'Where’s my little Taliban?' he asked

Updated May 09, 2018

Email

I was a first year Associate at the investment bank where I worked, when my boss came out of his office.

"Where’s my little Taliban?" he asked.

He said it in such a comical way, glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose, shirt half tucked in, a grin on his face, that it was actually endearing.

I'd worked for him for three years now. He was a quirky Englishman, very smart and funny. A more sophisticated Boris Johnson, prone to the odd gaff or two. Everyone laughed. I laughed.

This was 2002. Several months after 9/11. The world had changed, but sensitivities and the idea of political correctness had not, perhaps.

Read next: 'Hans gayi aur phans gayi': On the mechanics of laughter and sexual harassment

But that remark always stayed with me. While there are some things that flow under the bridge, this does not. If I could go back in time I would ask my Twenty-Something Self whether, deep down, she was offended.

And Twenty-Something Me would probably say, "Ah! Had that joke been one of many, of course I would've been offended. It’s not like this happens all of the time."

And that's true. It was a one-off, but a one-off that people who were there at the time remember. Yet it's still troubling, and I would go back to Twenty-Something Me and ask her to think about it in another way.

That she was the butt of an ever so slightly racist joke. That she simply swallowed what she was dealt. That she even laughed.

To which she would say, "You’re suggesting I’m complicit?"

I would reply that to remain silent normalises that behaviour, that perhaps it isn’t okay. And then Twenty-Something Me would reel off other examples, far worse, in her mind, like the other guy in the office who referred to Germans as krauts and Arabs as ragheads.

"That’s offensive," Twenty-Something Me would say. "My little Taliban is not. And besides," she would go on, "Isn’t it my choice to decide how I feel?"

True. As an outsider it is easy to be up in arms about the incident described above, to feel outraged and all hot in the face. But then I would ask her, "But was it right?"

And Twenty-Something Me would roll her eyes and retort, "But X is nothing but supportive, he got me promoted, he’s kind, he has a good heart. His comment was an aberration."

True, I would say, and a silly one at that. And then Twenty-Something Me would throw her hands in the air and say, "What do you want me to do? Go marching to HR and report him?"

And I would say, no. It's simply a question of having the courage to speak up when something someone utters doesn’t sit well.

To which Twenty-Something Me would say, frustrated, "Of course it sat okay with me — you don’t understand. You don’t have context."

But I do have context. I was there. And while it was a one-off, and my career wasn’t hampered, I often go back to that incident and wonder.

There are many lines, some grey, some painted so deftly black you have to be blind not to see them. There are battles you fight, and others you don’t.

It’s with respect to the latter that I probably chose not to pursue it. It was a small fire. It came from my boss, no less. Someone I didn't necessarily want to cross. It was a one-off. End of story.

Related: My life as a little brown girl growing up in Scarborough, UK

But let’s change the situation slightly. We’re still in 2002. But I’m now a mother listening to my daughter telling me that her teacher had called her, My little Taliban. In an instant, I would’ve phoned the school.

We can look at the incident in another way, too. Had my boss come out of his office and uttered in the same way, "Where’s my little Jew?" Would that be offensive?

To which the answer would be a resounding yes. I think there would be a silence so uncomfortable, that his career would have been tainted for life.

And why’s that? Because the answer lies in history and the ebb and flow of anti-Semitism since the days of the Old Testament.

For all this intolerance, however, there are rays of hope. The majority of people — in Britain at least — are standing up to this marginalisation.

There’s a strong desire to stand hand-in-hand, to understand one another and our differences. Doors wide open, not shut in one’s face.

The terrorist attacks in Manchester and London Bridge have, I believe, served to bring people closer together.

Perhaps Egypt's greatest export to the UK, Mohammed Salah, with his sublime footballing prowess, has muted prejudicial voices.

That aside, and in all seriousness, people feel empowered to call out questionable behaviour. The #MeToo is a case in point.

We should all have the confidence to air our grievances without fearing the consequences. I'd like to think that put-up-and-shut up is dead in the air.

Also read: How South Asian music helped my identity formation as a British-Pakistani

So, it's January 2018. A first year Associate sits working away at her desk. Her boss comes out of his office and asks, "Where’s my little Taliban?"

He says it in such a comical way, glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose, shirt half tucked in, a grin on his face.

She’s worked for him for three years now. He’s a quirky Englishman, very smart and funny. A more sophisticated Boris Johnson, prone to the odd gaff or two.

But this is more than just a gaff. Of course, there’s the choice of his words which soften the semantics: my and little. There’s the subject matter, Taliban which carries a little less clout, perhaps.

And of course, we worry that political correctness is such that we feel so contained, so straightjacketed that we've lost any grain of humour.

Even so, people shift uncomfortably in their seats. Maybe someone laughs. Then again, maybe not.

Because the statement is derogatory. He would not have said it to a white man or woman. And there’s the rub.

Opinion: I am a Pakistani-American and Trump's rise threatens me

It all boils down to fundamental respect for one another, a value embodied in every religion and culture. Of course, she thinks to herself, prejudice has always existed in one guise or another, but then she’ll consider the memorials dedicated to victims of extreme prejudice and persecution.

For her, they are reminders of what comes to pass when those 'little aberrations' roil into horrifying and despicable acts of violence.

Reminders of when patriotism and a love of one's country morph into extreme nationalism and hatred. Or when fanatical religious beliefs blindside a population.

However innocent it may seem, she shouldn’t shrug off that little comment from her boss. She needs to confront him, have the confidence to speak up. Remember what could happen if you let sleeping dogs lie, she thinks.

She imagines a world where she’s forced to wear an arm band with the symbol of her religion emblazoned upon it, a society where her family is stripped of their assets because of their religion, where she is forced into enslavement because of her gender. Where, heaven forbid, she's put to death because of the etymology of her name.

She shakes her head. It'll never happen again. Not here in Britain. Not in my time. Never.

But a whisper says, it could. Just consider that. And the notion lingers at the back of her mind, a little reminder pulsing away.

Later that day, she'll summon up the courage to go into her boss' office. She;ll tell him that what he said was, actually, not okay.

And if he’s half the man she thinks he is, he'd probably scratch his head, look a little surprised, a bit stupid, then aghast, and then say he didn't mean anything by it and that it wasn't meant to cause offence.

"But yes, perhaps you’re right," he’ll add quickly, "it wasn’t the most appropriate thing to say." And he’ll tell her he’s sorry.

The apology would be heartfelt and genuine. And the incident would never repeat itself.


Have you ever been discriminated against on the basis of your identity? Share your experience with us at blog@dawn.com