Thursday, January 19, 2012

I am a good Muslim: I wear the Veil

I have always been a bit wary about people who wear religion on their sleeves. Isn’t religion supposed to be a private matter? Why can’t I be a good Muslim without wearing a veil, or a good Christian without a cross pendant, or a good Hindu wife without the shakha or the sindur? Why is it important that others know what my religion is?

The road next to Nizamuddin Dargah by Chris Henke
As the days in India became numbered, I began to get a sense of why. Everywhere we went in India, most people thought I was an Indian, which is not very surprising given that Bangladeshis and Indians do look similar. What did surprise me is that they also thought I was a Hindu. They just assumed that I was a Hindu.

Even in the mosque by Fatehpur Sikri, in Jama Masjid, in Nazimuddin Darga – various Muslim places of worship where I covered my hair like any “good” Muslim - people decided I must be Hindu. So, while I got many renditions of namaste, there was no assalam-ala’ikum. In fact, all the Muslim shrines were lined with people who seemed more interested in making money though donation collection, guided tours, selling trinkets, or begging. Do these “oddities” say anything about the status of Muslims/minorities in India? With the usual caveat about generalizability, I think so.

It seems to me that Hindu hegemony has overpowered Indian culture, and hence unless specific markers are used to identify a Muslim (veil, beard, topi, etc), the assumption is that everyone is Hindu. In order to escape this assumption or hegemony, people feel the need to make religion a public endeavor. If I don’t want to be confused as a Hindu, there has to be something that I wear that shows explicitly that I am not a Hindu. And that is exactly the reason why most Muslims in India dress in the “Islamic way”, unlike in places like Bangladesh, where the assumption is everyone is Muslim. Hence, when we say Bangladeshi Muslims are more moderate than Indian Muslims because they don’t adorn these markers, that may be quite inaccurate; it is just that Bangladeshi Muslims don’t feel the need to show how religious they are because they are not threatened by competing religions.

The second aspect that was visible was the explicit signs of poverty around the Muslim shrines and mosques we visited: beggars, dilapidated buildings, general conglomeration of dirt and grime. The mosques serve as sanctuaries in the midst of all the chaos in areas where “you see Pakistani flags being waved during India-Pakistan cricket matches”, according to an auto-rickshaw driver. Are these not signs of segregation?

Bottom line: yes, Hindus and Muslims appear to co-exist peacefully in India on a day to day basis, but that may be because of the general acceptance of Hindu domination and subconscious acceptance of segregation. Muslims may well have internalized this fact for their own survival.


  1. Interesting exchange on this with a friend.

    Awrup Sanyal: I will come back a little lengthy on this. But great observation. I have the benefit of being an Indian in Bangladesh (11 years) and oh, a 'Hindu' too. Though, I am not a practicing one but my origins are Hindu and that is good enough. What I decide individually matters not. More later.

    Navine Murshid: Looking forward to hearing more. Do strangers in BD assume you're Muslim, in accordance with Islamic hegemony?

    Awrup Sanyal: ‎Navine, to answer your question simplistically I am not considered Muslim at all. I am a foreigner. I am not even considered Bengali. I am Indian. My linguistic identity is forfeited, subsumed in to my national identity. And, because my id...entity is primarily Indian, I am Dada (epithet of sorts based on religious divide primarily– Bengali Muslims are Bhais and Bhaiyas and Hindus are Dadas) and of course and Hindu. I have already made the point earlier that it isn't important that I am not a practicing one. But, I am not important in what I am going to say. I am an outsider, as I should be.

    Hindus are 16% of the Bangladeshi population composition by religion (and declining, apparently with ongoing exodus). What is more interesting is that the Hindu population uses the Islamic form of address of "assalamalaikum" and "walaikum-assalam" (sic) in their daily greetings with Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Rarely do I hear nomoShkar or pronam, which are more a Bengali cultural expression than a religious one, or at least I think so, though it now stands divided too, they have been attributed as Hindu forms of greetings.

    So, "Do these “oddities” say anything about the status of 'HIndus/minorities' in 'Bangladesh'? With the usual caveat about generalizability, I think so." to the point you made.

