What were you like when you were 13? 18? Did you eventually go into the career you’d always dreamt of as a child? Or did life – and other priorities – get in the way? What was your first job like? How’d that change one year in? Five years later?
It takes a lot of luck (ahem, privilege) and sometimes an enviable capacity for tunnel vision to follow exactly the path you set out for yourself. As I’ve grown older, my childhood idea of myself has started to edge away from who I really am. And now adulthood (from the little I know of it) is mostly about managing and minimising that dissonance. We all live a little bit of our lives in our heads, playing make-believe games just to see what It, whatever that may have been, would have been like.
Everyone changes but not everyone is given the space to justify their decisions, to fill up their narrative with the nuances of conflicting thoughts and feelings. That’s the realm of individuality, and not everyone gets the privilege of being a person unto themselves.
I don’t know if Zaira Wasim anticipated becoming a national talking point when she announced that she’s dissociating from Bollywood because – and here’s the root of many people’s problem – it interferes with her religion.
The trolls came out before the wires had even had time to copy-paste Wasim’s statement into a news item. Some took the opportunity to make terrible, flat memes about the relative freedoms of Hindu women over Muslim ones, relying on tired old images of burqa-clad women shepherding lots of children down some vague street. Some were mad at Wasim for talking about religion so openly (because when an MP says Indians can proudly wear their religion on their sleeves now, we all know which one he means); words like oppression and indoctrination were thrown around freely.
A day later, a new hashtag emerged on Twitter, holding the much-derided ‘liberals’ (a vague collection that means more to those who oppose it than the people who are supposedly in the group) accountable for a young woman’s decision to do something else with her life. The problem of course, is that she picked religion. And then to top it off, she picked Islam.
A young woman’s momentous decision about her own life (we all make some around 18) has been wrested away and turned into a crude debate about religion and women’s rights. Her individuality – if it ever even existed for these commentators – has been reduced to rubble. Zaira Wasim is now being treated as a cultural representation of an entire culture, an entire religion. A cultural billboard to throw our opinions and ideas at. An artefact that we can employ to bolster our already-solidified conceptions of what Islam is and isn’t.
It hasn’t really occurred to anyone to ask Wasim any of these questions. Which seems odd at first, but then I realised that the world is treating her like a Thing and objects don’t give answers, they just provide a platform for our “analysis”.
This is of course, not new to women, especially those who belong to minority communities. Women’s bodies and lives are never their own. We’re always fenced into roles – mother, daughter, sister. We’re the repositories of culture – an expression of history and present, the brand ambassadors of millions of people, all rolled into one. Where’s the space for individual will, dreams, agency in that?
It’s insulting to Wasim to imply that the only way she would choose religion over career is because she was forced into it or “brainwashed”. It reduces her articulate and critical examining of herself and Islam’s dictats – put out in a lengthy statement – to nothing. It trivialises five whole years of experience producing critically-acclaimed work to nothing. Worst of all it erases the individual from her own life.
Muslim women around the world, of course, are now used to this. Globally, the hijab and naqaab are seen as symbols of systemic oppression because how could they be anything but. Whereas the truth as always is more complicated – women in the Shah’s time in Iran used the hjiab as a weapon of resistance against his forced modernisation. In Orhan Pamuk’s novel, Snow, one character starts wearing a hjiab as a form of rebellion to the state’s modernising project. In India, some Muslim women have chosen to wear their religious identity on their sleeves (heads, in this case) because there are so many mass-scale attempts to erase and malign Islam.
An object itself has some power, but really it’s about the person who wields it.
To indulge in a bit of what-aboutery – some religious practices are so mainstreamed that we don’t bat an eyelid. When a little prepubescent Hindu girl is married off to a middle aged man, at best it makes it to a small 2-inch space in the middle of a newspaper laden with more ‘important’ news. We don’t take that one instance and zoom into it as the definitive symbol of Hinduism at large. Cognitively, we hold so much other information about Hindu girls and men and marriage practices that we brush this off as a one-off. We recognise that zooming into one tiny thing, so that it fills up our entire screen, bloats the image into an indecipherable collection of pixels. It means nothing.
But that’s an understanding practically nobody else gets. Whether it’s Nusrat Jahan who has clerics yell at her for wearing sindoor to parliament or Sunny Leone who angered Sikhs by daring to use her own last name ‘Kaur’ in a biopic – women are constantly told their bodies and lives are not their own.
It’s not unheard of for young women to prioritise religion. In fact, as a nation, we’re doing it now more than ever. And blaming this mass criticism of Wasim on the specific tenets of Islam is a hollow argument. All religions are restrictive in a variety of ways. All structures and institutions are. Would it be national news if a turbaned Sikh man walked away from Bollywood because he didn’t want to cut his hair and be mainstream? Maybe. But probably not. And not to this scale. And that’s more about how we understand men and women’s agency than anything else.
Part of growing up is negotiating our individual boundaries within structures. Everyone learns to make trade-offs – job that pays the bills over one that provides emotional sustenance; marriage instead of life as a single woman because the outside world just makes everything that much harder to be independent; shutting off the TV and picking up the textbook because there’s an exam coming up; moving abroad or moving back home for ill family members.
Wasim is just an 18-year-old trying to find her place in the world. Just like the rest of us. Neither she nor any other woman should be burdened with the expectations and biases of a billion people. She should be allowed to be a singular person if that’s what she wants. She should be given the space to choose her own labels, if she even wants them, and to discard old ones and pick new ones as and when she chooses.
Isn’t that what privilege is? The freedom to not have politics enacted upon you? To be anything more than a cultural talking point? To have an identity that is not pinned to one aspect of yourself, one that you didn’t even choose?
The same restrictive standard keep cropping up over and over again: Women should be seen, not heard. Unless we’re letting some social group speak through us. And if we’re audacious enough to use an authoritative ‘I’ and prioritise our individual selves through tweets, selfies, dinner table chats or Facebook posts, we get trampled on for not conforming to the entire world’s conflicting opinions on what a woman ought to do or be.
A young woman is speaking, it’s time to listen.