“They say I can’t follow my heart because this is against the terms of their society,” said Jinnat Quadri. Jinnat is a 17-year-old girl who loves to dance her heart out. She is trained in Odissi classical dance and has already completed her third level, but due to certain problems, she has not been able to continue her journey since last year.
“Who made these rules?,” I asked.
She took few seconds to compose herself. “People who think they run the world, who do not understand the art and connects everything to religion,” she replied.
Jinnat is from a small district of Odisha called Bhadrak, and is studying in a government college. She is doing her higher studies in science. According to Jinnat, she was six years old when she started her dancing journey. “I was so young that I don’t even remember which class I was in, but I still remember the first day at my dance class,” she said with watery eyes.
I couldn’t find any words of consolation so I just hugged her. After some time, when she got better, I asked her about her dance form and where she took her classes from, to which she said that Odissi is one of the most ancient dance forms of India that originated in Odisha and inspired from the Hindu god and goddess. It was born around the temples and had its origin in the Devadasi tradition.
Surprisingly, the dance form can be dated back to 1st century BC. “One of my friends was going to this dancing class and I asked Ammi if I can dance and after a week, we went to get my admission. It was near my school so we used to go there after school for practise,” said Jinnat.
She was still upset thinking about the times at her school, so, to lighten her mood, I started talking about other stuff like her friends and studies. Just then, a man in a blue kurta and white trouser, tall with big beard, entered the room. “Meet my father,” said Jinnat.
I folded my hands to greet him and he reciprocated with a warm smile. “Have you offered her any snacks?,” asked Jinnat’s father, looking at her. Then, we all had samosas with chai and, after a brief chat, he left. Jinnat’s father Sk. Alwaar Ali is a tailor. He owns a shop near the main market. After meeting him, I was curious to know what his father thought about her dancing, basically if he was the one who stopped her from continuing.
“Have you ever faced any restriction from your father or your family?,” I asked curiously. To my surprise, Jinnat laughed. I was clueless. I couldn’t understand why she was laughing. “Did I say something wrong?,” I thought. She then explained that it was her father who convinced her mother for a week to let her go to the dance school. “Despite belonging to a lower middle class muslim family, I never had to face any kind of adverse situations from within. Luckily, my father has always supported me in everything I want to do,” she smiled.
After that, I got more confused and started thinking about all the possible factors that could have led to the present situation. “It is not my family but other families from my community who never wanted me to even have a taste of this art,” said Jinnat out of nowhere, as if she could just read my mind. “Would you like to tell me more about that?,” I asked in a soft voice, trying not to provoke any bad memories.
She took few seconds to gather her thoughts. “One day, I remember I came home from college and everyone was sitting still and nobody was saying a word. Then, my mother told me that some people from our mohalla’s club had come to meet my father and they asked him to stop me from going to the dance classes anymore, otherwise a fatwa would be issued in my name,” said Jinnat in a low voice.
“My father tried to convince them that it is not enough of a reason to issue a fatwa, but rather than understanding, they politely threatened to isolate our family from the community. My father is a brave man, despite everything, he never asked me to stop going to the classes. But I had to take a decision on behalf of my family,” she added. I was heartbroken after listening to this. I couldn’t believe as to what extent these people were willing to go just for the sake of their shallow beliefs.
“After a few weeks, when I didn’t show up at the classes, Parsuram sir (her dance teacher), along with some friends, came to visit me. They thought maybe I was sick, but when my teacher got to know about the situation, he wanted to have a conversation with the members of the club. But to his disappointment, the conversation soon turned into an argument.
When he tried to make them understand the value and significance of the classical dance, they alleged him of misleading innocent Muslim girls into dancing, which, according to them, is sinful,” said Jinnat. “After that, my father asked me to continue with the classes because he didn’t want other people to decide my future,” she continued.
Her calm face soon turned restless, I understood she was about to share some unpleasing information. “One day, they stopped my scooty when I was coming back from college, two people on a bike. I remember it was a black Pulsar (a kind of motorcycle). They said I shouldn’t be getting involved in such pursuit because I belong to a Muslim family and that there is still time to take the right decision. Before I could even reply, they left and I was there, on the middle of the road, not being able to process what had just happened,” she said in a tearful eyes.
“My father wanted to file an FIR, but Ammi got scared after knowing what happened. She insisted that I stay at home for a few weeks. All she wanted is her daughter to be safe,” she continued. Before I could even say anything, Jinnat looked at me and asked, “But what about her daughter’s happiness?” and she burst into tears.
She had so many questions in her mind that I didn’t have any answer to at such a tender age. Looking at her crying, my eyes got teary. “I am not the only one who has faced such obstructions. I have heard stories of many girls who have tried to follow their passion but were chained by the superficial norms of society. One such girl is Bhumika Api. She is an admirable singer and has won many prizes in competitions. She was even getting offers for playback singing, but she was also not allowed to continue, and now she is married at the age of 26 and has a kid.”
Jinnat carried on. “Is Bhumika a Muslim?,” I asked Jinnat randomly. “No, Bhumika Api is Hindu. She used to live a few blocks away from my house,” replied Jinnat. “What?,” I was surprised. All this while I thought this is happening to Jinnat because she belongs to a specific community that has its own restrictions and rules when it comes to creative exploration for women. But with information that Jinnat just shared, it seems like this is not just about any particular community. In fact, this issue is not related to religion at all, rather, it is about orthodox mentality on the issue of women that prevails in every community in some way.
“Do you feel the world is unfair?,” I asked Jinnat. “Of course it is, but then it has always been like this. Most of the time, women are the ones who have to adjust themselves to the social norms,” she said angrily. “My parents ask me to come straight to home right after the classes, not to stay out after 7pm, wear decent clothes. I understand they want to keep me safe, protect me, but from what? I have been born and brought up here, if I won’t feel safe and secure here, where should I go? When I was a kid, these people who are pointing fingers at me now, were the ones to give me chocolates. This place that used to feel like home now suffocates me,” she added. I was dumbfounded by her reply. The girl I know is sweet and soft spoken and looking at Jinnat, no one can tell she is going through so much pain. She had so much rage, confusion and questions that are valid, but not a single answer that is convincing.
I understood she was tired after this long conversation of ours. So, after bidding goodbye to everyone and thanking them for the hospitality, I left for my home in an auto. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Jinnat, Bhumika and all those women who are standing tall, fighting everyday for their independence and refusing to give up on their dreams, their rights. Our Constitution says that any discrimination against women on any grounds, even religious, is unconstitutional. But are we truly free from the discrimination and prejudices yet?