    But, here is my departure. I don't think it is necessarily a case of repression or oppression even. I think it is a case of adaptation. Of becoming one with the mainstream sentiment. It is bonafide and it serves a purpose of linguistic unity. The differences are made at places of worship, or during festivals or the strict refusal of the Bangladeshi Hindus to consume beef, for example. (I have come across very, very few who actually do, a miniscule.) That is their way of preserving their identity or not succumbing to a total cultural and religious annihilation (couldn't find a more apt word). They follow the Hindu way more than their Bengali counterparts in W.Bengal ( I am not bringing in the whole of India, so that I can compare apples to apples). You would come across more Hindus from W.Bengal who are open to having beef.

    What does it say? When you have the dispensation of the majority's norms you feel free to subvert. Because many more are following the way; a few who have fallen by the wayside don't matter. But, when you are few you have to hold on to the tenets to keep your identity intact, your faith sacrosanct, in the eyes of the other. You feel the onus is on you to protect and propound your way of life.

  2. Continued...

    Navine Murshid: Very enlightening. This is one perspective that we rarely get! I suppose the acquiring of salam by Hindus (in BD) is akin to the incorporation of caste in Islam in India... and at the same time there are these parallels in terms of minority religions taking a slightly more extreme form.

    Awrup Sanyal: Absolutely right. Not just incorporation of caste (I think in that sense incorporation of caste exists here too; you will find such lexical or conceptual semantics in the Bangla language itself as such– uchu-nichu jaat is often used to indi...cate station of life, at times the usage is derogative, and it's connection to the caste system is inhered in that usage, I feel. So, in that case, Islamic brotherhood and everyone being equal in the eyes of God, though exists theologically, actual interactions indicate otherwise, as I observe it) in Islam In India, but also the way the Islamic festivals are celebrated, at least in W. Bengal, is very different from the way it is celebrated here. The Ramadan and the subsequent Eid, for example, is more overt and uses ideas from the celebration of Hindu festivals– use of light, pandal decorations, loud celebrations with music etc.– in stark contrast to the way it is celebrated here in BD, which is more low key and subtle. My view is, Islam's character itself is very syncretic in the sub-continent; look at Sufism in concept and practice. Though, that is a different discourse, it still indicates why such happens. We imbibe things from the dominant socio-religious culture. Islam here is very different from the way it is practiced in the Middle East (or West according to us), for example.

  3. From my research on Indian Christianity, it was interesting to find some of these same techniques of differentiation and assimilation among Tamil Protestant Christians. Few South Indian Christian women wear the pottu (or forehead dot commonly worn by Hindu women). They have their own greeting (Stotirum! roughly "Praise!"), for example, as an alternative to vanakkam. One of the most striking techniques I found for warding off, if you will, the overwhelming dominant Hindu culture surrounding this tiny minority was to use Indian Christian stickers (e.g. of a cross or of Jesus' face) to obscure "Hindu" symbols that adorned everyday objects like the bags of rice from the grocery store with images of the goddess Lakshmi. You've got to WORK not to be absorbed into the dominant culture!

  4. I'm one of those people who believe identities are always layered, and nowhere more so than in South Asia. So I have to say I'm a bit disappointed with this particular post (though I do like your blog as a whole). I will add two layers to this complex issue of the identity (identities?) of Indian Muslims.
    1. I have loads of Indian Muslim friends - and a few relatives - who do not wear any overt signs of Muslim identities on their person. In most cases, though, most other Indians would be able to identify them as Muslims as soon as they were to meet them, from their names. (This is not ALWAYS true though, and there are in partiucular many exceptions to this in Bengal.)
    2. I think it's a bit simplistic to look at all Muslims through a single prism. Like all other Indians, Muslims too are affected by differences based on ethnicity/region, language and, perhaps most of all, socio-economic background.

  5. Namaste,

    I think you might be having a complex of ‘Hindu superiority’ in India when keep referring to your trip as being that of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’. This is sad. You want people to acknowledge that you are a Muslim but failed and this has hurt you.
    You say that everywhere I was greeted with Namaste. This is a not Hindu or Muslim greeting but an Indian greeting-- so whether you are Muslim or Hindu it makes no difference. In UK or USA you might be greeted with ‘Hello’ even from you own Muslim friends so that does not mean its a Christian greeting or you are suddenly not seen as Muslim. Why should the world around you have to say ‘assalam-ala’ikum’ just so that your ego can feel proud?
    Its wrong to think the whole world revolves around you or you being a Muslim as you point out in your blog. Once you remove that outlook from your mind then all of humanity will see feel and have love and affection and enjoy the goodness of this earth.
    I want to know if you greet Indians (and not Hindus which is word you have misused here) with Namaste?