Does a Nobel Prize Transform Society?

Abhijit Bandyopadhyay has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Although he is an American citizen, he is primarily an Indian and was born in
India. He was a student of Presidency College in Kolkata, just like Amartya Sen
was. Since Abhijit Bandyopadhyay is Bengali we feel he is one of us, it makes
us feel pride as Bengalis. Not too many Bengalis have won Nobel prizes so far,
only four till date. We don’t have much else to be proud of.
Both Amartya Sen and Abhijit Bandyopadhyay have been critical of the present
Indian government. Just the other day Abhijit Bandyopadhyay had declared that
the Indian economy was in a terrible state. The rate of economic growth was
becoming sluggish at an alarming rate, something that the government too was
aware of. That the nation should follow the economic model established during
the Narsimha Rao-Manmohan Singh era is something that even an economist
like Parakala Prabhakar, the husband of the present finance minister Nirmala
Sitharaman, has written about in an essay. Amidst all this the BJP, at least to
some extent, is in a deep fix. Congress leaders have been continuously
clamouring that the government must listen to Abhijit Bandyopadhyay’s advice.
If a Nobel winner appears to be clearly opposed to the policies of a government
then obviously it’s quite discomfiting for the latter to show much enthusiasm
about the former winning an award. Abhijit was a student of the famed
Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. He must have also been an adherent of
leftist thought. In the 80s he had apparently been part of a gherao of the VC
protesting the expulsion of a leftist student leader and spent ten days in Tihar
jail as a result. That was during the Congress era. The same Abhijit is now a
Nobel laureate and the anti-left capitalist government can neither embrace him
nor ignore him.
Even the Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus had to face a lot of opposition from
his own country’s government. Not that I believe all Nobel winners deserve
their prizes. Often many unworthy people too have been awarded the prize. I
fail to understand how a commercial bank that charges rates of interest becomes
eligible for a Nobel Peace prize. I also fail to comprehend what sacrifices, what
actions, committed over what length of time, justifies the Peace prizes won by
Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama and Malala Yousafzai.

In the subcontinent we have another instance of a Nobel laureate undergoing
harrowing treatment due to his religious beliefs. Nobel winning Pakistani
theoretical physicist Abdus Salam’s epitaph was defaced and the word ‘Muslim’
was removed from it by unknown people. Even the present government of
Pakistan does not consider Ahmadiyas as Muslims, the community Salam
belonged to. He won the Nobel prize in 1979. The year after he received an
invitation to attend a congratulatory dinner hosted by the Quaid-i-Azam
University in Islamabad. Soon, however, a huge public protest was launched
against him. After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had capitulated to the demands of Sunni
fundamentalists and declared the Ahmadiyas as non-Muslims in 1974, hatred
for the latter community among the Sunnis was also rapidly on the rise.
Opposed by a protest led by the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami party,
Abdus Salam could not enter Quaid-i-Azam University even after reaching
Islamabad. Thirty-seven years later the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif
christened the physics department of Quaid-i-Azam University as ‘Abdus Salam
Centre for Physics’. However, Imran Khan is virulently anti-Ahmadiya. Abdus
Salam was born in the Punjab province of Pakistan but he could never live out
his days in his country. In 1974 the persecution of the Ahmadiyas by the Sunnis
reached such an extreme that Salam had to leave Pakistan to save himself. Even
books in Pakistani schools don’t mention Abdus Salam as a Pakistani Nobel
laureate.
Abhijit Bandyopadhyay is an American citizen. Amartya Sen is British. Had
they been in India, I don’t know if they would have been able to do the kind of
research that enables one to win the Nobel. Even European researchers today
are migrating to the US because places in Europe can hardly afford to spend as
much as America does on research.
The Nobel prize has been awarded since 1901. Simply by demographic the
largest number of prizes have been won by Jews, while Muslims have won the
least number. Of course, the best thing to do is to categorise Nobel prizes
according to countries and not faith. Nonetheless, Muslims must be made aware
how backward they remain in the realms of science and knowledge. Nearly all
Muslim countries believe that their preoccupation with religion is of utmost
importance, they remain busy with building mosques and madrassas and
adhering to religious laws over and above modern jurisprudence. A healthy
literary environment, the need for advancements in the medical sciences, or the
work of physicists and the need for research facilities – none of these are

concerns. Rather most Muslims are preoccupied with using corruption to amass
as much wealth as possible. They believe that constructing one mosque or
undertaking one pilgrimage to Mecca is enough to absolve them of their sins,
thus paving the way to Paradise and leaving them with no responsibility to help
make the world a better place.
Who should the Bengali Muslim be proud of? If a Bengali wins a Nobel prize or
if a Muslim wins one? Among Bengali Muslims some consider their Bengali
identity as above everything else while others consider the Muslim identity as
paramount. If only we could consider the human identity as the most important
one then the work one is doing would justifiably become far more important
than one’s nationality, citizenship marker or faith. Identity in labour and not in
race or creed. Abhijit Bandyopadhyay is undoubtedly a talented economist. He
is a proponent of building a society premised on equality and doing away with
social inequalities. He is also a proponent of sterner taxes on the rich in order to
establish a welfare state. These are not new thoughts. After World War II many
European countries transformed into welfare states. Disgruntled and agitated
about having to pay too much tax, many rich and influential people are
threatening to emigrate from their own countries, relocating to countries with
low tax rates. This is one of the foremost side effects of globalisation. Profitable
business institutions have to be cajoled into doing business in a particular
country via the incentive of tax cuts. Perhaps Abhijit Bandyopadhyay has the
solution to these problems.
Human beings desire wealth and prosperity and there is no end to such desires.
The welfare state is premised upon taking from the ones who have more and
redistributing it among those who don’t. This was the reason behind the fall of
the Soviet Union – people had become dissatisfied that while they were working
hard and deserved the money, that money was being given to those who were
not working as hard as they. The same concern has been raised about the other
European welfare states as well. The US has always been capitalist, there the
drive has always been to benefit the affluent. So the rich are taxed as little as
possible. Across the world the popularity of right-wing capitalists is on the rise,
just as it is in India. And yet it is in India that two Nobel winning economists
have worked for the poor and not the rich, they have advocated the
establishment of an equal society. While there are many who do not believe in
social equality, it is still one of the most significant discoveries of human
civilisation – to live together in harmony and alleviate the burdens those who

are downtrodden. Is there anything more beautiful in the world than this
egalitarian principle? Nothing but benevolence, humanity, support and empathy
can trounce envy, greed and selfishness. Despite fine differences in opinions
among the members of the Nobel committee, in certain cases they are still
invested in celebrating this humanity.
In our subcontinent it is a choice few who hold the lion’s share of wealth and
privilege while most others struggle to make ends meet. It is the politicians who
determine the economy that the poor must endure. Millions of people want for
food, clothes and shelter. The poor will continue to suffer even if hundreds of
economists are there across the subcontinent, even if they keep winning one
Nobel after another. They will continue to suffer until politicians turn their
politics away from the rich and influential and focus on the poor and
disenfranchised sectors instead.

Even Women’s Breasts Are Not Safe From Torture!

