A Preliminary Enquiry Concerning Aunties in Contemporary Understanding

 Image Composition by Samia Zaidi

Image Composition by Samia Zaidi

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By Rajbir Singh Judge

A specter is haunting South Asian diasporic youth—the specter of the Aunty. All the diasporic youth of South Asia have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter in order to disclose their own modern being. Reviled in her multiple forms, the Aunty is, as Maria Qamar argues, “a cross-cultural phenomenon that isn’t limited to a family member; she could be a neighbour, a family friend, or just some lady on the bus who wants to throw some casual black magic your way.”[1] Magical and entrancing, the Aunty can indeed be found everywhere, awaiting her coming exorcism. But what precisely is this exorcism? Capitalism, as we know, has no culture.[2] Not rooted in any distinct world, capital absorbs its demons, including the Aunty, for she too becomes incorporated within capitalism's own totalizing logic and rendered palatable for easy consumption in our present world. In other words, this exorcism redeems the Aunty by evacuating and individualizing her presence, concretizing the haunting specter into an intelligible subject.

This brief essay examines how the Aunty has come to occupy this logic in contemporary discourse in order to consider, not a prescriptive Aunty-oriented future, but the logics of secular desire that demand both tradition’s repudiation and salvation in our present impasse. Our space is limited, so this essay is not interested in the varied content of Aunties—ranging from the gup-shup Aunty to seductive Aunty.[3] Instead, this essay investigates the attempt to occlude and discipline the Aunty’s presence in South Asian life. For the critiques leveled at these ubiquitous Aunties are not simply assessments of a broad conglomeration of peoples who exist as Oriental Mean Girls; rather these critiques authorize a particular form of religion and gender in the world today. Indeed, the Aunty forms the ground from which peoples contest and struggle over the parameters of tradition.[4] And, in this struggle, a discursive tradition becomes dislocated from itself, becoming a site for the expression of creative individual identity rather than the negotiation of the parameters of orthodoxy in a pre-given frame.[5]

Therefore, this essay is more concerned with the abstraction of the Aunty figure rather than authenticating different visions of the Aunty. For even filled with different content, the Aunty provides a specific form, in which she exists as both an object that prevents a subject from suturing themselves to a modern totality [the backward woman who polices the boundaries of tradition, a reminder of one’s always-present otherness], and that which signals its completion [I am not the Aunty, I have become modern]. The stakes are raised when the question of difference becomes commercialized and a necessary point from which to articulate a modern identity. Within this logic, the Aunty herself becomes a site of reclamation and redemption for diasporic youth. For once the Aunty is evacuated and cleansed of her perceived backwardness and objectionable qualities, she becomes a repository of acceptable difference as hyper-individual and known subject. Once the feared aspects of the Aunty are removed—her signaling of being otherwise—she finds a delayed deliverance in the contours of modern society. Or, much like the sanitized vision of the liberal Muslim, the Aunty too becomes a good, hyper-individualized subject deployed to legitimate a world to which she remains recalcitrant.

But why is the Aunty so troublesome? Noorjahan Rahman, in her article “Hijacking the voice of Islam: ISIS, Aunties and Old Arab Males,” published in the online magazine The Field Between, writes:

People who enforce perceived Islamic behavioral rules include energetic and judgmental middle-aged women who confront the communities’ youths whenever the young people are caught in the act of wearing something immodest, or participating in a proscribed behavior (like dating). These ladies spread gossip and chastise the parents of these youths. In Muslim communities, they’re called “aunties.” They’re well-meaning, but seem to aggrandize their power over others by publicly shaming those who do not meet behavior norms.[6]

Leila, a Muslim woman I interviewed, concurred. She argued the Aunty was troublesome because of her propensity for gossip. Leila posited, “Aunties gossip about me to other Aunties.” Qamar, too, writes Aunties are trained “rigorously in the arts of plotting, black magic, and neighborhood gossip.”[7] Or, in other words, as the blog Kaurista notes, Punjabis have their “elite spy force — our nosy Aunties.”[8] Plotting and policing are central to the fears gossip incites. Leila continued, “I live in fear; I structure my life worried that an Aunty will find out something about me and misrepresent my actions.” Rahman notes a similar fear, she writes:

