Nazia Erum's book, Mothering a Muslim, on segregation faced by Muslim kids creates shockwaves

Jan 14, 2018, 11:40 IST | Jane Borges

As Noida-based Nazia Erum's book on segregation faced by Muslim kids creates shockwaves, mid-day gets stories that show this is also a Mumbai problem

Nazia Erum, author, Mothering A Muslim. Pic/Vijay Laxmi
Nazia Erum, author, Mothering A Muslim. Pic/Vijay Laxmi

It took a Hindi essay on 'Gaay' (cow) for 35-year-old Mubashira Sheikh to realise that the school in Andheri West where her daughter was studying spelled trouble. "The teacher had dictated an essay that the students were expected to learn by rote for a test," recalled Sheikh of the 2016 incident when her daughter was in Std III. The Andheri resident, who teaches mathematics and science, at a school in Mumbai Central added, "When my daughter came home and showed me the essay, I was shocked. The last sentence of the piece read, 'the cow is a sacred animal and is worshipped by all Indians'."

Being an educationist, Sheikh found the religious undertones of the essay problematic. "I decided to talk to the teacher. But, instead of hearing me out, she yelled at me," she said. Not being one to give in so easily, Sheikh told her daughter not to learn that line. "She agreed, but lost a mark in that test." The following year, Sheikh admitted her child, now in Std V, into another school, fully knowing that she had only found an easy route to circumvent the issue, and not really solve it.

A new book, titled Mothering a Muslim (Juggernaut Books), by Noida-based writer, entrepreneur and TedX speaker Nazia Erum, takes a deep dive into these everyday concerns plaguing parents of the Muslim community in India. Her year-long research, which involved reaching out to 145 Muslim families across 12 cities — right from Delhi to the south, in Bengaluru — left her overwhelmed. "I wasn't ready for the stories that were going to be shared with me," confessed Erum, 30, adding that the book was initially meant to be positive memoir of a modern Muslim mother raising a child in an otherwise tumultuous, political environment after she delivered a baby girl in 2014. "But, I have cried while speaking to the parents and kids, and I have cried while writing this book," she said.

Zakia Soman, women's rights activist
Zakia Soman, women's rights activist

At the heart of Erum's book is the discrimination and intolerance that surrounds the experience of being Muslim, especially at the school-level, where name-calling and bullying on religious lines, have become commonplace. Almost 80 per cent of the parents Erum spoke with admitted that their child had suffered from the growing anti-Muslim wave in India — one that many believe has only peaked post the 2014 general elections.

Erum's neighbour Arifa Beig, for instance, claimed that both her boys, aged 16 and 12, had been called a Pakistani and terrorist. "And, it's so common," she had told her. Corporate worker Arshia Shah's daughter Azania Safiya Khan, who studies at a prominent Delhi school, had a more traumatic experience on the football field. "Get away from the ball, you Paki!" a boy from the rival team had yelled out to her. "The little girl slipped fearfully out of the football field. The boy was known to be aggressive and competitive. But, why had he called her a Paki? She felt confused and didn't know who to talk to and chose to remain silent," Erum writes in the book.

Then, there's the incident of seven-year-old Hassan from Bengaluru, who excitedly rushed to his friend's home for his birthday party only to be sent back home by the boy's mother. "Hassan came back crestfallen. He went to the balcony overlooking the neighbour's where his friends had gathered. They shouted asking Hassan why he had left the birthday party. Hassan just stood there looking very sad, he didn't have an answer," writes Erum. A few days later, when the birthday boy was playing at their home, Hassan's mum decided to ask him what had happened. "He answered that his mother had instructed him to not invite Hassan as 'Woh log humse different hain, hum unhe nahin invite kar sakte. [Those people are different and so we cannot invite them.]"

Though Erum's research highlights the stark polarisation within schools in India, especially in the regions of South Delhi, Noida and Gurugram, the experiences in the more, cosmopolitan megalopolis of Mumbai are no different. City-based educationist Fr Francis Swamy, principal of St Mary's School (ICSE) and manager of St Xavier's High School, told mid-day that stereotyping and bullying are rampant at several schools in the city. While Swamy doesn't recall any such case being reported in his own schools, he does believe that today's kids are most vulnerable to the hate-infused environment because of the constant "bombarding of information from both, print and visual media". "Global events post 9/11, have also led to the systematic, demonisation of the Muslim community," said Zakia Soman, women's rights activist.

