Why Does a Play Rile Islamists in Kerala?

An innocent play performed as part of an annual school festival ended up offending a section of Kerala Muslims so much that they formally lodged a complaint against it.

Kerala School Drama

The play features a young Muslim girl who is in constant debate with her father, a muezzin in a local mosque. With aspirations to touch the sky, this young girl questions many notions of Islam regarding the supposed inequality between men and women.

 She questions why women are supposed to eat half as much as men. After being chastised by the father for her persistent questions, she asks if women really deserve half of what men get, then why is it that they (women) should not wear half the clothes as compared to men. The last straw is when she asks her father if she can make the call to prayer very much like he does in the mosque. Furious, the father locks her up saying that it is not allowed in Islam and that only men have the right to give a call for prayer. He reminds her that she will not reach heaven if she does anything like this. The daughter replies that she would not like to go in a heaven in which she cannot sing and dance. Fortunately, the play ends with the father relenting and allowing her to make the Azaan.

The play is about women’s right, dignity and gender justice. It is also certainly humanist in the sense that the father eventually relents and redeems his own humanity. Also, the play would have lent itself to the current Muslim women’s movement in Kerala which is demanding entry of women in mosques.

But then, all good things must come to an end. And in Muslim context, many a times it ends before it even starts. The SDPI (Social Democratic Party of India), which is the political front for Popular Front of India (PFI) raised a huge hue and cry and even took to the streets to protest against the proposed play. Raising the familiar cry of hurt religious feelings, they demanded that the school in which this play was to be performed pull it back and tender an apology. The SDPI said that the play was intended to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims. Had this been some other context, we would have seen debates about freedom of expression and the right to dissent but then we hardly hear about such things when there is a Muslim context.

 Unable to bear the pressure from SDPI and with no support forthcoming from anyone, the school now has decided to change the play and have promised not to hurt the religious feelings of anyone.

So how should we understand the claim of SDPI when it says that the play hurt the feelings of Muslims? How can a school play, performed in some corner of the country, end up hurting the feelings of the followers of a religion which is fourteen hundred years old? But then that perhaps is not the point. The larger point that SDPI is trying to make is that there can be only one version of Islam which should be acceptable to all Muslims and that they (SDPI) are the representatives of that religion. This religion, which they claim to be the sole spokesman of, is understood to be anti-women to the core. Any talk of women’s agency and this kind of Islam immediately starts talking about hurt feelings.

 On the other hand, this is also a clever way to stop any movement within the Muslim community which imagines a different relationship with God or a more equitable relationship between men and women. It is a serious affront to think that God will take offence because a child decides to question her father. What kind of Islam does the SDPI wants to project: one in which even the innocent questions of a child will be treated like a crime?

The argument of the SDPI, that the play was an insult to the Muslim way of life is equally unconvincing, to say the least. Like most organizations who have become the spokesman for Muslim culture, the SDPI is also ignorant about Muslim culture.

There is no one Muslim culture in India. What we call Muslim culture is contextualised by regions, languages and different historical trajectories. A Muslim considers it as part of his culture when he touches the feet of his mother in law in Bengal. A Muslim woman considers it part of her culture to wear the Sindoor post marriage in parts of Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. This would be simply an anathema in a different part of the country.

The point is that amidst this plethora of diverse Muslim cultures, which one should we believe is the standard towards which an average Muslim should look. The answer is that there is no standard and throughout centuries Muslims have believed that all cultures are equally valid.

But then, perhaps for the Islamist SDPI, Muslims must necessarily look towards the Arabian culture in order to become true Muslims. And that precisely is the problem. In trying to de-legitimize indigenous Muslim cultures of India, the SDPI wants to ingratiate Arabian Islam on the psyche of Indian Muslims. This trend is dangerous and it must be resisted by one and all, most importantly by the Muslims of Kerala themselves.

Arshad Alam is a NewAgeIslam.com columnist

Courtesy: New Age Islam



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