An Interview with the directorial team of “In the name of Secularism”
By Varsha Basheer
This is my conversation with two smart Hijabis, Samra Abdul Razak who is pursuing her master’s in Education at Azim Premji University, Bangalore and Fasila AK who has finished her Law Degree from Calicut University and is all set to join LLM at Indian Law Institute Delhi. These two girls, with the backing of Girls Islamic Organisation (GIO), had released a documentary last year titled, “In The Name Of Secularism”, which is a compilation of interviews with students across Kerala, who were ousted from school for wearing a hijab/headscarf.
Varsha Basheer: What was the imperative to work on such an issue for your documentary?
Samra Abdul Razak & Fasila AK: The immediate reason to take up the issue was the formal banning of hijab in a school in Kollam district of Kerala, where a student issued a complaint against the institute for not letting her wear her hijab. Her resilience brought the incident into highlight. The news was suddenly in the papers and garnered some attention, but not all positive. The discourse created was mostly around how a hijab could disrupt the uniformity in a school.
I and my team were part of an organisation in Kerala, which helped Muslim girl students to face these kinds of troubles and empower them to build up their identity. We simply couldn’t remain silent or let this go unchallenged. Not only because it suddenly turned into a huge problem in the mainstream secular space of Kerala, but incidents of banning hijab in schools were already present, even though it was not discussed by media earlier. And we were trying to do something against it for a long time. This issue prompted us to think about documenting the real stories of students facing such discrimination due to their religious choices. We wanted to document that this is prevalent and was not an isolated incident, but happening to Muslim girls in a lot of schools. So we went ahead and made it into a documentary.
VB: Why was Kerala chosen as the location? Is this a problem only in Kerala?
SAR & FAK: Kerala was chosen because, to be honest, we wanted to focus on the area where we belong to, plus to bring out the hypocrisy behind the supposedly progressive people here. I started wearing hijab when I was an 8-year-old (Samra). Since then, till now, I have only heard questions raised about my appearance. I know how people receive each identity here. Especially, the visible Muslim identities. Each student we interviewed gave us a new story about how they were being alienated from the mainstream for following their religion. We could understand what they were going through as we could relate to them. And Kerala has always been a space where people feign to be secular and liberal; but truly are not.
VB: That is a very strong statement? Could you elaborate?
SAR & FAK: There was a media sensationalised issue in Kasargod district of Kerala, where a girl named Rayyana filed a case against people in her town who threatened her for her coice of western clothes. This issue garnered a lot of media and public interest and prominent feminists raised hue and cry for women’s freedom to choose her attire. The same year, Nabala, (the first case that was publicised regarding hijab ban in schools) was being discussed. But the media coverage and acceptance that Rayyana’s plight got was enormous. The faction of Muslim men who made the threat was questioned and a whole discourse on the oppressive conditions under which supposedly all Muslim women live was discussed at length. There were feminists who waxed eloquent about her right to choose her dress…but, alas, Nabala and her choice of dress were conveniently ignored. This bias towards a particular choice of dress itself shows how Kerala is “secular” in a very specific way. Kerala boasts of an educated, socially committed and vigilant society. We wanted to bring out the bigotry faced by Muslim women in such a “secular liberal” society. So that we expose what is really their take on people like us, the visible Muslim women.
Documentary: In the Name of Secularism
VB: Is that why you named the documentary “In The Name Of Secularism”…to bring out the sham underlying such a claim?
SAR & FAK: The name was fixed after a lot of discussions, agreements and disagreements. Our team had a long debate over this. While doing this documentary, our main idea was to demonstrate how a Hijab plays its role in a space like schools, where students should be taught to respect every religion. It was an irony that in each of the schools where such incidents occurred, the students where blatantly insulted for their choice and every school that we confronted gave a single reason behind banning hijab: that was uniformity.
We wanted to ask: how could uniformity equate as secularism? Accepting and respecting all religion without any prejudice should be how we enliven secularism. But in these schools it was exactly the opposite and the sad fact is that the whole society seems to side with such an idea as ‘secularism’. The school authorities claimed that they will lose their uniformity if they have students in hijab. It is frustrating that this is how we celebrate “unity in diversity” here in India. It is this frustration that made us hinge on such a title for our documentary! That in the name of secularism, we commit injustice to religious minorities, and especially so in the case of Muslims.
VB: How was the documentary received? Did it garner the kind of response you expected? Did it create awareness /spur further dialogue?
SAR & FAK: We got fair responses but from a certain circle. Many pointed out the flaws too. We were aware of that as well. We don’t claim it to be an aesthetically pleasing and masterfully crafted documentary. It’s an amateur attempt, an attempt to record something we wanted the world to know, face and react to. We are also aware that we could have made it even better, in retrospect.
We interviewed almost 30-40 students covering 9 districts in Kerala. We had documented around 16 plus hours of talk with the students. But we had to cut it short into 22 minutes. It was the toughest task before us. And we honestly expected a much wider audience for the same. The engagement with the issue was limited to the people who engage with such minority rights abuses. We wanted to engage with the negative attitude people have towards hijab in Kerala, and I believe we have made a start in showing that…but we are sad to say that as an outcome of our documentary, we did not see any marked shift in the perception of the wider world. But throughout our interviews it was heartening to see a lot of transformation in girls, how they understood the hijab not just as a mere religious identity, in the face of such a challenge, but also as a stronger political expression, as a symbol of resistance. And more girls with experiences in discrimination came forth and started to talk about it. So we are happy that we could be there to listen and to question those around.
VB: Why do you think society has not yet rectified its attitude towards the Hijab and Muslim women who wear it as a matter of their religion?
SAR & FAK: Hijab is still a compulsion in the eyes of people who see it. They never get the intense feeling that we get while wearing it, and I don’t think neither the brothers in our community do. We give many political reasons to our friends and all the while explaining and justifying why we wear a hijab. But basically and primarily, it is my faith. Through wearing hijab I declare that I am a servant of my Lord and I believe in him. That is what all the students we met told us. “We are Muslims, we wear hijab.” Now this simple fact is very difficult to be digested by people around us.
And to live in an Islamophobic world, where hijab is “an objectified terror” is another case. Muslim women started gaining visibility post 9/11. This itself indicates how the world receives Islam as a religion, and Muslim women’s hijab as an identity marker. The European countries reflect their agitation with Islam by banning hijabs in public spaces and schools. The same is happening here now.
And we are resisting it in whatever way possible.
Varsha Basheer is at present Doctoral Candidate in English Literature at the University of Kerala, India. She is also affiliated Faculty with IRDP, Centre for Race and Gender, University of California Berkeley. She has been teaching English as Second Language for undergraduates and also works closely with organisations promoting interfaith dialogue and inclusive action. Her research interests include critical Media studies, Comparative Religious Studies, Religious Pluralism and Secular Modernity. She intends to pursue Post-Doctoral research in Women’s Studies in Religion.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.