All the anecdotes, stories, accounts here are narrated in retrospect; thus it’s foolish to assume that these accounts are the exact versions of what happened, because now when I recollect these incidents, I cannot help but juxtapose them against all the new perspectives, social awakening and continuous unlearning and relearning that I’ve done.
An important part of the dynamic process of learning is, I’ve realised, the development of identity. And I strictly believe that one cannot separate identities from the very idea of governance or politics. However it is difficult to ascertain the exact cause-effect relationship between the two — is it our identities that get increasingly politicised, or do we start depending on our identities increasingly in our politics?
Whatever it is, we do understand how important identity is for anyone — especially an adolescent. The struggle for a Muslim student in India begins exactly there — we grow up confused. How much of being a Muslim is okay? How much of being a Muslim is deviating from the picture of the ideal secular Indian minority? We were children but this worked at the back of our minds all the time. The school system comes to play an eminent role here.
I studied in a multicultural metropolitan school where students from each and every walk of life studied with me. The pressure to be aloof and somehow not exert my identity was silent but vicious. You cannot escape it. Your friends could ask you the most insensitive, belittling insulting questions ever about your identity, but you were not allowed to react or voice out your discomfort. You are only supposed to quietly answer their curiosity even if it’s a 15 year old asking whether people of other communities are allowed to enter your house and drink water. This was in 2017.
My first introduction to the idea of religion based discrimination was through my father. A 5 year old really didn’t understand what exactly “discrimination” meant. But I intuitively comprehended from the pensive look on my father’s face that it was no joking matter.
This was partly because my father himself, had to battle systemic discrimination which eventually got dragged out all the way to the Calcutta High Court. It’s worth mentioning this here because this is an example of systemic discrimination in 2 fields — higher education and judicial proceedings.
Thus, they were remarkably aware about what it meant to be a minority. From a very early age I was taught not to mention my surname, until and unless absolutely necessary. My name was kept as such, in an effort to ‘assimilate’ into the majoritarian society. No one wants a fate like the Jews, my father often reiterated.
The notion of ‘assimilating’, if subjected to scrutiny long enough, will begin to look like ‘hiding’ — hiding our identity. In fact I staunchly believe that assimilation is just a fancy disguise to quietly do away with our religious heritage and identity in favour of safety. I have a beautiful name, but I grew up hating it; thus also ended up hating a part of my identity.
My first brush with discrimination was in the 8th standard. A classmate of mine repeatedly insinuated that I consumed ‘beef’ because of my identity- because I was a Muslim and mocked me repeatedly for it. My friends and other classmates remained silent. Do not get me wrong — I have studied at one of the most reputed and distinguished schools in the subcontinent. Matters were dealt with severity when my parents themselves came to lodge a complaint. The bully never said another word to me.
This incident was only a peek into the vast systemic perpetuation of prejudice. My identity was a disadvantage if I wished to lead a life of safety and dignity.
When I was 14 years old and was studying in the 9th standard, I developed a teenage crush on my classmate. It was the most normal thing to happen at that age and I knew that. But what followed after I confessed my feelings, was definitely not normal and it abruptly catapulted me into a terrifying realization: how deep-rooted Islamophobia runs in the society- Prejudices that ultimately find expression in schools and educational institutes.
I was rejected of course. I would have been salty about it for a few weeks and moved on, had I not foolishly decided to ask why. His answer was simple.
‘Because you are a Muslim.’
He was a 14 year old boy.
Love is love until you’re a Muslim. Then your religion is greater than God Themselves.
2019. It was the world cup season. The semi-finals match between India and New Zealand was going on. It was an important match for India — winning would mean they would face England in the finals. My classmates were busy watching the match rather than paying attention to the class.
Like every other cricket lover, I too keenly followed the match. It would have been a normal fun filled period, with occasional sneaky glances at the teacher to see if we were being watched. Till New Zealand took a major wicket which sealed the match for India. There was little chance now for India to win.
I cheered for New Zealand. Which made sense because I chose to support The English Cricket team this season. And I was greeted with a very familiar slogan — a slogan that had been viciously doing rounds on social media and shouted at anybody who dared to not donn their nationalism on their sleeves in every little aspect of their lives, including a sports match.
“What’s your problem with India? Go to Pakistan, go back!” My classmate in 2019 said this. This is not an incident happening 2 decades back.
This is real, whether or not schools directly or indirectly promote Islamophobia, the ultimate expression of it is found in classrooms.
A particular conversation with a very dear teacher of mine, someone I looked up to, someone who genuinely believed in me when I doubted my own abilities, was a heartbreaking one. Perhaps the most painful one too.
It happened because of a problematic post she shared, which was very subtly promoting Islamophobia. This led to a heated discourse on the social media platform which ultimately led me to explore the very complicated arena of student teacher interactions.
Your teacher inside of the classroom may adhere word to word to the principles of equality written in the book, but outside of it, your innate existing identity might be meaningless to them.
And that is what exactly happened to me. A teacher who loved and appreciated me, Elizabeth the student, and my abilities and talents simply refused to accept that I as a Muslim have my own identity and opinions — that Elizabeth as a Muslim exists and deserves the space and dignity to voice her concerns! The dawning of this realization was unsettling — that people who love and support you outside the political context of your being (identity is political after all) might not believe that you deserve basic rights and dignity once associated with your community.
For a Muslim student growing up in a cosmopolitan school and environment, embracing every aspect of their identity imposes a significant problem. Largely because we are segregated in ourselves. We also sense a feeling of exclusion when it comes to cultural differences. We are pestered to bring mutton biryani for tiffin the day after Eid so that our friends can relish it but the moment we discourage them to support NRC CAA we are exerting too much of our ‘Muslimness’.
In all of these the school plays an inadvertently important role. All the media, information, art, politics, debates, conflicts that we consume, both as students and as teachers converge at school. Thus it’s simply not enough to teach 3 chapters on discrimination, prejudice and social awareness in the sixth grade without giving relatable political context.
Paulo Freire’s assertion that teaching is inherently a political tool serves as a gateway to this seemingly complex situation we find ourselves in. The politicisation of our identity demonises us further, by perpetuating false myths. Both of the above statements are contradictory — thus education, armed with a newly undergone change in its political outlook can be perfectly used to counter the other.
“Knowledge is never truly neutral”, Freire states in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The idea that a student will always have multiple identities other than that of an information receiving vessel inside the classroom needs to be normalised till it’s considered natural. Sensitization of students and teachers is all that we need in 2020. More representation of marginalized and minority communities in classrooms and administrative offices in educational institutes will go a long way in imbibing an inclusive attitude in both staff and students alike.
It is difficult for me to conclude this piece because of the lack of years I have on my side. I’m merely 18 years old — I’m yet to experience more subtle and nuanced types of Islamophobia. It is also difficult to end this on an optimistic note — I feel that way I’d be lying to my readers and myself. The situation is bleak. Fascism is here.
The only silver lining on this dark gloomy cloud is that we need to keep educating ourselves consistently. Read books and articles written by marginalized sections. Amplify their voices. Listen to their accounts instead of cynically questioning them. Support and donate to them. Verify and fact check news and sources. Protest.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay
Elizabeth Hasan is an 18 year old queer Muslim struggling to fill up expensive college forms in this pandemic. A lover of literature and avid reader, she loves to write and dreams of publishing her own poetry anthology someday. Currently she pens and paints her words through her blog: www.scheherazaadewrites.wordpress.com