I’ve known Muslims friends to duck behind bushes at the mall to hide the fact that they’re on a date, and I’ve seen them completely change their personality in front of aunties to avoid censure. I honor Muslim women who choose to wear a headscarf. But I’ve had aunties come up to me at social gatherings and berate me for not wearing one. I’m like, “With respect, back up, ladies!”[9]

Qamar calls this regulatory duplicity “Aunty interference.” She writes, “We’ve all experienced ‘aunty interference’ that has hindered our social growth and embarrassed us in front of our friends and cool cousins.”[10]

The Aunty, alongside her regulatory gossip, therefore, signal backwardness. For the Aunty prevents the subject from pursuing her individual desires, which, in the secular world, requires her own individualized interpretation of tradition.[11] In contrast to the individual, the Aunty binds the autonomous subject to the unruly and contested norms of community, disrupting the cultivation of an individualized identity. As Subaltern Studies reminds us, gossip is an integral site to disseminate information outside the disciplinary institutions of the secular modern, evading its panoptical reach.[12] In this vein, Aunties enact a particular anonymous and transitive relation within networks outside modern disciplinary might, creating unruly bonds and ties that refuse ordering. The anger leveled at Aunty gossip then is not simply an anger directed at the information, at times patriarchal, a specific Aunty disseminates, which can indeed be a violent imposition. But such gossip also troubles because it discloses the existence of a network of relations that refuses modern regulation and discipline. Aunty gossip then is not simply regulatory in its own right, but also exists as site of refusal, revealing an impossibility that cannot be integrated into the lives South Asian diasporic youth cultivate in order to pass in modern society. Or, put another way, Aunty gossip reveals the subject’s embeddedness into networks that are deemed both irreconcilable and unreadable to the secular modern.

This is a central aspect of the Aunty—the unruly, anonymous, and transitive nature of gossip disrupts the cultivation of a modern autonomous individual central to integration. Facing the disorderly nature of gossip, Qamar argues “I’ve defied the advice of my aunties almost every step of the way, and I’ve turned out fine.”[13] And, moreover, for Qamar, this is a liberatory ideal that the autonomous self, demonstrated through defiance and transgression, provides. She writes, “We’ve been rooted in thinking outside the box for as long as we’ve been around. It’s only fair that we continue breaking barriers and end stigmatizing lifestyles that are different.”[14] Aunties then signal a barrier one needs to overcome in order to inculcate temporal progress, creating the capacities to be the putatively free modern subject. For Leila, who is pious, the Aunty too encroaches. But, for Leila, the Aunty intrudes into her cultivation of a virtuous self—which in secular modern society cannot be grounded in the submission required in the Islamic tradition, but, paradoxically, the self’s refinement into an individual identity. Therefore, even though the Aunty can uphold violent cultural patriarchal norms through gossip, she also signals the impossibility of producing a circumscribed self in the modern world. This impossibility then requires the subject’s continuous and indeterminate revision through the very structure of her gossip.

But rather than consider the (im)possibilities the Aunty and her gossip signal simultaneously outside and within the parameters of modern society, diasporic youth denigrate the Aunty, reducing her to a site for the reproduction of patriarchal norms. In other words, instead of foregrounding the structures of violence women are continually forced to bear in modern society, violence, in such a reading, is reduced to women themselves through the policing of Aunties. For example, in a blog post entitled “Feminist Ramadans, Feminist Jihads, and Unnecessary Feminist Sacrifices,” The Fatal Feminist (TFF), the guest writer on the blog Freedom From the Forbidden, writes Aunties reinforce the patriarchal contours of tradition that prevent the realization of TFF’s desire. TFF writes:

