“ Man, man, one cannot quite live without pity “ wrote Dostoyevsky somewhere, not among the books that I can boast to have had the privilege of reading, am able to recall it only because the inimitable Arthur Koestler starts one of his books with this line as a prelude.
“ If you have tears, prepare to shed them now “ – words with which Mark Anthony exhorts his fellow Romans to rue the death and assassination of their leader Julius Caesar, that turned the tide and fortunes of his countrymen forever.
Now, lets pan into 2000 plus years later, the movie “My Name is Khan”. There was a media hype before its release, only because the current numero uno of the silver screen, Shah Rukh, the one eponymous, got into a spot with the US immigration, when entering that country, connected with the film, there. I got to see this film when my better half recently got the DVD and played it, and was aghast at the way the plot and the narrative developed as the movie went on. The protagonist hero, who has Asperger’s syndrome, which seems to be woven into the plot purely to invite greater sympathy from the audience, meanders around the US of A, stating exactly what the powers that be want to hear from all those born east of Suez, “ I am not a terrorist “, pointlessly and needlessly in search of vindication for something he never did, and a sympathetic Kajol, understands his predicament, they finally get to meet the person holding ostensibly the most powerful office in the world, the President of the United States, and Shah Rukh gets to mumble precisely the same words, and all’s well that ends well.
Even as Hindi movie tear-jerkers go, this was utterly puerile. Most abhorrent of all, is the depiction of a character, whether or not mentally challenged, as the phrase goes these days, pottering around a vast country, muttering inanely that he is not a terrorist, quite knowing despite his handicap that he is singled out because of his name or religion or colour, …that is this day and age of so-called glib globalisation, that certain countries could have a view that a person is “guilty” until proved innocent …substitute ” terrorist” for the word previously in parenthesis.
Apparently there is an audience, not just in India, that venture to see these type of movies, kerchiefs and tissues in hand, prepared to shed tears, crocodile or otherwise.
The following is the article that had me writing all of the above – from a blog in the Dawn newspaper:
I watched the much talked about My Name is Khan the other day. The brilliant depiction of an autistic person by Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar’s surprisingly taut direction made for a good film. I had been warned by friends to keep tissues handy, as many friends had their eyeliners washed away as they sniffled through the film.
I have never been emotionally vulnerable and usually don’t cry in public, so although the film was stirring, it did not send me scrambling through my handbag for those back-up tissues. That is, except for one scene. And in that one scene, I felt a lump form in my throat as I reached for that tissue paper. On screen, actress Sonya Jehan – who plays Khan’s sister-in-law, a working woman who wears a hijab while living on the West Coast of the United States – is walking down a hallway when her hijab is pulled off. This is yet another expression of resentment against Muslims in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that the film portrays. After the insult, Jehan’s character decides to no longer cover her head in public.
Thankfully, at a later point, Jehan opts to put her hijab back on, no matter what the consequences, because she feels incomplete without it. “It’s me,” she says. That scene struck a chord and inspired this blog, for it reminded me about my own journey of starting to wear the hijab.
I discovered my spirituality as I reached my teens. My parents were not the coercive type, and they gave us the right to disagree, question, and think for ourselves. Innately curious, I soon found myself reading the Quran in translation, in an effort to better understand its meaning. A few persuasive teachers and friends guided me through this process. As I read, a new world opened up to me.
At this stage in my life, I was an average kid. Like most teenaged girls, I believed my hairstyle was my asset. Looking good was one of the prime goals in my life. One toss of my crowning glory made my heart soar with confidence. Bad hair days, meanwhile, were a nightmare.
As the years passed, I started to seriously consider doing hijab. After what felt like a personal tug-of-war, I clumsily covered my hair for the first time with no idea what I was doing, or whether I would be able to keep it up. For someone whose hairstyle was her signature trademark, this wasn’t an easy step. And on a practical level, it wasn’t easy because the dupatta kept slipping off.
Back then, the hijab was less common than it is now, and people were less accepting. Friends and colleagues said that I was “looking so old,” or looking like a “maasi.” As someone who was used to receiving compliments, I found these asides difficult to handle. I soon gave up.
That move was an ordeal in itself. Everywhere I went, I heard comments such as, “See? This is why I don’t do it. People start to wear hijab, then take it off. They’ve made a joke of it.” Inwardly, I kicked myself because I knew they were right; I was ashamed of my inconsistency. But the truth is that I needed more time.
Different phases followed. I had feel-good-about-it phases, and then there were the shaky phases. At that time, I knew I was not at peace unless I wore the hijab. And so I started wearing it again, and this time it was a more conscious decision. On the one hand, I felt respected, protected, and true to what my heart and mind said was the right thing to do. This was my choice, without force. On the other hand, there were still days when I felt lost without my hair over my shoulders.
