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‘We cannot continue to look away’

Nazia Erum's Mothering A Muslim, is a hard-hitting book that exposes the reality of growing up Muslim in India

Nazia Erum (left) spoke to over 145 children and their parents across 12 cities. Photo: Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan Times
Nazia Erum (left) spoke to over 145 children and their parents across 12 cities. Photo: Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan Times

Six-year-old Hindu boy (curiously, out of the blue): Kya tum Mussulman ho? (Are you a Muslim?) Your name sounds so.

Six-year-old Muslim boy (seriously): Yes, I am Muslim. Main non-veg khata hoon par beef nahin khata (I eat non-veg but not beef).

—Kindergarten conversations at Shikshantar School, Gurugram.

Nazia Erum’s new book, Mothering A Muslim, is peppered with casual talk such as this among students at some of India’s most reputed schools. It paints a shocking picture of the extent of bullying children from middle-class Muslim families face within their school premises.

Talking to over 145 children and their parents across 12 cities, Erum uncovers some profoundly troubling truths. She documents stories of rampant bullying of Muslim children—of six-year-olds being hit by their classmates because of their faith; of religious segregation in classrooms; and of anxious Muslim parents who have to monitor their children’s dress, speech and actions to protect them in a communally polarized environment. In Mothering A Muslim, she lifts the veil from a social taboo, speaking up loud and clear on a subject that is usually spoken of only in whispers. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Have children with Muslim identities—despite coming from privileged backgrounds and studying in reputed schools—become more vulnerable to hatred and bullying along religious lines over the past few years?

Most children are mirroring the 9pm bulletins on television in their 10am classrooms. With newsrooms every day creating a public discourse around issues pertaining to a single community, it becomes an easy handle. That is what bullies do. They pick up the easy targets to isolate, corner and humiliate them, whether you play the Hindu card or the Muslim card. They both feed into the larger mood of hate and hostility in the world today. And our children are constantly listening to us.

How did children bullied for their religion process the experience at schools and homes? Did the parents take it up with the school authorities? Were the majority of school administrations forthcoming about addressing this issue?

I don’t think our children trust us to respond with the sensitivity that is needed in this issue. Most children, when young, do not understand enough to complain. It takes them often months to even share their experience with their parents and so it doesn’t get addressed at a young age, say, between 6 and 8. Then they decide to “fight it out" on their own as they grow up…. We are collectively failing our children—all children.

Yes, a few parents do take it up with the schools, but only in rare cases have the latter taken proactive action. Teachers need more capacity-building to handle such issues. We are not comfortable with talking about caste, sex or homophobia in our schools. Islamophobia is just another added layer.

The schools that responded to me said they were not aware of the issue. Few showed concern. They are all mentioned in my book.

In one of the interviews, the mother of a Muslim girl who faced religious hostility in her school says about elders not standing up against such practices at their homes: “When 40-year-olds don’t do it, how can we expect 16- to 18-year-olds to do it?" How, indeed, can children be expected to remain immune or be protected from such an environment at school?

I don’t think our children trust us, the adults, to handhold them in this world of hate and hostility that we have created through our complicity or complacency. Either way, children’s behaviour is actually a cry for help. They are only mirroring our own subconscious biases. There’s a “fat versus terrorist" episode in the book where a mother complains about her child being called a terrorist and is told by another parent, “So what, he called my kid ‘fat’." This episode does show how insensitive we are and how low our current capacity to handle such issues is. We get into a blame game when religion is involved. But that will not do, because hate will swallow all children, irrespective of religion, and the result will be disturbed adults of the future.

Would any steps by the school administrations be effective if the atmosphere in society continues to be vitiated?

We need a pushback on hate politics by every parent and conscientious human being. But first we need to acknowledge that the problem exists. We cannot continue to look away.

How have the administrations of some of the schools mentioned in the book responded since it was published?

Many schools are only reopening now after the winter break. I hope they will join us in this constructive dialogue. A few have already joined the #MothersAgainstBullying campaign online. Many teachers and academics are also taking to social media to voice their concern and support. I’m glad a conversation has started.

Mothering A Muslim—The Dark Secret In Our Schools And Playgrounds: By Nazia Erum, Juggernaut, 248 pages, Rs399.
Mothering A Muslim—The Dark Secret In Our Schools And Playgrounds: By Nazia Erum, Juggernaut, 248 pages, Rs399.

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