By Sabiha Farhat
April 27, 2017
These are tough times for Muslims in India. But now that I look back and shed my ‘liberal’ prejudices – Muslims were never acceptable as ‘who they were’ in Indian society. I had always blamed my mother for not giving me proper lunch box to carry to school. But the truth is that even in class 5, no student ate from my Tiffin and gradually I started going to the play field in recess rather than enjoying a meal under the big Peepal tree. After that I took Tiffin only when I prepared it myself, that was class 11 & 12. But even then the girls would hardly eat from my lunch box. We did sit together but no one touched my food. Was I the Untouchable?
The deeper I dig into my childhood the more I find such instances. Our neighbours often commended my mother on keeping the house ‘so clean despite being a Muslim’. Now I remember how much effort went into scrubbing the floors. My mother scrubbed them in the morning and she made me, her eldest child, scrub them in the evening. None of my girlfriends nor their mothers cleaned their floors in evening, cleaning was a morning chore except in our house. Now I know why – it was all an effort to prove that we were just as clean as any of the Hindu families around us. We were always trying to please our Hindu neighbours but they kept on demanding more and more. The entire effort went to waste when our neighbours visited but refused to recognize a ‘clean Muslim home’. All they would say was, “but you are not like Muslims”. Imagine, they were ‘seeing’ our house every day but they refused to accept it as ‘reality’, they continued to believe in the stereotype of a ‘dirty Muslim household’. The reality, the truth that they “saw” would just not register over their belief! Why? Because they wanted to believe in their “narrative” of supremacy.
When I was in class 6 or 7, that famous India-Pakistan cricket match happened, in which Javed Miandad hit a six on the last ball. There we were, glued to the television waiting to applaud for India and in my heart, for my secret crush – Ravi Shastri too. But Javed Miandad spoiled it all for us, I remember my brother cried when we lost that match. The next day in school when everyone was discussing cricket, I was shut up by simply being told – “Oh, you must have celebrated yesterday, after all, your side won.” I was stunned into silence. Everyone had presumed that ‘my’ side was the ‘Pakistani side’.
Where did all this come from? From my class mates who were my age, 12 or 13, with similar middle class backgrounds or were they mouthing their parents’ presumptions? I had forgotten these incidents and moved on but now, the aggressive Hindu has forced me to look back – I realise how desperately I had wanted to ‘belong’ to my friends but I was denied entry into the club that somehow had more claim to India and Indian-ness than me. The message that I took home that day was – ‘I was different so I did not belong’.
This is the same ‘difference’ which a Dalit, a Scheduled Caste or any person from a minority community feels. As a person of minority, one has to struggle to be recognized as ‘equal citizens’ of India. This recognition has been particularly denied to Muslims in India. The message is not just that we do not ‘belong’, we are also assumed to be ‘traitors and allies of Pakistan’ thus making us ‘unpatriotic’. One is alienated from the mainstream, her self-worth as an ‘individual’ is denied, it instils in the minority the order of second grade citizenship.
All this happens at a very early age, an impressionable age. It made me more vulnerable and was perhaps my first experience of being told about my second grade status in my own country, a country, which the school text book reminds us is the biggest democracy in the world. I was alienated in a shared space – ‘my’ school. I was assumed to be ‘unpatriotic’ at the age of 12 or 13.
And so I did the next best thing, I tried to merge and be like everyone else. I started rebelling from my own religious background. I studied translations of Quran and found flaws with respect to women’s status in it, slowly I developed a “sort of” feminist narrative on Islam. In it, I found elements of patriarchy, misogyny, gender inequality and all other flaws of an organized religion. I did not realize that I was still following the ‘Hindu’ narrative about a Muslim. I argued with my father, when all he wanted was that I pray to God, once a day.
I gave up my religion by the age of 17 when girls around me were still fasting for Santoshi Mata or Guruwaar or Shani Dev or some other deity. At 17 you only understand ‘liberal’ in a skin-deep sense. So I became liberal in the way I dressed, ate and lived my college life, completely aligning myself with upper caste Hindus. I should have been shocked at my “religious Hindu girl friends” but I was not. I was a ‘subject’ of the Hindu Brahminical narrative.
So strong was the grip of this majoritarian narrative that I, a rebel-Muslim, failed to question my friends. But a questioning mind cannot be dulled. Sooner than later I discovered the flaws in Hinduism, it too had misogyny, gender in-equality and patriarchy. I realised that a ‘liberal Hindu’ mindset is just a disguise for a ‘Brahminical’ mindset. If liberalism does not allow you to break the barriers of race and caste, if it does not filter out hatred for minorities than how can you call yourself a liberal?
During my college days, I lived in my jeans and tees, much like any other urban girl. At every introduction, at every mention of my name – I was told, “oh! But you do not look like a Muslim.” What does a Muslim woman look like? Again, I was not acceptable as a non-Hijab wearing modern Muslim woman! They saw me every day yet denied my modern identity. I was ‘invisible’ to them. They wanted to stick to notions of a ‘hijab wearing Muslim woman’ and when I did not conform to their narrative, they called me an exception!
Just like our ‘clean home’ was an exception, my ‘patriotism’ was an exception, my ‘modern identity’ too was an exception! But why? Because stereotypes create Islamophobia and Islamophobia simply helps to establish Hindu Supremacy.