In certain parts of Africa, a number of horrifying customs are still prevalent. One such
practice is that of female genital mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision, done to ensure
women cannot experience sexual pleasure. Another is breast ironing, essentially nothing but
torture, to ensure breasts don’t grow and men don’t feel sexual attraction for her. The fact
that such customs are still practiced in Africa is technically not new information. In fact, it is
fairly common for African immigrants and people of African descent in Europe and America
to make their girls undergo female circumcision too. However, what is new is that even in
the Commonwealth, right this very moment, there are at least ten-twelve girls who are
undergoing absolute torture in the name of ‘breast ironing’. London, Yorkshire, Essex, West
Midlands – news has trickled in from many such places that there have been instances of
hot stones being rubbed on girls’ breasts to singe the cells and stunt their natural growth.
This painful torture is brought down upon these girls every week, or at least once every
fortnight. A women’s rights organisation from the Commonwealth has issued a statement
that although the cases of these ten-twelve girls are relatively recent, if a proper survey was
to be conducted one would discover that at least a thousand girls of African descent have
gone through this torture till date.
Women’s bodies are tortured and mutilated only to make sure men cannot sexually abuse
them. With breast ironing, the practice inhibits the natural growth of breasts, they never
look like how they are meant to. The damage for the girl in question is both physical and
psychological. Besides, these tortures are carried out by their own mothers and
grandmothers, women who truly believe that these practices will protect their girls from
falling prey to rapists and such people. The question that remains, however, is this – in order
to prevent rape or sexual violence committed against a women why does society not take
any steps to educate men and make them aware? Why is it that women are the ones who
have to undergo a series of strange, unnatural and humiliating experiences, ironically just to
ensure their own safety? Men will grope, they will stare, they will pounce, they will harass
and rape – women have to be wary of myriad such anxieties right from their childhood. So

the moment they hit puberty their well-wishers shower and smother them with advice after
advice – cover yourself, cover your breasts, cover your hair, your thighs and legs! Customs
have to be followed out of fear of male violence. The fact that men are the hunters and
women are the prey – this logic is drilled into women even before they reach adolescence. It
is indeed quite strange that those people to who young girls are the closest to in society are
also their worst enemies – their rapists, their abusers, their murderers. Is such a society of
any use to humanity? If this was the case with men, if they had to be always on edge that
their bodies were going to be violated, that their lack of breasts was going to be a point of
abuse, that their genitalia was going to be crushed and brutalised, then such a social
formation would surely not have worked for them. Why are their breasts not as big as
women’s, why are their genitalia so weird, why do their testicles hang, why do they have
moustaches and beards – what if men were to be attacked over these things by the very
people they cohabit with, the ones they trust the most Surely they would have termed such
a society uninhabitable! Men must similarly understand the condition of women. They must
understand that the society they have built up is equally uninhabitable for women.
I was born a woman. Why should I have to be ashamed or afraid of my own body? Why
should the fear of a man force me to endure my breasts being flattened, have my genitals
mutilated, often sewed shut to prevent me from experiencing sexual pleasure till a husband
can literally cut me open and have me for the first time! Why should I have to suffer my
entire life because I was born with the body of a woman! Don’t we have to pay for being
women all our lives anyway? Why do you have hair on your body? Hide it! Cover your face!
And why do you have breasts? Cover your breasts! And why hips! Cover it, and the butt too!
Why do you have a vagina? Keep it secure! Thighs! Feet! Cover them as well! From the root
of her hair to the tip of her toe, every part of a woman’s body has been put under embargo
by the patriarchal society that surrounds us.
Breast ironing involves hot stones being rubbed on a pubescent girl’s breasts to arrest their
rapid growth. Even when translated to Bangla the name remains just what it claims to be –
the ironing of breasts, like we iron our clothes. Let more people become aware that such a
thing exists, that breasts are things that can be ironed too! Despite the number of rapes
men commit, their genitalia never face being melted with hot iron as punishment. But
despite not having done anything wrong with their breasts, women force women to

undergo breast ironing only to prevent men from being swayed into committing a crime at
the sight of them. None of this is for the sake of women, it’s all of the sake of the men. The
sole objective behind practices like breast ironing and female genital mutilation is the drive
to make sure that if a girl manages to escape rape or harassment when she is young, then
the man who gets to marry her is promised someone chaste, a virgin body that he can be
the sole consumer of. The primary function of women’s bodies is to provide sexual pleasure
to men. They must keep their bodies pure to be offered up to the opposite sex.
Consequently, the most primitive rituals connected with preserving the chastity of a woman
are still so very prevalent everywhere, definitely in Africa, and in Asia as well. Many Africans
and Asians too, no matter which end of the earth they move to and settle in, carry their
customs there with them irrespective of how inhumane some of those rites might be.
Misogyny is now travelling from one end of the world to the other; it is being globalised.
Practices from many backward cultures are seeping into many progressive and so-called
civilised societies. On the other hand, discourses on human rights, women’s equal rights,
democracy and the freedom of expression, all hallmarks of a civilised social system, are not
making the reverse journey and finding their way into repressive and regressive societies.
What people claim as democracy is not democracy at all, while most regular people are not
even made aware about things like human rights and gender equality. When someone tries
to rectify these oversights, they are invariably trapped in some circuitous legal mess and
their freedom to express their opinions is taken from them. Such is the picture in much of
the east. The civilised societies of the west, which men and women have built out of years
of struggle over human rights and women’s rights, now face a severe crisis when practices
like female genital mutilation and breast ironing find their way there, or when their social
institutions find themselves stumped by the rise of things like burqas and naqabs.
Many women of the west have found their life-partners in many men who have immigrated
there from other cultures. When you live in one society it’s expected that people will meet,
that they will fall in love. Many women from the west have come into contact with men
from the east and taken to the hijab, the burqa etc. Who can tell that one day they will not
lose every last bit of reason and logic and end up advocating for terribly misogynist customs
like breast ironing and genital mutilation as well! As it is the left has long been
magnanimous in its proclamations that customs of all communities have to respect, even
the hijab and the burqa and suchlike. Perhaps even the ritual of genital mutilation too! Will
we never accept the fact that not all cultural customs deserve to be accorded the same
respect? One culture encourages music and dancing, the other propagates breast ironing –
do they both deserve the same respect? Just because a handful of misogynous people
continue to sustain and preserve patriarchal and misogynous customs does not make it
necessary for us to adhere to them. Rather we must rise up in protest to ensure such rites
are prohibited for good. We must not forget that in most communities the majority of
traditions and customs are inherently laced with misogyny. In order to truly become civilised
we must acknowledge the importance of equal rights of women in society. In order to truly
become civilised we have no recourse other than completely delegitimising any and every
misogynous tradition that we see around us.

