Academy of the Punjab in North America
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(1983 – 2008)
Falak Sufi was an upcoming scholar of issues related to women and gender in South Asia. She passed away while pursuing her graduate studies at the New York University in March 2008. While a number of cultural theorists and activists had lauded Falak's views, opinions and approaches as startlingly original, she may unfortunately remain neglected by an academy that has yet carelessly ignored an array of "Third World" scholars whose works did not meet certain publishing standards. It is moot to note that in her work, Falak was particularly interested in examining "native feminist" representations of South Asian Muslim women and studying a plethora of "native" texts – and "subaltern" realms – usually ignored in/by the study of feminism. This did not prevent her from undertaking an active interest in questioning the discourse of Orientalism, not merely for its representation of Asia, the East, Islam, the native and the native woman, but also in problematizing the very (negative) monolith that the term has come to signify after Edward Said.
Falak Sufi, a Pakistani, was born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1983. Her great grandfather, GMD Sufi, was a scholar who had been involved in the All-India Kashmir Conference, and had written a volume of "Kashir" histories and a text on the curriculum for postcolonial India. Falak had regularly taken pride in the tedious accounts of eclectic Sufi tariqas in the Kashir volume, and the proposed curriculum which stressed reading Nanak and Ram alongside Muhammad. She had constantly taken pride in her eclectic heritage, introducing herself as Punjabi, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Amritsari, Lahori, Karachi-ite, Pakistani, South Asian and Hindi at times during the same conversation. To confuse things further and enjoy the probable complexities of identities in South Asia, she also toyed with the idea of tracing the roots of her Amritsari Kashmiri family. Falak loved to imagine the notion that like Muhammad Iqbal, she could refer to herself as "Brahmin". While her eclecticism was put forth as an effective parody at times, friends and colleagues of Falak were clearly aware of her deep disappointment with select Muslim bodies and individuals who frequently embarked on Jew, Christian, Hindu and whatever non-Muslim trashing. In one of the final discussions about Islam she participated in, Falak rejected such bigotry as un-Islamic, identifying rather with Muslim scholars who had emphasized the Quranic reference to Muslims and non-Muslims as members of the same qawm, and looked to the mithaq-i-Medina which referred to both Muslims and non-Muslims as constituents of the umma.
Falak graduated from the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore with a first class Honors degree. Upon graduating, in spite of merely having an undergraduate degree, she was offered a teaching position in the Department. She rejected this offer to pursue her graduate studies at the NYU where she became a recipient of the prestigious Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship. She often organized and participated in university events, reading circles and conferences to spearhead interests in women and gender in South Asia. Furthermore, Falak was concerned with general issues concerning South Asian historiography. In June 2007, she aided in the organization of a conference on Islamic connections between South and Southeast Asia. The papers presented in this conference are currently being published in a volume dedicated to her. This is the least the editor can do for a scholar who impressed upon him, during the preliminary discussions, that the study of Islamic connections between Muslim regions, while challenging the resilient bias in scholarship to focus on the Middle East, should also rigorously avoid entrenching new core-periphery relationships through focusing on South Asia, calling instead for an account of Muslim histories that could be searched out through broader connections. Indeed, Falak played a "dissident" role in the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU: she saw herself in a position to facilitate more attention to Muslim regions such as South Asia and Southeast Asia, and show how Near Eastern histories were interdependent and in most cases dependent on other "regions". This "dissidence" proved very successful as the Centre increasingly identified Falak with South Asia, and has recently, conceived of a Falak Sufi Prize to honor her contributions to the Centre. NYU students will be invited to write essays on South Asian gender issues and the best "South Asianist" will be awarded an annual prize by the Near Eastern Center. Falak was also a review editor in the Arab Studies Journal; in commemoration of her contributions to scholarship, an issue of the Journal has been dedicated to her.
Falak authored and co-authored a number of academic articles. These include recently published article entitled "Re-reading the Kashmir Conflict: Towards More Constructive Policy and Research" and "Encountering the Orient/Islam", and a dissertation entitled "Unveiling the Orientalist Oeuvre: Feminist Utopias and Third World Bodies". Whether it was about Kashmir, the Third World or about women in Bibi Pak Daman, Falak pursued a critique of the terms of reference and presuppositions in discourse, challenged reductionism and essentialism, and endeavored to highlight neglected, marginalized, local and oral histories. For her study of contemporary Kashmir, Falak rejected the premise of the nation-state and ethnic essentialism, turning her attention rather to local and oral histories of actors, directly and indirectly, involved in "the most dangerous place on earth". Rather than appropriating a plethora of available literature on the Kashmir "imbroglio", Falak actually made a trip to India and conducted diverse fieldwork and interviews with a range of actors from journalists, academics, politicians, policymakers, human rights activists, Islamists, pandits, rishis, Sufis and sajjdanashins. Her contribution and approach was directed more, however, at incorporating the voices of interweaving groups such as Dalits, migrants and 'sexed [warred] bodies', groups who remained most ignored in scholarship in spite of being most involved and/or affected by the "conflict".
