A 2Y MBA Finds the Strength of Her Voice Through Writing
By Iffat Siddiqui (2Y 2021)
Spring break was an unusual time for everyone at Kellogg. People were looking for community in creative ways and the lockdown had redefined what socializing meant, allowing for some really strange friendships and unexpected social circles. For me, that circle was the Kellogg Writers’ Café, a motley group of MBA students who wanted to motivate each other to write more and write better through sharing and feedback sessions.
Finding my voice
I remember struggling with the question “What do I want to write about?” I joined my first session with an easy cop out: poetry, because the discipline — enforced by a rhyming scheme and imagery — can be used to disconnect the writer from the content, the subject from the object. Time and again, I’ve read that writing from experience is the best way to write, so I decided to try that. But I really had to dig deep to find what my personal experience meant to me.
Did it mean my life as a woman? My life as a sister, a daughter? My life as an employee? I decided to write about something that affects all facets of my life and it’s a topic I’ve become increasingly passionate about since 2014. And that was my Muslim-ness, a characteristic of my background that I had subconsciously worked very hard to erase during my undergrad years.
Like so many other Indian children, I grew up with a healthy dose of Bollywood. The difference was that I never stumbled on characters I could relate to in so many years of Bollywood consumption. And that’s because Bollywood rarely picturizes Muslim characters, and when it does, it gets them all wrong, reducing them to caricatures. I find that ironic because Bollywood has a big, Muslim representation, including some of the biggest stars.
This Bollywood conundrum was merely an academic problem for me until I had an honest conversation with myself. When landlords would refuse to rent their apartments to me because I had a Muslim name, I used to be silent. When Muslim holidays were conspicuously missing from the list of office closure days that my employer provided, I used to be silent. When my friends made casually Islamophobic jokes at parties and social gatherings, I used to be silent. I used to be silent because I didn’t want to be overtly Muslim. I had bought into the narrative that there was no such thing as a progressive Muslim. You could either be one or the other.
I realized that in doing so I was contributing to the problem of sterilization of Muslim voices from Indian popular culture. When my colleagues in Kuala Lumpur asked me why I don’t wear a bindi, my response should have been “Because I was raised in a Muslim family and bindi is not part of our culture” and not “Because I don’t like it.” I have never been someone who shies away from expressing her opinion, so it was time for me to correct the mistakes of my past.
Finding my courage
It is one thing to write, quite another to share it. Especially amateur writing that borrows from personal experience — that’s a whole other level of vulnerability. I would be forever indebted to Writers’ Café, to Gaurav, Matt, Mehak, Satvika and Suhani for being such wholesome cheerleaders. Without their encouragement, I wouldn’t have had the courage to write about something so deeply personal and put it out into the world to be seen as my full self, and perhaps to be judged. It took a couple of sessions with my therapist and months of needling by Suhani for me to consider starting a blog and sharing my stories. The final impetus towards making my writing public was a DEI conversation I had with Kellogg’s director of content, Aubyn Keefe, in the context of our involvement with Kellogg Inclusion Coalition, about the importance of magnifying marginalized voices. It reminded me of something an atheist, Muslim friend once said to me:
“Iffat, we are the voices that have travelled far. It’s our responsibility to make songs about the community back home. Even if we are terrible singers.”