For black women – merely existing and refusing to bow down is enough

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Dear black woman,

Like you, I am painfully aware of the high price tag of black womanhood. In a world heavily hijacking our looks (see here, or here) while hating us, we’re often bound to fall prey to self-esteem issues which then become a daily struggle.

As a dark skinned woman, I was either completely excluded from the mainstream beauty conversation or dragged into it for all the wrong reasons; bestowed with the title of “exotic” and having the “bits” that make me “pretty for a black girl” showcased.

Perhaps your sense of beauty has been constantly fluctuating like mine. And this must be dealt with accordingly.

During a recent conversation in which I opened up about my clouded sense of beauty and confidence, a friend made a statement that has been stuck with me for the past few days. He said, “In a world that keeps subtracting from black women, you can’t subtract from yourself.”

Hell yes! We can’t afford to lose any more ground and retreat to the corners of being passively misrepresented. The message is urgent. We have every right and need to reclaim black womanhood, by any means necessary.

In order to work through the intersectionality of our pain as women of color, and ultimately to just be UNAPOLOGETICALLY BLACK, we have to come to a place where we no longer (nor are we expected to) apologize for our Blackness. We need to revel in that shit! We need to put it in people’s faces in ways that have previously been seen as being unacceptable or just ‘too much’. And we need to have a space for that Blackness to be our own. – Samantha Blackmon

From art to everyday life, a major shift in consciousness and presentation is happening:

  • Yelista Jean-Charles, the creative director of the company “Healthy Roots”, took it upon herself to create a model of self-love and acceptance by designing natural haired Barbie dolls, planting the seeds in the minds of black children that blackness can be beautiful in a revolutionary way.
  • Buhle Ngaba’s book “The Girl Without a Sound” is a modern-day fairy tale for black girls, presenting them with a central character whom they could relate to, someone who looks like them.

The limiting vocabulary of stereotypes is losing its mythical power because we are fed up. Fed up with the constant objectification of our black bodies that are either completely hyper-sexualized or dismissed as non-existent, depending on the convenience of the situation.

We’re tired of the constant policing of our physical expression and with equating the slightest move and appearance to a moral narrative of good vs bad. We’re tired of being labelled according to patriarchal moral standards: the shorter her clothes, the looser she is, she’s clearly looking for attention, if she rejects your advances then she is playing hard to get.




All of these reminders are necessary for paving the way for our liberation, and every effort made to make them constant realities has an impact on the course of our lives.

While we sip on refreshing lemonades, healing our inner wounds with ancient soulful love practices, and bask under the glory of newly forged pacts of sisterhood and unspoken yet agreeable codes of conduct, we defiantly stay winning. We rise higher than the shackles of an oppressive and morally void system attempting to constrain us. 

What a time to be alive! Navigating through the different forces that are trying to break us down and shove the remnants of our defeated and injured selves into tiny boxes of expectations, we keep choosing the narratives of renaissance and revolutionary existence because that’s the heart and core of a revolution. We can abandon the premeditated limits and boundaries altogether and enforce a new language and way of being, one that is unapologetic and unyielding.

I see you, sister, and I very much know the price of the struggle and the bittersweet taste of it. It’s not an easy feat to push against the stream, being run down by the ripple effect of the multiple scars you bear while standing in solidarity with your comrades. Yet you keep taking the leap, and you do it majestically and passionately.

One of the most drastic of those leaps is the way we have managed to find a ground of acceptance, relinquishing the deeply ingrained toxic standards of beauty, redefining what it means, and embracing the alienated and stigmatized margins of it. We are recognizing that being is beauty in and of itself.

Authenticity and pride in who we are away from mainstream respectability politics is how we stand tall and firm from now on. Through mantras of self-acceptance and awareness, we create gates to our emancipation from the mental slavery preying on the undeniable presence of our intersectionality. The old manmade rules are no longer applicable because black women need room to breathe and flourish against all odds. That can only be done by drawing our own borders.

