Zaira Wasim, the child actor who gained immense popularity and critical acclaim from films such as Dangal and Secret Superstar, has decided to quit the profession as she thought it clashed with her faith.
Recalling her struggle to reconcile her Bollywood career and religion, she wrote, “While I continued to work in an environment that consistently interfered with my imaan [faith], my relationship with my religion was threatened.” One is instantly compelled to wonder which faith or religion is she referring to — is it Islam? If so, which version? And why did countless other Muslim women and men with successful careers as movie stars never raise this issue?
We just heard that British actor and model Zoha Rahman is breaking new ground for Muslim representation in films by playing the first hijab-wearing character in the upcoming sequel Spider-Man: Far From Home. Zoha Rahman’s film career is probably against her faith, if we were to believe Zaira.
Either Zaira Wasim got her faith wrong or everybody else did — because if the religion is the same, how can the rules be different?
Which faith says he can act — but she can't? (Photo: Screenshot/Still: Secret Superstar)
Scholars would tell you that rules might be different because they depend upon the interpretation of Islam. Much of the world’s problem, much of the violence and bloodshed is about the rigid, flawed, orthodox, narrow and bigoted interpretation of religion. There are many debates about which interpretation is the most authentic. There are suicide bombers who blow themselves up in the name of their faith. Young men from the Kashmir Valley quit their PhD research to join militant ranks in the name of faith.
From Zaira to the militants, the faith-based logic behind their actions is probably the same — only the outcome is different.
Every religion imposes restrictions over women’s body and spirit. For women such as Zaira, to embrace orthodox diktats rather than to challenge them is regressive — and it should be called out. The public debate over her radical decision should be welcomed. More particularly, liberal Muslims should speak up in favour of liberal values. Just as Muslims worldwide stand up and condemn acts of terrorism done in the name of Islam; just as thousands in India stood up and said ‘Not In My Name’ to condemn mob lynching in the name of Hindutva, everybody must also tell Zaira that faith, religion, customs, tradition — nothing should dictate women’s life choices.
One must be brave to challenge these diktats and not succumb to them. They must tell her that while her life choices are her own, she shouldn’t drag religion into it.
But ever since her announcement, liberals have mostly defended her on various grounds.
The choice argument
In most public debates about women’s lives, the choice argument is usually the easiest — but seldom the wisest. It is established that women’s choices are seldom free. Various factors influence their choices, from what Althusser described as ‘regressive state apparatus and ideological state apparatus’ to what Judith Butler theorised as ‘gender performativity’ or social conditioning, societal expectations, coercion and several others. It is true that women are free to choose but when they make such choices which fundamentally impact their growth, development, aspirations, public participation, financial independence, others have the responsibility to debate, discuss and enquire the reasons behind such choices.
Leaving them alone with their choices for better or worse is not the best approach.
Had that been, we would have not abolished Sati.
No he was a chamcha to Britishers who used him to defame the Sati tradition. Sati tradition was not compulsory but was introduced to prevent the prostitution of Hindu wives by the hands of Mughal invaders. It was the woman’s choice. #FeministsofIndia Sati was not regressive ???? https://t.co/sALLK2lALF— PAYAL ROHATGI & Team -BHAKTS of BHAGWAN RAM (@Payal_Rohatgi) May 25, 2019
Even when the choice is truly free, it does not mean it is above criticism. Our public actions and speeches have a social impact. A few days back, Indian TV star Payal Rohatgi met with severe social media backlash for glorifying the practice of ‘sati’. It was her choice to voice her personal opinion. When Sadhvi Pragya said drinking cow urine cured her cancer, she too faced criticism. Zaira’s views about her faith have the potential of sparking off debates around the pious women-fallen women binary or the practising-non-practising Muslim.
Conservative parents who think Bollywood is a bad place might scold young girls aspiring to join the film industry for going against their faith and show them Zaira’s example. Already, the so-called Hindu godman Swami Chakrapani is sermonizing Hindu women to follow Zaira's path.
The ‘what about…’ argument
Zaira’s supporters have resorted to pointing fingers at Nusrat Jahan and Vinod Khanna in her defence.
Apparently, nobody had any problem when Vinod Khanna quit films for religious reasons but Zaira is being selectively targeted for being a Muslim woman.
