8 March 2021
by Shamayel Shalizi
Bunch o' Bullshit from the Bastards in Bureaucracy
I have included my MA dissertation and my undergrad thesis to the Google Drive (Click here to access). I want to preface it's addition with this story. When I turned in my dissertation at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I was receiving my Master's degree in Social Anthropology, in hopes to return to my country and help it in any way I could, I felt good. My dissertation "How Aryana Sayeed Stopped Time: A look at gender, national identity and the power of music in present-day Afghanistan", was something I was proud of, and so was my dissertation supervisor. "You could get a first*", she hypothesised. "InshAllah bakhair*," I muttered back.
Weeks later, I received my mark back. I had failed my dissertation and thus my course. What? I was completely in shock until I realised my supervisor was trying to contact me through unfamiliar routes of Zuckfuck's Facebook Messenger. "What's happened?" I asked her. "Two white men marked your paper that's what happened." As we discussed the mark and the comments the markers left, we realised that I had pushed the scope of Afghan women too far- these white men could not handle how I spoke about Brown/Muslim women and I was getting penalised for their fragility, ignorance and close-mindedness. What happened next was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. My supervisor encouraged me to appeal the mark- my head still spinning with the words "FAILED." How would I tell my Afghan AF family about this? What was I going to do?
Months of the bureaucratic process at SOAS-where I filled out the necessary paperwork to appeal-sent emails daily, and waited. I was rejected for an appeal. I tried again with more fervour. My personal life was in shambles, my family in Kabul was having a lot of problems, my father (khuda byamurzesh) especially, I was in Berlin working with Afghan refugees under the table (I did not have the papers to work). I was emotional, stressed AND in active addiction but somehow the injustice fuelled me along. How dare a group of white men (who had already been the bane of my existence- remember I had spent 23 years of life on earth at that point so) destroy my dreams? Again?! I wasn't going to sit down quietly, I needed to set a precedent because how many had this already happened to who hadn't said anything? How many could it happen to following me? Fuck this! These things all fuelled me even when I felt like I was going to collapse from being overwhelmed, being exhausted, and all the pain and anxiety. Life was getting to be intolerable.
Wasn't SOAS supposed to be the most radical uni in the world? Isn't that why I applied to go to it? I didn't even apply anywhere else for my MA because if I couldn't go to SOAS, I wouldn't go for my Masters! Am I a fool? Wasn't academia always concerned with "new and different" perspectives? Hadn't my own supervisor teased me that this paper was so ground-breaking that I could surely get a first? With the continuous help and support of my lovely supervisor-who was risking her job being in contact with me during this entire ordeal- and my ancestors and the universe looking out for me: the second appeal proved fruitful.
The actual appeal itself would happen a couple weeks later, where I would present my dissertation, explain why I felt it was marked unfairly and with a bias, and then be asked questions by the 20+ faculty and administrators that would be attending this appeal- via video call. I was told I had six hours for this entire process- instead the call lasted less than 40 minutes, with every single staff member claiming I was wrong and this had nothing to do with racism, prejudice, sexism, xenophobia/Islamophobia, and classism.
I was so frustrated- it felt like I was speaking to a wall. Thankfully, there was one Arab professor- a woman, of course- who asked me productive questions and seemed genuinely curious- as she was sporting what we all call intersectional feminism; she understood what I was saying, and where I was coming from even if she didn't know the entire history of Afghanistan nor had she engaged too deeply with my dissertation. I recorded a string of voice notes to my supervisor immediately after this mess of a tribunal- and let me tell you thank god, I think from the active addiction and the traumatic time period of my life this was, I blocked out most of these memories. So I listened to those notes the other day and immediately I felt the same feelings of defeat and hopelessness that I felt when I was recording those voice notes four years ago. The boot of oppression was suffocating me! After I settled into the feelings I couldn't help but laugh. I laughed so hard. I've been encountering bullshit since the day I started recognising bullshit. Why? Because I love my country, and my people and I will fight for both until the day I die- but I laughed because I've always been fighting injustice with a loud mouth since I was a teenager in Kabul. I laughed at the fact that I hadn't changed at all. I was and still am a nuisance!
In hindsight, I am incredibly proud of myself. Not just for the "taboo" subject matter of my dissertation, but also because of my perseverance with all these bullshit bureaucratic appeals. There was murmurings at SOAS about my dissertation and my appeal, and I believe the worry of a potential lawsuit, as well as the support I was getting, made for an email to arrive in my inbox, two weeks after the appeal disaster. SOAS wrote that I would be granted a re-read. Three new markers picked by their area of expertise, from any of the University of London conglomerate, would read my dissertation and mark it accordingly- but this mark would be final, whatever it was.
What it was was a first. And my final mark came with SOAS admitting to wrongdoing, albeit in the most round about bureaucratic ways. Nearly a year and a half later, I was vindicated, I "graduated" and my degree was complete. All because I presented a different perspective on the subject of Afghan women. When I see these scholars on Afghanistan, all white people claiming to be experts, I remember my struggle as an Afghan academic focused on centring the actual people of Afghanistan. How is it possible that Afghans must struggle for everything they do? When will we be heard, on subjects big or small? When? I've been waiting and I am still waiting.
Addendum: I have not re-read this dissertation since 2018. I still do not believe my writing does much in terms of "discovering" anything- merely examining further something a lot of us already know. I do not think it was as controversial as the whites made it out to be. I should not be persecuted because of a man's ignorance. This is also not some kind of glorification of Aryana Sayeed, I studied her, I don't exalt her (best not to do that with celebrities), and after her handling of last year's DV conversation, I haven't listened to her music in a long while. There are also moments of genuine pride present in this dissertation- I won't deny it! As an Afghan woman, I know the space Aryana occupies is pretty impactful, so yes pride shows, however, the study, and my research still stands.
*A first is the highest mark in the British school system. It's not easy, as the Brits use a curved grading style.
inshAllah: Allah willing
bakhair: in the name of god