Wall of prejudice: Do Mumbai’s Muslims face the most bias?

  • Swati Goel Sharma, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jun 03, 2015 13:50 IST

Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali, former professor of Islamic Studies at St Xavier’s College, was shocked when she went house-hunting in Pali Hill, Bandra, in 2005. “I was turned down by many brokers, who told me to my face I was being unrealistic, given my religion,” said Ali. “I had just sold my property in Pune and had the money to buy a Pali Hill property. I was moving with my family. We are all urban, educated Muslims, but still we didn’t stand a chance,” said Ali, who eventually settled for a flat at Sherly Rajan Road.

The bias against Muslims appears so entrenched that Flavia Agnes, a lawyer, bore the brunt of it even though she is not a Muslim. Agnes said she faced a harrowing time in 1995, when looking for an office in Santacruz. A Catholic, Agnes said she was discriminated against not because of her own name, but that of her women’s rights organisation – Majlis, an Urdu word meaning “congregation”.

“I was repeatedly told by brokers and officials at the registrar’ office to change my NGO’s name to a Hindi or English term, which I refused to,” said Agnes, who eventually settled on an office in Kalina’s Golden Valley apartments.

In a city where housing prejudice extends to a person’s religion, caste, sect, marital status and dietary preference, Muslims may be among the most discriminated against, claim community members, citing people’s personal experiences.

And the bias isn’t limited to the common man — actors Emraan Hashmi, Shabana Azmi and Aamir Khan have all recounted tales of their own brush with housing prejudice.

But while money and fame can soften the blow of prejudice, those with neither, face the full force of it. “Not being able to rent a place in Mumbai is among the most common problems that Muslims from outside Mumbai face,” said Aamir Edresy, who runs the Association of Muslim Professionals, an NGO that helps young Muslims find jobs.

“Usually, they are directed to ‘Muslim areas’. But in a city like Mumbai, one looks for accommodation near one’s workplace, areas which are often out of bounds for Muslims,” said Edresy.

Some, however, refute the theory that Muslims face more discrimination than others, arguing that cases relating to Muslims are simply better publicised. Sarfaraz Arzoo, editor of the Hindustan Urdu daily newspaper, said, “One cannot generalise. There are certain pockets and colonies that strongly oppose the presence of Muslims, such as Dadar and Malabar Hill. Otherwise, in a big city like Mumbai, there are options galore,” he said.

Dr Amita Bhide, dean of The School of Habitat, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said that while she was aware of the discrimination Muslims face when looking for a house, it would be unfair to say that the community is discriminated against the most, unless a detailed study was conducted and found that this was indeed the case.

"Yes, many of my Muslims students have faced this, but I wouldn’t like to generalise," she said. Pointing out how discrimination can have many layers, she added, "Even within the Muslim community, dalit Muslims are huddled in Kurla and Wadala."


Aftermath of 1992-93 riots:

‘There’s a difference between choosing to live among one’s own and having no choice but to’

“Before the riots, Mumbai was a more cosmopolitan city, but the riots and the bomb blasts created a deep rift between the Hindu and Muslim communities, said Dr Kurush F Dalal, assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Mumbai. “For some time, it was like there were no other communities here – no Parsis, Christians or Jews. The city’s narrative was reduced to two warring communities,” he added.

Dr Dalal said while living among one’s own people is an age-old phenomenon, there is a difference between people of one community living together out of choice, and people of a community having no choice but to live together because no one else will have them.

“Problems arise when people of a particular community are – with the complicity of builders – prevented from taking up residence in areas of their choice, leading to ghettoisation and the problems that come with it,” he said. “Sadly, this trend is on the rise”


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