By Sonam Joshi
Jun 10, 2018
Last Sunday, a group of Delhi women opened their homes for an unusual inter-faith Iftar. Guests, most of whom had never been to an Iftar, were greeted with a strand of Mogra flowers and Ittar, and treated to dates, lemon-cucumber Rooh Afza, and Qeema Samosas. But it wasn’t just about feasting.
After a short lesson on the significance of Ramzan, the guests were asked to anonymously write down a stereotype they had grown up hearing about the ‘other’ community. “There was laughter and a dialogue as the notes was read out. Prejudices are passed down across generations and don’t go away overnight, but this initiative helped bridge the gap a bit,” says co-host and author Nazia Erum.
“We got answers to questions about what Rozas are about — not just fasting all day but also willpower, self-control and your actions towards others,” says Tanya Katru Gode, a student and guest.
The Iftars began last year, after Erum, who was then writing her book Mothering a Muslim, came across a CSDS study that revealed that only 33% Hindus counted a Muslim as a close friend. When she put up a Facebook post inviting people who had never been to an Iftar, she received an overwhelming response. Twelve women offered to help organise the gathering, most of whom were strangers. “The idea was to open our homes and cook a traditional dish with love,” says Erum. More than 90 people attended the first Iftar last year, inspiring similar ones in Mumbai, Guwahati, Bhopal, Pune and Hyderabad.
Delhi resident Yashpal Saxena whose son Ankit was killed, allegedly by his Muslim girlfriend’s family, recently made headlines by hosting an inter-faith iftar. Saxena’s inspiring gesture wasn’t the only one. Traditionally considered the domain of politicians and Bollywood celebrities, inter-faith Iftars by ordinary people like Saxena and Erum are on the rise. “Political Iftars are only a place to be seen — nobody is wiser about any other religion,” says co-host and historian Rana Safvi. “People have realised that they need to reclaim religion from the hands of politicians and clerics, who create rifts and misconceptions. We have to focus on people-to-people contact.”
They are also a response to the declining fortunes of the political Iftar. “The original idea of the political Iftar was to reach out to minorities but very few from the political class in Delhi throw them now,” says commentator Saba Naqvi. “Inter-faith Iftars are a creative response to the communalised polity.”
Erum describes it as the democratisation of the Iftar. “These aren’t just a photo-op for a vote bank. Traditionally, we used to always call people from our Mohalla for Iftar. Now, social media has helped us reach people beyond our circle,” she says.
Led by women working in diverse fields, the Iftars also dispel biases about Muslim women. “We have all kinds of women — those who wear a hijab or saris with Bindis, and Shias and Sunnis,” says Erum. By hosting the Iftar at home, the women hope to add a personal touch. “The bonding that comes when you sit together for Iftar or Sehri (the pre-dawn meal) is special,” says Safvi.
Mumbai-based TV show host and anchor Atika Ahmad Farooqui, who was a guest at an inter-faith Iftar last year, organised one this year at her home. “Such iftars have always been happening at my house but now they are visible efforts, to send the signal that we will reclaim the idea of India that we have grown up with,” says Farooqui.
If these inter-community Iftars are about opening up homes, another initiative ‘#Iftar4All’ focuses on distributing food to the underprivileged in hospitals and shelters. “Charity has always been a part of Ramzan, but this aims to change the narrative where Muslims are painted as villains. Only love can win over hate,” says one of the organisers, Anas Tanwir, a Supreme Court advocate.
Its success has inspired a regional chapter in Lucknow. “We always associated Iftar with one community but this is similar to a Bhandara, where we cater to the general public,” says Naheed Hasnain, who started the project in Lucknow. The group has members from different faiths and has raised Rs 2.35 Lakh in a few days and distributed over 1,500 snack boxes in its first drive.
In Gurugram, residents have formed the Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch in the aftermath of threats to disrupt Namaz in public places. It plans to host an inter-community iftar to “celebrate the diversity and plurality of Gurgaon”.
“This place has people from different faiths and regions of India,” organiser Saba Dewan says. “The Iftar is an act of coming together of these different sections.”
Other inter-community iftars have also been held in Noida, Bhopal and Indore. In Greater Noida, around 1,000 residents of the Nirala Estate complex participated in one last Sunday. “We celebrate all festivals, whether Christmas or Durga Puja,” organiser Shaireen Khan says. “We thought why not ask people to join us for iftar so that they get the chance to understand what it is.”