Beauty & Writing: Community organizer Fabliha Anbar on stepping into your power
What causes our child-like curiosity & confidence to disappear?
By Samia Abbasi, Editor
The journey of a young writer isn’t an easy one. You’re balancing the act of learning how to write sustainably and exploring your voice, with the reality of what it means to put your work out there. It can be equally scary and liberating. So, when I see a Gen Z writer sharing their writing with the world and exploring parts of themselves so candidly, I transcend into a higher plane of inspiration. That’s how I felt when I came across Fabliha Anbar (they/them) last year in an article on South Asian Muslim identity on Refinery29. I was struck by Fabliha's writing; they write from a well of fearless honesty, digging deep into their own essence to process their experiences and put language to their observations of the world.
In this interview, Fabliha and I delve into two compelling questions: What does it mean to write from a place of joy? How do you embrace makeup and fashion when they weren’t designed with your features in mind? Read on to hear more about Fabliha’s writing and beauty journey.
Q1. Tell us about yourself, Fabliha!
A: My name is Fabliha Anbar (@fablihanbar), and I’m a 22-year-old writer and community organizer based in New York City. As a writer, I believe that storytelling is such a powerful tool for healing. I write about my identity, mental health, and sexuality.
As a community organizer, I focus on the immigrant community here in Brooklyn. I live in a community called Kensington, which has one of the largest demographics of Bangladeshis in New York City. It is also one of the poorest districts and has one of the highest intakes of domestic violence cases. There are a lot of intersections with that. I help cultivate safe spaces for immigrant youth to creatively express themselves. I work alongside the community Aunties to create space for families to get together, such as fairs and art gatherings.
I’m also the founder of the South Asian Queer & Trans Collective (SAQTC), which is a grassroots collective for South Asian and Indo-Caribbean LGBTQ+ people in New York City. Because of the pandemic, we’ve gone virtual and we’re now open to people worldwide. So, we’ve really grown within the last year. SAQTC is a testament to the importance of sticking together as a community.
We truly believe that Queer friendship is revolutionary.
Q2. What has your journey been like as a storyteller?
A: My cousins and I would write and create stories together when we were little: stories about mermaids, Harry Potter fanfiction, things like that! It was a very child-like innocence. When I got to middle school, I kind of stopped writing; not because I wasn’t interested in it. In school, writing was so focused on academics, and I was conditioned to believe that I wasn’t good enough as a writer. It was no longer fun for me because of the grades, self-doubt, and insecurities. I lost that child-like curiosity.
In high school, I started writing again, and I discovered poetry. A big turning point happened in high school, actually. I went to an all-girls high school that was predominantly Muslim. For my friend’s newspaper club, I wrote a column on Queer Muslims. I didn’t think much of it at that time—it was a small school newspaper. After it was published, I got tons of death threats and hateful messages from my classmates. My friends even encouraged me not to come to school for a couple of days. The principal also called me and told me that some students’ parents wanted me to be suspended for my article. This was such a turning point for me: something I wrote made people angry. At first, I got really scared, but my friends reassured me by saying,
“You’re a writer and writers evoke feelings. You made all these people feel so many emotions.”
A year later, after I graduated, a girl (who I didn’t really know) came up to me and said, “Hey, I loved the article you wrote. I’m not out about my sexuality, and it made me feel so seen and comfortable with myself.”
photo credit: Fabliha Anbar
Since then, I never turned back.
I realized writing is powerful. I realized there was something there that I could continue doing.
I’m still struggling with my writing; I even hesitate to call myself “a writer”! There are so many different things associated with what it means to be a writer, and it’s hard to label yourself.
Q3. What was it like for your writing to shift from a personal place to sharing it with others in public?
A: I’ve been thinking a lot about this question! When I first started writing, I kept thinking about what people would like. I realized that my writing wasn’t as strong at that time, because I wasn’t writing for myself. Along the way, I started writing stories about myself and my experiences.
People appreciated my writing more, because it was raw, vulnerable, and focused on my own thoughts.
As human beings, we are emotional and attracted to rawness: embarrassment, heartbreak, friendship, loneliness, loss. People want to know that they’re not alone. Once I started writing about my own life, it was not only healing for me and allowed me to process my own pain and joy, but it also let others know that I’m just like you. We’re all just trying to survive in this world.
Something I’ve definitely been struggling with is privacy, especially when it comes to sharing experiences that I’ve gone through. With social media and digital surveillance, I always wonder:
Do I need to be vulnerable all the time for people to enjoy my writing? Can I simply exist and immerse myself in joy?
Especially as South Asians, we’re often taught to focus on our South Asian identity in our writing. So, I’m always wondering how vulnerable I can be and what boundaries I have for myself; and at the same time, learning to enjoy being open about myself in my writing. It’s an interesting balance.
Q4. How do you approach writing from a place of joy?
