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Recently, I was watching a documentary on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India. The event has a similar impact on Sikhs as the Holocaust does on Jews. Unforgettable, life-changing and a truly defining turn for their lives. At the end of the documentary, the narrator spoke about the importance of an outwardly display of the Sikh identity is crucial. There were many happy photos of young Sikh girls in turbans and my immediate reaction was to feel a sense of connection with them. Those girls spoke of the respect and identity they found by wearing a turban.

While I understand the trajectory of this self-identity, I have no qualms in admitting that my reasons to wear the burqa/abaya/cloak are different to many and home to some. I find myself writing of this (again and again) simply because people don’t stop asking. The more bad press that Muslims get, which seems like an endless pit, the more I find myself explaining my choices to others—Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

9/11 was not simply an epicenter, but it became a starting point for this generation to trace back the discrimination towards the Muslim community globally. But the ugly morphing of ignorance, bias, discrimination, and the negative events that some Muslims have supported and been part of, is making a wider disillusionment more prominent: that of Muslims’ distrust against their own.

Last week, at a talk in London by a prominent Palestinian author, an elderly gentleman sat next to me. His first question was “Are you Arab?” and then, “Why do you wear this? Doesn’t it suffocate you? This is so backward.”

He then goes on to tell me that he is a Muslim too and is alarmed at why his sister would make the choice to cover. When I tell him a bit about myself, he nods reluctantly and is unsure of what to think about me: is she oppressed or not? If she is, why is she in this room, why does she have opinions and did she say she just cycled to this event?

During the talk, the speaker, also Muslim, wraps the blame of fundamentalist Islam in the veil and brandishes it ‘brainless and stupid’ and that the women who wear them as unproductive in society. But I am not sure if she saw the many girls wearing headscarves in that event and why did these brainless, stupid, unproductive, dormant people make way to this lecture hall, to listen to a distinguished author? Sounds pretty opposite to what dormant people do (or do not do!), don’t you think?

My own ‘veil’ story started as a way to tick-mark the cultural checklist imposed on my community. Bearing the burden of Muslim conservatism in a rural Indian context, plus the problem of being a woman in India, the burqa was a normative point of entering adulthood. In our community, the ‘burqa’ is the full body cloak + the headscarf + the face-veil but it is also called the same without the face-veil, which I do not wear. Yet, despite living in the Middle East, it was a practice I could not argue against because as a community, we carried our ‘traditional’ values with us. How much of that tradition was woven within religion, you can never quite tell.

After accepting the burqa grudgingly, I increasingly found myself alienated as that uncool person who covers herself and then, post-9/11, I unknowingly became the symbol of everything wrong with the world. In moment of such crises, I found myself befriending this piece of cloth, feeling strongly against people who were demonizing a Muslim woman’s identity because she chose to wear extra fabric. I felt strongly about it and gradually, instead of that notion that the burqa will ‘protect’ me, I have found myself becoming the protector of the burqa.

So, where do I stand?

I am not a fan of ‘converting’ people into a burqa-wearing army. I am also not against people who choose to wear one, even the niqab, although I’m not a big fan of it. The burqa has taught me many lessons and continues to do so. I usually find myself to be the only person at some events, talks and conferences in a burqa and I often find myself side-lined at these events because of what I wear or, if I am speaking at these events, I am inundated with polite ‘Omg, you are human and you have a sense of humour’ comments after my talk. It is easy for everyone to be open-minded and friendly as long as you are like them, but it is entertaining to see people respond to the stereotypes that bury within them. It is this discrimination that I have a problem with. When I attend these events and break the stereotype that people have towards veiled women, this is my reason, this is my rebellion.

With ISIS and all the news and propaganda around it, it is only making it difficult to sport a Muslim identity. Someday, when I want to, I will stop wearing it. Maybe I won’t. Either way, it will not be anyone else’s decision but mine. I am not the only one, there are many like me. There are girls who wear this for religious reasons and there are ones like me who wear it for rebellious reasons. One group might not agree with the other but we deserve the space to exist as Muslim women. Nobody can take that away from us.

