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The Fault in our Stars: The tale of Nusrat Jahan and Zaira Wasim, a clash of personal choice and religion

The Maulvis and the Maulanas and the Muftis, a huge chunk of which harbour extremely problematic opinions, hold great sway among the Muslim community. Merely education will not be sufficient to break their hold over the Muslim community.

During the course of the past couple of weeks, we witnessed a certain chain of events unfold involving two women from the entertainment fraternity. One was Nusrat Jahan Ruhi Jain, the newly elected Trinamool MP from Basirhat, and the other was Zaira Wasim, the fledgeling star from the Blockbuster movie Dangal featuring Aamir Khan in the lead.

Wasim created quite the stir on social media when she declared that she was quitting the movie industry as it led her astray from her faith. In defence of her assertion, she quoted extensively from the scriptures of her religious faith and penned a six-page letter announcing her decision.

Nusrat, on the other hand, took the internet by storm when she took oath in the Parliament with Vermilion glowing brightly from her parted hair and dressed in the traditional attire of a Hindu bride. She ended her oath with Vande Mataram, in a significant departure from other Muslim parliamentarians.

At the core of the matter were two women exercising their choice over personal matters. However, the reactions they elicited from expected quarters revealed quite a lot about the nature of the forces at play in our midst. It also spoke volumes about the mentality of the people who participated in the discussions revolving the two.

The reaction from Islamists was along expected lines. Even on the face of Apocalypse, this camp will not lose their consistency in matters involving women. Consistency, perhaps, is their only redeeming quality. While they praised Wasim for her personal choice, they pilloried Nusrat mercilessly for her decision to marry outside her religion and adopt the customs of her husband’s community. Deoband even issued a Fatwa against Nusrat for marrying Nikhil Jain.

Thus, quite clearly, a significant section of Muslims did not see the two decisions with the prism of personal choice. They evaluated them on the basis of whether they conform to the tenets of Islam.

The reaction from the ‘Rightwing’, too, was along expected lines. They celebrated Nusrat’s adoption of Hindu customs and criticized the tenets of Islam for Wasim’s decision. The overwhelming majority of them compensated for the vile abuses Nusrat received from her own community white a deluge of compliments while a lot of them refrained from criticizing Wasim herself. There was one section which asked people to remember that Nusrat belonged to the same party which engages in blatant Muslim appeasement and whose members are accused of murdering people for chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’, but they were in the remote minority.

In terms of ideological coherence, the ‘Rightwing’ reaction was much less consistent than that of the Islamists although it was just as tribal in nature. While they appreciated Nusrat for exercising her personal choice, they denied Wasim any agency in the matter by focusing primarily on the principles of the Islamic faith. And despite denying Wasim agency over her own, they reduced the controversies to a matter of personal choice.

The most amusing, however, was the reaction from liberal camp. While, by and large, they embraced the strategy of tactical silence towards the abuse Nusrat was subjected to, they defended Wasim’s decision by equating it with Nusrat’s, a personal decision. But the matter is a lot more complicated than that and they are perfectly aware of it. If the choice is between drawing a cartoon of a revered religious figure and a bullet on the head, it still can be considered a matter of personal choice but it really isn’t one, is it?

Liberals have failed spectacularly, and not entirely in unexpected fashion, to appreciate the tremendous pressure Wasim was facing from people in her own community. A couple of years earlier, she was targeted by Islamists for acting in a “polluted” medium and behaving in a manner that was contrary to the principles of her faith.

She was targeted after she met Mehbooba Mufti, the then Chief Minister of the state who was in alliance with the BJP. The extent to which entire episode affected her is unclear and will forever be a matter of speculation unless she opens up about it herself. However, it surely couldn’t have been a pleasant experience for such a young girl.

She isn’t the first Kashmiri Muslim girl who has quit her career due to similar reasons. Not too long ago, an all-girl music band from the state was forced to disband after they received threats from hardliners and Fatwas were issued against them. However, liberals have ignored this aspect of things entirely.

The same people who engage in a tirade against Hindu customs such as Karwa Chauth and the Mangalsutra, terming them instruments of Patriarchy, and accuse the Hindu women who celebrate such traditions of being brainwashed, are now reducing the entirety of Wasim’s decision as a function of her own personal choice.