As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fearswhich rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.” – Audre Lorde

We’re taking charge of our destiny, extending the hand of divinity and reaching out to every shade of blackness there is with a touch of compassion and understanding. Every one of us is allowed to feast on the vibes of everlasting sisterhood and that is something I plan to devour and enjoy for the rest of my days.

No matter who you are, your fight against the system is never a one-way street. You are doing enough by merely existing and refusing to bow down to someone else’s definition of obligation and heroism.

Social activism is a wide playground and it’s not all about slogans or protesting. Find the things inside of you that need urgent expression and take it from there; be they a kind word or messages of encouragement. Plant new seeds on the road to complete liberation, pave it slowly and steadily and beautify it with the memories of ancestral inspiration so that you shall not forget the sacrifices that made it possible for you today to rebel and act.

Yesterday, the Goddess Mother Ntozake Shange said in her classic For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,  “but bein alive & bein a woman & bein coloured is a metaphysical dilemma / I haven’t conquered yet.” And today we are tirelessly weaving the fabrics of new structures and realities. Thriving and holding onto one another before giving the wheels to the next generation of black women excellence.

This post originally appeared in RaceBaitR on 15 July 2016

Ahlam Ali is a freelance writer and an introvert nomad who finds peace in books. Writing is the only therapy she needs. Small talk is her Kryptonite.

The Other Expats community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member.

“No Really, Where Are You From?”

Pyongyang. Really.

The most common question I get asked here in Malaysia is “Where are you from?” It’s a question that I’m not particularly fond of; something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while now. I could never really articulate my disdain for the question properly, that is until a few nights ago when I read Djenab Conde’s post on the topic.

Djenab’s post is appropriately titled, “So, Where Are You From?” — and immediately, from the title, you know that this question was asked after something else; another question, maybe; a name, or maybe just a salutation. In my case, the question is always “Where are you from”, point blank. No preceding questions, sometimes not even salutations.

Djenab is a mixed-raced kid and also a third culture kid, which, I gathered from her post, is why people are often curious: What is this strange exotic woman, and which box does she fit in? She dreads the “Where are you from?” question because the answer is seldom straightforward.

.  .  .  .  .  .
Me, at 4

I was born and raised in a little town about a hundred miles from where both my parents were born and raised. I’m neither mixed nor third-culture, therefore my answer to the question “Where are you from?” couldn’t be more straightforward.

So why do I have a strong disdain for a question I could easily respond to with a single word?

The answer — my reason — was perfectly articulated in a small independent film from 2008 called Medicine for Melancholy. In it, a young black couple, Micah and Jo, wake together one morning after a night of partying to the realization that they know absolutely nothing about each other; not even first names. Micah urges Jo to spend the day with him (partly because he fancies her, but mostly because of another reason that’ll become clear as the film progresses), and she reluctantly agrees.

In one of my favourite scenes, Micah asks Jo to describe herself in one word, and when she wouldn’t because “that makes no sense, people aren’t that simple…”, Micah took it upon himself to prove her wrong.

MICAH: Easy. Me, I’m a black man. That’s how I see the world, that’s how the world sees me. But if I had to choose one, I’m black before I’m a man, so therefore: I. Am. Black.
JO: That’s your problem. You feel you have to define everybody. You limit them to the point where they’re just a definition, and not people.
MICAH: How’d you figure?
JO: You just said it. You went from “I am Micah” to “I am black”.
MICAH: I’m not?
JO: Yes, but you’re everything else too.

I love that scene because it’s the perfect example of everything that’s wrong with one-word answers.


.  .  .  .  .  .

A few weekends ago, a friend showed me a short film she made and asked for feedback. Among other things, I mentioned how I felt that all the F-bombs in the film fell flat. The delivery was lousy. I couldn’t buy that the character (read: actress) would actually talk like that.

“Well, it’s because you’re Muslim,” my friend said dismissively.

My friend and I, we could’ve had a constructive discussion about the nature of “fuck” in cinema — why I don’t use it in my scripts and why I think most non-professional actors, especially here in South-East Asia, can’t deliver it convincingly. But we never did because in her eyes, at least at that point, I was not a person; I was just Muslim.


