No Flats to Let, No Friends to Keep: Mumbai Muslims
Discrimination in the otherwise pluralistic city of Mumbai forces young Muslims to hide their identities.
Thirty seven-year-old Shibani excitedly runs across to the table of young mothers in a boho chic café in Bandra. They beckon to her, clapping and yelling “Shibu” in unison before engulfing her in a cloud of Yves Saint Laurent and affection. She glances around sheepishly, lowers her voice and tells me, “They still refer to me as Shibu, you know, as in Shabana, I can’t get into why I changed my name ya.”
Random airport checks, incessant questions and rejection from prospective grooms in her younger days prompted a non-Muslim Shabana to change her name to a more Hindu-sounding Shibani.
“Since my name change, no one raises eyebrows; no one asks me if I’m Muslim, the last 16 years have been easier.”
Tenants, flat buyers and even youths seeking jobs are being discriminated against in the supposedly pluralistic city of Mumbai. But Mumbaikars, irrespective of their community, are not surprised.
“I’d like to say that this new wave of discrimination is shocking – but it’s not,” says a non-committal Sarah Mohamadeen Sham . The 28-year-old, now self-employed as the Director of Essajees, an antique furniture store, recalls how careful she was about her religious identity when she was younger.
“I left out my middle name on my resume, applications to college and any other forms.” She recollects incidents of bizarre differentiation in her personal life.
My friendships and relationships have broken because of intolerance. Professionally, I deserve a fair shot and if I didn’t leave the Mohamadeen out of my name, I don’t think I would have gotten that.
– Sarah Sham
The government change is a concern, adds Sarah. “It’s not a meritocracy – which is what the government promised to be; moreover, people say ghastly things every day about a community, and nothing is done about it.”
What’s in a Name?
Ask Misbah Quadri, who was told not to move into a rented flat in Wadala a few hours before she proceeded to occupy the flat, just because the society did not accept Muslim tenants.
Or for that matter, Mahrukh Inayet, a journalist who was mistaken for being Zoroastrian when she settled in her Bandra home over seven years ago.
“Not only am I Muslim, I am Kashmiri and single. I felt it was best not to correct what they had already assumed,” Mahrukh says smiling. In the same breath, however, she adds, “There have been times, I have had to prove my patriotism, because I will be regarded with suspicion no matter what.”
Mahrukh’s professional accomplishment, she feels, coupled with her supposed ‘Non-Muslim’ demeanour put her landlords at ease.
I don’t exactly look Kashmiri, so my religion never came up, because it wasn’t assumed that I was Muslim.
– Mahrukh Inayet
Is this city, which prides itself on cosmopolitan character, actually divided on religion, food habits and language? “It’s amusing now,” she says good-naturedly. “But the constant categorisation is hurtful, nonetheless. Recently, I was told not to even think of getting a house I had my heart set on. It’s exhausting to constantly reassure someone that you’re not a threat.”
Rizwan Qureshi, 47, is a seasoned Mumbaikar but has also had his fair share of late night checks and interrogations by suspicious authorities at railway stations.
I have never thought of not revealing too much, it’s better to be accepted or not for whom you entirely are. Someone else’s education or lack of it is not something we can change.
– Rizwan Qureshi
Rizwan may have become pragmatic over time, but incidentally, this was what he’d said to pacify his sobbing elder daughter when she claimed a friend wouldn’t speak to her anymore.
A father of two girls, he speaks of these instances, unruffled, but the tension is palpable when he recounts his seven-year-old’s latest line of questioning. “She keeps asking me if a particular name is a Muslim name or a Hindu one. She’s inquisitive, yes – but why she’s asking it, is what’s worrying.”
(Sanjana Chowhan is a recovering multimedia journalist, currently dabbling in the digital media space. A graduate from Columbia Journalism School, she currently lives, works and inhales coffee in Mumbai.)
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