It is becoming increasingly common to find myself in conversations with other Muslims who are questioning their place in the Islamic public sphere, forced to choose between polarized identities; none that they could identity with. A radical liberal or a radical conservative?

While it is a good point to start asking and questioning who are the Muslim leaders who speak for the community and why do media make them their go-to contact and not others, it is futile to entertain this conversation. What is more important is to argue not for who speaks but for the creation of a space where all views are welcomed. We need to create a space for multiple views to co-exist so that this dystopian notion of a monolith of Islam is permanently shattered.

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That TED was a fab experience is more obvious than the spelling mistake in this sentennnnnce.

It has taken me months to write this, not just due to poor time management but also the internal processing it has led my thoughts to.

When I was invited to speak at TED 2014 in Vancouver, it filled me excitement. It also made me very happy because it was a big moment for me to be speaking on that stage. But, it also made me terribly nervous. Ones where your heart is filled with dread and gallons of self-doubt that comes in talking about something that inevitably makes you look like you are the world’s loudspeaker, the token child to represent the many faces of being a Muslim woman. I was to talk about the Burqa.

But, what is a Burqa?

In madly simple words, my Burqa is the black cloak + the headscarf that I wear.

Now, is the face cover (niqab) not included in this Burqa thing?

Yes, it could be.

I am bored of people trying to dumb everything down to understand things on their dummy-level. We simply cannot apply the dummy theory to everyone–the level of dumbness differs in every culture. So, your dummy might be smarter than mine. Or not.

Jihad is a war when it’s NOT. Hijab is a scarf when it’s so much more than that. A Muslim woman is oppressed. Fat people are lazy. Skinny people are bulimic. Housewives are vain or frustrated. The list goes on.

The definition of a Burqa differs in various cultures. In mine, the niqab (face cover) is also part of it. But sans the niqab, my cloak + headscarf is still a Burqa. Instead of feeding the lazy dumbing down of our cultural words, I chose to stick to the word Burqa. And it confused many. YAY!

How on earth can we dumb a woman (Muslim or not) to exist in a singular way when we cannot even agree on one definition for her clothes? Tsk, tsk. While preparing for my TED talk, I changed it many times. Completely new drafts. In the start, I felt a huge amount of pressure. I was trying to write for others and it was increasingly difficult to focus on one idea. I felt like the focus was on me and I must empty my heart and voice in telling the world not to judge us using biased lens. But I was failing.

Finally, with the guidance of the TED team and the speaker coaches, I manage to arrive on my final draft. But somewhere within, I felt that the content was too simple. I remember how the speaker coaches continuously reminded me that this is all ‘new’ to the audience.

Walking in the TED space for the first time switched my Turbo-Butterfly mode on. The pressure was always there. There is something odd about walking past Sting and nodding a hello or walking past someone who you knew was famous but she could’ve been Martha Stewart or…Melinda Gates.

I felt at home among all these incredible people doing incredible things. Don’t judge me but I enjoy this feeling of being dwarfed by intelligence. Such a good feeling, especially when we seem to spend more time battling idiots on a regular day. In my mind, I kept comparing my talk to everyone else’s on stage. I guess it’s just being human.

My talk was on the fourth day of the five-day conference. On the third night, I was talking to my husband Tauqeer and telling him how nobody has approached me to chat this entire time. I cross these people so many times that many of those new faces have become familiar to me. But no one considers my presence–even though I was the only person in a Burqa in that conference. I felt sad that in a place like TED, if people reacted this way to me, there is not much hope outside of this space. And then Tauqeer explained it to me that perhaps this was the first time that they were meeting someone like me. That I perhaps unsettled their stereotype. I was satisfied with this explanation.

