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I'm A Muslim Woman With My Head Held High... But Can My Mind Be Without Fear?

02/12/2015 9:02 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Kashmiri Shiite Muslim women watch an Ashoura procession in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015. Shiites mark Ashoura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram, to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of Prophet Muhammad, during the Battle of Karbala. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

It is one thing to love your country and another to dissent from the government. You can love your country, without having to love its government. And that ladies and gentlemen is nationalism. So, everybody has a right to disagree and to express one's fears and anxieties if one feels so. And that is exactly what Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan did when they voiced their concerns about intolerance in India. Aamir Khan, on a more personal note, also shared that his wife was wondering if they should leave the country.

The backlash that followed is unfortunate to say the least. There are thousands who flee this country in search of better jobs, because this country cannot give them enough opportunities to thrive. There are rich NRIs who leave the country because they think India is filthy and poor, and we celebrate those emigrants. At least our Prime Minister does when he's on foreign tours. And then there are thousands of lower class Muslims who migrate to the Middle East where they do jobs like cleaning and washing or driving public vehicles. What's wrong if one considers (and that too speculatively) leaving the country because of religious intolerance and bigotry?

"I realised how unacceptable I am in my own country. The Islamophobia that has gripped the world has its India story too."

Let me begin by saying that I have not been tortured and subject to gross injustices and denied my basic rights so that I want to run away from the country. Nobody tried to burn me or my house down because I am a Muslim. I have had my share of equal and fair opportunities. My patriotic fervour makes it easy for me to idealise my country, especially because I have had great support from my Hindu friends and their families. The institutions where I studied and worked were headed by Hindus who made me feel at home. But idealisation results in generalisation and simplification. Reality is much more complex and has many shades and nuances that must be examined.

There is no denying the fact that there do exist prejudices and they do worry me. At times even alienate me. In recent times, the pro­-Hindutva government at the Centre seemed to have aggravated fears and fanned prejudices, let alone making the minorities feel safe. Thanks to social media, there has been an outpouring of hatred, where it has become legitimate to slander Muslims and call them anti­nationals.

This rhetoric is rampant, from Subramanian Swamy's Twitter page where he attacks Muslims for eating beef and for pretty much everything that they do in India to other leaders who seem to spend sleepless nights worrying about the alarming rate at which the Muslim population is growing in the country, thus depriving Hindus of their janmabhoomi. The political leaders ranting about love jihad earlier this year was only the beginning of the hate campaign. A government with a strong RSS backing and a mute Prime Minister at the helm of it does make me feel insecure.

Any minority community in any country would feel threatened by a majoritarian government if it fails to infuse confidence in its religious minorities. Long ago, in my early college days I met a 10-year-old girl at an ice-cream outlet after an exciting India-Pakistan match. India had won and we were out to celebrate. When I introduced myself to the girl and she found that I was a Muslim, the first thing she told me was that I must have rooted for Pakistan in the match. Prejudices begin early. And they are everywhere, including a staff room of a school where in a heated discussion a group of teachers accused their religious minority counterparts in sarcastic tones of contributing to overpopulation and depriving them of their privileges.

It becomes worse if you wear your religion on your sleeve. We are not an ultra-secular or an ultra-liberal country where we accommodate all religions but do away with religious symbols. We are not like France, where women are not allowed to wear a hijab. I travel in the local train wearing my headscarf and one day a brawl over seats led to a Hindu woman telling me that Muslims like me who come from Madrasas lack manners and that we should not venture out from there. Little did she know that I was returning from a Calcutta University college where I teach English literature to students from families like hers. The social contributions of the minorities are so easily overlooked in the face of overwhelming prejudice.

I, and others like me, don't have a public profile like Aamir Khan so our experiences are not always heard. There are idiots all over the place, like they have nowhere to hide. I met one such idiot at a handicraft fair post the Paris attack. He was looking obliquely at me and my attire and asking his bearded friend sarcastically if he'd just come back from Paris, adding that bearded men frightened him. His remarks were actually directed at me for what I am -- a Muslim. I realised how unacceptable I am in my own country. The Islamophobia that has gripped the world has its India story too.

I have the right to feel vulnerable and isolated just as I have the right to either overlook or confront bigotry. The fact that I generally choose to ignore it is my way of showing tolerance at a time when the intolerance debate is raging in the country. I choose to protest when it hurts but I also choose to move on because the country has, in general, embraced me.

I choose to serve and love my country without having to sing songs in praise of the government. In the meantime, the words of Tagore, "where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..." seem to be an ideal difficult to achieve.

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