On Ruby Avenue, my imagination is also wild, vibrant, and irrepressible. It was where I went to Quran classes as a child and studied under the imam, but because of the segregation, I rarely attend anymore, since I’m not fond of second-class citizen treatment; though aunties constantly demand to know why, the response from my mother is always that I’m busy with class and work, which they then proceed to make clear is an unacceptable excuse.[15]

TFF precludes the possibility of an honest encounter with the Aunties as serious interlocutors about the Islamic tradition and, instead, they are reduced to simply parroting what is deemed the Imam’s bad rendition of tradition that absents the vibrant and irrepressible subject. In other words, Aunties are rendered subjects who do not deserve honest engagement and TFF’s mother simply lies to them in order to elude their questions. Within this logic, Aunties exist as a network that refuses to let TFF procure her own idealized and individual rendition of what Islam should be, continuously bringing her back into the community she has left. Rather than engage in contestations and reasoning about the Islamic tradition with the Aunties, who exist as serious repositories of knowledge through their extensive networks (which, in turn, could put into question TFF’s certainty), the individual takes precedence and is always already correct in breaking deemed barriers. And ‘bad’ women become the site for policing the boundaries of the Islamic tradition, removing the Aunties’ own inquisitiveness, their own vibrancy and irrepressibility, which is deemed neither compatible nor desirable within the requirements of the autonomous individual.

Another example can perhaps illuminate this structure. Hannah Bradby, in her article “Watch out for the Aunties! Young British Asians’ accounts of identity and substance use,” relays a similar tale in which Aunties are simply the ground from which to uphold a particular type of tradition. Referring to Sikhs in Britain, Bradby relays:

Jasmine had been brought over from India to marry a Glaswegian, but it soon became clear that her husband had a serious heroin addiction, which made employment impossible and family life very difficult. He eventually died from an overdose, widowing Jasmine and leaving her ostracised, impoverished and resentful at having married a man to whom no Glasgow family would give a daughter. Jasmine was wronged by her husband, but, as various respondents remarked, it was older women, aunties or Aunty-jis who were the brokers of honour in judging behavior.[16]

Within these responses, Aunties become the ground from which to disparage what is deemed a backward tradition, for tradition becomes the site that enacted violence on Jasmine, limiting her possibilities. In other words, Aunty judgment through gossip becomes responsible for Jasmine’s difficulties after her husband’s drug-induced death. By using the Aunty to understand Jasmine’s precarity, the respondents to Bradby’s questions eliminate the structures of violence that led to the situation. Indeed, the Aunties serve as a palliative, removing questions around (1) the types of subjects cultivated in a racist modern British society; (2) the lack of support for widows within communities more broadly; (3) the unequal relations of economic power between Britain and India cultivated in colonial rule that makes Britain desirous to peoples of Punjab, leading to trans-continental marriage in the first place. Instead, such questions are glossed in the narrative and the Aunty becomes a signifier for a repressive tradition obstructing Jasmine’s autonomy and progress. Or, in other words, in order to limit the possibilities of the Aunty and her gossip, grounded as it is in anonymity and transitivity, the respondents intervene into the very notion of what tradition is by creating a backward and known tradition through the figure of the repressive, honor-obsessed Aunty.

Qamar too argues against this anonymous and dangerous structure of gossip, by calling for the cultivation of different and comprehensible networks. She writes, “we’ve got to stop worrying so much about what others think of our families and focus on talking more with one another.”[17] Rahman, too, signals toward such new possibilities and asks Muslims to reassess Aunty networks. She writes:

By blindly following those who claim the voice of Islam, we Muslims risk destroying the tenants of our own faith, which include justice, tolerance and peace. The power of groups like ISIS is actually the minor problem. The major problem lies in our own communities, where we are allowing people to oppress others using the name of our religion right here in America.[18]

