Women of the Resistance - with Jehan Izhar
Jehan is a scary feminist. If you don't believe me, ask her. She'll be happy to explain why.
An athlete, artist and producer, Jehan Izhar, 32, owns a studio called Jypsy’s Performing Arts, where she teaches exotic forms of yoga, dance and healing arts. Her stage name is Modern Jypsy, but most of her friends and clients call her J.
J was raised Muslim with her older sister in a nuclear family of mixed heritage: her late mother was from England and her father is from Pakistan. She identifies as a business owner, performer, feminist and Muslim-American. Jypsy's caters to women of all ages and backgrounds and is a safe space where you can "better your body and express yourself creatively."
Below is the first half of our recorded conversation on August 3, 2018:
Michelle: What are you most proud of?
Jehan: It’s my students. When they perform. Every single time, it blows my mind. I love that I have students who aren’t professional performers, and I can give them time and space on stage, when they ordinarily would never have that. That’s what I love the most. When I was in college, I was a theatre major and I had a professor who made an off-hand comment about how if we don’t follow this path, we’ll just end up in community theatre, and everyone groaned and in my head, even in that moment, when I was only 19, I thought, what’s so bad about community theater, why is that a bad thing, why do we look down on that? I mean, there is so much passion in a community of people who put their heart into what they do, when it’s not who they are on a 24/7 basis, but they get to step into it, and I love what I do here, because we’re redefining community theater. Instead of just being a bunch of untrained actors putting on Shakespeare, we get to tell our own story. Which means you ARE great. Because no one can tell your story but you. I love the idea that instead of telling someone else’s story, you tell your own story, and you’re the best at it, because no one else can tell it. We tell our personal stories and our community surrounds us and supports us as we share our stories. I’ve had some wonderful conversations with my sister about this, because she’s an historian and she says if you really want the most authentic way to see what’s really going on in a culture, this is the way to do it. To look at the arts. This is what people think and feel and this is what they’re going through and this is how they’re expressing it. And it’s done in a real and raw way and that’s absolutely what I’m going for. We need more people to see what we’re doing. I would love for this kind of model to take off, for more communities to be doing this kind of thing. It’s different than an open mic, because I’m training them, and coaching them and giving them the skills and all the tools they need to tell their story in a meaningful way. I mean, the biggest issue is, everyone has a story to tell, but most people don’t know how to go about doing that. They don’t know how to get it out. What I love the most is the consultation I get to do with people. I freakin love this part, where people tell me the vision they have in their head. Every single person on the planet has some sort of a fantasy about a performance, an idea in their head somewhere about a performance they want to do. I mean, I met this Uber driver in Colorado who asked me what I was doing there and he was this older man and he just started telling me about how he used to sing when he was younger and he always had this idea of this act he wanted to do, the suit he wanted to wear, the song he’s always wanted to sing and he knew how he wanted the lights to be and I was like, fuck, how do I make this happen for this guy? I’m sitting there saying, you are 65 years old, dude. You better fucking do this. You better sing that song and you better buy that suit and I don’t care if you do it in your backyard, but you need to invite all your friends and family over and you need to put that suit on and you need to get someone to play that song on the piano and you need to sing it. Because if that’s been going on in your head since you were in your early thirties, goddamn, you need to do it!
M: So is this something you always wanted to do?
J: Well, it evolved really. I mean, I think I have always, in a way, done this, without realizing it’s what I do. I mean, back in high school, I didn’t want to work in theater, but I knew I would be some sort of athletic coach or trainer. I think I made that decision when I was 15. But even in that, I was always asking people what their goal was. And people just really always had these really crazy goals. I think I just attracted those people. One of my first clients was a woman in her mid-fifties and when we started working together, she had just begun singing lessons and she was singing in this choir, and she was doing really well, and she was proud of her progress, and she said her next goal was to be able to do the splits by her 60th birthday, and we were just working out in this Gold Gym and it was really wacky. But that’s what we worked on. I’ve just always attracted people who have weird things they want to do. It’s just what I do, and I’m very blessed to have always known what I wanted to do and to be able to do it. Maybe people are drawn to me because I’m grounded, because I’ve always known what I wanted to do and I can’t do anything but this. I tell people, I’m ridiculously overqualified for what I do, but I can’t do anything else.
M: So how do you define success?
