Shirin Dalvi, the sacked and hounded Urdu journalist needs your help.
Last year, in January, she was sacked from her post of editor of Mumbai edition of Urdu daily Avadhnama. Her crime was re-publishing of a Charlie Hebdo cartoon on the front page, ten days after the horrific killing of Charlie Hebdo journalists by Islamic fundamentalists. This was a drawing by the assassinated French cartoonist Cabu published in 2006 cover of the magazine titled “Mohammed Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists,” in which a bearded man is shown covering his face and saying that “it’s hard to be loved by idiots.” It is still not clear whether the publishing of cartoon was a mistake or an honest attempt to criticise fundamentalists who killed cartoonists. Looking at her past record I tend to believe the latter, though faced with death threats she said it was a mistake.
Urdu is the national language of Pakistan. It is also an officially recognised and widely spoken language in India, mostly by Muslims. It needs tremendous courage to use a Charlie Hebdo cartoon in the front page of a newspaper mostly read by Muslims. The cartoon is attacking only Islamic fundamentalism, not the religion or its prophet. Most moderate Muslims say the same thing. They deride fundamentalists taking over religion for political purpose.
It was not the religious leaders but male Urdu journalists who first started protest against Dalvi. They objected to depicting prophet’s picture as it is considered now as un islamic.. Urged on by them many others came out with protests. Many were seen proclaiming loudly that in Islam death is the punishment for blasphemy. Dalvi tried to save her life and job by writing an apology and even an editorial criticising Charlie Hebdo.
The ensuing furore prompted Dalvi to issue a front page apology the next morning. She also wrote an editorial blaming Charlie Hebdo for provoking Muslims, but she advised Muslims to reply to such provocations with knowledge and wisdom, not violence. She reminded her readers that Islam had been spread by good deeds and love.
The apology was of no help as Dalvi was sacked and the owners of the newspaper decided to close the one year old Mumbai edition. Six separate complaints were lodged against her in six different places on the grounds of offending religious sentiments. Dalvi was arrested but was fortunately granted bail. Even two newspaper vendors were arrested. Fearing attacks the journalist had to leave her home and children, go into hiding wearing a burka for the first time in her life to hide her face. Her children had to stop going to school fearing bullying. She was shunned by most of her erstwhile colleagues and by community at large. No other Urdu publication was ready to give her a job. This is what she told Newslaundry.
I have been a journalist for over 20 years and wrote my first story when I was just in school. When most parents in our neighbourhood would not allow their daughters to study beyond standard 4th, mine allowed me to continue my education even though I was the only girl in a class of 10 boys.
The town I was brought up in, Mumbra, in the suburbs of Thane district in Maharastra, had a school only till standard 7th. So my parents decided that I would travel more than 12 kilometres every day to Thane to continue with my education.
By the time I was in Standard 12, my pieces were getting published on the op-ed pages of various prominent Urdu dailies. After marriage, my husband, who is no more, was more than supportive of my writing career and even suggested the pen name I wrote under.
Writing and journalism has been and will always be my passion.
But today my struggles mean nothing, my career has come under a cloud and my professional integrity is being questioned.
In my long career as a journalist, I have always written in favour of public causes and never for any political party. I picked up issues of women’s rights and the need to spread education among the Muslim community. I have always said that knowledge should be countered with knowledge.
If you don’t like a book, then counter it with a better book.
Our stance on the Charlie Hebdo episode was always neutral and I believe that even hatred should be countered with love – that is what Islam teaches us.
The fact is that very few women rise to prominent leadership roles in Urdu journalism and not many people are happy with the fact that I have. One of the persons who is planting negative stories against me in the Urdu press had, in fact, stated that one must not work under the leadership of a woman.
Shirin Dalvi was able to return to her home by May 2015 , but is still out of job. She is struggling to support her children’s education and has sold most of her belongings. The cases are going on slowly in the courts.
Some friends and well wishers including the members of the Freethought community of Nirmukta is now helping her to start an online Urdu publication.
The dust has settled, but the legal troubles haven’t yet gone. But Dalvi is now getting ready to bounce back. “I have been a journalist for 27 years; I have written hundreds of articles. It’s time to move to the next step.” She had noticed that the readership of Urdu newspapers was falling – “the language is no longer spoken by the young, they are all sent to English medium schools. Plus, they will not even touch newspapers, which are old fashioned and don’t connect with the newer reader’s aspirations.” Digital was the way to go and with the backing of the Milaap group and some crowdsourcing, she will soon launch the first stand alone Urdu online publication, which can be accessed on the computer and, more importantly, on the mobile.
“I want to reach out to the young and tell them not to get bogged down in negativity and old-fashioned ideas. Education, health, society, these are the issues that matter and I want to write more about them. Journalists have to keep writing; they don’t ever retire.”
I feel Shirin Dalvi, a liberal Muslim voice, should be supported in her new venture. She may not be an atheist or an anti blasphemy law activist. She may unfairly criticise Charlie Hebdo for provocation. But such an editor, that too a Muslim woman, who urges readers to fight an idea with debate and not violence, asks them to introspect their own conduct, warns against wallowing in victim hood and writes about religion based oppression of women should be given a good platform.