A few weeks ago, fashion blogger Amena Azeez’s Instagram inbox was flooded with variations of two questions. Why did the Tablighi Jamat deliberately spread the coronavirus? And did she publicly condemn them?
Azeez is now used to many of her 42,000 followers demanding that she not discuss politics or condemn atrocities against Muslims. But this was a new low.
When she responded to a few comments on her feed, saying that she had in fact mentioned in her Instagram stories that the organisation had been irresponsible in conducting an event in Nizamuddin that is now linked to more than 1,000 Covid-19 cases across the country, the next demand was immediate: “Show us where”.
As Azeez struggled to deal with the barrage of hatred and self-righteousness, the community she thought she was part of—Indian lifestyle, fashion and beauty influencers—went about their normal routines, putting up skincare routines to follow during the lockdown, DIY hair masks and golden hour selfies accompanied by inspirational quotes.
Whereas Azeez hoped that the people she thought she belonged with would react to the posts she had put up about the demonising of Muslims during an health emergency, fashion designer and influencer Amber Qureshi decided to deal with it head-on. Instead of waiting for people from her work community to take their cue from subtle messages, she put up Instagram stories exhorting her colleagues to speak up against this persecution.
“They all saw my stories, but no one said a single word,” Qureshi said.
“I am ashamed of you,” she posted in a story afterwards.
In December protests against the divisive Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) broke out across India after the police brutally cracked down on unarmed students at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. In February, more than 50 people died—most of them Muslims—in the worst religious violence to break out in Delhi in decades. By April, as news about the Nizammudin event broke, many right-wing media outlets and activists got a chance to shift the focus on the coronavirus pandemic to targeting Muslims.
Amid all this, Muslim lifestyle influencers in India have found it increasingly difficult to stick to the one-Rumi-quote-a-day template favoured by lifestyle bloggers. But when they speak up about injustice, they are losing followers and the projects which are directly dependent on their reach.
“I was mostly stunned by the apathy of the community I work with,” Azeez said, “It’s like we are all by ourselves.”
THE PRICE OF PROTEST
Nineteen-year-old Huzaifa Wadud’s fledgling modelling career depends entirely on her visibility on Instagram. Wadud, who is supposed to begin college this year, has been pursuing modelling as a part-time vocation for some months now. Her feed is mostly a collection of professionally taken photographs, skincare routines and videos of photoshoots. However, Wadud’s Instagram ‘stories’ are often a battleground — on it, she busts fake news being circulated to demonise Muslims, shares articles underlining the discrimination Muslims face and exhorts people to fact-check news before spreading them.
She first started posting political content in December, moved by the sheer brutality of the Delhi Police’s violent attack on Jamia students. “I had never really commented on communal issues before this. But after the Jamia incident, I felt helpless,” she said. Feeling crippled by the fact that she couldn’t do much about the atrocities against students, she decided to use a platform she has been building painstakingly to anchor her career in fashion to spread awareness and ‘unite’ people around her.
Since then, she says, visits to her profile have dropped by around 2,000 a week, and story views have dwindled to half of what it was earlier.
As this article was being written, Wadud’s Instagram stories were the following: a video of a hungry teenaged daily labourer stranded on a highway in UP, a screenshot of a temple festival held in Kalburgi on Thursday—she demanded to know why mainstream media was not hauling up an entire community because of that—and a series of slides about Islamophobia.
Wadud’s comments are usually statements asking media to be held accountable and elaborate responses to people who would just not stop attacking Muslims even when fake propaganda is busted. In one of her stories exposing the propaganda that Muslims licked utensils to spread coronavirus, a Hindu woman responded: “Still disgusting.” Wadud’s response was a long, sober explanation on why using such material to stoke the fire of communalism in India was still wrong, no matter what the act was,
Wadud’s modelling career, which depends on collaborations and networking, is at risk as her Instagram posts have antagonised people she works with — photographers and other people who inform her about auditions and opportunities.
“I am often told that I am pretty, and delicate and young and it is not my place to comment on these things. When I argue with that logic, I am called an anti-national or more often some dirty words targeted at all Muslim women. I am also targeted more because I am a woman,” Wadud told HuffPost India.
She is not the only one missing out on work.
““I am often told that I am pretty, and delicate and young and it is not my place to comment on these things.”
Azeez, who has been a fashion blogger and body positivity campaigner for almost nine years, was in talks with a fashion brand for a promotional project a couple of months ago. The brand was impressed with her body of work and quite liked her Instagram feed, which back then, did not have a lot of “political content”. On Twitter, however, Azeez discussed political subjects frequently and several of her tweets were critical of the Modi government.
“Then one day I got a frantic call from their spokeswoman who was totally shocked at my Twitter feed and thought it was too political,” Azeez said.
The brand required her to not talk about communal hatred and government inaction, even on Twitter. The deal fell through.
Qureshi had finalised a deal with an international skincare company for a review of their products. “They were supposed to send me a press kit of their products and we had set up a date for the shoot since we could do it at home itself. Then, when I started posting the stuff about CAA, they called to inform me that they were cancelling their assignment and was going to reconsider their association with me in light of the change in the tone of my Instagram account,” Qureshi said.
However, the three women have not let these setbacks stop them from talking about the trials of their community, mostly because they agree that their economic privilege allows them to take a few risks. “If I lose some work because of this, it’s okay, I will manage. But if I keep quiet, I can’t keep working peacefully either,” Qureshi said.
