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For Malappuram’s Muslims, a Dance Contest Is Still Taboo


By Shaju Philip

Jan 21 2013

The 53rd edition of the Kerala School Youth Festival, described as the biggest event of its kind in Asia, was held in this Muslim-majority district but had few Muslim girls participating in its dance events.

Over the decades, Malappuram in Kerala has seen Muslims making much progress educationally, socially and economically but certain things remain forbidden in the community, such as a girl applying paint for a dance item. The handful of Muslim girls who defied the community diktat to dance at the five-day festival, which concluded at the district headquarters this weekend, was mainly students of schools run by non-Muslim managements.

A month earlier, Malappuram had hosted a district-level school youth festival where the results of contests reflected Muslim girls’ reluctance to participate in dance items. Of the 18 high school girls each who obtained an “A” grade in Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam, not one was a Muslim. In contrast, the 12 A-graders in English speech included five Muslims, while the 17 A- and B-graders in Ghazal (high school level) included nine Muslims.

Even in the just-concluded youth festival, which featured 9,000-odd budding talents from across the state, Muslim girls enthusiastically joined contests other than dance, such as literary contests in Urdu and Arabic, and traditional Muslim art-forms that are backed by the community. Thousands of people, including Muslim women with their heads covered in hijabs, turned out at the 17 venues and stayed late into the night to enjoy the performances, showcased with glamour.

The festival was organised by the education department, which is handled by the Indian Union Muslim League.

Malappuram quazi O P M Syed Muthukoya Thangal stresses that Islam is against girls making a public appearance on stage once they have reached puberty. “Such appearances would lead to anarchy,” he says. “However, they take part in Oppana dance, which is traditionally associated with Muslim weddings. That is the approach of all Muslim organisations.”

He adds, “If you think about the Delhi rape incident, it started with the victim going out for a movie with her boyfriend. A disciplined girl would go out only with her parents... The fact that she went with her boyfriend gave those criminal elements an opportunity.”

He dismisses the participation of a few Muslim girls in the dance contests at the festival. They are deviants, he says; “such elements” would be found in any religion and society. “Islam does not recognise their choice. They don’t understand the value of religion,” he says.

Darul Hidaya Orphanage’s high school, which is run by a Muslim management, at Edappal in Malappuram bagged an A in Thiruvathira dance, which draws from Hindu traditions. School authorities confirm the dance team did not have a Muslim girl.

Mukkom Salam, a percussion artiste running a dance school in Kozhikode district, says many Muslim-run schools and parents are against girls appearing on stage after class VIII. “Changes in the community’s attitude in this regard have been very slow,” he says. “Many are yet to realise the potential of the performing arts. My dance school was without a Muslim for several years.”

A teacher at a Muslim-run school says even managements are against Muslim girls taking part in dance events, though they encourage students from other communities. “Community leaders can’t stand Muslim girls sporting a bindi in a dance item,” says the teacher. “They shut the door on dance forms whose stories are based on Hindu mythology and related to temples. All Muslim organisations are against girls appearing without a hijab, even for a stage performance.”

Yet, the teacher says, some families in Ponnani, Perinthalmanna and Nilambur are encouraging their children to pursue their stage talents. Fathima Salem of Class XI won an A for Nangiar Kuthu, a temple art of Kerala, at the festival. “There was no support from the Muslim community,” says Vahida, her mother. “But the school, run by an upper class Hindu Nair management, has been encouraging Fathima.”

Aryadan Shoukath, a Congress leader and scriptwriter whose films have won awards, says some Muslim organisations that claim to be progressive are turning more and more orthodox. Their “progressive attitude” towards English education is not reflected in their attitude to art, he says. He feels close links between Muslims of Malabar and Saudi Arabia have helped fostered conservative thoughts as part of an effort to create a global identity for Muslims.