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The Irony Of Growing Up As A Millennial Indian Muslim

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By Aisha Khan:

I’m your typical Indian urban millennial. Well-travelled, yoga-loving 20 something tuned into the most recent trends in pop culture. I am also a confident, well-educated and assertive woman balancing the dichotomous tightrope of our traditional upbringings with the westernized outlook we’ve been soaked in since childhood.

I am also Muslim.

I have many Indian non-Muslim friends who are like me. We share common interests, backgrounds and tastes. My identity as a “Muslim” hasn’t really differentiated me from other fellow Indian millennials.

Except when it has.

Growing up in the Delhi of the late nineties and the early 2000s, I had been sensitised to my “Muslim” identity when I was as young as 7 years old. I attended a posh convent school full of feisty girls from army families. I remember in second grade, I was trying to colour between the lines in Art class, when (let’s call her) Gouri asked me if I was Pakistani. I looked up, wondering what a Pakistani was. Was it a bad thing? My 7-year-old mind conjured up an ugly image of a Pakistani – person/creature/thing – whatever it was – and said, “No, you are”. Gouri Chhabra got annoyed and told me that I was a Pakistani because I was a Muslim.

I snubbed my nose at her simplistic argument and avoided her since then. I remember asking my mother that day about what a Pakistani was. My mom laughed, gave me a kiss and told me that Pakistan was a small neighbouring country where a lot of Muslims had migrated to during the Partition. This led to loads of revelations about Pakistan, the Partition and my Muslim identity.

In third grade, I was having tiffin with (let’s call her) Loveleen and some others during break time when Loveleen looked me in the eye and told me:

“Tu musalman hai na? Mere dada dadi boley sab musalmano ko Pakistan jaana chahiye. Teri family kyun nahi gayi?” (You’re Muslim right? My grandparents told me that all Muslims should go to Pakistan. Why hasn’t your family left?)

This was right after a Hindi class where we had studied some corny story about Hindu-Muslim unity.

But by this age, I was slightly more aware of the sentiment behind this statement. I tried to reason with Loveleen telling her that I was Indian and my family had lived here all along. We had nothing to do with Pakistan. Loveleen would have none of this, shaking her well-oiled long braid and denying me a non-judgmental space to express myself.

By the time I got to sixth grade, I knew better than to give any hint about my Muslim identity. I never told anyone I prayed, or fasted. But still, it was hard.

If the teacher mentioned Islam in class, everyone stared at you, burning a hole in your skin with their penetrating gaze, you just quietly looked down, deep into your book, turning red with embarrassment, until they looked away. Especially when your teacher Mrs Sahni, wasted no time bad-mouthing all the ‘Muslim’ Pakistanis responsible for the Kargil War and then looked at you, as if expecting an explanation for the actions of the Pakistani army.

What annoyed me even more was that Muslims were only acceptable as actors, entertainers, comedians and chefs, but never as regular Indians. And the horrendous portrayals of Muslims in the media didn’t help either. My insides cringed when I saw those sarkari posters depicting Indian Muslim families with the man wearing the stereotypical skull cap and the woman with her head covered. I abhorred our representation in Bollywood movies as either over-familiar sidekicks with an army of kids, only remembered for Biryani and Sewaiyyi (vermicelli) or as terrorists, strutting their stuff in PoK. Surely, I felt, there must be more to their perception of us than a plate of biryani and AK-47s?

The irony was, I didn’t come from an orthodox family. We were one of the more “progressive” Muslim families in the country. My father was a senior bureaucrat in the Indian Government and my mother never wore the Hijab. We practised Islam in its true spirit, followed the Sharia and Quran and prayed regularly. My siblings and I had only non-Muslim friends and celebrated Diwali with more gusto than Eid.

As I grew up and became a bit more adept at the ways of the world, I realised that the problem was never about me. The problem lay in the discriminator, the proclaimer of prejudiced statements about my Muslim identity. It was about the hate or anger that person felt towards my community because of some perceived wrong committed on some member of his/her family in 1947 by a person who happened to share the same religion as me. Later this became 9/11 or 26/11 but the comments were always some variation of: “You are Muslim and therefore a Terrorist/Pakistani. You don’t belong in this country. Go back to Pakistan”.

It never mattered that nobody in my family had ever been to Pakistan or came from there. Nobody cared about such trivial things. The truth was that because I prayed to the same God as these alleged perpetrators of violence, I espoused their wrongdoings and was thus a traitor.

When I moved to law school for higher studies and interacted with students from all over the country, I saw first-hand how people’s perception of my Muslim identity was more demonstrative of their own insecurities. Nobody was born to hate. The kids who had mocked my religious identity in school were merely echoing what they had heard from their parents, who in turn were merely products of the socio-political environment they had grown up in.

The Punjabi’s felt a deep animosity for Muslims because they lost many family members to the bloody Partition. The Jats from Haryana had historical land disputes with the Muslims in Mewat, and used religion to incite fear and keep communities divided. In UP, MP, Maharashtra and Bihar, religious politics, though divisive, could ensure a huge bumper of votes in elections, provided the politicians played their cards right. Down south, the religious divide wasn’t that bad, but religious politics was a favourite tool of politicians in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Kashmir was another sore spot for the rabid nationalist.

