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On Zaira Wasim’s deep surrender

The idea of ‘free choice’ gets a blow when the choices women make fit into a clear, distinguishable pattern

Zaira Wasim, the young superstar from Kashmir, has been in the news for a while now. Her letter on why she left cinema and acting is a reflection of a deep surrender that a young woman made towards her faith (or society?). Let it be outrightly clear, that her decision should be supported univocally, by one and all. But since she wrote a public letter—for India’s one billion people to read—it is only obvious that she chose a dialogue. In a free society, propagation of your ideas will and should generate scrutiny, and counter ideas, none of which should necessarily be seen as harassment.

The first issue that arises is the question of choice: Why bother with what an adult woman chooses to do with her body, her career? Should this be our concern? The answer is not a clear no. A “choice” is defined as an “act of choosing between two or more possibilities”. Inherent is an assumption that every possibility is as free to be chosen as the other. If it isn’t, it is not really a free choice. The liberals understand this when they talk of merit and privilege, but they do not, when it comes to Muslim women. The idea of “free choice” also gets a blow when the choices women make fit into a clear, distinguishable pattern. And the pattern, in this case, translates into a dearth of Kashmiri Muslim women in art, culture and Bollywood, with many of them getting threatened into quitting. Zaira’s “choice” fits perfectly into this swatch.

In December 2012, Kashmir’s first all-women band was formed. It was called “Pragash”, which means dawn. It started with a bang, with them winning the Battle Of The Bands competition. And with publicity came death threats, rape threats, acid attack threats. It was as if a pack of wolves had descended on a small rabbit just out of its burrow. The then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah went against the popular wave in the Valley and tweeted in their favour. He later deleted those tweets. All that is left of the band is a Wikipedia page and stories of women who decided to quit in silence. There are rumours that Tajamul Islam, Kashmir’s kickboxing champion, has also quit.

Interestingly, Kashmiri society at the same time celebrates MC Kash, a band by Roshan Illahi. It went gaga over singer Qazi Touqeer and Roman Shawl, a model who regularly posts his photos, many of which are reflective of his deep intimacy with Sushmita Sen. You see no controversy there, no death threats. There is an undercurrent in the deeply Islamic and patriarchal society of Kashmir to push women to the realm of a “respectable, chaste domesticity”. This realm now isn’t necessarily confined to the kitchen: it has broadened to include “respectable professions”. A Hijab wearing, five-time namazi doctor is the ideal. A bank employee who stays too late in the office is on the fence. An actress is a whore. And those who rock the boat often are made to pay a violent price.

What is deeply problematic about Zaira Wasim’s letter is that it is the celebration of the same spirit that silenced Pragash and will force other Muslim women to stay within the realm of what is “chaste”. It marks clearly boundaries that are set for women. Zaira is not an ordinary woman, she may be young but she is in a position of power: the media follows her, she dines with celebrities, she appears in movies with the Khans. When women in positions of power make a statement, they set a trend, a new unstated norm. And that is why Zaira should have quit quietly without doing a disservice to those who do not get to make such choices—of joining the world of arts as and when they please.

Her letter goes on to say how her Imaan and acting are inconsistent and at odds with each other. Long before Zaira jumped into a newly-discovered Muslim identity, Bollywood has run on the shoulders of Muslim giants—from Dilip Kumar to Shahrukh Khan, Shabana Azmi to Farhan Akhtar. There is a distinct Hindustani-Islamic base that Bollywood thrived on. Coming back to Kashmir, music is an intrinsic part of Kashmir’s Sufi culture: Gaewun in shrines, Naat Sharif and Sufi kalaam form a part of both romance, marriages, and sainthood at the same time. It is Zaira’s choice to choose what interpretation of Islam she goes with, but it is possible for us to respect her choice, while disagreeing with the ideas that dictate her choice. It is reflective of a clear trend of slowly-pervading Wahabism in the Muslim world through out.

A mere Google search shows that Muslims form 24 per cent of the world population, but in the 21st century have had a total of 12 Nobel laureates. Sam Harris once noted that Spain translates more books into Spanish each year than the entire Arab world has translated into Arabic since the ninth century. Which brings us to deal with a stagnant Muslim community that refuses to leave its well, that refuses to open its eyes to where the world has progressed in terms of science, art, culture, mathematics, astronomy and so on. Zaira Wasim’s letter is an assertion of the same spirit that ties the Muslim community to the ground: a perpetual, unending obsession with theology. But was it just a newly-discovered religiosity that pushed her to take this step?

Rumours in Kashmir speak of a grim story. Zaira’s house is not very far from the place where some groups of stone pelters regularly wave the ISIS flags. It is not a safe, elite gated-colony. Could there have been threats? Possibly, yes. The alarm bells had been ringing for far too long. An article published in the Scroll, “Trolling of Actress Zaira Waseem reminds young Kashmiris of the limits of their social freedom”, conveyed the undercurrents in the valley as early as 2017.

There is another lesson to be learnt here for India’s TRP-hungry TV news media: to not trump up Kashmiri Muslims who have chosen unconventional careers as “role models” for others in the Valley. TV anchors in their studio tribunals often use these “role models” and dictate that the common folks in Kashmir need to learn from them. This sets a spark of resentment and the “role models” are then inevitably looked on as “enemies”. Zaira had to clarify that she is not and never was a role model. Shah Faesal had to publicly denounce the constant “Shah Faesal vs Burhan Wani” headlines. Kashmiris who are pushing the boundaries do not need saviours, least of all from a fraternity that Kashmiris perceive as insensitive. These TV news anchors help only in fanning fires in the main-land and the Valley. Besides, halos are heavy for people who do not have a choice but to live with their neighbours.

There are too many speculations, rumours, and a constant finger-pointing going on. But whatever Zaira succumbed to—it was a surrender, either to faith or to society. A decision taken too early, too hastily and too loudly.

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