Written by Sara Rezvi for Sines of Disability (sinesofdisability.com)
Content Warning: Includes references to hard topics including abuse, harm, and PTSD.
In the Islamic faith, knowledge is considered sacred. According to tradition, the first Quranic word revealed to the Prophet (peace be upon him) was ‘iqra’, which quite simply means to read. My parents, and particularly my father, encouraged the learning of mathematics as one avenue of beautiful study. A lifelong journey that began with dollar store fridge magnets and a Chicago Public Library card led to majoring in mathematics, where I was exposed to both profound intellectual insights and systemic harm. From there, I went on to obtain a Masters in teaching, and had the honor of teaching children about a discipline that has captivated me for so long as a middle and high school math teacher. After teaching for close to a decade in a variety of different settings (public, private, and charter) along with different school districts (New York City, Chicago, and Mexico City), I left my career to pursue a doctoral degree in mathematics curriculum and instruction, with a concentration in gender and sexuality and to work at a non-profit organization. As program director of the Math Circles of Chicago, I work within a wide range of communities to support the joyful exploration of mathematics with teachers, families, and students from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds. While I have outlined in brief my connection and journeying with mathematics here, such sketches need to be filled in with greater and more painstaking detail. In my case, those details revolve around abuse, trauma, suicidal ideation, self-harm, financial precarity, and the slow but steady unwinding of deep intergenerational pain as a first generation, Pakistani/American, disabled, queer woman.
What role have disability and ableism played in your mathematical journey?
The immediate reaction to responding to this question is one that words cannot describe, a slow movement of air and lungs struggling to make sense of this fragmentation. It remains perpetually trapped in my throat – a keening, shaking ache.
According to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria for PTSD, I meet the following symptoms:
- Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence
- Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event(s).
- Persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted,” “The world is completely dangerous,” “My whole nervous system is permanently ruined”).
- Persistent inability to experience positive emotions (e.g., inability to experience happiness, satisfaction, or loving feelings).
- Marked alterations in arousal and reactivity associated with the traumatic event(s), beginning or worsening after the traumatic event(s) occurred
- Reckless or self-destructive behavior.
- Problems with concentration.
- Sleep disturbance
Complex PTSD includes these criteria but also has the additional factor of the trauma being continuous, ongoing, and intertwined – in short, there is no moving on because the trauma never ceases to fully end. I was diagnosed with C-PTSD a few years ago, though I have been struggling with the realities of the condition for most of my adult life. While the DSM criteria above are helpful to a certain extent, they do not quite capture the fullness of what it has meant to go through this experience. After intensive therapy these past few years, I am recognizing that this diagnosis requires accepting two interrelated conditions. I must carefully attend to the nebulous terrain of my mental health as a lifelong endeavor but also do my best to live in joyful, intentional, and conscientious praxis. Self-awareness, movement, intention, mutual reciprocity, access to resources, gentleness and acceptance with(in) community have allowed me to start internalizing these hard-won insights. And so, I am finally able to write these words here, in the hopes that they may serve others as well.
Trauma does not occur in a vacuum. For me, it is a direct consequence of interlocking systems of oppression (Combahee River Collective, 1977) working in concert with one another to produce outcomes to benefit the few at the expense of the many. In a previous publication, I, along with my sister-scholars, have attempted to map how systemic oppression undergirded by white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, capitalism, and xenophobia have been reified in our respective attempts at entering the STEM fields (Madden et al, 2020). My attempt to locate these interlocking systems of oppression were constructed below in Figure 4.3. At the time of the original publication, I was not yet ready to admit to nor accept my neurodivergence and C-PTSD symptoms as necessarily interconnected within my identity map. This is why it does not appear in the figure below though I hope to rectify my reluctance to name the impact of ableism in my mathematical journey in this piece.
I focus my initial excavation on my childhood and its role in my C-PTSD diagnosis. South Asian patriarchy as experienced in my close-knit Pakistani community ensured that the spiritual, emotional, and sometimes physical abuse the female members of my family endured by my father was ongoing and continuous up until his death in 2020. This was generally accepted as a personal problem to be resolved in the home and thus upheld by community withdrawal and negligence. While I was more or less groomed to fit certain cultural expectations both within and external to community parameters such as ‘loving mother’, ‘dutiful and self-sacrificial eldest daughter’, ‘docile caretaker’, and ‘devout woman’, I refused to fully entertain these demands. My refusal to partake in my own oppression resulted in erasure, shaming, abandonment, disavowal, and further entrenchment of ongoing harm.
As first-generation, Muslim immigrants to the United States, my parents hoped to preserve a way of life that was increasingly threatening to disappear due to white supremacist conscriptions of assimilationism and allegiance to adopting anti-Black, Asian model minority myths – a straddling of amorphous and fluid boundaries, and a negotiation of self, identity, and social location – what bell hooks describes as being within ‘the margin…as part of the whole but outside the main body’ (1989, p. 20).