The other argument is that if people can accept Nusrat Jahan’s choice to wear sindur and mangalsutra — which are also regressive in certain perceptions — why should we object to Zaira’s choice?
Both the arguments are based upon false equivalence.
Bashfully unabashed: New MP Nusrat Jahan has been making waves in Parliament. (Photo: PTI)
Vinod Khanna’s story is in the distant past — the chattering crowd on social media today is largely unaware of the kind of response he received back when he got influenced by controversial godman Shree Rajneesh and quit Bollywood but I can assure them this much, nobody sang many praises. Most liberal thinkers have been always critical of the irrational influence of religion on personal liberties and are naturally critical of Zaira’s decision, nothing new is happening thus. Nusrat Jahan did not take a moral grandstand about wearing sindur or mangalsutra in the name of religion, so there is nothing to debate there.
The point of debate is not the decision but the public announcement of the reasoning getting sharp responses because it is about an important issue, religion and individual rights.
Identity politics in a secular India
Journalist Irena Akbar took to Twitter to hit out at ‘Hindu liberals’ who are criticising Zaira’s decision. According to Irena, they apparently don’t have the right to lecture Muslims on radicalisation because other Hindus are lynching Muslims.
To me, this inward-looking defensive identity politics leads to the question — whose responsibility is it to build a progressive, liberal, secular India where nobody is lynched in the name of religion? Is it only the State’s or do citizens have a responsibility too? Among citizens, is it only the responsibility of Hindu liberals or do Muslim citizens have a role too?
“Go reform your radicalised co-religionists,” says Irena to the Hindu citizens. But isn’t a large section of Hindu liberals already doing that? Are we not already resisting the forces of Hindutva to protect India’s secular and syncretic nature? Why must then our Muslim friends condemn our criticism so vehemently? If Hindus are barred from criticising certain aspects of the Muslim community, will it not further lead to polarisation and ghettoization?
Shame on Hindu liberals. At a time when your co-religionists are lynching Muslims in the name of your religion, the last thing you should do is lecture Muslims on radicalisation. You are a bunch of hypocrites. Keep off us. Go reform your radicalised co-religionists.— Irena Akbar (@irenaakbar) June 30, 2019
Secularism has many definitions. Primarily it means dissociation of religion and politics and in the academic sense, politics include public life, which is to say, as far as possible, religion should be a private matter kept away from public/political discourse. And the duty to create or protect the secular fabric is upon both State and citizens. When Hindutva men go about brandishing swords on Ram Navami, we speak up against it — why should Zaira’s public commentary about religion be above criticism?
Moreover, every citizen, whether from a majority or minority community, is expected to hold a liberal, progressive outlook and pursue religious reforms, scientific temperament, reason and logic. Doing so is both our right and part of our duties. It would be unfair if responsibilities and expectations are held by the majority community alone.
Unfortunately, and I stick my neck out and say it, every time there is a religious debate in India where the Muslim orthodox try to justify their actions in the name of faith, it exposes how unwilling the minority community is to concede even an inch of space. From the Shah Bano case to banning books like The Satanic Verses to outrage over a cartoon, there are innumerable incidents where the State has been forced to treat minority sentiments with more caution than they usually do for the majority.
The allegations of minority appeasement are not completely baseless. Maybe the minorities never wanted it, and it happened for vested political interests. Nevertheless, the way forward is to not pit one conservatism against another or look inward — but to open up.
The age argument
Lastly, when all other logic fails, those defending Zaira bring in the age argument.
She is merely 18 years old, she is figuring out her life, so we should ignore her. Some of the commentators on Twitter asked why 50-plus women are questioning a mere teenager? Zaira has let religion decide the course of her life and publicly announced it. She is either wise or mature enough to deal with the ramifications of her actions or she is immature and misguided, in which case she should be told right from wrong.
It’s now up to Zaira’s supporters have to figure out which one is she.
To conclude, I believe talented Kashmiri youth like Zaira are increasingly feeling alienated in a hostile, polarised atmosphere and certain forces are exploiting the situation. Taking advantage of their weakness and fears, they are being misguided and led on to a dark path which they think faith commands them to choose.
It is a choice, but a radical choice. We should pull them back and take them to light — rather than encourage their decision.