By Taruni Kumar
On a trip to Aligarh with her parents, five-year-old Azania realised that their car was surrounded by a crowd of people returning from the noon prayer congregation at the local masjid. The road was full of worshippers in white kurta-pyjamas and skullcaps.
“The Muslims are coming… They will kill us!” Azania cried as her parents Arshia Shah and Harris Alvi looked at her with both surprise and amusement. Azania had somehow learnt that “the Muslims” were dangerous and would hurt her, a thought that her parents believe she may have picked up at her playgroup or nursery school.
“The little girl had internalised that Muslims were violent. How do you tell a five-year-old that she is what she fears?”
Nazia Erum’s new book Mothering a Muslim raises many questions like these that send the mind reeling. The name of the book sounds like a standard parenting title albeit from a religious point of view. But this is no instruction manual. The book explores the thoughts and dilemmas of a community that finds itself embattled in India’s current political climate. It raises questions about the difficult environment in which even relatively affluent Muslim children are growing up and goes on to analyse a crisis of faith of sorts that many middle-class Muslims are dealing with.
“What is a good age to tell a child that she belongs to a particular religion? When does a child begin to associate the sound of a name with a particular religion? These were not questions Arshia and Harris had asked of themselves.”
Erum, the founder of The Luxury Label, a workwear brand for women, writes that the focus of the book came from her own hunt for answers when her daughter was born. She discovered that very little had been written about the Muslim motherhood experience from an urban middle-class perspective. This led to her consciously looking for urban, educated Muslim women in an attempt to document their experiences and stories.
The focus on the experience of motherhood allows the book to explore the fears of Muslim women specifically. Erum documented the experience of what she calls the “authentic Muslim woman”, who she defines as just about any woman who practices Islam and identifies as Muslim regardless of stereotypical markers that are assumed to represent a Muslim woman such as the burkha or niqab.
“There was a feisty hijabi principal; a burkha-clad single mother of two who was an ex-Facebook and ex-Google employee; an Urdu- and paan-loving ‘patriarch’; a bob-haired child psychologist; a gynaecologist in a niqab; a district-level swimmer; a state-level basketball player; a dentist; an advocate; an IT professional; and a shayara.
My ‘authentic Muslim woman’ drives in her veil, she puts a bindi on her face. She is your neighbour, your child’s schoolteacher. She is everywhere if you care to look.”
This focus on women and their stories allows the book to take a distinctly feminist outlook on religion and identity. At one point, Erum comments on what is expected from Muslim women in terms of how they dress, look and behave. She talks about how if a Muslim woman wears the hijab or not is often used to judge her morality and ‘Muslimness’.
Meher Jalil, one of the women Erum spoke to, says, “Patriarchy is a devil in itself but when patriarchy gets mixed with religion, it is a very potent mixture.”
These Muslim women, along with their own stories of identity, speak of how they struggle with their children’s sense of identity. The stories Erum records speak of discrimination and stereotyping at the school level. The children of those interviewed have faced name-calling, Islamophobic jokes and nationalistic rhetoric that isolates Muslims in an us-versus-them way. One of the stories talks of a child being called a “paki” by a classmate. Another about an incident when a 17-year-old boy was casually called a “terrorist” during a fight. When his mother took this up with the mother of the name-caller, she was told that her son also called the other child names, specifically, “fat”.
What is more striking is that all these stories come from a demographic that is often called privileged, are in fact privileged, and assumed to be sheltered from discrimination. But Mothering a Muslim makes it more than evident that privilege is relative and in this case, being a member of a minority religion in India frequently trumps class privilege.
However, the most striking part of Erum’s book is when she goes beyond the trials of raising a child whose identity is Muslim. She brings up a key dilemma of being Muslim that seems to plague the community causing an internal crisis of identity. How to follow one’s religion while facing criticism for being either ‘too Muslim’ from the outside world or for ‘not being Muslim enough’ by their own peers. She mentions what she refers to as the ‘Haraam Police’: the people in a Muslim person’s life who take it upon themselves to police the actions of others and declare them not Islamic enough. She writes, “Today just as we must wear our nationalism on our sleeve for the world outside, similarly, we have to wear Islam on our sleeve inside the community. There is no tolerance on either side.”
But while on the one hand, the ‘Haraam Police’ dictates who is a good Muslim, on the other, overt displays of Islam trigger the fear of radicalisation. Erum brings this up in her book and speaks to mothers who talk about the fear that grips them when their children play violent video games or even if they show a touch too much religiosity. One story revolves around a colleague of Dr Waris, a woman Erum interviewed. Her colleague’s thirteen-year-old son started going to the mosque every day for the early morning Fajr prayers. While his mother was happy at how her son had embraced religion, when it was pointed out to her that there was a possibility he was being influenced by the wrong sort of ideas, his mother immediately restricted his mosque visits to Fridayprayers only. Parents’ fear of radicalisation among the younger generation is a real one. And this point comes out strongly in the personal stories told by the women Erum speaks with.
“Everyone has multiple identities. For me, the least important identity is that I am an Allahabadi as I have lived at various places. Being a mother is an important identity. Being a woman and a Muslim are also very important. Being an Indian is the most important identity. But all these identities are seldom spelt out in life. And yet, the one identity that every child does grow up hearing repeatedly is that of being a Muslim – both from the world outside and from within the community.”
The honesty that comes through in the stories of these Muslim mothers of Muslim children plays out alongside Erum’s own experiences – that of a Muslim mother struggling with the same questions.
“When I became a mother myself I immediately felt the weight of the task ahead. The year was 2014. And our country stood divided along religious fault lines. Within the minority Muslim population, a fear was palpable. As I held my little daughter, Myra, for the first time, the fear found a place in me too. I was worried about even giving her a Muslim-sounding name. But as an educated, working metropolitan woman, I wanted to reject this unnamed fear. I wanted to work towards a bright, positive future for my daughter. I wondered if that was possible.”