In her study of feminist utopias, Falak criticized the rising class of native feminists who claimed to speak for their sisters in Third World contexts and found ready audiences in the academy which in postcoloniality, seemed increasingly concerned with representing the "native". Of course, Falak was more than concerned about the representation of the native voice; indeed, like a number of scholars she identified with, she was sensitive to how native feminists themselves remained detached (ideationally at least) from the women and contexts they claimed to represent, and indeed, ended up objectifying the Third World and its women into categories that Orientalist scholarship was filled with. Ironically, as Falak argued, it was this supposed Orientalism of the past/West that such "native" scholars set out to attack in the first place - here, as such, was an ideal case study of the complexities involved in employing labels such as Orientalism, native, West and Third World (even) within postcolonialism. However, while uncovering failed approaches and resistance, she remained an optimist in her work. Falak was increasingly concerned with studying an array of texts that escaped the attention of scholars. Increasingly, prior to her demise, Falak was attracted to the opportunity to plough through libraries of female-dominated shrines in Pakistan and optimistic about the possibilities that oral literature might open up to the study of female religiosity.
The effect that Falak had on academics is apparent in the eulogies that have been delivered by some scholars she had interacted with and held regular discussions with Falak. A colleague who sits on the editorial board recently commented in a memoriam "I would not dare call myself a scholar. I would not call myself a scholar simply due to the fact that most of "my" ideas were developed in a series of regular discussions with her. Simply acknowledging Falak in works and dedicating texts to her will never be enough for I can not say with utmost sincerity that anything I write or conceive is or will ever be authentic."
Falak had been concerned about the charge of ivory-tower theorizing that often befell scholars. One issue that regularly troubled her was the state of humanities/social science within Pakistan which remains pathetic vis-a-vis India for instance. She had often spoken to colleagues and friends about making some contribution to developing the dire state of humanities. Being the better human being, the enthusiasm remained confined to Falak; as usual, many of her colleagues and friends were comfortable criticizing and complaining about the state of the academy in Pakistan. As she once pointed out, those of us who were comfortable in criticizing and complaining would not effect any change because we constantly needed something to criticize and complain about. Falak also was enthusiastic about non-academic charity - of course, to claim "charity" as "non-academic" may lead to another debate wherein one would be convinced by her otherwise. Having been active at the Dar-ul-Sukoon (a home for special individuals) at one time in Karachi, she increasingly channeled her efforts to championing awareness and aid for the earthquake relief efforts since 2005. Falak had been in touch with The Citizen's Foundation (TCF) in Pakistan, and was planning to make a more concerted contribution to the TCF as a volunteer in the course of the next few months. While Falak bore ambitions to further comprehensive projects within Pakistan, there is a small way of furthering her dreams that some of her colleagues and friends are involved in.
To develop a more humanities-friendly Pakistan, the Trust will award a Falak Sufi Memorial Prize. Annually, Pakistani humanities (university) students will be invited to compose research papers of high academic quality on Falak's research topic: women and gender in South Asia. Interested students will be given a tentative deadline of approximately three months to submit their papers online or to a stated postal address. Thereafter, these papers will be appraised by some of the leading scholars of South Asian, Southeast Asian and Muslim historiography who have agreed to be part of the Editorial Board. Their participation is driven by an admiration for Falak's research caliber and identification with her ambitions to develop the state of humanities in Pakistan. The selected, winning essayist will be awarded with a prize of US$1,000. In addition to this, the Editorial Board will endeavor to publish the winning essay in an internationally refereed academic journal. The better essays that fail to attain the winning prize will appear in an online journal that has already pledged its commitment. Ideally, the prize will be given to the winning essayist annually on December 24th.
There is never going to be enough said or written about Falak Sufi. Falak's demise is an irreplaceable loss to the realm of ideas, intellect and social activism. Her critical voice, independence of thought and public intellectualism - values she owned in abundance, never gained the attention she deserved when she walked among us. As a Pakistani, strictly by passport and not essence, she lamented the fact that many of her educated, middle and upper class co-nationals had been indoctrinated by certain resilient histories that needed to be corrected. She formed a blog that posted semi-academic articles with a colleague in 2007 to "correct" some of these histories. Her fancy for concepts such as al-hindiyat revealed Falak's agenda of overcoming the referent of the nation-state or essential identities such as 'Hindu' and 'Muslim' in approaching South Asian issues. These issues included the Partition, religious eclecticism within Pakistan (read by her as the 'better' side of Pakistan), the state of Muslims in India and the massacres in Gujarat, atrocious Pakistani textbooks, the myth of a "shining India" that forgets marginalized peoples, the fascination with conspiracy theories, the sad state of a Pakistan relying on feudals like Benazir, native feminism, shrines and female religiosity, Iqbal's actual vision (which was not for a Pakistan), and the possibilities of resistance paved by figures such as Faiz and Gandhi. Falak always mentioned that as a child, her mother had once explained to her how Faiz had been depressed with the state of Pakistan in his penning of Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na mang. Many of us remember Falak hearing Noor Jehan's rendition of her favorite poem repeatedly, at times aesthetically, at others as an anthem of resistance.