Muharram 10: The Subaltern SpeaksYou are given sustenance and victory for the virtue of those who are weak amongst you
The Prophet Muhammad (aws)
One of the achievements of postcolonial theorist G. C. Spivak is to extend and clarify the meaning of the word ‘subaltern’, a term originally developed by a group of Marxist scholars to describe the underclasses of the Indian subcontinent. Spivak identifies the problems of their class-based analyses and sources, and argues that women in particular often go unheard in this discourse. Indeed, Spivak has been at the forefront of liberating the voices of women living in the global South from the presumptions of European and American feminism.
At the same, Spivak also draws attention to the way some contemporary discourses silence the voice of the Subaltern. She claims that, not only do their texts fail to identify their own perspective, which distorts the voice they claim to represent, but they also contrive to speak for all when they might well only be speaking for some, or a few. Moreover, even when the voices of the marginalised do enter academic and other discourses, the political and social hegemony often prevents their intended meaning from being truly heard.
Subsequent theorists have argued from Spivak that the most unlikely people might be described as subaltern, including a female prime minister who was only able to assume political power by manipulating powerful men – hence she was as much subservient to patriarchy as the village women imprisoned in her house by a husband fearful for his family honour. In the light of this analysis, I, too, have appreciated the title ‘subaltern’, not just despite being a graduate educated middle class male, but partly in recognition of it. It makes me twice the prisoner that I am.
I am subaltern because I am a parent and primary carer of a child with autism. You can see my subaltern status from the press button locks on my front and back doors. You can sense it behind the six foot high fence around my back garden and the padlocked gate. You can surmise it in the broken window handles in the back of the car, the absence of curtains in my house, the walls drawn on, the carpets ripped, the kitchen draws and cupboards falling apart, the ventilation fans broken, and you can see it on the computer screen when I go the doctors and first on the list of health problems is ‘stress’.
This house, this life, is not a prison created by my son’s ‘condition’. It’s a prison created by a society’s attitude towards my son, by attitudes towards the disabled complicated and conflated with a host of other social hatreds and prejudices. The fruits of these malices range from local play areas where access has become restricted to all as a result of prevailing anxieties about children and the working class ‘other’, to the way my lower middle class and working class neighbours, who were born and grew up in the metropolis, feign rural authenticity by leaving their doors unlocked and hence open to my son’s intrusion.
For large parts of most non-school days, it renders me and my son prisoners in our home. In his frustration, he becomes noisy and boisterous and exhausts me. More than anything, it makes ‘normal’ family life impossible. Such is the low status which children like my son are held, that ‘help’ is only available from a service where the overwhelming majority of front line care staff were rejected as failures by the education system. The result is that, despite my long list of qualifications and my success in crisis intervention and independent advocacy, I am subordinated to become a computer bound househusband, allotted £50 a week by the government along with my son’s meagre disability allowance.
It is not pity or patchwork solutions which would free me from this incarceration, where the continuity of this text disguises the intermittent way in which it was written as I stop and start to type and then meet my son’s needs. It is profound social change, where the very focus of our society is shifted towards one where the most vulnerable are at the hub of ordinary people’s concerns.
My son should be one of the treasured among us, and indeed, I call him Shaykh Al-Islam Ma'rifa. I believe he is the sacred renewer of our age. I have become his Murid. I speak as the subaltern, because I am the servant of the oppressed.
Allah's Messenger once asked a group who had returned from Ethiopia to tell him about the most amazing thing they saw while they were there. Some of them offered the following:
"O Messenger of Allah! Once, while we were staying in Ethiopia, a woman carrying a jug of water on her head passed us by. One of their young men came up, put his hand on her shoulder and shoved her with force. She fell on her knees. When she returned to her feet, she said: 'Wretch! You will come to know at the time when Allah sets down His throne for judgment and gathers together the people of every era, when hands and feet speak and testify to what their owners did - you will know on the morrow what will be the case between you and me.'"
The Prophet (aws) said upon hearing this: "She spoke the truth. She spoke the truth. How shall Allah bless a nation that does not protect the weak against the strong?"