Shashi Tharoor: Like Shami, Even Jinnah Rescued Wife From ‘Trolls’

Traditionalists are the same, whichever religion or culture they claim to be speaking for, writes Shashi Tharoor.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Even Jinnah stood up for the rights of his non-Muslim wife to dress in defiance of traditionalist British sensibilities. (Photo: Lijumol Joesph/<b>The Quint</b>)

The recent controversy involving India’s star fast bowler Mohammed Shami – who received abuse and criticism from Muslim conservatives on social media in late December for posting a picture of his wife, Hasin Jahan, in a sleeveless dress – confirms once again the real problem with traditionalists.

It is not just that they wish to do things the old-fashioned way, from choice of clothes to canons of behaviour. It is that they insist on imposing their beliefs and preferences on others, and they do so in the name of a higher principle that merely masks their own prejudices.

The background to the episode: On Christmas night, Shami uploaded, under the caption "Beautiful moments," some family pictures showing himself, his wife and daughter in western attire. I have seen the pictures: They are utterly unexceptionable, unless you object, on purely sartorial grounds, to Shami’s maroon suit and tie.

His wife is also in maroon, in a floor-length gown, but since it is sleeveless, her arms and neck are bare. By any reasonable contemporary standard, the gown is demure rather than daring, but it was enough to set off a firestorm of protests about Shami’s allegedly “un-Islamic” behaviour.

"We hate you, Shami”, wrote one critic, Sabas Afreen: “Apni aurat ki izzat ki nilami mat karo Bhai... (Don’t tarnish your wife’s honour, brother.)” A flurry of other critics, every one bearing a Muslim name, asked him to observe the proprieties expected of a Muslim family, to avoid Western culture, to keep his wife in purdah, to worry about Judgement Day, and offered assorted exhortations along the same lines.

One even questioned whether Shami’s wife was Muslim. Another reminded the cricketer that "This beauty private property of u, dear ...not for showing to others”.

Of course, the solicitude for the lady was insincere; aside from the breathtakingly proprietorial attitudes the critics demonstrated, their supposed concern for her was soon eclipsed by Islamic outrage, sometimes expressed in menacing terms. “Allah se daro...Islam ko badnam mat karo (Fear Allah. Don't defame Islam),” one critic ranted. The issue threatened to blow up into a full-scale crisis, and it seemed ripe for some busybody cleric to step in and issue a fatwa. (One Maulana, on television, came perilously close.)

Fortunately, other Muslims rode to Shami’s rescue. Senior cricketer Mohammed Kaif decried the comments as shameful. “Support Mohammed Shami fully. There are much bigger issues in this country. Hope sense prevails,” he tweeted.

Poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar joined in on Shami’s side, saying, "The dress that Mrs Shami is wearing is extremely elegant and dignified. Anyone who has any problem with it is sick in his mind." Others did likewise.

Shami himself cheerily reposted the pictures with a message in Hindustani: “Not everyone gets to a good position in life. A few fortunate ones do. Keep burning with jealousy!”

He added on Twitter: “My wife and daughter are my life partners and I know well what should be done and what shouldn’t.” He urged people to “look within and discover how good or bad we are.”

Will they? It’s difficult to say.

Traditionalists are quick to defend their ways of belief and behaviour as being sanctioned by God, religion, society and custom: Defying them is therefore tantamount to defiance of a higher order.

The Shami case was perfect for them because it involved notions of appropriate female dress, the very subject on which men most like to lay down the law.

The masculine habit of locating their honour in the body of a woman, and then oppressing that woman in the name of their honour, is the preferred method of traditionalists. It allows them to exalt prejudice to virtue and justify bigotry as superior to liberty.

Some in our country were quick to see this as further evidence of Muslim backwardness and regressive attitudes.

But the Hindu-chauvinist Bajrang Dal recently issued a dress-code for women, and many like-minded groups sporting ‘Sena’ in their name have done the same – and several prominent Hindu leaders, from the RSS supremo to the BJP Chief Minister of Haryana, have urged women to dress more modestly if they wish to avoid dishonour.

Traditionalists are the same, whichever religion or culture they claim to be speaking in defence of.

But the Shami episode reminded me of another moment from history, one involving a surprising Muslim protagonist, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the (future) founder of Pakistan. Jinnah’s much younger wife, Ruttie, was famously daring in her attire, favouring transparent chiffon and off-the-shoulder European gowns with plunging necklines which made her the sensation of elite Bombay parties in the 1920s.

The British regarded her with a mix of resentment and envy.

Picture of Maryam Jinnah who was originally Ruttenbai Petit. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="http://www.buzzpk.com/2014/12/quaid-e-azam-family-tree-pictures.html">buzzpk</a>)
Picture of Maryam Jinnah who was originally Ruttenbai Petit. (Photo Courtesy: buzzpk)

But their disapproval didn’t spill over until a formal dinner by the Governor of Bombay, Lord Willingdon, whose wife disapproved of Mrs Jinnah’s low-cut dress.

After sniffily asking Ruttie at the dining table whether she felt cold, and being told she was fine, Lady Willingdon asked an ADC to bring a wrap for Mrs Jinnah. The insult was unmistakeable, but Jinnah rose to the occasion, and from the table.

“When Mrs Jinnah feels cold,” he told his hostess sharply, “she will say so herself.” He then took his wife’s hand and walked out of the dining room, never to return to Government House as long as Lord Willingdon lived there.

The man who founded the Islamic State of Pakistan stood up for the rights of his non-Muslim wife to dress in defiance of traditionalist British sensibilities. It was one of his proudest moments.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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