Freelance journalist and mother Nasrin Modak-Siddiqi recalls how around two weeks ago, when she took her kids to play at a park in Kurla, she happened to eavesdrop on a conversation between two other mothers. "They were talking about Muslims and so, naturally I got curious," she said. "I don't exactly know what their grouse was, but by the end of the chat, I heard one of them say, 'All these people should go back to Pakistan'," she added. "I felt the urge to confront them, but my kids were with me, and so, I didn't think it was the right time to put up a fight."

Nothing, however, comes close to the humiliation experienced by Mubeen Javed (named changed on request) at a reputed South Mumbai college, around 12 years ago. Javed, 30, who is originally from Kashmir, remembers being grilled by the vice-principal of the college, when he requested for a form so that he could apply for the Commerce degree course. "After she learnt where I hailed from, she listed out a set of documents that I would need to procure, if I was keen on applying. Among other things, she asked me to get a character certificate from two reputed citizens of Kashmir and a letter from the police, stating that I had a clean record. I didn't know how to react then…I was all of 18," Javed said. Even today, some of his friends address him as terrorist. "They say it in jest, and I take it sportingly, but I can only imagine, how a sensitive person would react," he said.

MP Qasmi, director of Markazul Ma'arif, which focuses on educational programmes for Muslims, has had several parents relay haunting stories of their children's plight in city schools. He cautioned, "Such bullying will only lead to feelings of insecurity. And, insecurity breeds intolerance, which in turn breeds injustice. Injustice is the root cause of terrorism. I worry for our children's future."

Erum's book also touches upon how the widespread notoriety surrounding the radical nature of the religion has pitted members of the community against each other. "Often, Muslims don't mix with other Muslims," she writes in the book. The writer narrates the story of Dr Farrukh Waris, who retired as the principal of the Burhani College of Arts and Commerce in Mumbai. Her son, Sadayaan, 26, had gone to study at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, and the whole family was elated. "When Sadayaan returned home after a few months for his holidays, it was towards the end of Ramzan. He told his mother that he had been fasting through the holy month. Dr Waris was very surprised. 'I said very good, but who gives you sehri and iftari at ISB?' Sadayaan told her that there were six or seven other Muslim students at ISB and all of them were fasting. So they made a group and each one brought one food item that they shared with the others. Dr Waris recounts the sudden fear she felt as she heard her son's story. 'I don't like this. Please be afraid, be very afraid. Be frightened of others who are bringing so much of religion to an institution like ISB. Have you checked on their backgrounds?'", Erum writes. "Sadayaan laughed and reassured his mother that all the other mothers of the boys were saying the same thing to their sons." Soman added that the "attitude of religious leaders also doesn't help the situation". "If leaders are going to come out with patriarchal utterances on issues like triple talaq, it's definitely not going to help the community," said the rights leader.

While writing the book was an eye-opener, Erum believes that the denial of the existence of the problem could prove to be a huge impediment in any future recourse. She admitted that some Muslim parents she spoke with, refused to even believe that bullying on religious lines was a possibility. Her cousin in Faridabad, for instance, was appalled. "No way. Things aren't that bad yet," she told her. "If we continue to deny the existence of this problem, and continue to look away from it, we are being very selfish," said Erum. Fr Swamy agrees. "Even educationists are refusing to admit that there is a problem," he said. "At St Mary's school, we have been ensuring that the morning assemblies focus on all religions, and not alone Christianity. Over the last few years, we've also been holding inter-religious prayer services, where we're inviting leaders from different religions to speak on certain topics. Until and unless, we don't acknowledge the problem, we won't be able to find constructive ways to deal with the issue," he said. "Truth is that I still don't know what I will tell my three-year-old daughter, when she comes home, and says, 'Mama, why was I called a terrorist?'" said Erum. "But, these conversations need to begin because hate is in the air."

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