Next day, when I was on the stage to give my talk, I felt that pressure break on my shoulders. My talk was a passing moment in my memory. I don’t remember any of it. Yet, I wish I did not get so nervous. In my perfectionist mind, I am sure that I could have done better. But something magical happened. Suddenly, everyone somehow realised that I was human. That I could be funny. I could swear (oh yeah) and I was normal…like them. (Oh how mistaken they are!)

I think I’ve lost count the number of times I was told ‘Wow, we really weren’t expecting you to be funny…’

I was left feeling confused. I returned to London with a very mixed feeling. I felt that this story needs to be continued. That people need to hear more. And when it comes from the TED stage, it hits people differently. I did not want a polarised talk: one that alienated the West or the East. I think I did justice to that. But I truly wish that people can see beyond this Burqa. WE ARE JUST REGULAR PEOPLE! TRUST ME I AM NORMAL (EVEN IF MY CAPS LOCK KEY IS ON!)

Thanks for all the great feedback and comments. The talk isn’t out as yet. Once it is, I will add a link here. Here’s to normalcy…in whatever we wear! *clink* (there’s only Mecca Cola in the glass)

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.

Mid-January 2014, I decided to plan a little detour trip before Rajasthan to Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, India. It is the scene of where a politically-motivated commnal violence took many innocent lives and which led to displacement of 50,000+ Muslims. The media has not given this tragedy its due and there is an absence of due outrage. (How do we select outrage? Why does one thing make us angry and not the other?)

I got in touch with a friend whose work and humility I deeply admire: Faisal Khan. He has revived the Khudai Khidmatgar movement which is a form of peaceful, secular activism.

Alongwith a packed car of at least seven of us, we spent two days in Muzaffarnagar; visiting villages and camps and also Shamli District.

It was a very new experience for me. I felt compelled to see and know of what was truly happening on ground. I feel that it was also important to experience this dimension of social help to help me increase the ways in which I can benefit various communities and villages.

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I was privileged to be part of Mr. Khan’s initiatives to open schools in these camps and also a women’s empowerment center. By the time we were there, distributing shawls and blankets were in full-force. While it was very important to have donated these, it seemed that people could not think of more alternate ways to help these people. Everyone seemed to bring truck loads of blankets.

I saw more than 8-10 camps, sticking out like a surreal…sometimes unreal truth in the middle of beautiful sugarcane fields, rice paddies and in between lines of Poplar trees and mustard flowers.

Speaking to people, what is important to understand that most of these were not terribly poor. These were people with proper houses, property and their own world with their roots in their family graveyards and mosques. Overnight, these people were uprooted from their regular life.

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Someone who claimed to be an eye witness to this tragedy told me that from June 2013, weapons were being distributed in nearby villages (supported by a political party). There were conflicting stories that the violence was instigated by an outdated, irrelevant YouTube clip of a youth getting beaten up in Pakistan which was spread as a Hindu-getting-beaten-up-by-Muslim clip. There was another (real) story which contributed to the violence escalation but was not the sole reason for the flare-up: Hindu and Muslim youths fighting over a girl.

What it has resulted in is cleansing of Muslims from villages. Each and every person I spoke to (and I spoke to MANY) said that they cannot think of returning because of the brutality some saw and many heard about. I met many who did not see violence but the rumours of brutality against Muslims filled them with fear and they ran overnight–wearing the clothes they were in, without packing anything for themselves or their little children.

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One old woman looked distant while remembering her life just a few months back and said, “I miss my home…” only to be cut off by the woman next to her: “Yes, we miss home too but then when I remember that fearful night when they attacked us, my heart just goes blank.”

Another woman: “All these years, WE have been the one who paid Zakat (charity) but this year, we will receive it.”

I saw many pregnant women in these camps and way too many little children, playing near the dirty open sewage lines. There is no privacy for a woman there; no place for her to shower. This compounds their misery and makes them vulnerable to sexual attacks in the midst of the tragedy of displacement.

Within this month, I have already read reports of more children dying because of illnesses, lack of medical help and now, chicken pox.

