With Zaira Wasim’s entry into India’s silver screen in 2016 as Dangal’s Geeta Phogat, everyone thought a ‘new star’ was born, and they were right. She lived up to tremendous expectations by playing the role of an aspiring singer in the 2017 musical drama Secret Superstar. She has also been the recipient of numerous accolades, including a Filmfare award and a National award. Zaira Wasim some days back, announced her decision to quit acting through her social media accounts, because it interfered with her faith and religion.
All hell broke loose after her announcement. People on social media went on a rampage, dissecting her statement and giving their ‘verdict’. This episode has brought to the forefront once again, the inherent Islamophobia that is thriving in India. Some reactions I came across ranged from ‘she has been forced to take this decision under pressure‘, ‘by announcing that working in the film industry is threatening her relationship with her religion, she has robbed several other women of their agency to tread the path of their choice‘, to ‘she is emanating a regressive ideology, in the broader sense a particular religion is being tagged as regressive‘
It is true that in a country like India, steeped with misogyny, where patriarchy is institutionalised through every pore of society, it is very difficult to recognize free will. The concept of consent is always seen through an ambiguous lens. People are of the belief that either coercion or inherent patriarchal conditioning has forced her to take up this ultimate step. In my opinion, while the possibilities of all these cannot be denounced completely, we must refrain from falling into the trap of questioning women’s free will. This is the trope on which patriarchy thrives on – it always tries to dismiss women’s freedom of choice.
As feminists, I would say that we have no other option but to believe her completely. When a woman has been able to pronounce her choice clearly, the least we can do is to trust her, and let her be. Also, she has time and again declared that there was no compulsion for her to take this decision. Some critics also shuddered at the ‘deep-rooted patriarchal conditioning which made someone (Wasim) think it is necessary to sacrifice as basic as their choice of work. I want to ask them, can we not see it in another light? Should we not shudder at the thought of what it took for a teenage girl to continue work which her mind and conscience completely detested, and how utterly painful and suffocating it must have been? Can we not see that she has been able to come out of work which was not of her choice?
Interestingly, in my opinion, this issue has led to the convergence of views expressed by both the ‘liberal-minded’ people and ‘extremists’ on social media. People who subscribe to an ‘extreme’ ideological outlook have been attacking Zaira for her ‘regressive’ thinking. and indirectly making allusions to her ‘regressive’ religion. The liberals have a sort of patronising tone when talking about her decision. They maintain that it is ‘her freedom of choice and we should respect it, but’- and then comes the contradicting part. Some are of the opinion that when your religion makes you doubt your art, question the religion, not the art. Some are saying that this choice of her has made it difficult for many other girls fighting religious rigidity to pursue their dream, and as a public figure, she should be held responsible. Ultimately, both lines of thought have attacked her for a choice she has made.
I think that her identity as a woman, that too a woman within the entertainment industry and her religious identity has made her an easy target. I would say that there is a general tendency to think women from the film industry are ‘easily accessible’. Women from other walks of life, with different occupations, are not judged for each breath they take right? This is exactly the reason why, I feel, out of all representatives part of the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections, only Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan were being targeted. Simply because they were female film stars. With terror-accused, rape-accused, murder- accused men and women sitting in the Parliament, people had qualms only about the profession of Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan.
The reason why the liberal fold has been criticising her decision is that for someone coming from a minority religious background, one has to constantly prove their secularism to gain validation. I think that one will not be accepted if one were to proclaim religious identity and belief openly. If you are Muslim you have to be a secular, liberal Muslim; lest there will be no one to uphold your rights.
I would say that there is no one is saying ‘when there is a conflict between your belief and your art, always choose belief, my child.’ I think that there is nothing more valuable in this world than our belief and ideology. Everything can be sacrificed for the sake of belief, but not vice versa, and there is no gradation of belief. It cannot be that political belief is acceptable, but religious belief is not. We are no one to determine a belief ‘hierarchy’, where religious values are at the bottom level. It is terrible to live with a conflicted mind where there is a constant opposition between actions and conscience. Thus, heal yourself Zaira Wasim, and emerge victorious!
Then comes the question of sacrificing ‘art’, of not being able to tread a ‘liberal‘ profession. Do we have the authority to proclaim exactly what is art and what is not? Is there no art in the profession of a farmer where he grows apples in an orchard, or the teacher who molds young minds, the human rights activist who fights for justice, the cricketer with an indomitable spirit or the homemaker who binds the relations together turning a house into a home? There is art in each and every profession on this earth. Working in the film industry is as regular as working in an IT firm. At the end of the day, it is just a profession, that’s it. It is not overtly liberal than any other profession, or more ‘artistic’ than others. Also, people change their minds! Most of us have been confused as adolescents finding our true calling. Changing one’s profession I think should be seen as natural as changing your hairstyle.
Talking about ‘agency’, some are of the opinion that this will cause a major hindrance for hundreds of other girls who are trying to overcome religious shackles. Zaira Wasim, I will say, is being falsely accused of revoking their agency. Should we not see that what she has done is going to give hundreds of girls their right to agency? Will it not encourage others to tread the path for their belief? Agency is not practiced only in accepting something, but agency is also present in denouncing something too. She has exercised her agency to shun a path which was not of her choice. Agency means to have the freedom of accepting and rejecting. It takes a whole lot of guts to be able to leave all the glitter and glamour and tread the path of ideology.
The most disturbing part of this whole discourse is the tone underlying the arguments. It seems as if we are all on a pedestal, judging Zaira Wasim and her choices. The tone is of condescension, not acceptance. The arguments reek of majoritarian entitlement, belittling a woman who has made her affinity with her religion clear.
If scope and exercise of agency were the only concerns, then we all would be worried about the fact that there are female actors who choose not to work after childbirth. Their ‘retirement’ does not offend us because of the glorification of motherhood. We would write columns asking for accountability of those actors who make their affinity with their majoritarian religion clear. Rather, they are been revered as being a ‘nationalist’, and then Zaira Wasim is tagged ‘regressive’.
Thus, agency is not the question, identity is, and this is where I feel Zaira Wasim emerges victorious. She fought the whole argument about choices and the freedom to make one. It takes a great deal of courage to make a choice purely based on conscientious beliefs. She has done it and has paved the way for hundreds of women out there to exercise their agency according to their belief.
Kudos to you girl!