly, my father became the moderate Muslim many were looking for. His knowledge of liberalism, democracy, Islam and Pakistan suddenly mattered. But again, his own community failed to see the nuance he was trying to hone by criticizing political Islam and defend faith as a personal matter.

We live in an age that wants to label us and box us in so we can be easily understood by the outside world. But, I am not simple. I refuse to be boxed in.

I am American, I am also Pakistani, I have lived in New York and Virginia, always carry a California smile. I am Shia, an atheist, a humanist and secular. I am a feminist who would have loved to cook all day in a big house for 10 kids that never seemed to show up. I wore jeans on the beaches of sunny California growing up because shorts were not allowed, and I locked my Hasidic landlady out of the house one Friday in Brooklyn because I did not understand the traditional rules of the orthodox Jewish community I lived among, but I still got fresh hot donuts on Hanukah upstairs before and after 9/11.
I respect Muharram, enjoy Halloween, Christmas and Eid. And last year, I bought a fun turquoise hat a la Kate Middleton that I can wear on Derby Day — a day thoroughly enjoyed by my Southern, Catholic in-laws. Mint juleps included.

I am not and do not want to be any one thing. All my life experiences influence who I become as the years go by. My mother always said: “Shun the bad you see in others, and adopt the good, irrespective of the person’s faith or racial/national background.” That is the only constant rule in my life.

As a deportation and asylum attorney, I worked directly with first generation Muslims as well as other minority groups from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. This experience has given me a direct reference point to address the rise of extremist groups in the West, but it has opened other doors. I have gotten to know the very personal experiences of a Kenyan woman applying for asylum because she wanted to save her minor daughter from the same fate; I represented a Kurdish youth in deportation so he would not have to go back to Turkey and face discrimination; I successfully won the battle for Pakistani parents of a special-needs little girl to get U.S. citizenship so she would not have to return to a culture that would leave her without access to educational tools that would help her become self-sufficient rather than a burden on her family for the rest of her life. These glimpses into the everyday lives of real people can only highlight the limited relevance global politics has on the majority affected by their decisions. Without a focus on human rights and development in global foreign policy strategy, men, women and children will continue to flee their home countries when they can.

I am a continuing work in progress. I am an individual who believes in universal human rights for every man, woman and child regardless of social, political or religious background. I believe in the separation of faith and politics. This is because I believe it is only in a secular society where I can be exposed to a myriad of ideas without censorship. I can live amongst the orthodox of any faith along with atheists and hedonists, and everyone in between in peace. It is only in a secular society that the law protects all equally.

That is why I am American.

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