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The Making Of The Reluctant Fundamentalists

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I read this book – ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid almost 10 years after the fatal 9/11 attacks took place in the USA, shattering the myth of the invincibility of American security. I was in school back then and had no semblance of the gravity of the situation except that there was a mourning prayer at the school assembly for the unfortunate victims.

Now, after more than 8-10 years, I again felt like going back to the book and writing on it – maybe because once again, America is on a brink of losing its political culture of democracy and equality, which we as Indians have been taught to look up to.

Reading this book later, in my post-graduation with the context of the Afghan war and Taliban and Al Queda gave me a wider perspective to the event – which went before and beyond the attacks. I have watched and read more on the issue ever since, but none stayed with me as much as the Reluctant Fundamentalist, which captured the social and political aftermath of 9/11 from the point of view of a Pakistani man living in America.

Now, after more than 8-10 years, I again felt like going back to the book and writing on it – maybe because once again, America is on a brink of losing its political culture of democracy and equality, which we as Indians have been taught to look up to.

The book begins with its protagonist Changez starting a conversation with an American stranger in a street at the centre of Lahore. He begins to tell the story of a period in his life, far away in time, when after graduating from Princeton, he started working as a financial counsellor for an important company in New York.

Like many others from the developing part of the world, Changez had moved to America in the hope of finding success and money. He had always objected to the condescending manner in which minorities were treated in America, but the suspicion and insecurity that was generated in America against the immigrant ‘brown’ population post 9/11, disenchants him and even makes him antagonistic to the country which, in his opinion, was losing the values of democracy and inclusivity that it once stood for.

It is during this phase that Changez starts moving toward being a fundamentalist, reluctant because it was not a deliberate decision, but rather an unconscious urge to free him from the atmosphere that threatened to undermine his identity as a Muslim.

The book tries to explain why there is so much hostility in Pakistan towards the USA, and it stems from the anger against what America is doing as well as what it isn’t doing. Looking from the perspective of Changez, we are able to understand and even sympathize with an average Pakistani who is caught between the politics of its dominant neighbour, indifferent America which had once been its ally, and its ambivalence towards the identity of Islam which undermines its ability to confront the threat of militant groups in their own country.

The writer does not go the extent of describing the humiliation and torture suffered by those who were apprehended by the authorities on mere suspicion and racial bias, things which we know as bitter facts today. But the subtle discrimination that the protagonist feels, coupled with his own changing perceptions and insecurities with the people, gives us an inkling of the charged atmosphere of the times, of a country which prides over its commitment to liberty, equality, justice and democracy.

Let us now also look at the political and social atmosphere of our own country in the past 5 years. The passing of the Citizen Amendment Act that threatens to disenfranchise its own citizens, the inauguration of Ram Mandir that opened the wounds of some of the most violent riots we had ever seen, the lynchings that are a direct consequence of the dangerously irrational laws on cow protection and love jihad – we may very well be pushing so many of our own youth towards fundamentalism.

Suddenly for many of the aspiring and liberal-minded youth, religion would become a marker of their core identity. Many would have to bear it against their wishes, by facing discrimination and hatred in the workplace, educational institutions and residential colonies.

Many would move back into their protected and segregated spaces. Worse still, many might be influenced by religious leaders and political opportunists decrying that their community is in danger and embark on a dangerous path of extremism and perhaps violence. The reluctant fundamentalists like Changez will be ever on a rise, threatening, not only to tear apart the very fabric of secularity but also their own selves and their families.

The Book not only highlights the political issues faced by the world at large in the post 9/11 world. It shows, how, sometimes, our personal issues find an outlet in political confrontations and simultaneously, how politics intercedes in our personal lives, till the lines are blurred. The conflict in the mind of Changez between patriotism for his homeland and abortive respect for the country he had adopted to make his living, is interwoven with his personal tragedy.

In his course of conversation with the stranger, he confesses his love for Erica (an American woman) and we understand how he had to compete with a dead man (Erica’s ex-boyfriend) for the attention of the women he desires. His world is scary because professionally and personally he is searching for an identity he does not know exists.

Returning to Pakistan, Changez devotes his time to teaching young students and encouraging them to offset the US hegemony, very well aware that some of them have even strayed on the path of extremism.

The novel ends with the end of the conversation, and the readers are left with many questions. Who is the stranger that sought Changez in Pakistan and wanted to hear his story?

Are Changez, and many like him, justified in adopting extremism as recourse to stand against the political and cultural subjugation of their society and nation? And what indeed is the American justification to their own misplaced sense of nationalism which makes them destroy and then create their adversaries? And finally – what lessons, we as Indians should learn from the Americans?

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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.

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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.

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.

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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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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.”

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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