As I continued wearing the hijab, some would praise me encouragingly, saying I looked beautiful with my head covered. Others called me all those terms recently added to the dictionary such as Ninja, Fundo, Taliban. A few would tell me to go do “Allah Allah” at home with the oldies, and not spoil the fun of others by coming to weddings and functions. Others gave me apologetic smiles, fumbled with their dupattas, or perched them on their heads as soon as they saw me.
Amongst all these reactions, what I wanted was fairly simple. I just wanted everyone to treat me as they always had, like a normal person. Just let me be. I wasn’t abnormal. I was just a non-conformist who wanted to follow her religion. I was a woman making a choice, which is normally perceived as a sign of emancipation. It was strange to me that my dressing differently was seen by some as a sign of oppression, and worse, extremism.
As the years have passed, life is better. Today, due to globalisation and a more open-minded approach towards life, people, and especially the youth, are more accepting of who people are. My daughter’s teenaged friends are less judgmental than their counterparts in my college days.
Yet even now, I have to fight the stereotypical image of a hijabi every day. I have to smile a little extra to show people that I have not donned the hijab owing to a depressive phase or a mental breakdown. Until I utter a few intelligent sentences, people who meet me for the first time assume I am conservative, and worse, a brain-washed or unintelligent person. I find my male counterparts have to go through the same thing because they have a beard or wear their pants above their ankles.
Through it all, amazingly, I have remained the same person. I want to look and feel good, achieve my goals, and enjoy life, but within the framework I believe has been defined by my faith. And thankfully, I am not angry or bitter. I understand where people are coming from. I only wish they understood where I am coming from!
I have also been fortunate enough to meet those – and there are many – who are genuine liberals: they accept the right of every individual to use their freedom of choice. And if someone uses that freedom of choice, like me, to dress a certain way, these true liberals accept that. They do not see me in the context of what I wear, but gauge me in light of what I do and who I am.
Now I would like to reproduce a pic that came in the leading newspaper in my hometown Chennai; will not add any comments, pictures speak louder than words, don’t they ?
Wet spell:The rain provided a much needed respite from the heat. A scene in Triplicane on Sunday. —
And now a balanced article on a young lady from my home state, who wrote a novel recently, titled Kite Strings:
Kite Strings; Andaleeb Wajid, Cedar Books, Rs. 175
This is the young writer Andaleeb Wajid’s first novel and after you read it, your predominant feeling is that Kite Strings deserves a better editor. Mistakes mark the book, ranging from small typos to glaring grammatical errors but here’s the thing: they don’t mar the book. Which leads this reviewer to fall back on that old cliché, of Wajid’s story being a small gem of a tale, somewhat begrimed but still shining through.
Wajid’s work is a slice of life, a Muslim slice-of-life in particular. Set in Bangalore, with much of the emotional drivers placed in an old house in Vellore, Kite Strings is the story of young Mehnaz who is both the catalyst of and observer to all that befalls her immediate family. Mehnaz’s world is peopled by a mere handful of individuals but each and every one of them leaves some kind of impact on her. She goes to school, then college, fighting with her somewhat conservative mother to not wear a burkha at both the educational institutions. She wins that fight but there’s no rush of triumph here; she is pragmatic enough to know some of the bigger battles waiting round the corner could well be lost.
On a terrace in Vellore, to which place Mehnaz and family return often and on, a small romance unfolds, full of potential but then, stops at the very verge of becoming a full-blown one. Mehnaz loves her father unconditionally, has a somewhat complicated relationship with her mother even though that, too, is underpinned with affection; she is negligent then sorry about her relationships with others, be it her brother Mateen, the young household help Aasia or her cousin Rehana. Ammi’s approval is the undercurrent that informs the narrative throughout, in a very credible manner.
If Mehnaz is impatient of the unseen but very much felt kite strings that tether the girl to a stolid foundation, it is just that and not much more…the impatience every young girl on the threshold of life and love feels. It doesn’t turn to rebellion for Mehnaz only because she is firmly grounded in her feelings for her family, her concern for their well-being and actually, her unusually (for such a young girl) clear-headed thinking. There is no existentialist angst, in itself refreshing in a story about a girl coming to terms with all that life holds in waiting for her.
A little lost
Either through editorial indifference or because the author wanted it so, several terms exclusive to Mehnaz’s world, the different azans, the typical festival foodstuffs, are all italicised but left unexplained. Which actually, isn’t too bad a device. Again, the story never really moves too far from Mehnaz’s milieu, which again, is good.
This is no account of someone breaking free from the hijab-burkha-purdah shackles. It would be easy for the reader to read more into the story of Mehnaz but clearly, Wajid does not intend this to be a ‘ freedom-at-21′ tale. Through Kite Strings, the reader gets a glimpse into the lives of a small clutch of Lababin Muslims from Tamil Nadu. To repudiate that this is a Muslim story would be to repudiate the very essence of Kite Strings. However, it is more than just a story about a set of Muslims. Substantially more.