My Fears Regarding Bangladesh

I heard someone say that a river of blood flowed in Sri Lanka last Sunday. When 359 people die and around 500 more are injured, the resultant blood surely does look like a flowing river. But why this carnage? Why so much hate? What terrible thing had those people done and to whom?
In the middle ages there used to be religious wars, the Crusades, where people of one religion would slaughter those of another. We would like to believe that we have become more civilised and that in our civilised societies all faiths and creeds coexist in excellent harmony. But it would be as good as denying the truth if we deny that the religious wars are still going on around us. Muslims are killing Christians, Christians are killing Muslims and Jews, Jews are killing Muslims and vice versa, Buddhists are slaughtering Muslims, Muslims are killing Hindus who in turn are killing Muslims – this is what is going on. No matter how much we would like to believe that we have risen above religion, that our identity as human beings is all that matters at present. No, it’s still one’s religious identity that is paramount. Even now one’s racial, caste and gender identities take precedence over everything else. In New Zealand, the racist, Christian terrorist was fully aware that he was killing Muslims. It has been said that the man was taking revenge for the disabled, Christian girl in Sweden who was crushed under a truck by a Muslim terrorist. In turn Muslim terrorists have deliberately targeted Christians in Sri Lanka by bombing the churches and the hotels where foreign tourists usually stay. This was their way of avenging the deaths of the fifty Muslims who died in the shooting in the New Zealand mosque.
Rumour has it that it is ISIS, in association with a Sri Lankan Islamic organisation named Tauheed Jamaat, that is behind the attack. It is not easy for a small minority organisation of a small country to train eight-nine people as suicide bombers and carry out a series of coordinated bombings to kill hundreds of people. ISIS has issued a statement accepting their role in the carnage. Although there have been previous instances where the ISIS has issued false claims, this time it might not be so. The Indian government had sent a missive to Sri Lanka warning them of an imminent attack on the churches, information that India had gleaned from an arrested ISIS agent. But despite the warning, the Sri Lankan government had not taken adequate measures. Had they taken heed they would have perhaps not let Easter celebrations take place in any of those churches and the hotels too would have been put under strict surveillance. The President of Sri Lanka has said that he had not been aware of the warning from India and that if he had known he would have taken the necessary steps. Perhaps India should have made more of an effort to explain to Sri Lanka the severity of the matter and ensured that they take adequate and urgent precautions to safeguard the security of their citizens.
People of one religion are slaughtering those of another. When will this war of religions end? The bomb blasts in Sri Lanka are presumably in retaliation of the mass shooting in the mosque in New Zealand. Again some Christian terrorist somewhere will avenge Sri Lanka by murdering more Muslims, who in turn will rise up to take revenge – this cycle of violence and murder has no end, it can go on for eternity. As it is religion is not the only thing over which wars are fought in this world. The war of genders, waged by men against women, is as relentless. Women are harassed, their movements are restricted, their rights are violated and their freedom is curbed, they are made into sexual objects, raped and murdered – all this goes on as before. The rich are waging a war against the poor – everywhere you look there is a war going on. Sometimes I fail to comprehend how a race so intelligent as ours, one that has built spaceships and nearly completed all necessary arrangements to travel to Mars some 54.6 million kilometres away, has still not been able to rise above the unnecessary, useless, irrational and immature contradictions that plague us.
I fear for Bangladesh. The way people have been brainwashed in the past one-two decades is incredible. Once there had been space for differences of opinion in the country. People could, very naturally and without any fear, perhaps even with a bit of pride, claim that they did not believe in religion, or the afterlife, or heaven and hell, or winged horses flying about in space. Today if one says they do not believe in such things the person will have to apologise and recant or risk being killed. One religion, all stories of said religion, all customs, rituals and superstitions, everyone has to believe in all of these things together or risk inviting disaster. Can you truly imagine a wonderous country such as this? A country that had been built upon the promise of secularism has now closely and fatally embraced religion. Religious leaders have spread like a virus and Islamic lectures and teachings can be heard echoing from every locality. In the name of religion the youth are being brainwashed and inexorably trained into hating women and non-Muslims. Those who do not believe in religion are being incarcerated by the government while the ones who are spreading hate, envy, misogyny and terrorism in the name of religion on a daily basis are revered. They cannot be touched, their actions cannot be critiqued. There was talk in the middle to control the teachings and public lectures of certain leaders, but who has the grit and determination to interfere in such matters! With their silent encouragement the government and the common people, both blinded by religion, have made these local religious teachers so very powerful that they now do whatever they want with impunity and expect the government to beat a hasty retreat every time. They know fully well that the government will bow down to them as it has done before. Thanks to them a large number of the youth are now religious, some doggedly so, future Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz or Mir Sami Mubaswir in the making. Any day now explosions will perhaps rock Bangladesh.
The factory producing terrorists no longer needs the cover of night to operate. In broad daylight scores of people, all blinded by religion, are being incited to hate and murder non-Muslims because it will bring them good fortune and pave the way for their ascent to heaven without awaiting Judgement. What if one day these people, like the terrorists of Sri Lanka, decide to attack churches, temples or the mosques and places of worship of the Shias, Bahais and Ahmadiyyas? What if these people one day cause another heinous incident like the one at Holey Artisan Café? What if they bomb the hotels? I’m sure they will; the way terrorists activities are on the rise it will be surprising if they don’t. Numerous agents of ISIS have been killed but its ideology lives on and it’s making the rounds of the entire globe.
Which race has managed to progress by simply building temples and mosques or by remaining immersed in religious dogma? There is not a single example. Rather, whatever we recognise as the ideals of a civilised and developed nation, the kind of places where people of all religions wish to move to and settle, all such countries have managed to separate religion from state, education and society, perhaps almost even from life. Despite not being blinded by religion how are they so kind, tolerant and humanist? Truth be told religion has very little, if anything at all, to do with kindness and humanism. If there is anything it has any business with then that is politics. Politicians, as well as the religious leaders, use religion solely for their own gains.
I will kill even if I have to die in the process – many Muslims don’t turn back from becoming suicide bombers. There is no dearth of such Muslims in Bangladesh. Many Bangladeshis have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the ranks of ISIS, knowing fully well that they will perhaps die in the process. They consider such a death glorious and the fault lies in their beliefs. How these beliefs have come to be, what has helped in nurturing them, I doubt anyone has concerned themselves with finding the answers to these questions. Is the government doing anything to address the issue? Only killing terrorists in gunfights does not solve anything. The ones who had been beside themselves with grief at the shootings in the church in New Zealand are the same ones who are celebrating the terrorist attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka. Perhaps these people are the terrorists of tomorrow! It is the responsibility of the government to keep such potential threats under surveillance. This too is a sort of a warning. The way Sri Lanka had ignored the warnings it had received, if Bangladesh too makes the same mistake then the outcome of it will perhaps be as tragic as the former. Not once but time and time again.

La Ikraha Fiddeen

Back in the day there was never any compulsion at home about praying and roza or fasting during Ramadan. Before going to bed at night Ma used to ask which one of us wanted to fast the day after. Those who wished to would tell her, as would those who did not. During the last hours of the night she used to wake up only those who had told her they would fast, for sehri, the pre-dawn meal. The rest would continue to sleep peacefully. Anyone who woke up for the pre-dawn meal had to be careful not to disturb the ones who were asleep, make sure they did not make too much noise.

It was same with namaz as well. Those who wished to pray, did, and those who did not want to did not have to. There were no recriminations regarding this either. The ones who wanted to pray did not attempt to force those to pray who did not and the latter too did not make any attempts to disturb the former during the namaz. These rules were neither written nor regularly espoused, they were sort of like natural laws. If you are hungry you will eat, if you are thirsty, you will drink, if you feel sleepy, you will sleep.

During iftar or evening meal Ma would ask everyone to gather together. We would all sit around the table and Ma would serve iftari to everyone with equal care and attention. Whether you were fasting or not, everyone got the same food. Back then I did not appreciate it but now I do – our house had been the ideal one.

Our house was not close enough to the mosque for us to be able to hear the azaan or call to prayer. In the 60-70s, even in the 80s, there were not that many mosques in the country. However, those at home who used to pray never had to face any difficulty regarding the time of prayers. There were clocks on the walls of course. Plus, Ma could tell from the sunlight on our yard if it was time for namaz yet.

It says in the Quran, ‘la ikraha fiddeen’, ‘there is no compulsion in religion’. I believe this to be the most valuable ayat or verse of the Quran and if one were to adhere to this verse with all diligence it can possibly ensure world peace. Islamic scholars usually explain this ayat thus – ‘Islam has nothing to do with coercion, force, persecution or another such destructive behaviour. All such things are against the principles of Islam. Religion is premised upon beliefs and wishes. Forcing someone into reacting or coming to an agreement is not supported by Islam. In fact, Islam prohibits strife and discord, feuds and conflicts, rioting and vandalism. Creating terror, committing the murder of an innocent, such things are unforgettable crimes in Islam.’ Now the question is how many people actually adhere to this explanation?

What I fail to understand is why do Muslims not adhere to the teachings of the Quran that they claim to be so proud of. Allah has decreed that there is no coercion in religion. It is but expected that Allah’s true believers should abide by His counsel. But is that how things happen in reality? In the UAE a new law has been instituted whereby if anyone is found having eaten or drank outside food during the month of Ramadan, they are going to be heavily fined and jailed for a month. In Bangladesh the restaurants are forcibly kept shut during the day and if anyone is found having flouted the rule the fasting mob arrives and vandalises their restaurants. Do even thirsty non-Muslims have no right to seek water somewhere during this terrible heat wave? Someone wishing to quench their thirst is met with intimidation, violence, and destructive outbursts. Those not fasting remain in constant anxiety regarding the ones who have chosen to fast. Many of the latter believe that someone eating or drinking anything in front of them is an insult to their person. I used to eat my fill sitting right in front of my fasting mother and she used to be happy seeing me content. Many a day she used to feed me as well and never did she feel I was insulting her in any way. Neither did I ever feel that she loved me any less because I had refused to fast. My mother was a very honest and pious woman, she knew how to respect one’s choice of not fasting. Today most religious people are sorely lacking in this quality; they run on the assumption that intolerance and injustice are necessary requirements for religion.

The ones who fast expect to be in Allah’s good graces at the time of Judgement. Is it not enough? Why do fasting Muslims seek to demand respect from the ones who do not fast? And why must we show the fasting Muslims any respect at the cost of our human rights by not eating food at the restaurants? Isn’t respect supposed to be mutual? Respect can be accorded only if it is reciprocated, isn’t that so? And is someone’s sense of respect so fragile that it feels slighted at the sight of another person eating in front of them? Ma used to say if we managed to stick to our resolve and control our desires even at the sight of someone else eating or drinking, it was going to make our roza even stronger and more effective. Does no one think like this anymore?

