Reality Check: Bollywood, Muslims, Feminists and 9/11

Reality Check: Bollywood, Muslims, Feminists and 9/11 Memoirs of a very confusing lawyer: Confusion Part 1 By Nazmin Akthar
“My name is…”[1]

*Looks around circle of people, gets up from chair nervously and starts to speak* “My name is Nazmin….and I am addicted to Bollywood films”. If this scene was being enacted for one of Star Plus[2]’ soaps, or serials as they are called (Make whatever you will of the soap v serial business because I have no idea why the alternative is used), then this scene would be accompanied with thunder and lightning sound effects and a lot of close ups of shocked faces.

I personally think unemployment can be reduced if only soaps in the West would follow the Star Plus trend. I mean they need about 10 characters for each scene and about 10 cameras positioned on different angles per person: that’s 110 jobs right there! And do not even get me started on the amount of make-up artists that will be required. Seriously, does ANYONE go to SLEEP wearing a saree, make up and all their jewellery?
Bollywood films are a different game altogether although possibly because, unlike the serials which can carry on for decades and still not consider it necessary to end a storyline (which usually consists of trying to prove that another woman is trying to steal the main lead’s husband), films have to finish within two hours. To me, Indian cinema has everything in it. Plot, characters, tension, drama, laughter, sadness… and of course a lot of songs placed here, there and everywhere. A lot of progression has been made as well. For example, previously a song would be filmed randomly in a field with the happy couple dancing around trees which was slightly strange when you had literally just seen them in the kitchen a second ago. Now they make a bit more sense with actors getting up to sing and dance because they are at a club, albeit the awkwardness returns when they start to sing “It’s the time to disco” when they’re not actually at a disco[3]. Having said that Indian cinema has also gone to the other extreme and you will see the happy couple who were just staring at each other in Chandni Chowk in Delhi all of a sudden running towards the pyramids in Egypt[4]. Still, it is still very entertaining and you can’t help but love it.

The tide changed however one dark, cold, lonely night. Well not really but I am trying to make this dramatic. The Bollywood addict who always watched the latest releases as soon

as they came out had to resort to watching a new film once every two months and even then only in the hope that perhaps this new film may be the one that takes Bollywood back to its glory….or at least doesn’t cause nausea. I don’t really know what happened. I just know that one day I sat down with popcorn and Emran Hashmi[5] appeared on my screen with a t-shirt that said “Serial Kisser”[6]. *Shudders at memory*. I blame the fact that Bollywood films are now expected to be two hours long. They used to be three hours and that extra hour HAS made a difference. The quality has gone. The plot has gone. The characters have gone. It is just not the same. I want that hour back in my life. Let’s Occupy Bollywood?

I admit that Bollywood films are not exactly one to be realistic and never have been; it is not exactly possible that a grieving woman mourning over the death of her lover leaves India to go to Australia only to be greeted by her lover’s look-a-like who drives past on a bike as she sits waiting at the traffic lights[7]. And how many times can you come across an evil look-a- like who turns out to be your long lost twin or in fact, not related to you at all? (I am actually wondering how many films have used the double role storyline!) However, I would much rather watch that than what is produced now.

However, sometimes I do get rewarded for putting up with the rubbish. “My name is Khan”[8] was one such reward. The story concerns a Muslim man named Rizwan Khan who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, something he struggled with all his life but which only came to light after he moved from India to San Francisco to live with his brother and sister- in-law after the death of his mother. He meets Mandira, a Hindu single mother and despite their religious and personal differences they fall in love and get married. They are happy together. That is, until 9/11 occurs. The hostility towards Muslims as a result of the 9/11 attacks affects Rizwan Khan and his family. Mandira’s son is fatally attacked by fellow school children purely because his step-father is Muslim and he bears the Muslim surname “Khan”.

Shocking as this sounds I know that this is one Bollywood film where there has been no exaggeration (well apart from perhaps the boy dying by being kicked in the ribs with a football but I am no medical expert so I don’t know whether this may in fact be possible). The anger that was felt towards the 9/11 attackers was directed towards all Muslims no matter how unjustified that was. You wouldn’t think it would be so difficult to understand that the acts of some Muslims do not represent Islam as a whole. I mean Geordie Shore does not represent Newcastle in the slightest and I like to think Nick Clegg does not represent all the Lib-Dems; it is generally accepted that everyone has their own individuality. Not all men are the same, not all Londoners are the same, not all footballers are the same; yet when it came to Muslims, everyone was considered the same and this sameness was always a negative sameness.

