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My Relationship With Islam Taught Me How Fear And Intolerance Poison Us

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My life has revolved around the concept of God. I have been a Muslim, a theist, an agnost and an atheist in different phases of my life. I am sure that as I keep growing, my perceptions too will continue to mature.

In my late teens, my Muslim identity slowly faded when I picked up Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Back then, I was perpetually angry. Angry at Islam, angry at Wahabbism, angry at the imposed patriarchy in Islam. I believed religion was unscientific and only spelt bad news for the world. When I discussed all this with my Hindu friends, they told me how Muslims were perceived as cruel and misogynistic. They told me how I was different to see the truth. I felt a sense of moral superiority, felt that I was so rational and unbiased to be able to see the faults in my own religion.

A bookworm that I was, I read from Deepak Chopra to Reza Aslan, from Sam Harris to Stephen Hawkings, from Carl Sagan to Joseph Goldstein, from Plato to Nietzsche. I tried understanding paganism, Sufism, spiritualism, Buddhism and everything else that came my way. I was surprised to find how I had missed all the beauty the Sufis had to offer to the world. I found their philosophy strikingly similar to what the Buddha taught, for which I had immense respect.

Every time I saw a search for the truth in the writings of a physicist or a philosopher, or a saint or Sufi, I only saw humility in the awe of whatever it is that had made us. Call it God, call it entropy driving random bits of matter to generate complexity, I found this relationship to be very personal. And this relationship cannot be reduced to mere religious labels.

I met a charismatic Muslim woman, some time back. She wore a hijab and was studying medicine. She was sounded intellectual in her conversations, and was open to concepts I hadn’t even heard of. I found myself impressed by the conversation I had with her.

She also told me no one had ever forced the hijab on her and that it was her own choice as she felt closer to God that way. And in that moment, I saw a hypocrite in me. I remembered mocking hijab-wearing women, considering them backward. I thought to myself: Maybe what was just a piece of cloth to me was an identity to her. Maybe she had an attachment to it, just like people have attachment to various possessions like rings.

Image Credit: Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

This is not to deny the horrific patriarchal history associated with the forced covering of women’s bodies. But we shouldn’t forget that every human being is different and perceives things differently. Why should we presume that a person should only dress up according to what we feel is appropriate? I want to emphasise here that I do not support the forceful imposition of any kind of clothing, and to me, the concept of modesty is different as well.

But I am writing this story to highlight the fact that there is a latent culture of hate associated with the hijab today, one that is explicitly visible. So many women who call themselves feminists mock the hijab to feel a sense of moral superiority. I want to raise two points to explain why it’s hypocritical:

  • The message of feminism is to stop dictating to women what they should wear. This stands for the hijab as well. For those who wear it, it should be their choice.
  • For those who are forced to wear it, when you mock a burka-clad woman, you are speaking the language of their oppressor. If you want to stand for feminism, stand next to her in solidarity. Telling her that she is powerless only increases her feeling of alienation. If you want to actually empower her, help her in ways that would actually improve her condition.

Recent events in my country have opened my eyes. The same friends who applauded me when I had spoken against the burka suddenly turned hostile when I tried to speak up for Mohammad Akhlaq. Wasn’t his murder a hideous crime? Shouldn’t our souls have shuddered at the thought of a man being killed by a mob on the suspicion of what kind of meat he had in his fridge? Shouldn’t we weep at the applause his killer received?

Numerous such incidents have followed in the wake of Akhlaq’s murder. And we are told that the media is just sensationalising it. Can we call ourselves human after saying that? We’re talking about loss of lives! What is more baffling is the ‘whataboutery’ that follows: But what about ISIS bombings?

Self-proclaimed nationalists claim that liberal Muslims are responsible for their own plight because they don’t criticise the extremists enough. This is blatantly false as Muslims have time and over criticised terror attacks. Moreover, it’s Muslims themselves who are the most severely affected by Islamic terrorism. Not to mention Muslims do not exist as a united and homogenous entity. We would never think of referring to Christians or Hindus in a similar way because we are aware that the catch-all description is virtually meaningless.

It is appalling to see how everytime I speak about the violence unleashed by the RSS or VHP, I am told to leave for Pakistan. I am told, “So what! They are not as bad as ISIS!” Has the bar for our morality been set so low? Are we not supposed to speak up against atrocities till they become ISIS-like in magnitude?

As I researched more about religions and their history, I was surprised to see how far off Hindutva actually is from genuine Hinduism. Hindutva is toxic whereas Hinduism is a beautiful religion. I was astounded at the intellectual complexity the Gita had to offer. People like Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley had expressed their admiration and respect for the Gita.

I would like to say to saffron-clad nationalists, “Do you know what you are fighting for? How are you any different from the Jihadists you hate? The anger that has been sold to you is poison. Remember that Krishna said that delusion arises from anger. The mind is bewildered by delusion and this destroys our capacity to reason. We fall from the right path when we can no longer reason.”

To Muslim-hating Indians, I would like to tell them that to love India is to love its plurality. We should not forget that the Indian Independence struggle was a plural project. And look at where we are today, nearly 70 years after independence. Open a news channel and listen to the issues our country is facing. Are Ram Mandir and cow protection really that important? Don’t we have more important issues we need to be talking about?

We need to realise that our power lies in our unity, not in the petty satisfaction one may feel after shouting down someone from a different faith. We would do well to remember the old adage, ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’

Image Credit: Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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  1. rayasam naresh

    Nice piece ms sarah
    I agree any violence perpetrated by a human on another being in name of religion or any belief is abhorrent and totally shameful .Vigilantism in the name of cow protection should be made the biggest crime punishable to the maximum extent of law
    The answer ,question as to why hindutva has gained traction is simple look where being a tolerant society has gotten us we as a majority community do not have a temple in the birth place of our most important diety .
    We are the only country where parsis were allowed to practice their religion Jews were not persecuted ever, without fear of ridicule or violence
    Now coming to burqa i believe once a woman wears a burqa she looses right to call herself liberal its as simple as that she has agreed to being considered half her male counterpart her word is one fourths as valuable as her male equivalent’s
    Yes and I agree we have no right to mock others attire or their right to religion but please do not make a sham and shame other women who are real and are working for women’s emancipation .A lady stands in the group protesting for women’s equality wearing a burqa its like a butcher protesting along with PETA activists so please again i reiterate no one has right to mock or denigrate a person’s belief acceptance is what hinduism is all about
    The probem i see with muslims is not that they dont speak up against extremism its the signals they give that is more scary when abdul kalam died hardly any muslims were seen please see the zanaza videos of yakub menon
    For reference when pakistan killed indian soldiers hardly any protesters from muslim community were seen please see the videos of protests when van Gogh in Denmark commented on prophet mohammed (pbuh)
    Its these that scare me more than muslims not protesting isis .
    I say all these to make you see a different perspective i do not wish to insult you i believe free thinking youth in all religions must be encouraged to bring about positive changes to their religion with put which religion will push us into dark ages all religions need change hindu muslim christian etc .

  2. Shubham Choudhary

    You are very correct about the monopoly that we have embraced in ourselves. We should come up with an idea of unity before we convert ourselves as same as the one, with whom our ideology don’t meet. Every culture, custom or religion is following some of the false laws, by giving them terrific values. Being against religion is a sort of crime, if is to be continued we will develop us human being. We should reason things before adapting to them and should not interfere in the things of choices until or unless they are destructive or are harming others.

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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.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

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.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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