A: I love journaling so much. I have a collection of 18 diaries I have kept over the years. I always process my daily life, sadness, friendship breakups, things like that.
photo credit: Fabliha Anbar
As I got into writing for the public I noticed that my journaling blended over to that medium (my social media, newsletter, etc.). I would write a lot about sadness, but something I’ve also been practicing is writing about joy. It’s been such a beautiful thing. During the pandemic especially, we’re surrounded by a lot of sadness and pain. We’re often seeking things that bring us joy. So, I’ve been taking a step back with my writing lately to really think intentionally about how I can write from a place of joy. At the same time,
I’ve been finding joy in writing about the little things in life.
—Like, jotting down recipes that my mom teaches me when we cook together or writing affirmation lists of what makes me feel grateful.
Q5. What has been inspiring your creativity?
A: Lately, I’ve been really inspired by mutual aid, how people have been really sticking together by putting together food banks and doing clothing drives. Sometimes, I forget that good, kind people exist. So, the pandemic has taught me what it truly means to show up for the community and really take care of the people in our community.
I’ve been following a lot of artists on YouTube, and they’ve really been inspiring me lately. One of them is Radhia Rahman who is a Bangladeshi artist based in NYC, and watching Radhia's creative process with art has been so inspiring to me. You can check out Radhia’s Instagram (@knivesmeow) and Youtube channel.
Q6. Tell us about your beauty journey. How do you use makeup as a form of self-expression?
A: For me, fashion was something I would always distance myself from.
As a lower income, plus-sized, South Asian individual, I felt like fashion and beauty were a luxury that I couldn’t afford.
—Both in a financial and social sense. I always thought that trends weren’t made for me or people who look like me. I’d always resort to wearing no makeup and baggy clothes. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it also had to do with my confidence level. Mid-college to recently with quarantine, I’ve become a lot more confident in myself. I’m away from the public eye, and I’m able to just focus on myself. I dyed my hair with red streaks, and I now know that I’ll never stop dying my hair for the rest of my life. I’ve also been playing around with color in my makeup and wardrobe. I absolutely love using eyeliner. I think I’ve come to a place where I’m more comfortable and accepting of myself.
Especially for South Asians, oftentimes, self-expression isn’t something we’re taught. I would see how white teens could express themselves in so many different ways, and I couldn’t do any of that. Right now, in my early 20’s,
I feel like I’m a teenager all over again and learning how to express myself.
It’s a creative outburst—being rebellious and angsty with my red streaks and eyeliner looks.
photo credit: Fabliha Anbar
When it comes to makeup and fashion, it’s not about hiding myself or covering parts of myself up, but rather, accentuating the features I have and using it as a way to express myself. For Queer people, there’s such a history of fashion that signals their identities to other Queer people—through makeup, jewelry, certain colors and accessories. It’s amazing to see fashion as a way of creating community and also as a way of expressing yourself. It can transcend pop culture and trends.
My makeup style, especially eyeliner, is a way for people to really see me as me.
My mom has been really supportive of my beauty journey. Whenever I do a dramatic cat eye look or wear a really dark lipstick, she’ll be like, “Oh, you look cool!” She even helps me dye my hair! She’s been a huge source of encouragement; I love and respect my mom so much. My mom is someone who loves bright colors and fashion, but because we live in a conservative Muslim neighborhood, she has to be more careful with what she wears. Whenever my mom dresses up or wears a colorful sharee, though, it feels like watching a flower blossom. Sharee wrapping is such an art form in itself.
Q7. How do you navigate perceptions of beauty in society?
A: I feel like oftentimes, people who are not conventionally attractive aren’t as respected and are more readily dismissed than those who are. For me, growing up plus-sized with a large nose and darker skin tone has factored into the way that people have treated me, in comparison to my peers whose features align more with eurocentric beauty standards. I also had a lot of acne and hyperpigmentation growing up because of PCOS. I’m really grateful that I didn’t really let those things affect me growing up. My family showered me with love and didn’t make me feel bad about these things. So, beauty has been such a strange concept to me. I’d hear my friends talk about their beauty-related insecurities, and I definitely felt for them. But I’d think: I’m not insecure about this thing but should I be because you are? I was only aware of these features as potential insecurities when I heard other people talk about their insecurities.
Here are some fun Rapid Fire beauty questions:
Q1. What is a beauty product that brings you joy?
Q2. What is a beauty product you almost always wear?
A: I love Sephora Cream Liquid Lipstick in Vintage Rosewood, and it’s a really nice muted rose, burgundy color.
Q3. What beauty product reminds me of your heritage?
A: Any sort of brow product, like Anastasia Beverly Hills Brow Wiz!
photo credit: Fabliha Anbar / wearing Kulfi Kajal in Nazar No More
Q8. What advice do you have for young BIPOC who are getting started in the creative space?
A: This sounds easier said than done, but my advice is to believe in your power.
Once I started to believe in my power as a human being in this world, there was no going back.
I have a powerful voice, and I deserve to share it with the world. Why wouldn’t people want to hear my stories? That way of thinking truly transformed how I view myself as a storyteller. So, I encourage you to believe in yourself and your own unique power.