So well disguised was this denial of my identity that initially I was pleased at my ‘liberal identity’ but slowly I began to feel some anger as these remarks were thrown at me often. Things changed drastically when I went to study Film & Television at Jamia Millia Islamia University. Now that I look back, I feel I got into the prestigious institute because in my interview, I was able to present to the panel, a positive review of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, it was a ‘liberal’ panel of interviewers. The book was banned in India but my father had managed to bring a copy home which he kept hidden from us. I read it secretly at night.
Maybe my approach to Satanic Verses helped me. Once I joined the course, my mind opened up to new experiences, this is where I began to understand the concepts of ‘othering’, ‘us & them’. But by now I was so used to following the Hindu narrative about Muslims that I constantly judged Muslim students outside my centre as conservative, hard-core fundamentalists. Anyone who had a beard was a fundamentalist and I did not want to associate myself with him. So strong is the grip of this narrative on me that even today I want to tell Muslim men to be ‘more normal’, to be like anyone else and merge in the mainstream.
Why should they have beards? Why should the women wear burqa? Why do they look different? Why don’t we give (Hindus) the Ram Mandir? Why don’t we change our profession from being butchers to some other? When it came to matters of identity I was calling ourselves – ‘them’.
The penny dropped. When did I start subscribing to the majoritarian narrative and criticizing people for the way they dressed, ate, earned their living? Why was I pleased at being a liberal Muslim? Were my neighbours and colleagues friendly because I did not look like a Muslim? What if I wore a Hijab and was a practicing Muslim? Recently a ‘Muslim senior citizen’ was denied a seat in a Delhi metro! Isn’t it alienation in a shared public space? What then happens in other such spaces – schools, colleges and offices – is anybody’s guess.
The deeper I dug, the more I realized how convoluted were my own thoughts about myself. In fact my entire family scrutinizes and criticizes conservative Muslims ruthlessly while singing classical Bhajans at friend’s ‘Pujas’. Is it an attempt to appease them? We celebrate Holi and Diwali like all Hindus. My daughter lights up the house with lights and Diyas on Diwali and our neighbours appreciate it. But on Eid, ours is the only house that is lit up, no neighbour has accepted Eid as their own festival. Clearly the majority has never wanted to please its minority but is very loud and vocal on ‘appeasement of minorities’.
Ironically, a narrative of ‘Hindu victimhood’ has been at play since 1980s, it has led to several riots in which more Muslims have been killed than Hindus. Every riot sets back the minority community by at least a generation. It takes away the home that was built over a period of 20 years, it takes away savings, security, livelihood, not to mention lives of loved ones. I will not even touch on rapes and arrests of innocent Muslims.
But the Hindu goes on believing in his ‘victimhood’ and in his acts of faith. To the Muslim, he repeats the same questions, why do Muslims live in ghettos? Remember what happened to Akhlaq who did not live in a ghetto? Why does the Muslim community not help their women? Muslim women need as much help as Hindu women. Why are they so conservative?
Why are there separate laws for Muslims? Are there?!!!! Why don’t the Muslims want uniform civil code? Really!!!??? All Muslims may not be terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims??!!! Only as much as all rioters are Hindus. Are the Gau-Rakshaks not Bhakshaks? Clearly these Hindus have not known any Muslim, nor do they know their own faith.
Muslims in India face a double-edged sword of economic and cultural alienation. They are pushed to live in ghettos; they have spent past 70 years in fear of riots. Only those who are willing to give up their religion (like me) and merge with Brahminical narrative can hope to rise economically and socially. They are psychologically crushed by attacks on their cultural practices, eating habits, dressing style and professions. They are easy targets for the police and the mob. They can be lynched, beaten up, killed in encounter or be in jail for 23 years before being declared innocent. They can’t rent a house, get their child admitted to a good school or a house help to work for them.
Who will take the blame for this narrative of ‘othering’ the Indian Muslim? An average liberal Hindu is upset when people like me refuse to follow his narrative. He is horrified that I have decided to ‘de-subjectify’ myself and assert my equal status, my first-grade citizenship in India. My ‘liberal Hindu’ friend expects people like me to not raise my voice – for he alone has the right to criticise ‘his PM’, ‘his government’, ‘his army’ and ‘his motherland’?!!!
He does not want me to react to communal killings or state atrocities, not even state policies. He simply does not want me to have an opinion forget criticizing political ideologies. He is also not willing to look at facts, figures, documents, history. He is the one who eats eggs, fish, chicken, mutton and pork, he drinks scotch, he is well dressed, he is educated and has a white collar job. In fact he even relishes my Biryani. He is the one whose daughter can choose to marry anyone except a Muslim man…
And lastly he expects me to be grateful to him for allowing me to live in India, imagine what my life would be in Pakistan?!!!
Let us make it clear that I or the Indian Muslims have nothing to be grateful for, to the Hindus in India. That we refuse to play your game in the name of ‘liberal forces’. You are not liberal if you have deep seated hatred for minorities. India, world’s biggest democracy is a farce; it is a mis-recognition of the system of democracy. True democracy in India can only be established through its minorities – a solidarity of religious, caste and indigenous minorities.
P.S. By any chance, if you feel threatened by burqa or a skull cap and beard – so be it! I’m not going to change till I want to. Deal with it.
Sabiha Farhat is a television professional and writer based in Delhi.
The views expressed here are the author's personal views