Wednesday, February 24, 2010


This post has been submitted to the International Women's Day Contest under the category Women’s Education. Click here for details on the contest.

I am tagging Saadia, Andaleeb and Ravia.

“You’re Muslim?” enquired a fellow hostellite, eyeing my head scarf.

“Yes, I am,” I replied smiling at the incredulity in her voice.

It was my first day at the hostel. I had travelled miles away from home to be here—for an education.

My teenage head was filled with the thrill of freedom and living away from home. Freedom to do as you please. Well, almost. Living in a girls’ hostel came with strict boundaries. But it was freedom all the same.

I was also thrilled to be back in India, my motherland. These thrills blinded me to a fact that became clearer over time, much later. I was living a dream.

A few months later...

“So, how did you convince your parents about your studies?” My friend who lived four rooms away was full of questions as she battled with a stubborn needle and a thread that chose to magically knot itself after every attempted stitch.

We were swapping stories about our families while attempting a needlework assignment. Textiles and Clothing was a mandatory subject in our Home Science college and one that our Communications batch despised and sucked at.

I looked at her blankly.

“I mean, being a Muslim. How did your parents allow you to study further?”

My blank look continued for another five seconds before I understood what she meant.

“What do you mean ‘allow me to study’? They sent me here to get an education. Actually, I did have to convince them about this particular college but once they realised how much I wanted to be part of the communication course, they were happy for me.”

Now it was her turn to stare blankly.

I went on. “I come from a family that values education. There was never any doubt that I would go on to get a degree. Any parents would want their children to do something with their lives, right? Why would it be different for Muslims?”

“But you’re a Muslim girl. And you come from a religious household, don’t you? I thought those kinds get their daughters married right after school.” She was struggling to understand when and how the stereotype had changed.

And I was beginning to get annoyed.

“I don’t know where you get your information from but that’s not true.”

Our conversation was interrupted by a sudden corridor brawl over someone stealing someone’s snacks. My friend never brought it up again and I never got to tell her that she was partly right.

I thought about it later that night. As much as I would have liked to ignore it, I knew her stereotyping was not far from the truth. I knew of talented girls who had immense potential to soar in their academics but had had their wings clipped and were home bound. They were then married off young while their classmates from more ‘broad-minded’ households pursued fancy degrees. I tossed and turned that night wishing this wasn’t true. But it was.

I remembered a Muslim friend of mine from school who was brilliant in studies and had topped her class each year. An all-rounder, she was often seen participating in extra-curricular activities as well. I remembered her contagious laughter, her witty conversation and her ready smile.

“I’m going to be a doctor.” I had heard her say this a couple of times. I remember imagining her in a doctor’s coat, laughing her infectious laugh as she diagnosed her patients with an assortment of illnesses.

I had no doubt in my mind that she would achieve her dream.

We lost touch after school but I heard through others that she did not make it to medical college. In fact, her parents did not send her to any college. She spent a year at home and was then married off to the first suitable boy.

Call me crazy, but this seemed completely bizarre to me. I mean, why would her parents not allow her to pursue her aspirations, despite knowing how far their daughter was capable of going? Now, unlike what some people like my hostel friend believe, this has nothing to do with Islam or being a ‘religious type’. It had more to do with family customs and traditions existing in certain societies, which did not allow people to reap the benefits of education. I was fortunate enough to grow up among people who realised that when you educate a woman, you educate a family. But not everyone had that perspective.

Yes, the situation was changing.

I recall reading a newspaper story about Irfaana Mujawar and Gazala Mughal who belong to families that were deeply affected by the Mumbai riots of 1992-93. The riots served as a wake-up call to them. They realised they needed an education to get back on their feet. While one studied MA in sociology, the other got a diploma in crafts. They then pooled their savings and started a school for girls in the slums of Jogeshwari. The school employed five other Muslim teachers – all women – and together they began to help little girls from poor Muslim families become literate.

Stories like this made me jump for joy and I pictured myself being part of such noble efforts. College was when I was high on idealism and optimism. I felt strongly about the need to do something for my community. Our assignments often sent us to work with NGOs and each experience at a slum made me feel I could do something. I didn’t know what but my mind often drifted back to my friend who would have made a wonderful doctor, if only she had been given a choice.

Five years later...

“I hope you don’t mind me asking. Why do you wear a head scarf?”

The question came from a particularly talkative colleague at the publication where I worked as a journalist.

I resisted the urge to scare him off with a, “Coz I’m bald!” response.

“It is part of my religion. I am a practising Muslim,” I replied coolly, instead.

I was used to being asked about my attire and I usually got into lengthy conversations about it. But today had been a really tough day and I wasn’t feeling very chatty.

“Oh okay.” He shrugged and turned away. The response seemed to make sense to him.

He was about to walk back to his desk when he decided to stick around for further conversation.

“We don’t see many Muslim girls in our line of work. I know Islam promotes education. I remember reading a book about it. So it’s weird why so many Muslim youth don’t pursue further education. And the girls aren’t encouraged at all. But of course this happens in all communities, among the poorer or narrow-minded sections of society. I think educated individuals don’t really pay much attention to this issue. I mean, so much can be done to help in terms of awareness creation, right?”

This was not a question. It was déjà vu. This ordinary statement sparked off a chain of memories. My mind raced back to the hostel room. Needle and thread. Family rules. Stereotypes. My friend who could have been a doctor. My education. Girls with dreams in their eyes. A long forgotten desire to make a change. Idealism lost in the daily grind of earning a living.

He wasn’t done.

“You are one lucky girl. I have seen so many girls from your community who can only dream of what you’ve achieved. You should be really proud of yourself,” he smiled.

“I am.” I squeaked with my best impersonation of a proud smile.

