Nazia Erum means business. The happiness and peace of mind of her own daughter is at stake, so she is a mother on a mission and the title of her book, Mothering a Muslim, is most apt.
In 2014, as India “stood divided along religious fault lines”, Erum held her newborn daughter and wondered whether to give her a Muslim-sounding name, which led to the question: what were the challenges exclusive to a Muslim mother not only in India, but in an increasingly polarised world? To find an answer, she reached out to 145 families across 12 cities in India — families that were not ghettoised, but staunchly Indian, who lived the idea of India in their day-to-day lives. What she found from interviewing a wide variety of Muslim women was a single story: their children were targets of hyper-nationalism and Islamophobia in classrooms and playgrounds and that this Islamophobia cuts across class and economics. To prove this Erum names the schools, but insists that the situation is not a reflection of the schools but of the society we have become. The consequences are frightening, for these bullied children become hate-filled adults, who are the voters of the future. As she chillingly puts it, “hate affects not just the tormented but the tormentor.” Erum insists that this is not a lone mother’s fight, but a fight for all of us.
Her book is a compilation of the results of her research, but it is not just a collection of stories and statistics. It is well put together and movingly articulated. Erum begins by throwing the reader into a real-life situation that is shocking, ironic, funny and sobering at the same time — a Muslim couple is driving to Aligarh with their five-year-old daughter. As they go through a small town, their car passes through a crowd of white-clad worshippers dispersing from a mosque after the Friday prayers. The little girl panics, ducks under the back seat and screams in terror: “The Muslims are coming… they will kill us!”
It plunges us into the heart of the problem. More incidents follow, in a variety of contexts, all imaginatively re-created, all leading to the general conclusion that division has increased over the years, with a rise in Hindu right-wing sentiment in the past decade and unmistakable changes after the national election campaigns of 2014. Following the latter, people have become more open about their feelings about Muslims. All this is reflected in the talk and behaviour of their children with most cases going unreported or being dealt with casually.
Moreover, this phenomenon is not restricted to India, but happens in many countries, “most visibly in the United States after its 2016 presidential campaign … Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.”
The third chapter of Erum’s book focuses on the effect of putting children into sections according to their language options, with Muslims choosing Urdu and Hindus Sanskrit. This may seem a reasonable strategy for ease of timetabling, but it has serious implications in that identities are being constructed on the basis of language, further widening the divide. Restricted to sections with only their co-religionists, whole generations are growing up with friends from only their own religion.
Having given the reader a vivid picture of the situation, Erum goes on to explore the consequences of this divide: Muslims are becoming more and more self-conscious, “always on the backfoot, trying not to make mistakes.” They practice self-censorship and prepare their children for bigotry — bigotry which extends not only to other children, but to their parents, administrative authorities, the police and even Indians abroad: “From the mundane to the marked, everything goes through a scanner in the head from the viewpoint of being a Muslim. Can I sell my vehicle on OLX? Who knows who might buy and use it for what purpose? Can I ask for water from my neighbour?”
This may be deplorable, but the other consequence is downright frightening. It is examined in a chapter fittingly entitled ‘Reluctant Fundamentalists’. It is a development which makes parents look with anxiety at any increased religious activity or bonding with other Muslims on the part of their children. Jihadists are usually able to pull youth in by offering ‘acceptance’ in a world that rejects them. And in case you think these children are from among the poor and disadvantaged sections of society, the author informs us that only one-fifth of youngsters recruited by the so-called Islamic State studied at madressahs. The rest went to regular schools and many who are involved in international terrorism are well-educated.
“Everyone,” writes Erum, “has multiple identities … 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.” This leads her into an account of the harassment Muslims suffer from their own kind: the self-appointed custodians of the faith, cleverly named ‘The Haram Police’. In her typically frank style, the author puts it this way, “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.”
Erum traces the beginnings of this Islamic puritanism to the 1960s when Muslims began working in the Gulf states and came back with rigid ideas. This rigidity has been handed down. Here I would like to quote two passages which typify Erum’s creative gifts as a writer. The first lyrically recaptures the innocence of a bygone era: “The azan was an alarm clock for parents, a curfew to get back home for us kids, a segue into night after a cluttered day filled with school, friends and random visits from relatives — it was a lot of things to a lot of people — but never a war cry or an announcement of faith.”
In contrast, she employs a most apposite metaphor to describe the present situation: “Religion was not a live bomb that could go off at the slightest touch of irreverence.”
Despite the grimness of the experiences she relates, the author is optimistic in her epilogue and her message is specifically for mothers, underscoring again the relevance of her book’s title. “While men easily become political pawns, it is the need of the hour for women to rise. We are here, this is ours and we are part of the story that is India.”
This, the first part of the book, is brief — only a little over a hundred pages. It is followed by three appendices. The first is a list of schools in which the reported harassment took place. As she says earlier, this is not to defame the schools, but to prove how Islamophobia cuts across class and economics. The second, almost as long as the main book, contains excerpts from select interview transcripts. The author explains that she has included these “to give the reader a feel of the people who speak in these pages and to include many other voices that were left out.” Well, it does, but I did not find it as interesting to read as the first part, in which data is so well analysed, synthesised and creatively put across. The third and last appendix consists of suggestions for what can be done in schools and, to make sure schools pay attention, Erum opens this section with an account of a suicide prompted by religious stereotyping and bullying.
Erum may have started out from a need prompted by her personal experience, but her book has global relevance. She refers to the effect of “Trump Talk” on America’s schools, but we in Pakistan don’t need to look any further than our own country. When we read in her book about the marginalisation and humiliation of minorities, the self-censorship, the radicalisation of youth and the “Haram Police”, we are looking in a mirror.
Mothering a Muslim
By Nazia Erum