As someone raised within notions of community and caretaking, I respect and honor their sacrifice, dedication, and willingness to leave everything they knew in Pakistan to create a different life in the United States. However, I am aware of the liminality of time and history, how we carry it with us and through us – our skin, blood and bone contain both the resilience and beauty of our ancestors and the deep wounds they were unable to heal from due to British occupation, colonization and the violent 1947 partition of India and Pakistan as separate and sovereign nation-states (Dalrymple, 2015; Khan, 2008). Interspersed in my family’s history is the unnamed but acute awareness of mental health issues that continued to trespass upon each generation. South Asian taboos prevented these conversations from fully being addressed or known, despite whispered longstanding familial histories of suicide, sexual assault, depression, and abuse.
When we speak about intergenerational trauma, we must also speak about the reproduction and reification of untreated mental health issues that refract through immigrant South Asian families and communities attempting to survive in an increasingly violent xenophobic society that operates on federal, state, local, and individual levels to ensure white hegemonic control (Hilal, 2021; Lughod, 2011; Kishi, 2015). Statistically, the highest rate of suicide deaths (CDC, 2008) can be attributed to young female Asian Americans and Pacific-Islanders (15-24 years old), a social location I occupied for many years as a formerly suicidal person.
Ableism & History
A working definition of ableism developed in community by Talila Lewis and disabled Black/negatively racialized folks is defined as follows:
“Ableism: a system of assigning value to people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence, and fitness. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in eugenics, anti-Blackness, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. This systemic oppression that leads to people and society determining people’s value based on their culture, age, language, appearance, religion, birth or living place, “health/wellness”, and/or their ability to satisfactorily re/produce, “excel” and “behave”. You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.” (Lewis, et al, 2022)
One cannot emerge from childhood abuse without feeling the humming heaviness ever present in one’s veins. In 2002, I began the study of mathematics as a bruised and empty shell socially conditioned to overachieve, hyper aware of the belief in my own imagined shortcomings, and trained to fawn and people-please to my own detriment. In retrospect, it is not exactly surprising that entering the teaching workforce (and later, academia) built on interconnected ableist mechanisms of gendered and racialized exploitation further exacerbated the trauma I had already endured. In the next few sections of this piece, I connect how my past experiences of childhood abuse endured and expanded under the systemic conditions I found myself navigating in both academic and professional mathematics spaces.
Intersectionality is a framework and lens that can help uncover how ableism is woven into the racialized and gendered treatment of women of color in STEM. Black women scholars such as Kimberle Crenshaw (1991), Sojourner Truth (1863), bell hooks (1984; 2000), and Patricia Hills-Collins (1990) along with the 1977 Combahee River Collective statement have been at the pioneering forefront of theorizing how differential systems of hierarchy and oppression interact and reify one another. Adopting an intersectional framework towards understanding how disability, race, gender, class, ability and sexuality are in constellation is critically important in contextualizing how mathematics is experienced within institutions and can be extended to the diverse but interconnected realities of Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous women as is evidenced by the work of feminist scholars such as Sarah Ahmed (2014; 2015), Haunani Kay-Trask (2005), Cherrie Morraga (1986), and Gloria Anzaldua (2007).
Analyzing interlocking systemic oppression is dynamic and at times, contradictory – one of the reasons why it is so incredibly difficult to name these processes is because of the need to carefully and thoughtfully attend to contextual realities. For this reason, I am focusing particularly on how intersectionality can provide a lens through which we can interrogate how neurodivergence is entangled with my lived experiences as an immigrant, South Asian, queer woman in STEM.
Ableism, CPTSD, and Mathematics
In the following table, I attempt to outline the intersection of ableism and its interaction with C-PTSD in mathematics learning spaces as a gendered and racialized person. I will preface this by stating that this is by no means comprehensive, but is an attempt at naming what I have kept silent for too long. I recognize that in this act of naming, of illuminating, and of heaving into existence is one action that I can engage in to repair and confront, and to recover and heal.
As I made my way through my undergraduate mathematics journey, my experience with childhood abuse and ongoing trauma was further exacerbated by my inability to address it in any meaningful capacity, a dark road carved out by multiple suicide attempts and the many razors slicing my body to dull the pain of daily existence.
Upon graduating and entering the teaching workforce as a twenty-something year old, I did my best to utilize the health insurance that I finally felt safe in accessing only to find that teaching full-time leaves no capacity to do anything but work a minimum of 9-12 hours per day including weekends, especially as an untried teacher in new settings. Now, at the age of 37, I am finally confronting the ongoing harm I’ve continuously experienced all these years at the intersections of mathematics, ableism, and racialized and gendered oppression along with my own complicity in unconsciously reproducing these circumstances.