In Bangladesh, people start shouting or making a commotion and in the neighbourhood to get up for sehri at the end of every night. The chaos usually wakes everyone up, even the ones who are not interested in sehri. Do they have no right to sleep if they wish to? The same can be said about the azaan as well. Back in the day when there were no alarm clocks or mobile phones perhaps the shouts and cries of the local boys used to be pretty useful for the ones who needed to wake up for sehri. In this age of technological advancements, such excesses are completely unnecessary. I’m sure everyone knows how to set an alarm in their mobile phones; even if they don’t it hardly takes a couple of minutes to learn!

The ones who wish to fast have the right to do so; the ones who don’t wish to should have a right to choose too. Every human being has the right to be a believer or a non-believer. Across the world, people have a right to practice their own religion. Not just that, the religious also have the right to be critical of those who do not believe in religion. But non-believers don’t have the right to say anything critical of the former – if they do so it results in harassment, legal trouble, jail time, exile or even murder. Religion is a personal matter. Anyone who wishes to practice a particular religion should be allowed to do so just as anyone who does not wish to should be allowed to do as they please. How can the nation, the state or society force someone to practice a religion? Does that mean religion will never show us a possible path to liberation, it will always end up putting people in shackles? The nation is for everyone, not just the majority but the minority as well. It is the duty of the government to treat everyone as equal.

The government of China has forbidden the observance of roza in the Muslim neighborhoods of the country. This prohibition, however, applies only to government officers and workers, leaders and workers of the Communist Party and students. I understand that students should not be made to fast to protect their health. Leaders and workers of the Party, being communists and atheists, perhaps are expected to not observe the roza. But not all government officers and workers are atheists. If they wish to fast, why should they not be allowed to do so? Perhaps the government wishes to convey that since fasting results in fatigue it can disrupt work at the office during the day. But what about those who can tirelessly work even while they are fasting, why should they not be allowed to fast during Ramadan? Not all who fast sit and doze off at work! I strongly condemn this embargo placed by the Chinese government.

China is criticised the world over for it’s an anti-democratic and anti-human rights stance. This move to ban Muslims from fasting too has been criticised. But the Chinese government has stated that it keeps strict surveillance on it’s Muslim dominated provinces during Ramadan to suppress terrorists and separatists. Accordingly, the government has decreed that no cafes and restaurants must remain closed during Ramadan. That at least is the right decision I believe. On the other hand, the Muslim nations have gone the opposite route of China when it comes to Ramadan and fasting and banned the consumption of food or drink even if someone is not fasting.

If Islam does not become more liberal then it’s Muslims who stand to lose the most. Numerous people around the world today are against Muslims. Muslims are not anymore trusted, most fear them or recoil at their name. Because of a handful of terrorist organisations Muslims, in general, are coming to be identified as intolerant, murderous barbarians. It’s Muslims themselves who must take up the onus of ensuring Islam becomes more liberal. They must prove to the world that they are not merely intolerant terrorists, that they do not condone the actions of Muslims radicals, that they believe in forgiveness, kindness, human rights, women’s freedom and in the freedom of expression. Unless human rights and democracy are respected there is no way Muslims can hope to earn the respect of the conscientious people of the world.

The Chief Minister of West Bengal, despite not being a Muslim herself, pray namaz and observes roza. As much as any of us can claim that she does not do any of this sincerely, that she does everything for Muslim votes, but even then I don’t believe anyone should attempt to make her stop doing these things. She has the right to practice any religion she wants. Who says someone does not possess the right to observe more than one faith at a time? Just like we have the right to forsake religion if we wish to, we also have the right to practice more than one if we wish to. But we must be careful to remember one thing – in the eyes of the state a person who believes in a particular religion and a person who does not believe in any are both equally important, they are entitled to the same rights.

What We Need Are Slogans For Ours Rights

Politicians of the subcontinent, once they have won their elections and are at the cusp of beginning their tenure as MPs, always swear oaths in the name of Allah or Bhagwan that they will dutifully carry out the responsibilities of their office. Things are far more acute in the US where MPs swear in with their hands on religious texts like the Bible or Quran. Do an MP’s personal religious beliefs play any role in the running of the state? As a secular nation, India must strive to foster a stronger belief on the constitution than on religion. An MP who is respectful of their nation’s constitution and of their country’s laws, who wishes to serve the people simply because they love their nation, someone who wishes to see society grow and prosper, for people to have access to good education, healthcare, and security, such a person does not need to swear to someone’s name. Such a person can dedicate themselves to the service of their country and its people without any sworn oath. Those who dedicate themselves in such a manner do so because of their principles and not because they believe the Almighty will punish them if they fail to live up to their oath. And those who swear in the name of God before assuming office, do they not break their oaths? In fact, they do so quite often. Besides, it’s not as if such people are truly so staunchly religious that they will not commit an injustice just because they have sworn not to do so. They continue to break the oaths they have taken in the name of their gods, insulting the latter time and again and rendering the oaths futile. There is absolutely no need to drag religion or God into the swearing in of new MPs, especially in a secular nation.

In countries which still have a constitutional monarchy, MPs continue to swear to serve the king or queen. In some cases, people swear to serve the President. Despite having completely separated the church and the state some European nations continue to hold their swearing-in ceremonies in the name of God. Or they seek the Lord’s blessing in the running of the country. At least among the East European countries at present one does not have to swear an oath in the name of God. On the other hand in most Muslim nations oaths are sworn in the name of Allah.

The other day the new Indian MPs, while they were taking their oaths of office, could be heard chanting the slogans aligned with their personal religious beliefs. Politics is gradually becoming all about sloganeering. Some chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’, some chant ‘Allah Hu Akbar’. Can the Parliament at least not be kept separate from one’s personal religious beliefs? In India, different people worship different gods. Some believe in Ram, some in Ganesh, some in Durga while some are devotees of Hanuman. But everywhere what has been spread is the slogan of north Indian Hindu fundamentalists.

‘Allah Hu Akbar’ is just as dangerous a slogan. Muslim jihadi terrorists in various countries across the world use this very slogan while decapitating innocent non-Muslims and non-believers. It can only be an act of intelligence to keep the Parliament separate from religion. The Indian subcontinent was divided because of religion, and even now religious fundamentalism and terrorism is a huge problem here. In Pakistan as well as Bangladesh, with the rise of religious fanaticism, serious security issues are being faced by the minorities, the secular individuals and women. While in Kashmir problems with Muslim terrorists have continued to cause trouble, elsewhere a new threat has emerged in the form of Hindu fanatics modelled after their Muslim counterparts. These people are more interested in shouting religious slogans than in slogans demanding the people’s rights to food, clothing and shelter, education and healthcare, security for all and the right to be able to freely express their opinions. For this reason, even politicians find it in their best interests to serve the purpose of religion in order to satisfy their voters. Or perhaps it is the politicians who ultimately encourage the public to place religious beliefs above all else. This serves to reduce the government’s responsibilities vis-à-vis the welfare of its people since they find it is easy to gain popularity by fanning the flames of religion.

Some political parties, while serving the needs of minorities, had completely forgotten about the Hindu majority of this country. That they too exist, that they too are citizens and they too vote. This time around these parties have learned a lesson that this forgotten faction can easily rise up in agitation. The political parties have had to pay for their sustained negligence this time. The moment the question of conserving the rights of a Hindu citizen comes up, it has become commonplace to accuse someone of having a Hindutva agenda. But the Hindus who wish for the appeasement of Muslim fundamentalists to end are not the ones who have dedicated themselves to the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra. The ones who want to establish such a Rashtra instead of a secular one can rather be termed as Hindu fundamentalists. If the latter had taken a turn towards terrorism for the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra, if they were to begin murdering non-Hindus to wipe them off the face of this country, only then could they be truly accused of anything, and not before that.

