Mental health and Islamophobia in the times of Corona

As we complete a month into the official Nation-wide Lockdown, issues of communal violence and Islamophobia have been affecting the mental health of already stressed citizens. How does one keep sanity and truth alive in these difficult times?

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On any other day when I was feeling low, I would probably have bought into the popular “influencer-peddled self-care quick-fixes” like going to a movie, a walk outside, visit the beach, or simply order some ice cream from a nearby restaurant. The tables have turned now. The COVID-19 crisis and the ensuing lockdown has revealed painfully, and glaringly, that all of the things that are marketed to us to make us “feel better” are just an illusion. Such “self-care” is also a matter of how privileged one is. Advertising moguls have created this aspirational privilege bubble around us, making us believe that capitalism is the saviour of our mental health and not the cause of mounting stress that may cause and exacerbate mental illness in the first place.

While experts argue that the next public health crisis we face will be in the domain of mental health, the lockdown has caused many existing conditions to worsen. The increased cases of domestic violence and child abuse are testament to the escalating catastrophe. In these trying times, triggers abound, sometimes perpetuated by our own families, and at other times by the people we interact with virtually on social media.

The rampant Islamophobia peddled by our News Channels has exploded its way onto our social media feeds and in family WhatsApp groups. While some of us choose to call out the bigotry, others have no option but to stay silent for their own safety- physical and emotional.For Mumbai based activist Karishma Khemlani, this is a time of disillusionment, “So many of us are facing ostracism for speaking out against Islamophobia- be it from families, friends, acquaintances, or colleagues. I think we’ve always been surrounded by Islamophobic people, but we’re seeing them be more vocal now that they know that their Islamophobia is state-sanctioned. I’m privileged enough to voice my objections to so called ‘jokes’ and misinformation without facing severe outcomes, but I know of people who are physically abused in their homes for speaking up”.

On the one hand, while calling out Islamophobia becomes the prerogative of informed people from all communities, facing Islamophobia as a Muslim is another battle altogether. Sidrah Patel introduces herself as a professional working for a non-Profit, and as a conscientious Muslim Indian. Talking about her identity, Sidrah told me, “Each time I introduce myself I realize I have become very conscious and protective about my Muslim identity over the past year which is also a consequence of the Islamophobia that is being peddled. I call out Islamophobia on public platforms on a daily basis. There is an increasing awareness about Indian media that has been dedicating a lot of air time and energy into projecting the Muslim as the ‘other’. This is a very perilous discourse which considers Muslims guilty even before any facts are established. The Muslim identity is constantly targeted, criminalized and vilified.”

Her words ring especially true in the context of the fake news tsunami that was launched against the Tablighi Jamat. Even though the news items that debated and ranted for hours of airtime over fake videos that claimed the CoronaVirus positive patients from Tablighi Jamat were desecrating the hospitals, the retractions or apologies never happened after all these allegations were disproved. Be it the abominable “Jihad Charts” or the vilification of Shaheen Bagh protestors which preceded the CoronaVirus outbreak, media organizations have made a business of propagating conspiracy theories and fake allegations with impunity.

Sidrah suggests that as a citizen it becomes our duty to call out fake news and Islamophobia by stating facts, “The media has very successfully de-humanized people. All that is left, is a projection of a collective identity of either Hindu or Muslim. It is time for people to reject these notions that any religion is a monolith. We should connect and listen to each other as humans. There is also a need to showcase the stories of love when the propaganda churning machine is relentlessly serving information focussed on hate, most of which is untrue. We can’t let the media run amok with no one calling them out because a lot of people believe the News Channels and portals thinking that these are reputed organizations and thus can do no wrong”.

Calling out or confronting hate is equally challenging online and in real life. For many of us, the battle starts at home. Yet, it is not easy on anyone’s own mental health to go head to head with their families and friends. Rashi Vidyasagar, Director of The Alternative Story which provides affordable online therapy services, asks everyone to ‘pick your battles’. She suggests a gentle approach when dealing with people who are close to you and can hence affect your mental health,“You need to figure out how much you can push back against something. I avoid heated discussions or confrontational fights with family. What can work, is to casually bring up these topics when the mood is otherwise relaxed. You may bring up some verified facts or good examples to counter Islamophobia. Most times these beliefs are very deep seated, and hence, you will need to chip away at them slowly. You might be the only person who can affect this positive change in your near and dear ones. The important thing to remember is to preserve your own mental health first”.

As the lockdown continues and the disparities around us become ever more glaring- be it caste, class, gender, sexuality, or disability- we can feel helpless and overwhelmed. One needs to remember that picking our battles and drawing boundaries is also a form of self-care. We must do what we can, when we can. Islamophobia has become a loud cacophony even as the streets are silent.UAPA is being used to silence more and more journalists and activists even during lockdown. Poverty and starvation are looming threats hanging over the majority of our population.Many more battles wait in the wings as a changed world may greet us after the lockdown ends, whenever that will be. To fight, we must remain strong and take care of ourselves too. We have to find those pockets of time for ourselves. As they say on airplanes, “Put your own oxygen mask on first, before assisting others”, and maybe that is what we need to do as well, to live to fight another day.

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Covid-19: What is India going to do about the Racism and Communalism epidemic that plagues it?



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