In August 2019, the Indian Government considerably increased the military presence in Kashmir, put a majority of Kashmiri political leaders under house arrest, shut down all communication including land-line phones, and then announced that it was abrogating article 370 of the Constitution, which gave the state of Jammu and Kashmir relative autonomy and entitled Kashmiris to specific rights. While Kashmiri voices were silenced, there were celebrations in other states of India at this ‘merging’ of Kashmir with the rest of the country. Since then, the area has remained under lockdown, with selective access to communication and technology. Even as the government claims that everything is normal in Kashmir, reports are slowly seeping out of mass arrests, breakdown of healthcare and basic services and systematic violence by the Indian army. This piece was written before the abrogation and subsequent forcible seclusion of the Kashmiri people from the rest of the world. It concerns a statement by a Kashmiri actor that created a momentary media and social media storm before disappearing into the oblivion of forgotten news. How this statement was covered and presented may help us to think about the ways in which assertions of difference, when rooted in religion, make modern responders, especially liberal feminists, uncomfortable, leading to hostility.
Picture Courtesy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zaira_Wasim_snapped_on_sets_of_Rajeev_Masand’s_show_(04)_(cropped).jpg
In July 2019, 18-year old Kashmiri-born, award-winning Muslim actor Zaira Wasim wrote a detailed post on Facebook announcing her intention to withdraw from acting. The post began in a way that is familiar to a lot of people midway in their careers across the world – she talks about starting something five years ago (a career in the Hindi film industry), gradually realising that it is not for her and of the pressure on her to become someone else. She went on to say that her profession interfered with her Iman, her relationship with her faith. She talked at length about her struggle over being appropriated by the state to preach an anti-Muslim agenda, and then about her return to religion, which she identified as providing solace from these challenges, giving her the courage to walk away from a profession that brings money and fame, the twin pillars of definitive success in the late-capitalist world. At one point she said, ‘This journey has been exhausting, to battle my soul for so long.’ A piece of advice that she offered is to not look for role models or measures of success in the transgressions of Allah’s commandments. In this context, she talked of the need to extend understanding and not ‘judge, abuse, belittle, or mock’ those who do not understand the need for such a change but instead reinforce correct understanding by reminding each other of it. She ended this section of her post by saying: ‘And we must do so not by ramming facts down each other’s throats by abuse or hostile behaviour or through violent disapprovals, but it can only be done through kindness and mercy that we can affect the people around us.’
Zaira’s decision was debated on almost every news channel in India. The most conservative Muslim men defended her action, cast in the debate as ‘the other’ point of view, erasing Zaira’s agency, while anchors and other participants preached feminism to reiterate that her decision and any defence of it reinforces the ‘fact’ that Islam is an oppressive religion. Given the deeply Islamophobic nature of the mainstream news channels and social media in India, this is not surprising. However, looking at ‘both sides’ of this question in such a manner actually silences ‘the other’ interpretation of her action; the only way in which this debate gets framed is through feminism, women’s bodies and the nature of choice – is it really free or not? There is another way of thinking about this issue; however: the mainstream is only comfortable with choices made in the language of individualism. The only acceptable way of negotiating the world we live in is ‘secular modernity’, while other ways of negotiating, including the religious, are construed as misguided at best and potentially dangerous in terms of setting a precedent.
A variety of female actors have either quit or taken long breaks from the Hindi film industry, where women of a certain age are relegated to the margins, as in other film industries around the world. This remains the norm even as it is challenged and changed by a few stakeholders here and there. The point is not to castigate these women for their particular life choices but to point out that some contexts release more anxieties than others. The idea that a young girl who quits a particular profession is throwing her life away if she does it for religious reasons is not solely benevolent sexism; it also encapsulates a hostility towards religion as occupying any significant place in life, beyond an anodyne celebration of festivities.
An insightful piece by Hafsa Kanjwal breaks down the chief aspects of this hostility and raises a number of important issues, foregrounding the Islamophobia that brings together right-wing nationalism and liberal feminism under the same umbrella. She also refers to Zaira’s previous discomfort at the attempts by the Indian news media to co-opt her as a symbol of, and role model for, Kashmiri youth. She belongs to a troubled area, and a polity that does not care to have a referendum to ask the Kashmiri people what they want, and is happy to reinforce the narrative that the success of any Kashmiri person at a national level reflects an underlying wish to be part of that nation. Such earlier co-option of Zaira presages the sinister presence of the state. What I want to argue is simply this: there is no one way to be a feminist, just as there is no one way of including religion in one’s life. We live in a world where many worlds are possible and owe it to each other to respect the worlds we build and inhabit together.