Besides, if Hindus have been facing discrimination for centuries, deciding to oppose this systemic discrimination does not in any way mean establishing a Hindu state and slaughtering all Muslims or driving them out. Such people are merely adherents of Hindutva, something that is far less dangerous than Muslim fundamentalism. The true reason behind this wave of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ that is sweeping across this country, even West Bengal which has traditionally been secular, is this longstanding tendency of politicians thinking only about the interests of Muslim clerics and maulavis at the cost of the interests of the general Hindu populace. There is no reason to belittle this reaction of everyday Hindu citizens as merely ‘Hindutva’.

Even today it has not been possible to ensure the peaceful coexistence of Hindus and Muslims everywhere in the subcontinent. Till the date that can be achieved both Hindus and Muslims will continue to remain preoccupied with religious dogma and I doubt whether that will truly serve in anyone’s best interests. The political party that will not ignore the Hindus, the one that values Hindu votes, is the one that is in power today and so very popular at that. It’s not as if everyone has voted them into power with love. It has more been a vote against the political parties who have so far only been interested in appeasing the mullahs etc. It’s only in India that I have seen most political parties chase after the minority vote rather than the majority one. The reaction we have seen among the Hindus this time has managed to make the politicians sit up straight. It is important that we give equal value to everyone as human beings, irrespective of majority, minority, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, atheists, rationalists, white, black, rich or poor. It is a grave crime to discriminate against people on the basis of religion, wealth, class or caste. It’s also a crime all these politicians have committed, not that they will ever admit it.

A few days back two Hindu convicts were murdered in a Bangladeshi prison. They were killed because they were Hindus. In Pakistan, too Hindus and Christians are not safe. In India recently there has been a marked increase in Islamophobia among certain groups of Hindus who have gone to the extreme of lynching people for allegedly having eaten beef. When will this enmity between Hindus and Muslims end? This huge landmass was partitioned into two just to reduce this enmity but seventy years hence the antagonism has not abated in any way whatsoever. Has this mutual hatred and antagonism been artificially produced or is the animosity entirely original and without any solutions! If Hindus and Muslims remain such sworn mortal enemies for centuries then whatever else one might expect from these two communities, peace will not be one of them. I don’t believe that hate has no end or that resentment is perpetual. People across the world have proven time and again that all hostilities eventually come to an end.

When I was young I too used to walk in processions and shout along with the others – ‘We want food, we want clothes, we want a life worth living’. I too used to walk in protests meant to rock the city demanding health and education for all. But times have changed. Today, more than rights what is articulated in political slogans comprises religious beliefs and agendas. There is nothing easier than feeding religion to a soul. Instead, what is truly difficult is to ensure a better standard of living for the people, to make them educated and aware, to provide them employment opportunities and good working environments and ensure the total eradication of all discriminatory practices. It’s perhaps best to ask the politicians to do the difficult deed rather than the facile one.

FEMICIDE

‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’, a new feature film based on the life of the notorious American serial killer Ted Bundy, that has just begun streaming on Netflix. In the mid-70s Bundy, who used to be a law student in university, preyed on young and beautiful girls of various different universities in different cities. He would kidnap them, rape them and then kill them. In the beginning even though he tried his best to claim he was not guilty, on realizing there was no way out he later confessed to thirty such murders. Experts believe that the number of women Bundy killed was more than thirty, that it was possibly close to a hundred if not more. Ted Bundy was so handsome and so smart that one glance at him was enough to impress girls. Besides, he was such a smiling, well-behaved man that those who knew him could not have even imagined that he could murder someone. Catching him had not been easy either, he had twice escaped from two different prisons. But one day they did catch up to him, he was caught, tried and sentenced to death. Consequently it became possible to answer numerous questions surrounding him, how he used to abduct his victims, how they were killed and so on. But the one question that remains unanswered to this date is why his victims were exclusively women, especially when murder was something he was addicted to. Why did he not count men, animals or birds among his victims? Besides, it was not as if rape was the driving force behind his actions. There were many victims of his who were found to have not been sexually violated at all before being killed.
Around the time Ted Bundy was killing girls, two other notorious murderers emerged as well – Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, called the Hillside Stranglers. Just as Bundy they too used to abduct young or adolescent girls, to rape and murder them. Bundy operated in Washington, Utah and Florida while the Stranglers operated in the California region. Is there any region that has not been a witness to femicide? Just a few years back, in 2014, Californian Elliott Rodger took to the street with a gun to shoot any girl he could find. So virulent was Rodger’s misogyny that he had even uploaded a video on Youtube containing his manifesto of hatred directed at women. In the video he had confessed to being a virgin because no woman had reportedly agreed to have sex with him. His manifesto of anger and hatred against women had been 140 pages long and Eliott ended up killing six people. Surprisingly, after the murders, instead of his actions being denounced a veritable wave of praise directed at him was unleashed. In no time many men popped up at various places claiming to be his admirers. What outpouring of misogyny it was! They named Elliot ‘Supreme Gentleman’ and his likeness began to find its way to their t-shirts. Canadian Alek Minassian, having adopted Rodger as his spiritual guru, went on a rampage on the busy streets of Toronto one day, using his van to run over a number of pedestrians, most of whom were women.
Not just offline, a thousand misogynist organizations have recently cropped up online as well – groups identifying themselves as ‘men’s rights’, ‘incel rebellion’, ‘pick-up artists’ among others. The last group claims that the best way to have sex is to first incapacitate the woman. These people may be misogynists but they are not as bad as Minassian. The latter was a proponent of murder while pick-up artists, although not aligned with murder or something so extreme, nonetheless are fine with rape. In fact, they believe every man possesses the right to rape women. Eliott Rodger was not the first of his kind. In 2009 a misogynist man named George Sodini had barged into a health club in Pennsylvania and killed three women. Before committing the crime he had left an entry in his online journal, confessing how he had not had sex in years because women paid him no attention.
Who will teach these men that it’s not a woman’s responsibility to satisfy them every time they get sexually aroused? Who will teach them that if they believe they are entitled to being inconsiderate, intolerant, violent, cruel and barbaric just because of their gender then they are seriously delusional!
Despite knowing that it is this misogyny that is behind such killing sprees and massacres directed at women, anti-terrorist experts insist on claiming ‘lone wolves’ are behind such incidents. Attacks by such lone wolves follow no strict plans and various reasons like drug addiction, depression and troubled childhood and growing-up years are often cited as motivating factors behind such aimless acts of murder and mayhem. But men who kill women because of their hatred for women, who commit such acts in cold blood, can be anything but lone wolves. The only people who can be perfectly compared with such misogynist terrorists are religious terrorists. Just as the latter category wishes for the annihilation of anyone or everyone who is critical of their religious beliefs, misogynists too wish for the end of all women. As per them if women are fine with living as slaves serving under men then they can be allowed to live, or else no woman has the right to life. No matter what else they are, misogynist terrorists are not lone wolves. Neither are they psychologically or mentally impaired or acting under the influence of alcohol or drugs. They do what they do because they hate women. Such acts of violence have a purpose, they are planned, they are political.
How many of us remember Marc Lépine? In 1989 Lépine had barged into École Polytechnique in Montreal and singled out only women students whom he had shot dead. That day fourteen women were killed. In the 70s and 80s Charles Sobhraj, famously called The Bikini Killer, killed numerous girls in Thailand and Nepal. The notorious ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ Peter Sutcliffe murdered thirteen girls between 1975 to 1980, besides attempting to kill many more. In early 1984 Australian national Christopher Wilder went on a crime spree abducting and raping at least twelve women, eight of whom he killed. Americans Rodney Alcala, Carl Eugene Watts, Leonard Lake, Gerald Stano, and Canadian Keith Hunter Jesperson were all involved in femicide. Then there was Ariel Castro from Cleveland! The man who kidnapped three young women and kept them imprisoned in his house, bound in chains, for more than a decade, treating them as sexual slaves, raping and torturing them!
So many feminists have faced death threats while protesting misogyny. In this age of technology and information just as misogyny has become popular, threats against feminists have gone up massively as well. While other acts of terrorism can probably be curtailed, murderous violence arising from misogyny is impossible to curb simply because misogyny is so normalized in our society. Patriarchy and misogyny are inextricably interlinked, without the latter the former will crumble. That is perhaps why across the centuries patriarchal society has actively nurtured and sustained misogyny.
Due to such entrenched misogynous attitudes, women are always considered inferior to men in all respects. It is believed that women are less intelligent than man, less talented, weaker, less competent and brave, all reasons why men are expected to lord over them. Men will draw the lines within which women have to live, they will decide what women will wear, what they will eat, where they can go and how far, what they can read or talk about, what they can write or think – everything will have its limits. Without misogyny, it would not be possible to think of women as insignificant and inconsequential. It is simply because of this pervasive hatred that women continue to be tortured, why dowry-related violence is still rampant, why sexual harassment is widespread everywhere be it at home or in the outside world, why even the threat of capital punishment has not managed to curb rapes, and why women continue to be murdered with impunity. Be it in the name of honour or in the name of retribution for adultery.
Children who grow up witnessing women being discriminated against never manage to learn any lessons on gender equality. What they learn from their families and societies instead is plain and simple misogyny. If anyone dares to claim equal rights for women, be it in education, practice, law, in the eyes of the state or in society, or even within the family, they are bound to face excommunication in some form or other. Just because the Prime Minister of a country is a woman hardly means such a society is free of misogyny or discriminatory practices. The Leader of Opposition is a woman, ministers are women, the head of state is a woman – none of these things can guarantee that in such a country women will enjoy as much freedom as the men do.
Women are murdered for various reasons, not every murder is femicide. Femicide happens when a man kills a woman simply because of who she is, a woman. A comparative term for the murder of men does not even exist simply because in our societies men are hardly ever murdered because of their gender. Being a man is not a thing of shame like it is in case of a woman. Women co-habit with their murderers, in intimate relationships, often under the same roof. Most women are murdered by people close to them, by their husbands, lovers, friends or close relatives. Other than among human beings in no species is cohabitation with one’s executioner such a naturalized tendency.