J: It’s making an impact. Doing something that is meaningful to people, that changes people’s lives in a meaningful way. I think success is when people will remember you in a positive way and make choices that are beneficial to themselves, because of something you’ve said, or their interaction with you. It’s making a positive influence on people. You have to think in your head that you’re successful. On the other hand, it’s also bettering yourself. The things that you do, knowing that you’re learning from yourself, and knowing that if you’re learning from yourself, well, you can achieve anything you want, because you’re constantly in that reassessment process. When I worry about money, I just have to reframe it. Because if you define success under a financial or monetary or stability moniker, well, you know, that's limited. We put a big emphasis on stability in our society, that if you have stability, you're successful… I don’t even think you have to be mentally stable to be successful, actually. I know a lot of crazy frickin people who are doing amazing things. You can be a shitshow and still be successful. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that. With my upbringing, I had a lot of, this is what success looks like....and I used to listen. On the other hand, I so need a base, something to pull from, or I won’t be able to help anyone. We all need that base. And you have to figure that out. But it doesn’t necessarily have to look like what people tell you it should look like.
M: How does that affect your business?
J: I’m not trying to run my business like a man. I have zero desire to do that. I’m running my business from a feminine heart. I want a deeply bonded community, which I don’t think business necessarily puts an emphasis on. In business, they tell you, people are not your friends. They are your clients. That you should put a barrier between you and them. I don’t know if it’s a feminine thing. I’ve run around in my head why I can’t do that. It might not be a feminine thing. Maybe it’s a Pakistanian thing, like we all have to lounge around together, or maybe its an ADD thing. I don’t know, but it doesn’t work for me. Is that a feminist thing?
M: I don’t know. Are you a feminist?
J: I first started identifying as a feminist when I was in high school, but I wasn’t really doing anything about it.
M: What does it mean to you now?
J: I am the scary feminist that most feminists try to say feminists aren’t. We like to say that we aren’t scary or angry and we don’t hate men. I used to be the kind of woman who said that. But not anymore. I mean, hell no. Of course I’m mad. I have a lot to be pissed about. There’s so much bullshit we deal with and I think it’s perfectly fine to be angry and be tired of protecting the fragile ego of men. So yeah, I’m not a friendly feminist.
M: Why do you run this business the way you do?
J: I run this business very differently than most businesses. I read a lot of business advice, even from women, and I pretty much rejected all of it. Which I question every day. [She laughs.] Is this a good idea that I’m doing this in this way? Can I be successful like this? I think I have to redefine what successful means. I need to redefine this every day. I mean, sometimes I have only five dollars to buy groceries, and I feel like a piece of shit, but then I think, look at everything I accomplished today. I have people coming in here who have so much shit they’re dealing with every day and yet they show up and they’re getting stronger. I have people who tell me they have never been accepted by anyone, their whole lives. I have people here from so many backgrounds and cultures and languages and countries and that’s success. I’m making a lasting impact on everybody’s life in such a huge way and I get messages all the time from people who tell me I changed their lives and introduced them to a whole new perspective and that’s success.
M: So many people think that success is about power.
J: I’m not out there fighting the patriarchy, because I don’t care about them. I’m not out there fighting against them. It’s kind of like an anarchy situation, that we can take care of ourselves, that we don’t need you. I mean, the way I’m thinking about feminism now, is that capitalist ideology is built into all that. What if I don’t have that ideology? When you’re looking at women from other cultures, I mean, when I think of my background of being with Pakistanian women in a Muslim culture and how many people think of middle eastern women as being oppressed in some way, I have seriously never meta middle eastern woman who is oppressed, in my life, ever, because its kind of like, men will come in and rant and rail and women will smile and nod and then completely ignore everything he just said and do our own thing and its a constant. I’ve seen it over and over. I mean, I go to the mosque, and the Iman is up there and giving his speech and the women’s section is its out of control. There are women talking and kids yelling and nobody is sitting down and this poor guy is talking about God or whatever and every five minutes it’s like, sisters, can you keep it down, sisters, can you keep it quiet and every five minutes it will erupt again and I’m like, these women just don’t care. You want to put us in the back, separate from us, this is what you’re going to get. And that’s it. You think we’re not important. If we were up here in front, yeah, we’d probably be listening, too. But you make it so there’s a separate section and we’re inconsequential in back? Yeah, guess what, we don’t give a shit. I’ve seen men come back and try to arrange the chairs and the old grandma lady is like, ok, great, and as soon as he leaves, she puts it right back where it was. It’s hilarious to me.
M: Do you think that’s a sort of resistance?
J: Oh yeah, and it’s constant. Women are doing their own thing, always.