Feminist Book Club: We have always Been here by Samra Habib

*Uncomfortable Topics

Sexual Assault
Domestic Abuse 
Child Marriage

set the scene

Publishing Year: 2019
Publishing Location: Canada 
Author Nationality: Canadian/Pakistani

we have always been here cover

This book gained National notoriety when it joined the Canada Reads 2020 List. If you’re not familiar with this contest, it is a CBC week where celebrities defend books on the list in a ‘Survivor’ style vote out. If you’re looking for some good book debate, reading the list and watching their extensive video archive is cathartic.

But I get ahead of myself. The book was published in 2019, a Canadian election year. Pretty boy Trudeau won, and when his political opponents were looking for skeletons in the closet, they found pictures of Mr. Prime Minister in brown face and a Turban at University parties. Even though the Liberals won, they set the record for the lowest seats in a minority government, and the Conservatives and Blocs gained 26 and 22 seats respectively.

Sexual Harassment was in the spotlight, with #Metoo, and women sharing their stories of male violence was an important thing to be doing. Men started to realize just how many women in their lives were touched by this problem, and women were starting to learn to find their voices together, through digital communities. Around the world, we were seeing turmoil in Hong Kong, Nepal, Brazil, with riots against governments and prison guards. This was a difficult year for people everywhere.

about the author

As this is a memoir of the Author, I feel like my usual digest would make the next part a little redundant.

the story

Subtitled; A Queer Muslim Memoir, this book follows the author from Lahore as a religious minority fleeing ethnic cleansings to her life as she settles into a teenager in Canada. She insightfully deconstructs the support systems of other people, especially women, around her and talks at great lengths about ways that she found her own courage. 

we have always been here quote

Reflecting on her childhood in Pakistan, Habib recalls the way women bonded together to protect each other, and how refugees were invited in to celebrate her birthday in a barricaded room and the community she felt there. She also reflects on the pressures she felt being a woman in a society where their movements and bodies are so heavily policed, and how other women fell into enforcing the policing when she was attacked. 

This story rings true for many people in our generation, and for many of our mothers and grandmothers. She talks about the whispers of honour killings and the fear the community instils in each other. But, after her immigration to Canada, she starts trying to find greater freedoms, as most teenagers do. 

Habib’s troubles don’t end when she moves to the Great White North. Her parents arranged a marriage with her cousin, who immigrates with her family, and she only finds out about it after years of living with him. He was the one to tell her, passing her a note on the couch. When the family receives pressure to marry her, she hasn’t even finished high school, and she doesn’t dare tell any other friends. 

Finally, Habib is able to escape. She has trouble voicing her decisions and standing up for herself, but her decision to end her marriage started her journey into really trying to figure out who she is. She switches from trying to survive, creating bonds with people who you need to keep fed and keep a roof, to moving out on her own and learning to reconnect with people on her own terms. 

She explores her relationships with each of her parents and acknowledges the ways they loved her but couldn’t keep her safe. She thoughtfully explores how the relationship dynamics change when you are older, and is able to better articulate frustration when you don’t rely on them for everything. Habib uses her newfound voice to give others space, going into photography and journalism to present the stories she didn’t see as a kid.

In the final chapters of her memoir, Habib also addresses her re-connection with her faith. It is something that has been a source of great turmoil all your life. How can you feel valued and loved by a god when your brothers are using his words to denounce you? Police you? 

Like so many women, Habib doesn’t feel the need to be pious like the other females in her life, and in finding a group of people who accepted her wholly, she felt more connected with her faith. But, being a minority in any sense while looking for a safe space is dangerous. 

By voicing her story, and the stories of other queer Muslims, Habib is doing what so many women before her have done. She has added her story to the voices of our generation and makes people question their opinions on ‘liberal’ countries in the present day.

my takeaways

While Samra and I were born in very different places, a lot of her story speaks to my experiences, and we call the same city home. While writing about why she wrote the book, she says that exposing her story as a Queer Muslin is a relatively low risk for her, and she knows that people out there like her could use her story. 

I have had a tumultuous relationship with my parents and lived with them on and off as a teenager. Their divorce was messy and it made our house an unsafe space. Both of my parents tried their best to love me dearly, but we also had a lot of trouble connecting. Having to go through early adulthood with little backup or safety net put me through a lot of uncomfortable positions and mindsets, and learning to reconcile with your parents is so messy. I still bounce back and forth between finding the power to reconcile or not. 

Growing up in a small town, my life was never at risk the way Habibs was, but religious policing still happened to quite an extent. I had a hard time loving my faith when my priest told me it was women’s job to make babies when I was in 7th grade. My body is more than an incubator for the next generation. 

I had a hard time loving my faith when my Priest called out my mother for her ex-husband’s infidelity in front of Sunday morning mass. I had a hard time trying to love my father when at 11 years old everyone and their parents were shaming me about my parents’ sex life. They never offered us food, or the help of the community to keep the farm running. That was left to the pre-teen children to figure out.

I had a hard time loving my faith when I had to learn to memorize passages to spit like venom at my mother’s new boyfriend, who would announce in front of the family that I ‘dressed like a slut’. How can you love a religion and a god that you have to use as a weapon? I hope one day I find the courage Habib did to reconnect with her faith, but in the meantime, I think I will continue to explore others.

what to read next

Gosh, memoirs that are so beautifully feminist are plentiful. If you’re in the mood to break your heart again, you can go with either of the classics; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou or The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Although both of these books are from decades past, the way that women look for meaning and purpose in their life when they feel trapped has not changed that much at all. 

If you need something that will make you laugh, try Gloria Steinem’s Moving Beyond Words or Feminasty by Erin Gibson.