Rizwan Khan becomes upset about this. His wife blames him for the death of his step-son; had he not been Muslim and her son not taken on the “Khan” surname, he would not have been killed. Rizwan does not understand what to do. He asks Mandira what to do especially given that she had told him she no longer wants to be with him, and in a fit of anger she tells him to go tell the President that his name is Khan and he is not a terrorist.

So off he goes on a mission. His mission: To go to the President of the United States and tell him “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist”. In other words, he wanted to make it clear that just because someone is Muslim does not mean it is alright to stereotype them, to automatically treat them suspiciously, show hostility towards them or hurt them. Being Islamophobic is not alright. The rest of the film follows his journey to meet the President and it really is heart moving what Rizwan encounters along the way. The film certainly achieves its aim in showing that just because someone is a Muslim does not give you the right to treat them in this way; the irony of course was that in the film Rizwan Khan had to suffer an ordeal at the airport because everyone eyed him suspiciously and then security personnel searched and interrogated him purely because he was a Muslim and the actor Shah Rukh Khan who plays Rizwan and is Muslim himself has to go through precisely such a search and interrogation![9]

I mentioned this film for a reason, and this reason may make me unreasonably or perhaps even reasonably hated but I have a reason for that reason and I hope that you try to understand that reason before you start to reason with me as to whether my reason was reasonable or unreasonable. Yes I know I mentioned the word reason a lot of times just then. It was intentional.

I am a Muslim by birth and a Muslim by choice. I actually want to vomit now for having just said this because I really cannot stand it when I am asked such questions. “So are you a Muslim by birth?” “No I am a girl by birth” “So you’re a Muslim by choice then?” “No I hate you by choice”. To me you are either Muslim or you’re not and I really do not care what “kind of Muslim” you are. In fact I would like to make it clear that I do not think “My name is Khan” is a film about good and bad Muslims. It is about good and bad people. The person who killed Mandira’s son for being associated with Islam is bad just like the 9/11 attackers. The film is about bad things: stereotyping, scapegoating, racism, Islamophobia.

The reason I have stated that I am a Muslim by birth and a Muslim by choice is so that what I say is not responded to with a “Well you were born Muslim so you must have been indoctrinated”. Trust me I have faced that response a number of times. The awkward part was when someone at University hadn’t realised I was Muslim until nearer the end of the course and it was only at that point that he decided I was no longer an independent, self- assured woman. I was born into a Muslim household and grew up with Muslim teachings but at the same time I was given sufficient space to understand the religion myself.
In my opinion, Islam is constantly portrayed negatively whether this is by the media or by politicians. It is portrayed as being against human rights that it discriminates against women etc. It is not Islam that does this. It is those applying Islam incorrectly that do so. I can recount various examples of how religion and culture are confused to suit the needs of those causing the confusion. If Islam was applied correctly there would not be any oppression of women. Contrary to incorrect belief, Muslim women do have the right to own property and they are not ‘owned’ by their husbands. They are allowed to study[10] and work. Et cetera. Et Cetera[11].
The quotation below is from an essay written by a very bright and sensible Criminology student (who incidentally I think will make an excellent solicitor so she is one to watch law

firms!); I felt that she had explained a point of mine perfectly and has kindly given me permission to use it in this article:

Many people talk about how Muslim men changed history and I’m not going to deny that, of course they did! But also many Muslim women changed history too as they break all stereotypes of the veil and so on. For example, Aisha (Radhiyallahu-Anha) has inspired Muslim women for centuries. She was a scholar, a poet, a jurist, a politician and a military commander who led armies. Masha’Allah, how many women do you currently know who do this? Another Muslim woman who was influential is Khadijah (Radhiyallahu-Anha). She was the first Muslim woman to convert to Islam and was its strongest supporter. Moreover, she was a wealthy businesswoman and eventually proposed to Prophet Muhammad (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) for marriage. There were many more powerful women in Islam including Rabia Al-Basri, Nur Jahan etc.[12]

All this is ignored by the media; it is not highlighted by politicians. Only negativity is shown and moreover it is shown without much investigation into whether the religious aspect was even relevant or not.

This is why I call myself a Muslim Feminist at times, albeit I do not think my definition of a Muslim Feminist is the same as others. Moreover I rarely introduce myself as a Muslim Feminist. I believe many call themselves Muslim Feminists as if it is a new concept but in fact I consider all Muslims to be feminists because equality for women has always been an important Islamic principle.

