Guest blogger Andaleeb Wajid writes

16 Mar

Fighting prejudices

For a moment, I try to imagine what my life would have been like if my father had stayed in Vellore and not moved to Bangalore in 1980. It would have moved pretty much the same way I think. Getting married at 19. Having children by 20 and so on. But I doubt I’d have been able to be a writer. The reason for that is the poor opportunities that there are for education of girls in Vellore. Let me rephrase that a bit. For Muslim girls in Vellore.

So I might have been able to finish my tenth. And maybe plus 2 which is their equivalent for II PUC. But getting a degree would have only been a dream. Or maybe not. Maybe I would have been satisfied with whatever education I got there. So when I say that there are poor opportunities, it doesn’t mean that there are no good schools there. It only means that the Muslim girls there are conditioned from the time they are small to not consider education to be very important. The opportunities might exist, but are often over ridden by parents who want to get them married as soon as they attain the right age.

I haven’t lived in Vellore as a resident to know how different the education prospects are. I’m only a visitor there. I completely belong to Bangalore, even more so because I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for my education. And of course my father’s insistence that I do well. My father was never the type to encourage only my brother to study well because boys matter more. He wanted both of us to do equally well. In fact, the happiest memory I have is of the time when I was in eighth standard, two months before he died. I had got 25/25 in Maths, two times in a row, a fact that surprised me and my father. But more than surprise, I remember how thrilled he was and the pride he had felt that I had actually scored full marks.

So, where does fighting prejudices come here? I’ve had a good childhood Alhamdulillah. The only prejudices I faced in school were when my teachers insisted I ask my mother to make biriyani for the school tuck shop, because of the universal idea that Muslims eat biriyani for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (A pet rant which I tried to make into a book called More than Just Biriyani, which has unfortunately not yet taken off)

Another prejudice may have been when I heard a passing remark about how you Muslim girls get married and have babies, so what’s the use of your education but it didn’t rile me so much, because I was determined not to become one of them (how little I knew what was in store for me!)

But it was only after college got over that I noticed more things. I suppose all these prejudices were there from a long time but because my nose was always buried in books, I never really opened my eyes and saw it. The prejudice around my burkha.

As a teenager, I went through a mild period of rebellion. I didn’t like the burkha. It was too constricting and what was the point of wearing nice clothes when we had to hide it under the burkha? Over the years, that changed into resigning myself to the fact that I had to wear it on family occasions and whenever I went anywhere with my family. But I refused to wear it when I met my friends. I was two people at once. But I started noticing the prejudice that appeared in people’s eyes when they saw me in a burkha. Shopkeepers spoke in a condescending tone and they struggled to find the right words in Hindi or Urdu, assuming that I wouldn’t know English. But that was just the beginning.

Over the years, something inside me transformed. I cannot explain how, but I have come to accept the burkha as a part of me. It reflects who I am and wearing it in no way means that I am demure and shy. I can be strong and confident with it. In fact, I liken it to the power dressing that corporate women do. Yes, yes. Smile all you like. J Or did your eyes just pop out?

So, a couple of years ago when my book Kite Strings was released, I chose a burkha that looked more like a coat. It had padded shoulders and it made me look more confident about myself. Unlike the regular burkhas it didn’t soften my appearance. I admit, my friends are now used to seeing me in it. They do not find it odd at all. At least I hope so. But the journalists at the launch were a wee bit taken aback I think. After the launch, there was a question and answer session and one journalist (I don’t know which paper he wrote for) verbally attacked me all of a sudden. He wanted to know why I hadn’t written Kite Strings in Urdu.

I was taken aback. Where did that come from? I explained to him that I don’t know Urdu as well. But he refused to keep quiet. He went on rather irascibly about how a Muslim writer had translated her book from Malayalam or Urdu into English. I still didn’t understand his question. Had he wanted me to write in Urdu and then translate into English? Why? When I can write perfectly well in English? I tried explaining but he got heated up and he went on and on and on about why I couldn’t write in Urdu. I could sense Wendy m’am (my teacher who launched my book) and Christina(my friend who’s an author too, and who was on the panel with me) stiffening as this man went on. But for some reason, thankfully, I didn’t lose my cool. He finally asked me, why I didn’t write in my own language. I thank Allah for giving me the presence of mind to tell him that I consider English to be own language. He didn’t quite know how to pummel me further after that.

On and off, I’ve faced prejudices because of my burkha but I don’t let it bother me. I cannot carry around a sign around my neck telling people not to be prejudiced, right? One of the reasons for the prejudice is that people think I’ve been forced to wear this and they see me as being downtrodden. I beg to differ. I wear my burkha because it’s a part of my identity as a Muslim. Don’t Sikhs wear their turban for the same reason? Has anyone forced them to wear it? And how am I downtrodden when I’ve got an excellent education and support from a loving family which has helped me become a writer. In English.

Slight resentment flared up in me last week when I went to BIT. One of the fellow speakers had brought along his friend who was also an engineer. He wanted this other guy to speak to the students too.  Before we went on to the seminar hall, we were introduced and when Anu (Annapoorna, my friend who is a product of BIT too) told this man that I had written a book, this man raised his eyebrows, and asked if I’d written it in English.

I chose to keep quiet and let Anu talk for me because I decided that he would see for himself when I did get on stage to speak.

My friends are now used to me in a burkha and don’t think of it as being separate from me at all. Inshallah, there will be a day when it will be the case with everyone else also. But until then, all the ignorant people who want to ask me this question, here’s my virtual sign around my neck.

Yes. In English, dammit!

Andaleeb Wajid is an avid blogger and the author of two novels, Kite Strings and Blinkers Off. She blogs here

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