Within these new ‘non-oppressive’ networks, resolutions and judgments are not located within the parameters of a discursive tradition. Instead, decisions are made by the autonomous individual without regard for the broader community signaled by the Aunty. Or, in the murky space Aunty and her gossip produce, the key becomes to rely only on the self to produce authoritative knowledge. Qamar writes, “as the advice becomes more and more contradictory and the world shifts further and further away from traditional practices, you might realize that the person you need to trust most is yourself.”[19]

That is to say, in contrast to the Aunty’s oppression, Rahman, Qamar, and others recalibrate the very terrain of tradition, producing the individual as the site for expressing authority. Qamar, for example, writes “If you’re applying for grad school, but are worried about not having a child until you’re thirty, just do it anyway. Sacrificing your dreams for the sake of marriage or children is a ploy by the aunties to keep you chained to the patriarchy.”[20] Even for Leila, Aunties bind her to a judgment about her piety which is not located within the self. For authority over proper behavior lies not with Leila, but an entire network outside herself. This is precisely the danger Leila wants to avoid and therefore reduces error to an always misreading Aunty, since the determination of what constitutes proper behavior is located in Leila, constituted as an authoritative individual over her own practice.

Only after the individual becomes the center of expressing tradition can the Aunty be redeemed as an individualized expression of privatized difference. Or, to put it simply, the Aunty is not outside the logic of commodification. Vanita Reddy, for example, astutely examines the relation between feminist diasporic visual artists, Meeta Sethia and Geeta Malik, and the Aunty. The artists, Reddy notes, “challenge the gendered and sexualized norms of aestheticizing racialized femininity” by wrenching “the figure of the aunty away from a hetero-patriarchal gaze that renders the aging female body a delinquent site of fashionability.”[21] For example, through her art, collected in Upping the Aunty, Meera Sethi writes she “creates an aunty who pays homage to the fabulousness of aunty style and her role in changing, shaping and performing social and cultural knowledge.”[22] Within the photographs explicitly, Reddy argues Sethi creates an aunty who is “public and individual (rather than private and communal)” through "the aunty's sartorial self-possession.”[23] Indeed, the key for Sethi is to redeem the Aunty, to make a site of deficiency in the global order a stylized hyper-individualized identity. To quote Reddy, “The quirky and even unpolished qualities of aunty femininity allow each aunty's look to appear as a brand all of its own.”[24] This is not a brand, however, to be replicated. But a hyper-individualized sense of self since, as Reddy argues, “these aunties' looks cannot easily be replicated” nor do they even “aspire to replication.”[25]

Geeta Malik’s short film, Aunty G, functions similarly. Aunty G places aunties in a game of pick-up basketball, in which, Reddy explains, the Aunty’s fashion choices are “conducive to an efficiency of movement and athletic practicality,” creating a “hospitable rather than hostile” space on the street for the Aunty.[26] Therefore, both Sethi’s and Malik’s renditions, as Reddy argues, “visualize the sartorial choices of aunties on national and diasporic streets not as ‘bad fashion’ but as highly individualized styles that demand communal respect”—which give aunties “right of access to and facility of movement” in public space.[27] But in creating this individualistic and hospitable Aunty who is both displayed publically as a consumer and an active participant in diasporic life, the anonymous and transitive Aunty central to rumor and gossip becomes dislocated. Redeemed within diasporic space once alienated from her presence, the Aunty no longer disturbs the sense of known self, but reaffirms the very logic of individual consumption and identity, becoming compatible with any and all other subjects, moving about amongst her fellow citizens. The Aunty then does not challenge the rubric of individual liberty and rationality as she did prior, but now confirms the normative rationality of autonomy that undergirds the secular. The Aunty, through such redemption, no longer horrifies or signals new opportunities, but is an embodiment of a known and acceptable difference.