.  .  .  .  .  .



More often than not, “Where are you from” is less about curiosity and more about prompting for a label.

Understanding through labelling is easy,

precisely because you’re outsourcing your thinking — the only prerequisite for actual learning — to someone whose thought-process you have no insight into.

The problem with where-are-you-from-as-prompt-for-label as opposed to other prompts like “What do you do?” and “Do you live around here?”, is that while you have a choice over where you live and what you do for a living, at least on some level, your place of birth is completely outside of your control.


.  .  .  .  .  .


I was born in Bauchi, a small town in the north-eastern part of Nigeria. It’s a great little place — peaceful, at least at the time — and the people are nice. As far as I remember, I had a wonderful childhood.

“No way you’re from Nigeria! You’re too skinny and quiet; Nigerians are loud!”

Someone actually said that to me!

What most people don’t realize about Nigeria is how truly big the country is; how many of us there really are (most populous black nation, hello!); our multiculturalism, and how vastly different all the tribes are.

“… the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe… I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieHalf of a Yellow Sun

You can give the tribes an identity, but you can’t take the tribe out of the identity.

Even though the northern and southern protectorates have been one since 1914, which, in case you’re wondering, was close to a hundred years ago, the north is still predominantly Hausa; the south-east, Igbo; and the south-west Yoruba. A Hausa man would stick out in the Southeast as much as an Igbo man would in the Northeast.

I’ve travelled in Europe, Asia, and a little bit of the Middle East, but I’ve never been to any cities in the southern part of Nigeria. (Well, except Lagos, but Lagos doesn’t really count). Even in the North, where I was born and raised, I’ve been to less than 20% of the Northern states. I haven’t yet seen the statistics on the level of cultural integration in Nigeria, but I don’t think I’m very far off from the median.

So, if you prompt me for a label with “Where are you from?”, and I tell you “Nigeria” — what exactly does that tell you about ME?


June of last year, 2012, I found myself at the Thai embassy here in Kuala Lumpur applying for a visa. While I was registering to get in, the guard at the entrance took one look at my passport and said,

“Oh, Nigeria. I don’t think you’ll get the visa, but you can still try your luck”

This was a guard manning the main gate, not the consular.

I did get the visa, eventually, and I travelled to Thailand in July, but my point is, the guard made a judgement about me solely based on the cover of my passport. Not the contents, mind you, just the cover.

.  .  .  .  .  .
From the backseat of a cab

I’ll get into a cab and the driver will ask me where I’m from. I’ll tell him “Nigeria”, and that’s his cue to tell me a story he heard from a friend of a friend about the Nigerian who ripped-off someone. I’ll go to the barbershop, and somewhere between my haircut and beard trim, I’ll hear how someone read in the paper a story about the Nigerian who may have raped someone somewhere. I’ll meet a lady at a party and… you’re good with patterns.

After a while, I got really frustrated. Tired. Constantly being bombarded by negative shit about “your people” is fucking exhausting. I decided that unless you’re someone I worked with, or someone who I would otherwise see on a daily basis, if you asked me the question “Where are you from?”, the answer you’ll most likely get is “Pyongyang.”

Yes. Pyongyang, North Korea.

“No really, where are you from?”

And I’ll repeat, very clearly, “Pyongyang. Really”.

Obviously, the answer isn’t meant to be deceptive. I wasn’t making any attempt at being even the least bit convincing. The point was to be dismissive, and for the most part, it worked.


.  .  .  .  .  .


My roommate Rita is from the Murmansk region of Russia, but when strangers here ask her, she usually says that she’s from Helsinki. Helsinki because it’s right across the border from her hometown. Helsinki because, apparently, people here think Russian women will have sex with them for money. Helsinki because most people have no clue where the hell it is, and if they do, they don’t know any Finnish stereotypes.

.  .  .  .  .  .

I finally stopped saying that I was from Pyongyang when one night, a cop stopped my friend Gaj (who’s also Nigerian) and I at a random roadblock and insisted that Gaj was breaking the law by driving with an International Driver’s license (as opposed to a Malaysian one) while also implying — albeit not so subtly — that we could quickly bribe him to get it over with.