There was considerably more pressure on her from her own community than any such pressure on Hindu women and yet, liberals portray them as victims of an evil Patriarchy while labelling Wasim’s decision as one made by a liberated independent woman. Thus, the liberal position on the matter is completely and utterly inconsistent with the ideals they preach.

If there was one portal which crossed all manners of decency regarding the whole matter, it is the Propaganda outlet JantaKaReporter. The outlet has actually published a report where it highlighted the political beliefs of Nusrat’s husband. According to the report, Nikhil admires Arnab Goswami and celebrated Narendra Modi’s victory in the 2014 General Elections.

Nikhil was vocal against the ‘Tukde Tukde’ gang and apparently wrote in a post in which he shared the link to Arnab Goswami’s debate on the matter, “#BanAntiIndiaElements, Democracy cannot be used as a tool for separatists & terrorists to fulfil their motive in India.” He also apparently said that the students were involved in the chanting of the anti-India slogans was possibly ISI recruits who should be banned. In another post, he told ‘Burhan and JNU lovers’ that democracy does not permit one to defend terrorism.

Thus, Nikhil’s opinions do appear to align with those of the ‘Rightwing’. However, since when is reporting on the completely normal opinions of the husband of an actress and politician, especially someone who has made absolutely no efforts whatsoever to attract media attention, considered appropriate? It was clearly done with mischievous motives, to subject the couple to even more harassment than what they have already have suffered.

Some liberals have even gone so far as to disassociate Wasim’s decision from Islam entirely. Priyanka Chaturvedi, who recently joined the Shiv Sena, accused Wasim of making Islam appear intolerant and claimed that she was doing a great disservice to her own religion.

Chaturvedi’s remarks describe perfectly what is wrong with liberalism. They wish to teach Islam to Muslims, Christianity to Christians, Hinduism to Hindus, Buddhism to Buddhists and so on and so forth. They live in a make-believe world where the only accurate interpretation of every religious scripture is the one which preaches liberal values.

Thus, it brings us to the heart of the matter. It is, at the end of the day, all about identity. That it was not merely about personal choice is amply revealed in the statements of the two actresses. Nusrat, responding to her critics, issued a short statement where she appealed to the country’s inclusive culture. Wasim, on the other hand, cited the scriptures of Islam.

Ultimately, it is a story of two women from the same community but from vastly different backgrounds and with starkly different personalities. Objectively speaking, there was much less pressure on Nusrat as she was already a popular star in the Bengali movie industry with all the right political connections.

On the contrary, Wasim is from a state that has been in the firm grips of Jihad for decades. Thus, while Nusrat grew up in circumstances where political ideologies held greater significance than religious ones, an overbearing Islamic community is all that Wasim has ever known. Thus, while Nusrat was empowered enough to defy her own community, Wasim is far too young and wasn’t able to.

Significantly, however, it does appear that Wasim truly believes her acting career was in contradiction with principles of the Islamic faith. Therefore, there is a great element of personal choice in her decision and her decision cannot be brushed away with claims of it being a consequence of Islamic intolerance. The Islamic community appears to have been far more effective than merely forcing her to submit to their will. They actually appear to have convinced her that she was in the wrong and inspired her to abandon her career in the movie industry. They have succeeded in winning over an ally, which is a far greater success that intimidating someone into silence.

Wasim’s decision holds great significance for Indian policy experts as well who have been tasked with the responsibility of containing the rise of radical Islam in the country. It also demonstrates why relying primarily on education to solve the menace of radicalization is unlikely to achieve much success. Wasim is as educated as any Muslim could ever be expected to be and yet, now, she is an ally of the fundamentalist sections of the Muslim community.

The Maulvis and the Maulanas and the Muftis, a huge chunk of which harbour extremely problematic opinions, hold great sway among the Muslim community. Merely education will not be sufficient to break their hold over the Muslim community. Deradicalization measures will succeed only and only if the power structures within Islamic society are destroyed. Without destroying the existing power structures, hoping for great reform within the community by solely relying on scholarships is chasing a fool’s paradise.

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K Bhattacharjee
Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.

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