'It is important to talk to a Muslim'

'For people who are fed on nothing else but the media, what were prejudices become facts of life.'
'What my neighbour may see as just news, for me is a source of fear, living as I do, surrounded by non-Muslims.'
'So I would say it is important to talk to a Muslim, be it your neighbour or your colleague.'
'Have that conversation about what's happening to Muslims.'

Mothering a Muslim, which revealed the ignorance, contempt and even hate that Muslim students encounter at the country's best schools, brought Nazia Erum into the limelight.

Nazia has since become a much followed voice on social media and was the name most associated with the #TalktoaMuslim Twitter campaign though she was not its originator.

In Mumbai to participate in a discussion on freedom of speech today as compared with the Manto era, Nazia spoke to Jyoti Punwani about her book, about self-censorship and her continuing attempts to celebrate the diversity that is the distinguishing feature of our country.


Speaking about freedom of speech, you must have experienced a backlash to your outspokenness on social media. Has that restricted you in any way?

Yes, of course. It's not possible today to speak out without provoking a backlash. This applies to either side of the conversation.

Freedom of speech is so much more democratic now. It's very easy to express your viewpoint and today, everybody has a viewpoint.

When my book came out, it was like World War III had broken out on my Twitter timeline!

But while having become more democratic, freedom of speech today expresses itself in more judgemental ways, and that too very quickly. Readers don't bother reading beyond the headline.

Sometimes I've found a sarcastic headline has been taken seriously and judged accordingly. I've learnt that when you want to put something out there, sarcasm doesn't work!

So, have these instant judgmental reactions made you tone down your comments?

We all self-censor a lot. Self-censorship is one of the starting points today. You always think of the audience out there.

When I was writing Mothering a Muslim, I knew I didn't want only the 'liberals' to read it.

I wanted people who wouldn't normally agree with me to step into my shoes.

I had to write those stories in a way that the reader is there with the child.

So I had to make myself an objective fly on the wall, put my emotions out of the way, lest they colour the story in a way that would put off the readers I was aiming for.

I think because of the way it is written, the book broke through the Right/Left discourse.

Did the response to the book surprise you?

In the first month, the book made headlines here and in the international press. But it really picked up three months later.

Suddenly, every single day there was a social media post, an e-mail to me. People were talking about it as if they had made it their own. It had become part of their lives.

There was this woman who was on the opposite side politically, she always contradicted everything I wrote on Facebook, so much so that I wanted to remove her from my timeline.

One day she messaged me to say, "I read your book. Finally I know what it's like to be in your shoes."

The principal of Welham School -- and she's an institution in herself -- told me, "I have learnt the biggest lesson of my life from your book."

The principal of a school in Darbhanga, Bihar, wrote to me that after reading it, he had held a session with his teachers.

I think it had this impact because I was just sharing the truth as it is.

Then there were the young people who felt glad to know they were not alone in facing this hate in school, there were so many others.

The silence around it had made them feel they were alone.

Many parents felt empowered by it. They could show it to the authorities and say: Look, this is what we have been talking about.

My husband has written three bestsellers, but this experience was something else. This book had acquired a life of its own.

What about non-Muslim students? Any reaction from them?

I was recently at a Knowledge Conclave where students from all the top schools: Mayo, Welham, Sanawar were present.

I was amazed at the honesty they brought to the table.

These were students from Standard 9 to 12.

In front of a room full of teachers and their classmates they could say things like: "I'm ashamed of what I did"; "My parents and grandparents have told me worst things about Muslims than what's in the book".

You won't find adults being so honest.

It gave me a lot of hope.

You know, social media can be very off-putting. Often you feel, let me just get off it. Then you meet these young people...

Your book talks about elite schools only. What about regular schools?

I chose elite schools on purpose because it's important to be aware that this happens in the best of families and the best of institutions.

With regular schools, people can easily say: "Oh it happens there, not in our circles.



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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.

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