New Delhi: In just one short week, we saw two high-profile Muslim women generating dramatically different debates across the country. One for being ‘too Muslim’. The other for not being ‘Muslim enough’. Zaira Wasim and Nusrat Jahan have brought opposing perspectives to drawing room conversations. Both deserve a fair hearing, once we allow ourselves to get beyond the ‘imaan’ and ‘sindoor’ level of sentimentality. During the prickly and tricky Zaira Wasim controversy, the two words that made most critics uncomfortable were ‘personal choice’. The hostility she faced showed our lack of respect for those who not just make personal choices but dare to declare them publicly. I still cannot believe the outrage over an 18-year-old girl’s upfront Facebook post which plainly stated that she was listening to her inner voice and quitting showbiz. And yes — her religious beliefs were an important part of the decision. So? Zaira Wasim wasn’t committing an unpardonable crime when she walked away from the movie world unable to reconcile it with her ‘imaan’. Ditto for newly wed MP Nusrat Jahan who showed up at the rath yatra celebrations in Kolkata with husband by her side, sporting traditional symbols of a Hindu bride — mangalsutra, sindoor, chooda. She was exercising her personal choice as well. Both Zaira and Nusrat were skewered across television channels for daring to break archaic moulds and be themselves.
In Zaira’s case, shrill voices accused her of parading her religion, with critics insisting she was under duress to quit showbiz. There was loose talk about her being a victim of radical Islam, with speculations galore about a threat to her life. Nobody bothered to find out the real situation or ask Zaira directly. The utterly puerile questions that were raised over and over again revolved around Zaira’s, “I’m done with Bollywood!” comment. Critics found it hard to believe that a successful, beautiful young actor could turn her back on more fame, more money, more adulation, unless she was being intimidated or ‘pushed against a wall’. By whom? Had it been a maulana who had forced this decision on a popular young star, surely, he would have grabbed headlines for getting her back on the right path. So far, nobody has claimed credit for ‘saving’ Zaira from a life of ‘shame’. It is safe to assume that she arrived at the decision of her own free will.
Bollywood is a tough, tough, tough place. Zaira, at 15, had taken a leap of faith and jumped right in. Not too many actors get such an amazing break. But once in showbiz, and now, older and wiser, Zaira said clearly, “I may have fit in, but I don’t belong here.” There were reports of her suffering from depression and popping anti-anxiety pills. If those reports are accurate, we should applaud Zaira for responding swiftly to a wake-up call. Had she continued in this profession, the consequences could have been tragic. Some crack. Some don’t. Zaira left a bigger impact with just two films, than other veterans with thirty mediocre movies to their name. But..but if Zaira has pulled a fast one and it’s a publicity stunt, God help her!
As a society, we find it very hard to understand choices that do not conform to conventional thinking. In Zaira’s case, a silly feminist argument was introduced into the narrative (“How could a woman walk out of a career?”). Choice is the ultimate feminist proof of owning one’s identity. A woman who actively chooses to turn her back on a profession that no longer appeals to her is exercising just such a right over herself. It is disappointing to read and hear views of intelligent and informed people, who jumped on Zaira’s back for letting the side down. Would any of them continue in a line of work that makes them unhappy?
SITTING IN JUDGEMENT: Zaira Wasim was blamed for being ‘too Muslim’, and Nusrat for not being ‘Muslim enough’
Not everything in our complex society can be divided along neat Hindu-Muslim lines. It is a matter of shame that Zaira’s and Nusrat’s religion has superseded every other issue. Even if it was Zaira’s faith that guided her to leave showbiz for a more meaningful life, surely it is her business as an individual. Going a step further, assuming she was ‘influenced’ by religious leaders to rethink her career, it is again her prerogative to pay attention to them, or ignore the advice. If Zaira believes she will be a better Muslim after she quits Bollywood, why question her decision? Ditto for Nusrat, who is boldly flouting convention and flaunting her marital status, as per her own conscience. Nusrat says nothing has changed for her. She was born a Muslim. And will stay a Muslim.
Personal Choice. Two words that make us nervous. Thank you Zaira and Nusrat, for demonstrating the power of both.
By Shobhaa De