Most Indians recognise this. They know that religion is a tool used by politicians to harvest votes for the next election. Maybe it is for this reason that the majority of non-Muslims I have encountered have been progressive in their outlook. My friends, who are well-educated Hindu liberals couldn’t care two hoots about any “religious differences” we may have. Our friendships are based on deeper considerations like our shared love for travel or our daily musings on the next twist in Game of Thrones. In fact, if it wasn’t for my name, nobody could tell me apart from them. To my friends, I’m Indian. More Indian than the crooks we call our political leaders today. We are all the same – just a bunch of young uns’ navigating life.

Growing up Muslim and millennial in India has been a crazy ride. Yet I feel the worst is over. While there are still a fair share of rabid Hindutva bigots one can encounter in daily life, the majority of the country accepts Muslims as a part of their own. We are no longer a minority (at least Najma Heptullah doesn’t think so!) and should thus stop feeling like outlaws.

Unfortunately, it’ll be a long time before this feeling of persecution and anxiety that shrouds the average Indian Muslim disappears completely. It will take some effort on the part of the common Hindu as well as the common Muslim. Practices like discriminating against young Muslims in jobs, or not renting out homes to Muslims must end. At the same time, Muslims need to strive harder towards a solid education, let go of petty concerns and be more demanding of those who they vote to power. This is essential for them to fight that feeling of a lack of control in their lives.

Only with sustained effort, an open mind and time, will we be completely rid of communal elements. In the meantime, millennials like me will continue to write about our fascinating encounters in this frenzied country we call home.

This article was originally published here on Offprint.

Also read: 
I Converted To Islam From Hinduism, And Suddenly, My Privilege Turned Into Discrimination

What Caste Means To Me As A Muslim In India

You must be to comment.
  1. Akshay

    Yes all of this happens. We know it and I feel particularly sad when I meet someonefrom my generation with divisive thoughts. It will take a long while for things to set right. People remember history (or made-up versions of history) and are regularly fed with propaganda through social media. I’m sorry but I’m not very hopeful.

  2. Bluesky

    I am sorry Aisha that you had to endure these comments and attitudes.
    I am aware of these prejudices from my parents generation but hardly any from my peer group.
    Growing up in india I would constantly hear about North Indians,south Indians, catholics,muslims,
    different castes and what they were all like ,their supposed character and behaviour traits. I think attitudes changing but ever so slowly.it’s frustrating and holding as backwards as a nation and
    people.

  3. Deepak

    I am from Hyderabad, some of my best friends are muslims. During our childhood I used to go to their houses for combined studies. We invite each other for weddings and other celebrations. I studied at IITDelhi, we had few muslim classmates. We used to be quite friendly, spend hours together at kishanlal canteen talking about various topics under the Sun. This article is surprising.

    1. Manasi Pandey

      Exactly ! Something is wrong with her classmates and teachers or the place where she grew up. Never saw that in my school. Even my best friend is a Muslim.

  4. Indira

    Thanks Aisha for posting this article. These kind of articles need to be circulated more so that average Indians knows the pain that people undergo while growing up!! I am Indian and Hyderabadi. My Best Friend in Muslim. it is responsibility of parents and teachers to make sure that they do not talk -vely about any group. my father-in-law’s car driver was a Muslim.A very good man.Although he is not employed by father-in-law right now he still calls my fil just to know how we all are??MyDaughter when she was 1 first said Amma.The second word she said was “Mehmood”. She loves him a lot. Pls do not think all non-Muslims hate Muslims. There are many who love and respect.Down south if we have any health issues especially children crying at night….first thing we do is to go to local mosque(famous) where they will place a holy chain…..so that children will stop crying at night….Before going to Shabarimala Temple in Kerala….one has to visit nearby mosque in honour of Lord Ayyapa’s best friend who was Muslim.

  5. Ninad Shetty

    Even i know stories where a few muslim friends actually aggressively hated India n supported Pak..so should i generalize it to all Indian muslims n say The Irony Of Indian Muslims

  6. Manasi Pandey

    What it looks like from your article is that you probably didn’t have a very nice school or rather strange school. Back in my school there were very few Muslims in my batch but we never thought of them being any different from us. We celebrated all the festivals of all the religions with equal zest in our school. The thing is you shouldn’t generalize it. I accept the fact that many of us lack opinion and people in our lives such as parents, teachers, batchmates, colleagues etc. act as influencers. I don’t want to come out too harsh here but I feel you need to widen your perspective. The description in your article makes it look like you’re doing the same what they did to you. Discriminating ! How are you then any different from Gouri and Loveleen? We should work towards harmonizing different communities and shouldn’t spread hatred all the time. #bethechange

  7. Manasi Pandey

    What it looks like from your article is that you probably didn’t have a very nice or rather strange school. Back in my school there were very few Muslims in my batch but we never thought of them any different from us. We celebrated all the festivals of all the religions with equal zest in our school. The thing is you shouldn’t generalize it. I accept the fact that many of us lack opinion and people in our lives such as parents, teachers, batchmates, colleagues etc. act as influencers. I don’t want to come out too harsh here but I feel you need to widen your perspective. The description in your article makes it look like you’re doing the same what they did to you. Discriminating ! How are you then any different from Gouri and Loveleen? We should work towards harmonizing different communities and not spreading hatred all the time.
    #bethechange

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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