Monthly Archives: March 2014

It is simplicity and sometimes laziness of thought that makes us constantly hear of religions being blamed for worldly horrors. How can peace and violence be derivatives of the same text?

I find myself in a very unusual position of being a ‘practicing’ Muslim who also considers herself to be open-minded. Well, open-minded enough to accept others’ way of life, no matter how different it is to mine. My travels have changed me; they have led me to uncomfortable moments that made me question my beliefs and allow me the humility to correct them. But one of my deepest learning moments have come from meeting individuals who claim to be superior in their worship through sartorial choices [to “look” like a religious person] and through constant (many times unwanted) preaching in gatherings, events and dinners. My initial obvious reaction was irritation and annoyance. This then developed into frustration and general awe at the ignorant superiority complex of the self. These made me learn my valuable lessons:

Lesson One: meet weird people, meet people you have only ‘heard of’ or ‘read about’. Understand their differences.

I jumped into the Unknown: I started meeting the Others, whether different in their religions, sexual orientations, financial backgrounds and general life choices. People who I would usually have never befriended. Once I humanised these people, I stopped defining them by the choices they live by. Our moral compass is within, so simply by being humane to the outsider will not turn us into one of them. Plus, it is always interesting to hear others’ stories; how human beings can have the same experiences but in a parallel world. How so different we are and yet, the same somehow.

This has forced me to constantly examine my relationship with Islam. I have a deep love for it and in my mind, it is a powerful woman who has given birth to me, who has nurtured me and continuously empowers me. I am moved by the kindness and compassion that it has taught me through its many stories. It makes me believe that I am capable of an incredible level of compassion and empowerment that I cannot relate anymore to the twisted, mangled version of what is touted as Islam today. If the killings, intolerance, judgmental behaviour, close-mindedness are characterised as Islam, then I am not a Muslim.

It bothers me endlessly to wonder why are we so intimidated by religion that we allow others to judge us? How many times do we apologise for not being ‘a great Muslim’ because “I do not pray regularly or read the Qur’an everyday”. Are those the only indicators of a good person? But wait, why do we even need indicators? I will see your religion in your action. If you are an asshole, I don’t care if I see you in a mosque everyday.

Lesson Two: Unless you are a good human being, you cannot be a good Muslim.

There is so much fear in religion. I have heard people being told that their ribs will be crushed in graves ‘if they are not a good Muslim’, that something terrible will befall them. No genuine action takes birth from fear. No wonder people are rejecting religion—in times like today, where education has gifted critical thinking to the masses, it is foolishness to sell stories of fear. People cannot be stopped from questioning. The ones who have no fear, is faith banned for them?

Lesson Three—the most radical one—religion is scripture and those words are not going to magically morph into new lessons. We need to change how we follow religions. We have to re-imagine ourselves and not the religions. It is hugely difficult to talk about this concept without rocking the foundation of convenience that people are used to.

We also need an open mind to address how a Muslim identity needs to be defined. Growing a beard or wearing a burqa are not markers of piety. For a bar to be set so low, it is easy for anyone to hide behind a lock of hair and a piece of cloth. The new challenge for the Muslim community is how it will address this issue. The Islamic communities globally are so diverse that a single way of defining a Muslim is a failed, archaic notion.

Religion should act as spiritual scaffolding and not as a tool to widen gender gaps and become a source for fear and persecution.

We must refuse to exercise fear and to be intimidated by it. Stop apologising. How you practice is nobody’s business. We are responsible for our own destiny. The world has too many religious people, but not enough nice ones.


I am a TEDx organiser. A veteran in this community of sorts. But I am struggling.

I am going to be speaking at TED 2014 in Vancouver about the Burqa. I still remember receiving the e-mail from Chris inviting me to speak. I don’t think it has sunk in yet. I don’t know when it will sink; hopefully not when I am backstage, waiting for my turn.

I have re-written my talk more than ten times, out of which, I had to completely re-write it seven times. I still have less than two weeks for the conference and there will be numerous edits I am sure of.

One of the toughest points for me was I felt this immense pressure to speak for everyone. When everyone got to know about my talk, many suggestions poured in. Some said I should tell people how horrible the Burqa is, some said I need to tell people to leave the veiled women alone, some wanted me to give a religious lecture, others wanted me to share expert feminist opinions. In the middle of all of this, I forgot what I had really wanted to say. While writing it, I felt deeply unhappy. I felt that I was trying to be someone else.

And then while speaking to the incredible speaker coaches Michael and Abigail from Virtuozo, they reminded me that nobody can negate or discredit my story. It was my experience and it is a true story so who could deny it?

Each time I feel that I have given it my best and when I have to rework on the talk, I feel that I have hit a wall. Desperate measures to deal with this block makes me feel like Virginia Woolf (portrayed in The Hours). I sit quietly in my room, shutting myself from everyone. The phone rings. I do not answer. I stop listening to music. Then one day, I wore these beautiful heavy earrings I bought recently and started listening to ‘Happy’ (P Williams) and I rewrote the talk in one go. Then there have been days of staring at the screen, then breaking away to read like I am possessed. I read a lot, I spoke to many people. I spoke to women who veil/who do not veil/who hate the veil/who have never heard of the veil. Crises was averted many days because of a pizza or fried chicken whose calories I will take months to recover from.

At one point, I felt that I had to return to incidents which I had never spoken of for a long time. But that version was shelved (phew!).

We watch TED talks so effortlessly but the incredible pressure we set ourselves to–being judged on such a large scale, really gets to you. Being amidst celebrities and best brains of our times simply adds to it.

So, I shut myself from the notion of how big a deal all this is. All I want to do is to get on that stage and do justice to the time I have there. It is MY opportunity and moment to share what I think and I am not going to change or camouflage that for anyone else. Everyone has their own times/opportunities to tell their stories.

This is mine.