By Rajyasree Sen
May 29, 2015
For the last few days, we've been reading and hearing about Misbah Quadri, a young girl who was refused an apartment in Mumbai allegedly because she was Muslim. Two girls who were sharing an apartment supposedly took Qadri on as a flatmate, but the broker upon finding out that Qadri was Muslim told her she had to vacate the flat as Muslims were not welcome in the building. The jury’s out on this though, since it now appears that there are other Muslim tenants living quite happily in the same building and the broker claims that Quadri was asked to move out because she didn’t submit relevant papers – and that he’d filed an FIR saying so on 16 April.
That people refuse to rent you their homes because of your religion is not something restricted to just Mumbai. As recently as April 2015, Pearl Khan was refused an apartment in an upscale condominium in Gurgaon because she was Muslim. This was verified and reported by Newslaundry, along with the not-so-pleasant fact that about 70% of registered societies in the NCR do not have any Muslim members.
Whether or not the Quadri case is based on fact or fiction will emerge soon enough. But reading the preliminary details shared by Quadri, in which she has cried tenancy most foul, I felt like I was being transported back 15 years when I was looking to rent a place in Mumbai.
The silver lining in the dark cloud of discrimination, is that the discrimination isn’t limited to just religion. As I, and many others looking for places to stay in while completing college, found out. The discrimination spreads across borders to other cities as well. Cosmopolitan Mumbai, as I found out, had no qualms about renting to single women or women keeping odd hours. In fact, not an eyebrow was raised by any of the landlords I’d met. My college which was located between Peddar Road and Warden Road, led me to look at places nearby on Valkeshwar Road or Malabar Hill – which is Pali Hill without the celebrities and the nice restaurants. I must have met at least 5 landlords, who introduced me to a whole new avenue of discrimination against non-vegetarians! Most of the fancy older buildings on Valkeshwar were "Jain" societies, I was informed. In which no living or dead being other than the residents must enter.
Not having the privilege of choice at the time, I rented a place in Valkeshwar where the entire building was vegetarian and my other two roommates and I were given the room only if we promised to not eat meat or bring it in the house. We were explicitly informed that if we were ever caught doing so – even by ordering in a pizza with a chicken topping - the society would ask us to leave. A concession was made on eggs, which you could buy and cook yourself, but the shells would have to be carried out in your bag and disposed off far from the building. If they found the egg shells, we would probably become an omlette!
Delhi was no better. I’ve been living here for the last 12 years – in almost as many houses. I’ve seen raised eyebrows and muted whispers amongst the landlords as soon as I’ve said I live alone and am not married. When I was in Public Relations, I was greeted far more warmly than now when I say I’m a columnist. Landlords are the only people who seem to prefer career in public relations than journalism. Although, in the pecking order of career discrimination, lawyers are reviled even more than journalists, as I’ve expressly been told by my South Delhi broker.
As recently as 5 years back in upscale Panchsheel Park, I had a Muslim landlord who told me that all fish without scales were evil as were my dogs. I didn’t take it personally, but I did count my dogs every time they came back from a walk. In super-fancy Soami Nagar, the landlord of this gorgeous house said that while I could feed my dogs meat, I'd have to throw the bones really far away. And I should try and not eat meat myself. Although they were insistent that I rent the house, I had to demur because no one – including a stunning house – should come between me and my meat.
I have to say I've never been refused a home because I’m living alone or because I’m a woman. And for every dysfunctional landlord I’ve met, I’ve also met some very generous, non-interfering and friendly ones. For every bigot or narrow-minded prejudiced landlord you meet, there’ll be some who are the exact opposite. Also, it cuts both ways. There are enough tenants, who don’t rent places because the landlord is a Muslim or is a vegetarian or a single man or woman or greets them in kacchhas and screams at his wife in front of them. The latter is a personal anecdote of mine.
Of course we shouldn’t discriminate against anyone for being from any community or religion or dodgy profession, but this is a land steeped in prejudice and no one can force a landlord otherwise. The rot of prejudice runs very deep. I know umpteen people who won’t hire my part-time maid simply because she’s Muslim. And there are Muslim maids who take on Hindu names to find jobs. What can you do? You can judge them, shun them, even shame them, but you can’t force them to open up their homes.
And when it comes to renting out your home, I have to say that at the end of the day it is up to the person who owns the property to decide whom they want to rent it to. Someone can refuse to give you their house for something as flimsy as not liking your face. It’s their prerogative. It is after all their private property and private housing is hard to regulate especially since they may not actual specify the real bias that prevents them from renting to you. And let’s not forget that rejection can run both ways. As someone who has lived in rented housing since the age of 22, I’ve learned that you have to try, try and try again.