I said I call myself a Muslim Feminist ‘at times’. Let me clarify. I actually just call myself Nazmin. Being British, being Asian and being Muslim is just part of who Nazmin is. And Nazmin is also a feminist. Although that should be obvious because Nazmin is a Muslim. Unfortunately many Muslims themselves are not intellectual enough to understand just what Islam is about; how can I expect non-Muslims too? Hence when I consider it necessary I add Muslim and Feminist together. Just as I add British and Asian together.
I know many Muslims will find this offensive but my intentions are pure. I do this to make others aware that Islam and feminism are not diametrically opposite. I have already written in my first article about my encounter with a solicitor during University. To explain it a bit further what had occurred was that he had first of all commented that I seem to be “a bit of a feminist” to which I said I was and then he questioned why I wasn’t drinking alcohol and I told him I was Muslim. That was when he decided I could not exist because a Muslim could not be a feminist. Feminism itself is a very broad ideology. It encompasses radical feminists, liberal feminists, cultural feminists etc. all of whom have different aims and perspectives. Many times it is hard to fit someone into a particular strand.

To me, if you are against patriarchy and oppression of women then you are a feminist. My best friend with her make- up and designer bags is a feminist because she believes she should be able to wear whatever she wants without being judged and it is her choice. I use feminism in a broad sense. I call myself a feminist but I am not quite sure which kind of feminist I am (I tend to stick to the term anti-essentialist but on a bad day, which is basically when I am in London travelling on the Northern Line and a man decides to push tiny me off the tube train so he

can get on I certainly sway to the radical side for a few hours!). I don’t really care. Like I don’t care what kind of a Muslim someone is. Therefore to me, Islam is entirely compatible with feminism because both religion and ideology oppose oppression of women.

I am not juxtaposing feminist ideology into Islam; rather I wish to bring out the feminism within Islam and show it to the world. I want to show that Islam gives women equality. It gives us dignity and respect. Just as Rizwan Khan was on a mission to show that not all Muslims are terrorists I want to show that all Muslims are feminists[13]. Insha Allah one day I will be able to call myself a Muslim without someone thinking I am a terrorist or an oppressed women. Insha Allah one day I can just call myself a Muslim and it will be immediately recognised that I am a feminist without me having to say so. Insha Allah that one day happens soon. Until then I will carry on trying to clear the misconceptions. Many say you should just ignore those who hold such misconceptions; but how far can you ignore it? Fictional as it is, Rizwan’s step-son was killed due to misconceptions.
May Allah SWT forgive me if I have said or done anything wrong. Ameen[14].

One final note: I wrote this article a while ago and kept it aside. In the meantime one day whilst in a bad mood I began tweeting about how Bollywood films are full of lies and completely removed from reality. I was surprised at how easily I had managed to portray one of my favourite films in a completely negative light. It was a phase which passed and the film is back on my list of favourites. However, it reminded me just how easy it is to be negative and view something negatively when you are determined to do so. I think it is quite clear what message I am trying to give.
© Nazmin Akthar, 2012
[1] I would like to thank Miss Marzana Islam, Mr Sehb Hundal, Miss Aisha Aslam and last but not least Mr Gary Walters for their continuous support and particularly in relation to this article. Without their encouragement I would not have been able to write this article.
[2] Star Plus is an Indian Channel on Sky; Channel number 784. I personally recommend watching “Diya Aur Bati Hum” at 9pm because I have been told the character Sandhya reminds people of me and I think so too!
[3] Film “Kal Ho Na Ho”; Starring Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan & Preity Zinta; Directed by Nikhil Advani; Produced by Yash Johar; Release Date: November 2003
[4] Film “Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham”; Starring Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan and Kareena Kapoor; Directed by Karan Johar; Produced by Yash Johar; Release Date: December 2001
[5] Indian Actor
[6] Film “Jawani Diwani – A Youthful Joyride”; Starring Emran Hashmi, Celina Jaitley &
Hrishitaa Bhatt; Directed by Manish Sharma

[7][7]Film “Kaho Na Pyar Hain”; Starring Hrithik Roshan and Amisha Patel; Directed and produced by Rakesh Roshan; Release Date: January 2000
[8] Shah Rukh Khan plays Rizwan Khan; Kajol plays Mandira; Yuvaan Makaar plays the young son Sameer; Directed by Karan Johar; Produced by Hiroo Johar and Gauri Khan; Release Date: February 2010
[9] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/6040296/Bollywood-star-Shah-Rukh- Khan-detained-at-US-airport.html
[10] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16201961 [11] Emphasis intentional
[12] Written by Miss M. Chowdhury, Second year Criminology Student at University of Coventry; I am very grateful to her for allowing me to read her truly insightful and well- written essay and for allowing me to use it.
[13] Again, just to clarify, I use the term feminist loosely to equate to being against oppression of and promoting equality for women.
[14] Prayer.

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