I was deeply moved by the generosity of villagers who supported these victims by sheltering them and coordinating relief efforts for them. Students from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) are very active in providing help. The AMU students are the ‘doctors’ in these camps. They have also helped built brick-houses for the victims and also donated sewing machines to create employment opportunities for the women. The depth and breadth of their work far exceeds the little I saw in two days.

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Under the Khudai Khidmatgar initiative, I was able to inaugurate a temporary ‘bridge’ school and a woman’s empowerment center. When word spread about this makeshift school, with the two teachers being camp residents themselves, there was a line of children running through the fields and from the camp site to start school. There was incredible excitement to resume school after these months of uncertainty and roaming the shabby camps.

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As long as incidents like these happen in India, there is never going to be real progress. The shame of silence and outrage from the public is a bigger disappointment. I know many are helpless but what does it take to tip this into a public outrage? Muzaffarnagar riot aftermath is more like a political playground and people are simply statistics and it is a blot on the conscience of every Indian.

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While Caitlin Moran and others try to convince you that being a feminist is a given (particularly for women), I have to admit that I have long fought the label that is Feminist. Over the years, it has developed a negative connotation and could be one of the reasons why I refuse to adhere to this tag. We live in a world where men and women suffer and I cannot be selective about channeling my voice and sympathies to a chosen gender. Yes, women suffer and have fought injustice as far as history can go but I cannot bring to label myself as a ‘feminist’ for the gut-wrenching feeling when I read about rape, murder and social inequality. In each case, it is equally true for men too. Can we not feel empathy as humans?

That was a long disclaimer, by the way.

When I was younger, I thought that labelling was great! If I had labels, it would speak strongly for who I was. But in all these years, I have learnt how dangerous it can be for us to label others. I am not ashamed to admit that I have changed my thinking; if anything, it is a natural course of learning, which seems to be a lost cause in today’s age of pseudo intellectuals fighting for attention on Twitter. When I earned labels: woman, Indian, Muslim, Burqa-wearing, my father’s daughter, married etc., I found myself suffocating in these perimeters.

It’s not something that affects a select few and there appears to be no correlation to education levels and background. I met someone from a completely different cultural background, with a more open-minded society (although Rajasthani female literacy standards are not particularly difficult to beat). Yet, we spoke of the same problem. She was tormented by the same labels as I was. 

I am amazed at how it is taken for granted that as a girl/woman, you will conform. And if you don’t, you are considered to be a good-for-nothing failure, as if you have committed an irreversible wrong. 

Does no one stop to think? Why are these rules different to what is expected of the men? As women, do we have to give up our right to dream, to be relevant, to have an ambition? We see men who lack ambition and have all the playing field but we see women who have ambitions but have to forget them because there is no place to exercise them.

This brings out the stubborn revolutionary within. I don’t want my children to inherit hateful legacies and unreasonable societal creations. We must put an expiry date on these notions; it is the only way forward.

I have been thinking about fear.

I was intriduced to Burning Man last year and ever since, a part of me tilts precariously twards it. I really wonder what it will bring to my life. I met two friends a few days back who are veteran burners and I posed this question to them: “Is Burning Man really life-changing?”

They said, “No.” But. “For people who carry a lot of fear, it is.”

I felt something that moment but unsure of what it was. I let the moment pass.

Today, while seeing a friend’s FB photos, I noticed one of her friends dressed very flamboyant. Outrageously flamboyant. It made me feel very uncomfortable. A man with some make-up on. That’s all it was. But it really hit closer to my notion of ‘normal men’.

I then realised that we have built a large comfort zone within ourselves that we choose not to ever leave. There is always a choice. I have a choice of not wanting to explore this fear in me; of not meeting people who make me comfortable. But maybe this is my blessing and my curse that I simply cannot ignore this.

Everyone has different ways of expressing themselves. I sometimes think that I am a hipster in a closet. So why does a fear exist in seeing people dress differently than what I am used to? 

We don’t have to accept everything but at least I have one less unknown to fear.