The same violence that cannot be critiqued, that remains coercively unspoken, must never be held accountable. I have noticed that as soon as an attempt by an oppressed person is made to correct wrongs, the punishment for daring the attempt increases multifold. The oppressed person, thus, learns to be quiet, to be still, to freeze, to please, and to navigate a carefully cultivated fragile ‘calm’ in order to survive another day. As Arundhati Roy incisively observes – ‘there’s really no such as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.’
I think about this quote often and how my mental health waivers daily – an oscillation that feels less like a sine wave and more akin to a jagged piece-wise function. I am always already a knife’s edge away from falling into an anxious and panic-inducing void, an unmaking of my own making. A strict combination of therapy, diet, and physical movement is slowly but intentionally allowing me to find a place where I feel stable, healthy, and able to handle the daily ups and downs. In that time, I have still managed to submit assignments on time, teach full course-loads as an adjunct instructor and teaching assistant, submit an IRB and successfully navigate qualifying exams, work multiple jobs, and prepare for an upcoming dissertation proposal defense.
And yet, we live under late-stage capitalism. We wade through the never-ending pressure to produce & to perform under the collusion of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and ableism. As a disabled queer Muslim woman of color, I maintain defensive energy shields in my interactions unless I am absolutely certain that it is safe to lower them in predominantly white, cis-gendered, heteronormative, male, mathematical institutional spaces.
One might ask, how do I know that mathematics is an example of a white institutional space?
I look at the walls.
They speak in their silence. The portraits and the photographs whisper to me, white man after white man, university hall after university hall, all wondering puzzlingly what on earth I am doing here.
Foucault (2012) theorizes that one goal of disciplinary societies built on surveillance is for individuals to internalize it. This manifests for me in the hypervigilance required to interact with the world at large and in mathematics communities in particular. A world that feels fragmented under the combined impacts of a failed government response to a global pandemic, the existential threat of climate change, and the mandate to produce and perform in spite of the overwhelming need to be human, to grieve as human, to cherish as human, and to reclaim as human.
I am not necessarily aware when I am practicing hypervigilance in mathematics spaces. It is a permanent anxiety, a nested surveillance of self and others. What can I say? How will it be transmuted into something not meant but presumed nevertheless? A critique described as an accusation. An unmet need rendered into a problem (Ahmed, 2014), in which I become the problem. It was my therapist who noticed that when I spoke about the emotional and sometimes physical abuse that I’ve endured over the years, I frequently held my right hand to my throat. It’s as if my body unconsciously is trying to move me from silence to speech. I do so here in these words, on this paper, reflected in the swirling emotions I am dissociatively observing flow through me as they are rendered into existence on this document.
We have all been coerced into retelling the entrenched myth that racial hierarchies which privilege whiteness and capitalism as intertwined constructs will be our collective salvation. Ableism is embedded into these logics, where the demands of attending to academic hyperproductivity has been further enhanced under the pandemic. Our allegiance to maintaining this myth is destroying us insofar as we attempt to maintain it in academic institutions and beyond. We are like the ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail. We remain deeply unaware of what we are consuming because we have been conditioned to avoid confronting it structurally. A telling example of this is to simply look at who has been able to actively pursue research interests, attend virtual or in-person conferences, publish in journals, and continue enhancing their careers and who simply has not been able to keep up with ableist, racist and gendered expectations; in short, who has been kept safe from the mass disabling event of the global pandemic and who has been actively forced to endure its impact directly (Myers et al, 2020; Guarino & Borden, 2016).
Elsewhere, mathematics education research has increasingly focused on the lived experiences of women of color in STEM fields. Some findings include: (1) heightened microaggressions (gendered and/or racialized) (Brown, 2008; Kachchaf et al, 2015) through both covert and overt remarks towards women of color in STEM; (2) being subject to ‘hypervisibility’, which Ryland (2013) defines as ‘scrutiny based on perceived difference, which is usually (mis)interpreted as deviance, p. 2222’; and (3) the overreliance of student and privileged faculty alike to ‘perceive and expect female professors to be more nurturing than male professors are’ (Alayli, et al, 2018). How are these experiences potentially trauma-inducing events? How do we protect the most vulnerable from ongoing and continuous harm? When do we confront this reality and collectively wake up to the ongoing harm reproduced in academic communities to this day? How do we ensure that disabled STEM scholars (and particularly non-binary and transgendered people and cis women of color) are treated with respect, grace, and reciprocity? For those that are granted institutional power and authority, how might these privileges be leveraged for a more radically aware and explicitly transformative mathematical community and ethic of care? Is that even possible?
I leave these as questions to the reader to explore and interrogate. I believe that this work can be meaningfully attended to and one that must be concretely addressed with leadership, vision, and hope centering the intersectional realities of disabled, gendered, sexualized, classed, and racialized people in STEM. In my retelling of the interstitial spaces of hurt and healing, I hope that these words inspire a more thoughtful reflection and institutional awareness of the work yet to be done and the radical yearning of claiming what must be done.
Thank you for reading and affirming – please know it comes directly from my heart to yours.
For a list of references please visit Sara’s page at the Sines of Disability website.