After her deal with the clothing brand fell through, Azeez decided to begin posting about ‘Twitter issues’ more regularly on Instagram. “It’s like open season to attack Muslims. And staying quiet is not an option for us,” she said.
“I posted about Shaheen Bagh regularly, I went to protests in Mumbai and posted regular updates,” she said.
Within a few days, she had lost 4,000 followers.
“It had taken me years to get followers and my work depends directly on how many followers I have, and how many I have gained. So this was a blow, but I cannot go back,” Azeez said.
“LOST ALL RESPECT”
Wadud was 16 when she joined Instagram. For the high school student, the app was a gateway to all the things she loved: shimmery clothes, perfectly winged liners and highlighted cheekbones on women. More importantly, she found a community of beautiful women who were comfortable in their skin.
“Over the past few months, I lost respect for so many of them. They are not speaking up because they are not getting directly affected by this (attacks on Muslims), nothing is disturbing their lives. They do not care about any suffering or anything apart from their own selves, I have realised. That is inhuman and horrible,” Wadud said.
Ramsha Sultan, who started blogging on YouTube about her life as a hijab fashion enthusiast five years ago, agreed that the barrage of hate comments have multiplied in recent times. “With the shift in the government, I as a Muslim content creator have seen increased hatred towards the Muslim community. People now don’t fear typing hate comments openly in public,” she told HuffPost India.
A majority of savarna, Hindu, privileged lifestyle influencers have built their brands talking about ‘women’s issues’. They appear in commercials that espouse women’s ‘empowerment’ and wax eloquent about self-love and kindness. However, their political opinions stop short at calling out the communal attacks on even the women in their own bubble of privilege. While body positivity and mental health are ‘lucrative’ and safe topics, religious and caste discrimination are no-go areas.
How can you claim to be lifting women up and foster sisterhood when you won’t say a word against the experience of Muslim women in your own social circle even, the Muslim bloggers wonder.
Hana Khan, a pilot with a popular airlines and a popular Instagram blogger with 18,000 followers explained that the silence of the popular fashion and beauty influencers was the result of a society teaching people to treat minorities as the ‘other’. “That they are less than human. And they do not need to be talked about at all,” Khan said, insisting this correspondent mention that her views ‘are personal and doesn’t reflect the opinion of (her) employer’.
The vacuousness of fashion and beauty influencers constantly hamming about ‘positivity’ was especially jarring for the Muslim bloggers as abuses and threats piled up in their inboxes. Comments calling them ‘jehadi’, ‘Pakistani terrorists’ and threatening to ‘make them pay’ filled their inboxes when they just shared screenshots of news articles. Khan, a couple of weeks ago, had asked on Instagram if anyone knew how to use Final Cut Pro. A bunch of answers said, “Ask the Tablighi people or your madrasa friends, they can help you.”
Meanwhile, their non-minority colleagues were taking TikTok challenges.
“A sizable number of savarna, Hindu, privileged lifestyle influencers have built their brands talking about ‘women’s issues’.”
“We are not asking you to stop living your lives, or stop putting up make-up videos, we have been doing that too. But living your life doesn’t mean you cannot speak up against these things. I was stunned by the silence of these people even when I shared the kind of trolling I have faced for being a Muslim,” Qureshi said. Instead she received “well-meaning advice”.
“You have a fun, bubbly personality and that reflects on your profile, stick to that,” Qureshi was told by followers.
When Khan posted about the riots in Delhi, followers and friends asked her, “It’s not happening where you live, why are you worried?”
Khan said she found that alarming. “Your own city was literally burning. The only way you can say something like that is when you do not even consider the victims human, who deserved to live and have a home, have livelihoods,” Khan said.
‘Why get into this heavy political stuff?’, ‘this is out of context’, were some of the responses from fellow bloggers that Azeez received when she began speaking about communalisation of the Tablighi issue or questioned the banging of thalis and lighting of diyas as daily wage labourers starve.
“These are people I know personally, have been to events with as well,” Azeez said.
Azeez and Qureshi explained that women’s rights made for relevant content for lifestyle influencers only until it became political and held governments and powerful people accountable. Azeez calls this the ‘toxic positivity trap’.
“Here, I am receiving messages asking me to be grateful that ‘we have let you stay in India’ and when I am talking about it, where is your support, and courage and kindness you talk about?” Azeez said.
The silence of fashion influencers is especially hypocritical considering a sizable section of labour who contributes to the Indian fashion industry - darzis, embroidery workers — are Muslims. During a reporting trip to Karwal Nagar after the Delhi riots, this correspondent met dozens of Muslim embroidery workers who had been chased out of Karawal Nagar with swords and lathis by violent mobs. Most of them were paid so little that they had to beg for alms to help them flee the riot-hit area and find a new shelter. In this article, journalist Varun Rana pointed out how the fashion industry’s silence on communal hatred was unacceptable considering Muslim artisans have long contributed to its progress.
Azeez understands that some influencers are probably afraid of repercussions, she insists that people like her are living that discrimination, so others should step up as well.
“It will be initially difficult to speak up, maybe some brands will cancel assignments like it has happened with us. But if a lot of people start speaking the same language, it will be the new normal. Not an aberration. Most of these influencers are extremely well-off, affluent people,” Qureshi said.