Dissent is the sign of a healthy society

I could never have dreamt such an incredible dream that school students of Bangladesh would one day change their country. Neither did I ever entertain the fantastic notion that because of their requests, or orders if you may, no unlicensed driver will henceforth be able to get behind a wheel in Bangladesh, motorcyclists will have to wear helmets and everyone will have to obey traffic laws. What they have managed to do on the streets of Dhaka within only a couple of days has impressed not just me but numerous other people. But just as is the case with any successful movement, here too, opportunists have managed to insert themselves within the call of Nirapad Sadak (Safe Roads) for their own personal political gains. Perhaps the students should have gone back home much earlier. But just because they had not heeded the request of clearing the roads, did that justify brutalising unarmed students using the police and armed units of party cadres? Times have changed. Things can now easily be recorded, identifying who has done what and when. There are usually lesser chances now of criminals feigning innocence than before. All the information about how photojournalist Rahat Karim was attacked with sticks and machetes and who the perpetrators were is on the internet, only a click away.

The Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has banned my books and prohibited my entry into my own country. In fact she did not even allow me the courtesy of being able to visit my father on his deathbed. As per her instructions the embassies do not renew my passport or attest any of my important documents. And yet she has my undying support. I support her because even though she has been nothing but bad when it comes to me, she has been good for the country. This assessment is not based on her strengths as a leader, her humanity or her experience though; it’s based solely in comparison to the leaders of her Opposition. Even today, given a choice between Hasina’s Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – Jamaat-e-Islami coalition, I will give more points in favour of the former. It is unfortunate for Bangladesh that they do not have a better political option than the League; nor have they managed to foster leaders better than Sheikh Hasina, given how both can be labelled lesser evil at the end of the day. She is not an ideal leader and neither is her party the ideal political party. But the Opposition is so corrupt, so treacherous and so invested in ideas of jihad that one is left with no choice but supporting Hasina. I support her despite acknowledging the many mistakes she has been making and the injustices she has been committing one after another. I wish for her to stop making mistakes, because I support her and because there is no one else at present who can lead the nation other than her. I cannot help but notice how quite frequently her behaviour appears to mirror that of a dictator, how she no longer wishes to adhere to tenets of democracy, human rights and the freedom of speech and expression. I feel pained, I scream out in anger; not that there is anyone to witness my outbursts. I am not a politician, a philosopher or anyone influential. I am in the shadows, at the end of the queue, an orphaned writer among the many other disenfranchised of the land.

It is an undeniable truth that the faith and respect many progressive individuals across the globe had for Sheikh Hasina has taken a considerable beating, as has her reputation. This is precisely why she must prove herself and rectify her mistakes. She must prove that she is not only a leader of her party but also a leader of the people, that she still believes in the ideals of democracy, that she does not condone extra-judicial murders, that she does not want to suppress the free press, that she is not a vengeful and cruel person but a sensitive human being and a worthy head of state. She must prove she does not maintain an army of thugs and that she does not use her armed cadres to crush rational modes of protests and the rightful demands of citizens. She must repeal article 57 of the Information and Technology Act and prove that she recognises the freedom of speech and expression, one of the foundational tenets of democracy. Otherwise, sooner or later, progressive people will be forced to withdraw their support of her. If they do not believe in progress, modernity, women’s rights and secularism, if their party is what matters to them the most, then how are they any different from their opponents anymore?

Her well-wishers surely do not want her behaviour to resemble the very opponents she defeated to come to power. Already Reporters Sans Frontières, the non-profit that advocates on behalf of the freedom of the press across the globe, has issued a statement detailing how nearly twenty-three journalists have thus far been attacked while reporting on the Nirapad Sadak movement. Human Rights Watch too has sternly criticised article 57, clearly elucidating how the law was formulated to aid in persecuting anyone who would dare speak out against the actions of the Prime Minister or the ruling party. The entire world knows by now that the case filed against photo-journalist Shahidul Alam was based on article 57, resulting in his arrest and ten day remand during which time he has been severely tortured. His only offence was that he gave an interview to Al-Jazeera regarding his experience of photographing the Nirapad Sadak student protests where he spoke in favour of the students and made a number of critical observations against the government. He did not murder anyone, did not hack anyone with a machete or broke bones with sticks and hammers. The only thing he did was to sit in his own home and express his personal views in an interview to the media. How can viewpoints that are perceivably critical of the government be sufficient grounds for harassment? Let me assume Shahidul Alam did not speak the truth. Why has his untruths driven the government to such desperate measures to shut him up? Let the government prove that it is telling the truth. If Shahidul Alam is indeed a liar then that should not be too difficult for the government to prove. Let them prove they are the ones who are telling the truth and in the process disprove Alam’s claims! One can only imagine how much confidence the government must have lost in itself to have fallen on such hard times that they fear everything, right from school students and the demands of the common people, to the press, the photographer’s camera and dissent in general! It is a thing of terrible irony that the Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina is afraid of the same things that her idiotic and unsuitable opponents would have been afraid of had they been in power in her stead. People scare you only when they know you will be afraid.

A great person must necessarily possess the strength to accept criticism. You cannot expect to be a great statesman otherwise. In many civilised countries leaders resign even in the case of the most minor mistakes or errors of judgement. It is only in the third world that people employ any and every means necessary to hold on to power and as per the tenets of democracy even the most vile, bigoted, self-serving and stupid barbarian gets a shot at ruling the country. The belief that since one is good for the country no one else can ever take one’s place is deeply detrimental to the well-being of the nation. And there are enough sycophants in this part of the world to help nourish that belief and aid in its growth. But one must never forget that totalitarianism cannot be the solution to any problem. The way we oppose those who wish to use the tools of democracy to ultimately subvert its very ideals and establish a communal and fundamentalist regime, the same way we must also contradict those who wish to run a totalitarian regime in the guise of a democracy.