Photo: By Special Arrangement
Courageous steps: Andaleeb Wajid.
Wajid’s style is fancy-free, direct. At some point, Ammi asks Mehnaz: “When will you learn which things in life are important, Mehnaz?” Well, we think Mehnaz, whom we have come to like, is doing just fine.
I am Andaleeb, a writer
I ‘m grateful, as a first-time author, for any attention my book garners. Having said that, I am flabbergasted when I meet with questions like: why didn’t you write this book in Urdu? How come you wear a burkha? There seems to be a big disconnect between my work and my personal appearance.
Agreed, Mehnaz, the heroine in my Kite Strings is a Muslim girl, someone who has nascent rebellious feelings against the veil and all it implies. But Mehnaz isn’t me. I wear the hijab all the time when I am in public. I am comfortable with my headdress. It doesn’t escape me however that often, others become a bit uncomfortable when they see me in hijab.
Why? I’m just another working woman, mother of two small children, juggling home, kids and writing, it’s just that I wear the hijab. Is that really such a big deal?
Actually, Mehnaaz is not a rebel…the book is about growing up and part of that territory includes self -doubt, conflicted emotions about the slots we occupy in life.
I finished Kite Strings in 2005 and then the hunt for a publisher began. Thirteen rejections and some major editing later, I was ready to shelve the book for a while. Only for a while, mind you; somewhere inside I believed it to be a good book and was resolved to even do the rounds of publishers all over again, after a brief hiatus.
Then I found Cedar Publishers and they published the book. Most people who have read it have liked it. I’m glad but I do want to tell readers that I am not Mehnaz, my protagonist. I did my schooling in a convent, I come from a fairly liberal background, I have the most supportive of parents, husband and in-laws. I never had and still don’t have to do much explaining or justifying for my background, the way I dress or behave. Yes, I too had doubts about the burkha when I was younger. I used to wear Western wear to college, but very rarely. I don’t miss it and I don’t wear it at home either. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it, just that it’s out of my comfort zone now. I hope that people like me will bring about a change in the common perception that the hijab or burkha oppresses you.
I do have a problem when my book gets slotted into the ‘chick lit’ or ‘young adult fiction’ category. It is the story of a young woman standing on the threshold of life and love and in my opinion, it cuts through categories.
As for the undeniable fact that some people tend to judge me by my clothing: well, I dress this way because I want to. In my teens, I did go through a period where I found the burkha restricting. Some years ago, I enrolled for a class in Islamic studies and part of my evolution, spiritual and physical, was the total and complete acceptance of the hijab. Now, this is who I am, this is what I wear. It is part of me.
Today, I am in a happy place. I am very comfortable with who I am, comfortable in my skin, with my religious identity. I get comments on my website from Muslims, saying they are proud of me. That makes me a tad uncomfortable because I really did not set out to be any kind of role model. I’m just me, Andaleeb, a writer.
Now, once again from Dawn, by one of the most significant writers in the sub-continent today, Mr. Nadeem Paracha. I will go with this, for sure.
A few weeks ago a young lady wrote a moving blog for dawn.com called ‘Confessions of a hijabi,’ she predictably rambled on about how painful it has been for her to hold on to her hijab in the face of taunts by the people around her.
The event that inspired her to write this piece is rather telling. She says she watched My name is Khan and was extremely moved by a scene in which the hijab-wearing heroine is physically assaulted by an American man. This was enough for her to scribble her own story. But the problem is that her story takes place in Pakistan. One was thus left wondering how can a fictionalised account taking place in a distant western country be so conveniently associated with the status of hijabis in Pakistan.
Do correct me when I say that never has there been a (reported) case in Pakistan in which a woman was physically assaulted or humiliated just because she wore a hijab. It’s quite the opposite, really. The blogger belongs to that class of young, educated, urban dwellers who have enthusiastically embraced the many symbolic identity-forming symbols offered to them by a string of Islamic evangelists.
So how did we come to this?
In the wake of the collapse of the secular-nationalist narratives in the Muslim world (propagated by ideologies such as the Baath, Arab Socialism, Islamic Socialism (and what is called liberal Islam), a new narrative emerged. This narrative (first advocated by the likes of Ali Shariati and Syed Qutb and Maududi before him) generated what is now called ‘Islamism’.
This narrative was highly political and advocated aggressive participation in the political process so that the state and society could be ‘Islamised’ from above. However, by the end of the anti-Soviet ‘Afghan jihad’ and more so, after the spectacular failure of political Islam to radically transform Muslim countries into Islamic states (either through revolution or democracy), there resulted two distinct outcomes.