There is much to more to say, excessive as the Aunty is, and further Aunty-oriented research is quite necessary. Of course, this was only a preliminary enquiry into particular habits the secular cultivates that require the denigration and redemption of a broad assembly of women, Aunties, who are both unfairly judged and emancipated to preserve one’s own autonomous self.  This enquiry, therefore, has not been to uncover an authentic redeemable Aunty for the present. Instead, this essay has tried to inhabit the question: what if the Aunty and all she entails remains irredeemable in our contemporary society? Remaining outside our representational matrix, the Aunties force us to grapple with a question precluded within the contemporary discourse: how do we navigate a promise that never arrives, the impossibility of continuous circulation within what appears to be an always eminent future? And, haunting our desires with these questions, Aunties require we dwell in a space in which our preferred answer, an autonomous and uninhibited future, is foreclosed—tied as we remain to exacting notions of the human that always remains outside our anxious grasp.

Rajbir Singh Judge is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at University of California, Davis.

Endnotes

[1] Maria Qamar, Trust No Aunty (New York: Touchstone, 2017), 1.

[2] As Slavoj Žižek reminds us, “the problem with capitalism is not its secret Eurocentric bias, but the fact that it really is universal, a neutral matrix of social relations. Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 156.

[3] For a typology of Aunties, see both Maria Qamar’s Trust No Aunty and Russel D’Silva “Bollywood Aunties And Their Various Personas,” Movified, January 20th, 2017. https://www.movified.com/bollywood-aunties-and-their-various-personas. (accessed February 1, 2018).

[4] Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 2.

[5] I draw from Talal Asad’s seminal essay on the notion of a discursive tradition. He argues, “If one wants to write “an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur'an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” Asad posits the definition of an Islamic discursive tradition as “simply a tradition of Muslim discourse that addresses itself to conceptions of the Islamic past and future, with reference to a particular Islamic practice in the present” (14). Talal Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam”, Occasional Papers, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Washington, DC, Georgetown University, 1986.

[6] Noorjahan Rahman, “Hijacking the voice of Islam: ISIS, Aunties and Old Arab Males,” The Field Between, June 25, 2017. https://www.thefieldbetween.com/single-post/2017/06/25/Hijacking-the-voice-of-Islam-ISIS-Aunties-and-Old-Arab-Males. (accessed February 8, 2018).

[7] Qamar, Trust No Aunty, 7.

[8] PenduPrincess & PunjabiRani, “Punjabi Sikh World Order,” Kaurista Fresh and Fearless Lifestyle Magazine, December 17, 2011. http://www.kaurista.com/2011/12/17/punjabi-sikh-world-order (accessed February 8, 2018).

[9] Rahman, “Hijacking the voice of Islam”

[10] Qamar, Trust No Aunty, 1.

[11] Talal Asad, for example, notes how Post-Reformation, religion came to be understood as an individual private matter concerned with beliefs and personal choice—a privatized conception of religion--and not a set practices integrated into a larger way of life. See Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

[12] For example, see Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).

[13] Qamar, Trust No Aunty, 1.

[14] Ibid., 168.

[15] The Fatal Feminist, “Feminist Ramadans, Feminist Jihads, and Unnecessary Feminist Sacrifices,” Freedom From the Forbidden, July 2, 2015. https://orbala.net/2015/07/02/guest-post-feminist-ramadans-feminist-jihads-and-unnecessary-feminist-sacrifices (accessed February 6, 2018).

[16] Hannah Bradby “Watch out for the Aunties! Young British Asians’ accounts of identity and substance use,” Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 29 No. 5 (2007): 668.

[17] Qamar, Trust No Aunty, 168.

[18] Rahman, “Hijacking the voice of Islam”

[19] Qamar, Trust No Aunty, 3.

[20] Ibid., 26-27.

[21] Vanita Reddy, “Diasporic Visual Cultures of Indian Fashion and Beauty” in Routledge Handbook of the Indian Diaspora, ed. by Radha Sarma Hegde and Ajaya Kumar Sahoo (New York, NY : Routledge, 2018), 188.

[22] For example, see Meera Sethi’s work here: https://www.meerasethi.com/upping-the-aunty/

[23] Reddy, “Diasporic Visual Cultures of Indian Fashion and Beauty,” 193.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 195.

[27] Ibid., 196.