It’ll be catastrophic, the day the people go silent. All injustices and discriminations must be opposed. In order to heal, one must first identify the wound. Opposition to an injustice being done is the sign of a healthy society while the use of state power to quash dissent and abuse protesters is the sign of a diseased and barbaric state machinery. BNP coming to power would mean giving up the country to stupid and corrupt people like Tareq and Khaleda Zia. The Jamaat will invariably turn the country into another Afghanistan. And I am not sure if one can place too much faith on those who are plotting to come to power by ‘offing’ both Hasina and Zia. The best outcome would be if Hasina were to admit her mistakes and continue to serve the country. She will certainly win in the next election, but if religious bigotry manages to spread its roots further into the heart of the country, if stupidity is encouraged simply because it is more popular, if those who believe in free thought are assumed automatically to be enemies, if there are attempts made to silence dissent, then that victory will surely be a hollow one. Perhaps it might benefit Hasina and her party, but it will most definitely not be beneficial for the country.

One would rather have the democracy of someone unsuitable than the tyranny of someone suitable. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had made a grave error when he had decreed that there was going to be no other party than BakSAL (the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League or the Bangladesh Worker-Peasant’s People’s League); I hope Sheikh Hasina will not repeat the same mistake. I also hope that she will not repeat the error Sheikh Mujib had made by forming the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini (National Security Force), by allowing the supporters of the Awami League or the boys of the Chattra League (Bangladesh Student League) to continue to commit acts of terror with impunity.

The mosque in New Zealand

The entire Muslim world has been shaken by the terrorist attack on the mosque in New Zealand. As it is many people nurse a lot of anger against Muslims because of numerous past incidents of terror committed by Muslim terrorists across the world. Numerous people die in such incidents, innumerable women get raped. For these reasons islamophobes never miss an opportunity to insult or hit back at Muslims. The act of terror on the mosque is an instance of that very Islamophobia.

The attack on the mosque itself is nothing new. Sunnis have always been known to attack Shia or Ahmadiyya mosques. The attacker in New Zealand is a right-wing Christian fundamentalist and racist who hates people of colour, especially immigrants. A lot like racist Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik. Their kind of Islamophobia is a lot more extreme.

Islamophobes have taken it for granted that since all Muslims are terrorists, killing one is akin to getting rid of a terrorist as well. Their minds are so clouded with hate, their brains so impaired that they cannot reasonably understand that most Muslims are not terrorists. Millions of innocent, regular Muslim people across the world have to pay the price for the terrorist acts committed by a few Islamic fanatics.

The way Muslims have come together to bemoan the collapse of humanity, why do they not do the same when non-Muslims or non-believers die at the hands of Islamic terrorists? Is it because they feel more acutely sad at the death Muslims than they do when someone else is involved? I have seen islamophobes who, let alone being sad, exhibit genuine happiness when they hear of Muslim people dying. Aren’t these two mindsets remarkably alike!

I will cry only when it’s someone from my family or my community who is the victim, otherwise, I could not care less – that is not what it means to be a good human being. To be loved and respected, it’s not enough for Muslims to sport the tag ‘not a terrorist’, they must exhibit kindness and compassion towards non-Muslim people just as they do to their own. The amount of freedom, cooperation, and respect that Muslim people get in most non-Islamic nations is way more than even in Islamic countries. Thus, no matter how conservative they are, many Muslims hanker to settle in non-Islamic nations.

Muslims must learn from the way non-Muslims from across the world have come together in solidarity to express their grief and compassion with the victims of the terrible incident in New Zealand. When non-Muslims lose lives in such senseless acts of brutal violence Muslims too must come together in solidarity.

Those who always seek to blame the wrongdoings of USA and Israel for Islamic terrorism, will they now blame the machinations of ISIS, Al-Qaida or Boko Haram behind the man barging into the mosque in New Zealand and killing all those people? If not, then obviously there must be something wrong somewhere.

The time for Muslims to remain in their state of childlike innocence has passed, the time has come for them to behave like adults and accept their responsibilities. ‘You cannot talk about my religion, you cannot argue against my laws, you cannot say anything about what I wear or what I eat, you cannot talk about the animals I slaughter or the discrimination between the sexes that I practice in my social life, you cannot hurt my religious sentiments, make a comment against my Prophet or make a sketch of a woman. If you do any of these I will kill you, set you on fire, destroy your world…’ These are childish and brutish demands! If one wishes to be civilised one must acknowledge not just one’s own rights but the rights of others as well – the human rights, democratic rights and freedom of expression of all people, irrespective of religion, faith, colour, gender or language.

For women, fight for independence much more important than entry to temples like Sabarimala

The protests against the Supreme Court Sabarimala temple order show that some places in the world are still inaccessible to women, all the magniloquent talk of equality in a democratic world notwithstanding.

Mount Athos in Greece is one such place where the entry of women is forbidden. Not only women, even female animals are not allowed. Mount Athos houses orthodox monasteries where about 2,000 Russian and Greek monks reside. The same system of prohibiting women is followed on Mount Omine in Japan. At its gate, “No woman admitted” is written. Still, the UNESCO declared it a world heritage site.

India, too, has many places where women are barred like Mawali Mata Mandir in Chhattisgarh, Kartikeya Mandir at the Haryana-Punjab border, Kamakhya temple in Assam, Mangal Chandi Mandir in Jharkhand, Ranakpur Jain Temple in Rajasthan, and Shri Padmanavaswami Temple, Shri Krishna Temple and Sabarimala in Kerala.

Women cannot enter some of these religious precincts because the Gods there are believed to be celibates. At Shani Shingnapur in Maharashtra, women do not have access to the sanctum sanctorum. And women could not even move around Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai. Now, after the intervention of the court, they can go there, but not the inner sanctum. The sanctum sanctorum is considered ‘pure’ and women are considered ‘impure’; so they are kept at bay.

Traditionally, women bore and brought up children, served their husbands and in-laws but did not get any respect or rights. Time changed; now women are no longer house-bound. They have become engineers, doctors, professors, lawyers, judges and topnotch professionals and scientists. They have even gone to space. In politics, they have become heads of states and governments. But all this could not disabuse them of the tag of ‘impurity’ labelled over them by patriarchal society.

The Supreme Court of India declared the practice of not allowing women of menstruating age into Sabarimala as violating the right to equality granted by the Constitution. But for the priests and devotees of Lord Ayyappa, the decision of the apex court does not hold water in the face of the old tradition. They did not allow women to enter Sabarimala, defying the court’s order, and surprisingly, many women devotees joined the male protestors. The attitude of political parties is ambivalent as they fear losing Hindu votes and so fight shy of taking a clear stand.

Religion is patriarchy and misogyny. No religion accepts equality of women. The reason because of which Sabarimala bans women’s entry is the same that of Haji Ali Dargah or Mount Athos.

However, I also wonder whether the people who want women’s entry into Sabarimala by any means think that it will give women equality. Many misogynistic rituals such as shashti, sindoor khela, karwa chauth are celebrated with fanfare and gusto. Even in marriage, the hymns chanted ensure the wife’s subservience to the husband. It was thought that Muslim women would get equality once the practice of triple talaq is banned. Such an absurd thought! Muslim women do not have equal rights under sharia laws that still exist.

We must not forget that women are oppressed because they are born as women. Incidents of rape, gangrape and sexual assault are rampant. Women suffer because of poverty, they are persecuted for dowry, and face domestic violence.

The body and mind of a woman are controlled by men. Female animals are not subjugated and tortured in the jungle the way women in the civilised world are. Animals enjoy equality, we don’t. We created religious places to worship imaginary Gods who are misogynist. Then why do women need to go to temples and mosques? Why do they need to bow down before the deities who treat women as impure, inferior, untrustworthy and untouchable. Women face problems at every step in this patriarchal society, but the truth is, temples and mosques are not going to resolve them.

The stand of Hindu fanatics in the Sabarimala case against the court emboldens Muslim extremists who always oppose judicial interference in their religious laws. They want to perpetuate their age-old anti-women laws. They refuse to be modern. Thus, Hindu and Muslim obscurantists think and act alike. The best solution is to go beyond one’s religious identity. One should say, “You are bad, but why should I not be good?” Instead, religious fanatics say, “You are bad, so why should I not be bad as well?”

Society is evolving. The feminist movement has been trying to change the patriarchal mindset but religious authorities and fundamentalists frustrate it in the name of upholding traditions based on misogyny.