Yes, I should be proud of myself. I had successfully completed my post-graduation in Human Rights; I worked for a leading newspaper; I had a lucrative career ahead of me; and with the internet making the world a global village, I had a string of profitable options to choose from.

However, what I felt right now did not feel like pride.

He was exaggerating, I said to myself. Things had changed drastically. Today, there were many Muslim girls from practising Muslim families who were highly educated. Today, girls belonging to any community were confident and independent individuals who did not depend on someone else to make their decisions or how they should lead their lives. Right?

Who was I kidding? One girl denied an education is still one too many. Why was I trying to ignore them? Girls for whom life would have been different had they been born in a more understanding environment... I felt ashamed.

What had become of those promises and desires to make a difference? Waking up to the ways of the world had killed my idealism. But what about my dreams for my community? Why had I never given this issue any thought? I had thought about it. But the guilt of not having done anything had impelled me to push such thoughts to the farthest corners of my mind. My busy life, revolving around my family and work, made me believe that I didn’t have time for any more commitments.

I could go “tch tch” about the issue all I wanted but that wasn’t going to change a thing. It wouldn’t help a single one of those girls. They didn’t need pity. They needed the freedom to make their own choices.

I felt an old idealistic ember ignite somewhere inside. I didn’t need to feel guilty. I needed to do something.

Facing the issue through this post is my first miniscule attempt at doing something for those girls.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

See... this is how the wheels turn

This post is inspired by my friend’s concern that I am probably drifting towards an unwise revelation mode through my blog. My friend feels that I am making myself vulnerable by exposing my inner self and thought process to all and sundry. To quote him “Give them the final picture; don’t tell them how the sketch is made.”


Being honest and baring your soul, or at least part of it, is so very liberating. Blog-therapy, as I call it, has helped me come to terms with a few issues lately and I’m itching to know how it can continue to help. That calls for more straight-from-the-heart writing and further access to my inner thoughts. Do I want to do that? Do I want to let people into my head and show them how the wheels turn? I’m not sure what the repercussions of such actions would be.

I am not double-faced and I hate false pretensions. But like almost everybody I do not always voice my thoughts. Two reasons for this.

# 1: I do not like confrontations. I voluntarily, though sometimes half-heartedly, choose peaceful dialogue over exciting debates, no matter how exciting. Cowardly as it sounds, I’m very uncomfortable about rubbing people the wrong way.

# 2: I get tongue-tied. When I try to voice my opinion, I hear myself say things that are not exactly in line with my thoughts. I think this is because my thoughts are racing from one idea to the next and my vocal chords cannot catch up.( I wonder if this condition/disorder has a fancy name.) So the end result is a distorted version which rarely makes for strong dialogue.

Now writing, via blogging, is another story altogether (pun intended). This mode of communication helps get the message across minus distortion. There are tons of bloggers out there who rejoice at the freedom of expression available though the blogosphere and are going all out to bare their soul. But, from what I have observed, a lot of them do it under the cover of anonymity. Like him and her.

Some courageous bloggers do it without using an alias. Like her. But of course there are still limitations when you choose not to hide behind a pseudonym.

What route is this blog going to take? I don’t really know. Right now it’s serving as my therapist and I’m going to try and experiment with my treatment methodology as much as I have the nerve to. *Seat belts on.*

Saturday, February 20, 2010


“Tomorrow and all the other approaching tomorrows looked bleak and thorny. She wished she didn’t have to get out of bed and face whatever it was that was in store for her. With the option of Melting into Nothingness unavailable in the list of things to do with herself, she decided to meet Sarah. She needed to talk, big time. Spill her guts to someone who would hear her out. Speaking with Sarah always had a soothing effect on her frayed nerves.

Two hours of conversation later, the heaviness had lifted. The sky was blue again and sun shone down on her. The predicament still persisted, yes. But it was no longer unchallengeable, its thorns visibly reduced. She could look at it rationally. She was able to think again.”*

*Spontaneous fiction written to underline a thought.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Wear Your Attitude

I am not difficult to please.

I am not a fussy eater. My taste buds are open to trying new flavours, both bland and exotic. I might eat less than what is required to satisfy my tummy if I don’t find something particulary tasty. Nevertheless, I eat it.

I do not hog the television. I happily allow the other living room occupants to take complete control over the remote. In fact, when I have the remote control in my hands I hardly know what to do with it, and gladly pass it on to someone who can make better use of the device.

I do not require fancy or expensive clothes, shoes, bags, make-up and jewellery. I have very simple clothing preferences that have more to do with comfort than high fashion.

That said, I am certainly not a clumsy dresser nor do I adhere to any Gandhian fashion beliefs of austere simplicity. I like elegance, I have fashioned my own personal style (at least that is what I like to think) and I occasionally like to look dressed up (dolled up?) too.

Now let me tell you what I don’t like. I absolutely loathe being told what to wear. I mean telling me what is appropriate attire in certain circles is something I’m open to and I will surely appreciate the inside information. But dictating that I must follow the current ‘in’ thing and specifying the fabric and cut is taking things a little too far. I refuse to bend down to something just for the satisfaction of gossiping aunties (apparently) who would otherwise get enough fodder to fuel their conversations, while they condescendingly click their tongues, disapproving such poor sense of style (hypothetical).

But it looks like I will be relenting after all. Not for the aunties, mind you. Only to put a smile on the face of someone. I guess it won’t kill me to indulge a loved one and give in to pretentious yet harmless joys.

Aaaarrrrggghhhh!! The woes of being a sweet lass who readily stomps her own desires for the happiness of others (again, this description is purely hypothetical)....

P.S.: It looks like I am going to be using this blog as my punching bag. Considering the past few posts, I’ve been letting off steam through my writing (as well as bottled up emotions – positive and otherwise) and treating myself with some blog-therapy. So far, it seems to be working! :)