First was the mutation of various Islamist movements into desperate and violent pockets of neo-fundamentalist terror groups. The carefully structured political and revolutionary narratives of the early Islamists that began making their way into various vital political discourses in the Muslim world from 1973 onwards became somewhat nihilistic after facing repetitive failures at the hands of the state and government.
The failure of the more gradualist strain of Islamism also lay in its total rejection of social, sectarian and ethnic diversity in a Muslim country. It saw the Muslim community (ummah) as a homogenous whole, thus losing out to secular and quasi-secular political parties that not only accept this diversity but actually encourage it.
Secondly, beginning in the mid-1970s, the state in Muslim countries began to co-opt the Islamic symbolism and gestures being propagated by the Islamists thus rendering void their criticism of the state as being ‘un-Islamic’. The emergence of Quranic verses on public and government buildings, the airing of azaan on radio and television, everyday sentences prominently punctuated with Islamic lingo (Jazzakallah, Insha Allah, Masha Allah, Allah hafiz, etc.), are the cases in point. In other words, the state in most Muslim countries that once paid homage to secular nationalism changed its façade at the rise of the Islamist narrative in society.
The second outcome of the political failure of Islamism was that many Islamists began retreating from the political arena. They now decided to Islamise society from below. This trend witnessed the sudden growth of social preachers in drawing rooms and TV studios. But the successes of social Islamists has hardly ventured beyond making middleclass urbanites punctuate their language with frequent ‘Islamic’ words (mostly Arabic) or adorn what passes as being Islamic dressing.
Just like political Islamists, these social Islamists too are a product of modernity (as opposed to the fundamentalists who were/are a reaction to it). They do not reject education, science or the idea of women working. To them dressing up in an Islamic manner, regularly following Islamic rituals and replacing Urdu/Persian words with Arabic ones are a good enough start to the process of social Islamisation.
As an added feature they glorify their preaching and insist that their followers’ behaviour in this respect is noble and meaningful, as is obvious in our blogger’s narrative in which she imagines herself to be a non-conformist in a country where hijab is anything but uncommon, and when, in her equally imagined war against discrimination, she conveniently forgets that more harassment is faced by women without a hijab in this country than those adorning one.
Is this sheer hypocrisy, self-centred delusion, or a simple case of Islamism now losing its bearings on a social level just like its political version did in the political arena? Should we celebrate this disaster, or fear that Islamism’s social mutation and lost bearings will go on to generate something that is far more dangerous than the quirky act of a young man and or a woman wanting to have one foot in the holy sands of Arabia and the other on the streets of LA?
Now my own conclusion, if you please. What’s in a name ? The answer to that obviously may well vary, notwithstanding semantics in language and expression, and olfactory in senses – read, roses and such flowery stuff;
And especially if the question is..What’s in a dress ? …the answers may have greater passionate volatility, dictated as they are by social mores, religion, climates, history even, what have you.
Not many may recall this day, a favourite anecdote of my Dad, that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who most Bengalis on either side of the border of Bengal may still swear, did more than any other personage in the subcontinent, to move away from the yoke of subjugation, made his ingenuous way out of possible death by hanging, out of his Elgin Road residence in Calcutta, in a burqa.
That was just about the only interest that I ever could muster, on this particular form of attire. That it could acquire such astounding dimensions of controversy as it does today, in the international arena, should surprise as many across the world as it does me, in a country such as mine, still deemed as ” developing”, 63 years on, like its neighbours.
Such misuse of this form of attire was again made, in another day and age, 2007 to be precise, certainly in a more controversial and acerbic context, in our subcontinent, when in Islamabad, during the dramatic attack on the Lal Masjid, the Khateeb, Maulana Abdul Aziz, tried to make good his escape, but his luck did not hold good like the Netaji’s, as history will aver. Camouflage does not always succeed.
But if anyone who has read this far, would be kind enough to advise me about what kind of dress will get me closer to jannat, or swarkalogam, or paradise, or heaven, or anywhere thereabouts, or maybe just to obviate perdition, will be grateful for that, eternally.
And wherever, meet you sooner or later ! – Your place as good, better, certainly not worse, than mine !
And now, with this pic, would like to bring this confabulation from the time of Adam and Eve to a conclusion. That Artful Dodger little black brat Makhan-Chor, Nanda-la-la, whose Mum found no rope long enough to fetter the ruddy incorrigible prankster, ( did I hear you say that the kid should have died in the overwhelming floods that coincided with his birth ? ) and who clothed Draupadi unendingly in the vastraharan, worse, vamoosed with the damsels’ dresses as the nubile yet voluptuous beauties bathed in their birthday suits, today, as your read this, in the protective arms of a lovely beautiful burqa-clad lady :