Once upon a time, religious authorities enjoyed absolute power. Naturally, they did not want any dilution of their power. So, they always opposed any reforms. Countries which sidelined religion grew and progressed. Reformers throughout history have tried to make religion humane and free from cruelty and barbarism. In the past, there have been some rulers who tried to reform religion. But today’s rulers praise religion knowing that religion is anti-democracy, anti-women, and anti-free speech. They do not want to separate state from religion completely. If India is a truly secular state, it must not have religious laws. Laws should be based on equality and justice for all—Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians. One country, one law.

If women do not have the freedom to enter mandirs, mosques, churches, pagodas, so be it. I do not think it will harm them at all. Gods are male; they hate women. What women need the most is freedom from anti-women religious laws, and freedom from the barbarism of patriarchy. Women need education, healthcare, independence, and security. The fight for these is much more necessary and important than the fight to enter temple or mosque.

Muslim women and an emerging new politics

Those Indians who are known to be secular, liberal intellectuals usually support everything to do with their Muslim minorities – their religion and customs, madrassas and mosques, Eid-Muharram, hijab-burqa, even their misogynous Sharia laws. Whether it is Muslims expressing a desire for more mosques, or if they insist on blocking thoroughfares for their Friday prayers regardless of the inconvenience caused to common people – left liberals back them up always and even fight for them. Such liberal intellectuals have done a lot for the equal rights of Hindu women but they have never been too concerned about similar rights for Muslim women as well. They believe Muslims ought to be granted whatever they demand. Obviously, here Muslim means just the Muslim men. These men want to establish laws based on religion and it is believed that they should be allowed to do so. Muslim men do not wish to give any independence to Muslim women, so it is assumed that is how it is in Islam. This is exactly how the left-wing liberal intelligentsia of India has committed serious human rights violations since time immemorial, all in the name of solidarity with the minority. And then they claim that they are human rights and women’s rights activists, that they are progressive in their outlook. The ban imposed on triple talaq in India has elated the right-wing fundamentalists of the nation while it has made the liberal class unhappy. While Hindutva activists clamour for a Uniform Civil Code on the basis of equal rights of men and women, liberals are not heard making similar demands. However, it should have been the liberals who should have been in the forefront of this rights discourse.
Muslim women in India whose rights and independence have thus far always been denied have suddenly woken up to din of equal rights. A couple of educated Muslim men have put forth a demand that Muslim women be allowed to enter mosques and offer their prayers just like men. The Supreme Court of India has asked the government for clarification on the matter and this is now front page news. Just like how the Supreme Court struck down the discriminatory rules that barred Hindu women from entering the Sabarimala temple there ought to be a similar law for Muslim places of worship as well. Muslim women deserve the right to enter mosques just like Hindu and Christian women have the right to enter their respective places of worship.
The ban on triple talaq resulted in a declaration of victory across India, as if Muslim women had finally earned their equal rights. That is how little people actually know about the discrimination between the sexes inherent in Islamic jurisprudence. Muslim women have not achieved anything remotely close to equal rights yet. I feel compelled to ask, what good will it do if women earn the right to enter mosques and offer their prayers? They will be able to offer their supplications in front of Allah, occupy the same row as the men while performing Ruku and Sajda – things they had not been allowed to do previously. Not that they will be allowed to read the actual namaz along with the rest of the men – instead they will be made to stand behind a wall or a purdah, in a small back room or the veranda perhaps. The same prayers they used to offer at home they will now be able to offer in the mosque if they wish to. The Prophet had said that it was best if women prayed at home. I fail to comprehend how devout women are expected to flout the Prophet’s wish in order to be able to enter a mosque and pray. Many have claimed that allowing Muslim women to enter mosques will mean the realisation of equal rights. The women will not be allowed to stand beside the men or in front of them, they will be relegated to the back behind the men. How is this equal rights? It will just further demarcate and put people in their respective places, that too in a mosque – men in the front and women behind them. Women becoming imams, offering prayers kneeling beside men or in front of them, such things are considered haram in Islam. Equal rights cannot be earned from within the ambit of religion, it requires one to move out of the structure of organised religion. Will devout women be able to fight for equal rights in marriage, divorce or inheritance? If one believes in Islam one has to also condone the structural discrimination between the sexes that is there in Islamic law!
How many Muslim women manage to finish schools or attend universities? How many Muslim women join jobs or start businesses like other modern women? How many are allowed to take own life’s decisions? How many Muslim women have the right to not wear burqas or hijabs? How many are independent or self-reliant? The numbers must be very low. When this number increases only then can one say that Muslim women are earning equal rights. No one has forbidden women from offering the namaz. Since many women remain occupied with housework it is more convenient for them to pray at home. Since men spend most of the time outside it is more convenient for them to visit mosques. Most women actually spend more time in religious activities and rituals than men, so it is causing women no great harm if they cannot go to the mosque. What is definitely causing them harm is lack of education, absence of proper healthcare and lack of independence. What is causing Muslim women true harm is the erasure of all their rights under religious laws, child marriage, being forced to marry one’s rapist or even being forced to a marry one’s rapist father-in-law, and a host of associated misogynous laws and regulations including being prohibited from using a mobile phone. Among the Bohra Muslims of India female genital mutilation is still prevalent, to ensure women find no pleasure in sexual intercourse. They firmly believe sexual pleasure is solely for men. Have Indian liberals had anything to say ever about female genital mutilation or have they simply accepted this as part of Muslim culture too? Those who truly want the betterment of the minorities must surely wish for the latter to receive proper education and become self-reliant, that they turn towards a scientific outlook and extricate themselves from the mires of superstitions and religious fundamentalism.
I did not write in favour of revoking the ban on women entering the Sabarimala. What business do women have going to places where it is customary to consider them polluted? Is it not time yet for women to start maintaining a safe distance from God? No person of sound conscience should bow down before a misogynous power, especially women should not do it at all.
Then there are the ones who call themselves liberal, who are labelled as progressive despite being so reactionary. There are very few who are truly progressive in this subcontinent. The ones who are Islamophobic, those who believe that all Muslims should be driven out of the country, are one sort of reactionary. While the ones who believe Muslims should remain immersed in their religion if they want to, adhere to Sharia law if they so desire, be allowed to mutilate the genitals of young girls and call it culture – such people are another kind of reactionary. A truly progressive person can only be someone who wishes to combat all kinds of religious extremism – be it Muslim or Hindu. Not just the laws and misogyny of one particular religion, it is necessary to fight such problematic features in all religious beliefs. Regarding the misogynous, patriarchal and brutal customs of a minority community through a lens of kindness and compassion will only add to the further detriment of said community.
That is not to say I am calling for everyone to tolerate the barbarism of the majority either. Half the world’s problems can perhaps be solved only if we stopped tolerating brutality irrespective of religion, gender, race and ethnic or linguistic communities. The rest can be solved by using the good to push aside the bad, the beautiful to overcome the ugly.
The problem with those who believe in free thought in India is that although they never fail to express their pride of vanguards like Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar who took the first steps to counter Hindu fundamentalism, they simultaneously never wish for such forerunners to be found among the Muslims of India. Unless Muslims can be trained to inculcate truly secular values, free thought and a modern, progressive and science-minded outlook they will continue to wallow in the depths.
More than being allowed into mosques it is essential for Muslim women to be allowed to attend schools, colleges and universities, to become self-reliant, to learn to hold their head high, become their own persons and declare a war against patriarchy and the clout of the mullahs. To live having to hide one’s face, dependant on someone else, terrified like a witless worm – that is not how one lives. When I speak in favour of the independence and rights of Muslim women, when I call for Muslim men to become more progressive and rise above fundamentalist dogma, the so-called liberal intellectuals who consider themselves well-wishers of Indian Muslims abuse me and label me ‘anti-Muslim’. Does that not make it clear what they want? They want for Muslims to remain consigned in the darkness, just like how Islamophobes want Muslims to remain. Such people keep trying to stop me from showing my fellow Muslims the way towards the light; they want Hindus to find this illumination but when it comes to the Muslims they say it is not time yet. When sati was being abolished in this country many educated as well as uneducated members of society had been similarly disposed towards claiming that the time for it had not come yet. We must remember that the right time never comes on its own, it has to be ushered in.