Review: Mothering a Muslim by Nazia Erum
It’s easy to judge this book by its cover. After all, the title couldn’t be more direct – Mothering a Muslim: The Dark Secret in Our Schools and Playgrounds. So either you’re driven to read the book because your values will not allow you to escape another sad reality of life. Or you ignore it because you’re feeling burdened by those same sad realities, and are only looking for entertainment. Or you scoff at it because, look at those terrorists, first they kill people and blow things up, then they whine.
If you fall in the third category of reader I described above, you need to understand one thing: it’s people like you who drove the author, fashion professional Nazia Erum, to look at the precious newborn in her arms and give her little girl a name that does not identify her with the religion she was born into. This in the hope that Myra will grow up not bullied for being a beef eater, not taunted for the existence of ‘Islamic terror’, not reviled as an enemy of the country that is her home, and never lynched for the mere fact that she is a Muslim. Since you are one of the people who actually caused this book to exist, it really would make sense for you to read it.
But this rant is mine alone. It is not at all how Nazia Erum approached her subject. For a book that speaks of increased religion-based bullying and systemic othering in schools and playgrounds particularly since 2014, Mothering a Muslim is not about blame. It’s about insights. As Erum says in her introduction, after her daughter was born, “I wanted to know whether a Muslim mother’s worries were any different from that of her Hindu, Christian or Sikh counterparts. What were the challenges that were exclusively hers?”
This question led Erum to interview 145 Muslim middle class families across 12 cities over a year. Much emerged about Islamophobia in schools and colleges. But almost as much emerged about prejudices against almost all other minorities, prejudices within the Muslim community itself, the impact of ‘Islamic terror’ on ordinary Muslims, and the age-old tension between traditional community ideals and personal values. All in all, I found more to think about in this very slim book than I have in any other of this nature.
For instance, there’s the question of blame. As one mother pointed out to Erum in an interview, how do you tell your child that her tormentor at school is just a child? ‘Just a child’ implies that a child cannot really understand the things she says and does. Yet, the child at the receiving end knows exactly what’s going on. Of the 118 Muslim families with children aged between five and 20 that Erum interviewed in Delhi/NCR, 100 said they’d been called ‘terrorist’ and/or ‘Pakistani’. Many were bewildered and hurt. Others shrugged and said this was the Muslim equivalent of Sardar jokes. Yet others pointed out how Dalits and other sections of Indian society face worse. But when 85 per cent of 118 children from one community have been called terrorists or enemies of the state, it’s time to figure out what is going on, how, why, and what could be done about it.
The schools these children go to or went to are all recognisable as ‘good’, and are apparently progressive in ideals and attitude. But Erum’s interviews showed something most people don’t think about. As entities, the schools may have cosmopolitan values, but the teachers they hire may not. And schools do not often react in a positive manner – or any manner – to complaints of religion-based bullying. Which is why many children and parents don’t complain at all.
But, in fact, as Erum discovered in Bhopal, religious discrimination can run deeper in the education system than anyone believed. Take the elective third language classes that all schools must offer. Sanskrit is one of the electives. In Bhopal, Urdu is another. Usually, students move out of their sections to attend their elective classes. But in Bhopal, students who take Urdu (mostly Muslim) are all in one section, and students who take Sanskrit (mostly Hindu) are all together in another. This means that though Muslims and Hindus attend the same school, they grow up only knowing each other as ‘the other section’. They don’t share tiffins. They don’t have friends from other communities. “Most of our friends are non-Muslims,” one of Erum’s interviewees told her. “My best friend is a Pandit. But my children only have Muslim friends.”
I could go on for another 5,000 words at least about what I learned from Mothering a Muslim, but frankly I’d rather you read the book than just a review of it. If I said I loved it, it would be hollow: this is not the kind of book you can love. But I read this book to review it, and I wound up reviewing not only the book, but myself, my family, my community, and my country. I can’t think of any other book I’ve read with such an impact.
Kushalrani Gulab is an independent journalist.