“Usually, a lot of Nigerians just settle with me right here,” he said.

But Gaj wouldn’t oblige. He insisted that it’s called an international driver’s license for precisely that reason — to drive in other countries — which for some reason made the cop furious:

“How dare you come to my country and tell me how the law works?!”

When after close to three hours — not kidding — the cop still wouldn’t see reason, Gaj and I asked him to just write us the damn ticket.

We decided that he’s not getting a single cent. No, he’s not. Not from these Nigerians.

That night, something changed in me.

The cop ended up writing Gaj a ticket, which we took to court the next day and had nullified.

.  .  .  .  .  .
At the end of the day, everything is just words


“Bauchi”, “Nigeria”, “Africa”, and “Pyongyang” are still just words to me, yet these days, when someone asks where I’m from, I choose to say “Nigeria” over “Pyongyang” because on the off-chance I don’t fit into his/her Nigeria-box, he/she will be tempted to create a new, additional box for Nigeria.

Because Lord knows, Nigeria needs more boxes.



This post originally appeared on on 1 November 2013. All photos courtesy of Al Ibrahim.

Ibrahim Ali is a Writer. Photographer. Filmmaker. Tinker of culture. Tailor of words. Soldier of cinema. A spy who knows where his towel is.

The Other Expats community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own.

An open love letter

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“Each new hour holds new chances for new beginnings. Do not be wedded forever to fear, yoked eternally to brutishness. The horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps of change.” –  Maya Angelou

Dear soul,

Another year has ended.

You’ve gone through it courageously and managed to hold on to your essence.

You did your best with the tools you were given and created another magical chapter of your survival story.

Today take time to acknowledge YOU! look at the steps you’ve been taking to reclaim your sense of equilibrium despite how bumpy and intense this ride was.

Hug yourself, no one deserves your unconditional love more than you.

Bless your body for withstanding the pressure, caress your skin and embrace your inner light that this world couldn’t dim.

Embrace the scars and joy with the same intensity, you wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the full spectrum of the human experience.

“Turn soft and lovely anytime you have the chance.” Jenny Holzer

Remember that particular pain that you thought you’d never get over? It’s a memory now and whether you want to give it the power to haunt you or not is ultimately up to you, it will still hurt and maybe the shattered pieces of your reality won’t ever look the same again, however that crack brought in a new light, a different perspective on life and sparked the fire of transformation deep in your belly. You took that intense pain and morphed it into a victorious reality and a brand new contract by living authentically. Beyond fear, shame and stigma.

It doesn’t matter if no one saw these deep intense battles, you know what you’ve achieved so far and for that a celebration is necessary.

You’ve reached the point of co-creating your reality as opposed to being a reactive entity, you know what you want now and it’s only a matter of putting in the work and claiming everything you know that you deserve.

You are love, infinite and grand. You are the centre of your own universe and it’s about time you gathered the courage to treat yourself as the ultimate authority in your story.

Access where you have been falling short realistically yet compassionately.

Write your own sacred affirmations, take care of your physical vessel as much you do the spiritual, get over the urges to conform and accept that your path is uniquely yours so it’s ok to improvise along the way even if you fail over and over again. Let go of the dead weight you’ve been holding on out of familiarity and fear.

Say “No” more often and guard your boundaries, experiment with art and create something cause that’s how the releasing and healing journey begins, pour the intense loving energy you bestow on others on you first and foremost.

Take deep breaths and hold a pen today.

Write yourself a love letter because it’s way overdue…

“my darling, you are the color of the earth you inherited holy, let no one silence the glory in your bones let no one make you doubt that you are indeed important.” – Upile Chisala

This post originally appeared in Black Femme Witches Brew on 1 January 2018

Ahlam Ali is an intuitive empath, seeking to heal through her words in a process of alchemy, inspired by the ancestral wisdom and unique perspective of black womanhood.

The Other Expats community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member.