The World Before Her, directed by Nisha Pahuja is currently playing in select cinemas across India. Fatema Kagalwala first wrote about it on our blog, where we called it a ‘must-watch’. Here’s another post about the film by Shazia Iqbal:
“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me”
These are words of Objectivist Ayn Rand who rejected religion and faith and believed in rational reasoning as the way to make sense of life. Her words tore up the frame as the sub text every time the two protagonists (along with other girls) spoke in Nisha Pahuja’s powerful documentary ‘The World Before Her’. The irony is the world they want to capture; a world where they know they can’t be stopped has already caged them with its regressive ideologies and unfortunately they aren’t even aware of it. I watched the film a few days ago and it has been pulling me back for several reasons. Not because the film is full of strange, depressing truths about a divided India, and a women’s identity in the same, more so because it asked the very questions I have been asking of myself for years now. Who else does an atheist woman go to? I love and respect Ayn Rand and women like her who publicly shunned religion because it’s a tad bit more difficult for women to deny God than their counterparts.
I am a Muslim woman. My surname makes me a minority in a country that largely has fixed notions of the community I belong to. My gender makes me a minority in a patriarchal society. Also to make things a little more twisted for myself, I questioned and tried to reason with my religion and others, and bracketed myself in another group, the atheists. Minority again. Minority within minority is a task to pull off, I now realize. In a world where humans are so deeply fucked up, it sometime gets lonely to not even have a god but when you see the madness in the ones that have him, you know you are better off not belonging anywhere.
When asked about my faith, my regular responses are ‘I’m not a Muslim.. I’m an Atheist’, ‘Agnostic?’ Or simpler: ‘My parents follow Islam.’
‘So you are a Muslim?’
‘No, I don’t belong’
‘Don’t belong to any religion.. I’m fine without knowing the truth about God’s existence.’
Somehow my answers have never been good enough to not raise eyebrows. For years I have been looking for an identity. And I have made my peace with not having one and my questions being unanswered. I don’t look at myself as a Muslim and that’s why I have not felt discriminated against though being called a Pakistani is something most Indian Muslims grow up with and get used to. I am not victimizing Muslims, just that being a minority comes with its own share of pros and cons in every part of the world. We have our own. So every time my surname separated me from the crowd and I was treated differently, I didn’t retaliate because why should I? I am not a Muslim. So I thought.
I think my parents are a rare case because they celebrated the birth of their first daughter, when everyone around was killing the female child. I was born in a small village near Patna. After two sons, they were craving for a daughter. I am not thankful to my parents for not killing me, I take it for granted as my right to live and yet the character I empathized with the most in the film is Prachi Trivedi, the 24 year old instructor at the training camp of Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) because she is grateful to her father for not killing her at birth. That line made me realize how deeply complexed we are as a society.
My life is not about a movement, I don’t hate Gandhi and terrorizing people is not my idea of teaching. And yet it was Prachi’s volatile relationship with her father that touched my heart. Prachi is aware that the world that gives her strength to fight the enemies of the Hindu Culture (apparently the Muslims and Christians) is also the world that eventually asks her to follow the norms of marriage and children, something she doesn’t agree with. The ideologies that tell her women are not meant for house chores also tell her she ‘has’ to be tamed by getting married and not fly high and dream of a career. Girls don’t do that. Prachi struggles to balance the two contradicting ideologies, while asserting the right to find her way. Like Prachi, I have had my own daddy issues. My emancipated father raised me and my sister like ‘boys’. He told me very early in life about carving out a place for myself in the world. Marriage was not his idea of making a good life. It’s never been my idea of anything. We never spoke about marriage. But our relationship is volatile and argumentative because of our different belief systems of surviving in a society, where we are lesser in numbers compare to other race. It’s not about me being atheist. Although I have defied God in his presence, he is liberal enough to mostly let me think with my own head. The only one issue I have had with him is he asked his children to be quiet and not rebel because ‘we are minorities’. Under different circumstances, we fought over the same issue, and never reached common ground.
During a Ganapati festival, my mother was just back from a long stint in hospital. The noise mongers were playing loud music at 5 in the morning, and after bearing with it for days in row, I finally decided to call the police. He stopped me. ‘We are Muslims, we can’t complain. You are a girl and people don’t show their bias to women but you’ll know some day’. I argued and was told ‘ladki ho, ladki hi raho’ (You are a girl, behave like one). I struggled to understand if this was the same man who took pride in raising his daughters like sons. And whether I should be a boy and speak up or be a girl and shut up. And what’s stopping me from speaking up is it being a Muslim or being a girl? Or both? I felt suffocated in the hypocrisy of the world my father created for me. I didn’t choose to be a Muslim or a girl. Why do others have the rights that I don’t? Lottery of being born a man? Lottery of being born in a religion that’s bigger in numbers? I didn’t want this world. I wanted to make my own new one that doesn’t chain people in their own thoughts. But largely this is the reason why most anonymous in history have been women.
Somewhere halfway through the film, when you are already exposed to two very different, yet parallel, disturbing worlds, a young teen at the training camp gushes with pride ‘No, I don’t have any Muslim friends and I am proud about it’. After bearing with a few prejudices, this one felt like a sharp knife cut through the heart. I felt stifled. A few drop of tears streamed out. Why did it affect me so much when I don’t consider myself part of the community? When I proudly defy standing by any faith. When I don’t feel the need to group with a bunch of people who have similar ideologies and believe we are superior to the other race. Her words made me realize that even though I have left the religion years ago, it hasn’t left me. And in all probability, it never will.
Her words reminded me of how I felt years ago, when Bombay’s lifeline, the trains were attacked on 7/11. I worked as an Asst Art director back then and was shooting in a studio at Filmcity for a feature film. We were working with a couple of stars and anticipated an early pack up that evening. But as soon as the blast news came out of the vanity, the set became a story in itself. Chaos reigned. People panicked and called home. I managed to call home and found everyone safe, except my brother, who none of us could trace. Production decided to lock up the set till the bombings stopped. It went on for 11 minutes but we kept getting news. Mostly post blast rumours. My mother realized that the sixth train that blew up was my brother’s regular ride back home. That was it. I fell on a chair and broke down. A couple of Asst directors gathered around me. Out of nowhere the production manager, a paan chewing middle aged man, shrugged them aside and attacked me in his stringent language ‘kyun ro rahi hai? Tum logon ne toh karaya hai yeh sab’ (why are you crying when you and your people have executed this). I looked at him. The asst director retaliated ‘What the hell! She is a girl…’
He attacked further, ‘the girls carry the bomb inside the veil.. ’ He said that and spat his chewed betel leaf next to me. My friend blabbered something that I didn’t hear. I was numb. I don’t know the chemical composition of a bomb, not even as much as Prachi’s knowledge of an AK-47. But we are both victims here. I have never worn a veil and have fought against people who support and justify women being bound in a veil. I realized that I belong neither to a community that wears the veil nor to the one that’s judges it and labels them a terrorist because of it. I feel that spit on my face every time I recollect this incident. I remembered my father’s words and reasoned his fear of speaking out as a minority.
Ruhi is a Miss India contestant who dreams of winning the crown to make her parents of their product, that’s her. Jo-Ann Endicott in Pina Bausch’s Walzer struts around angrily, frustrated and enraged at a world that tells her how to carry off her body. She chalks out a boundary in different spacial forms her body creates and repeatedly screams ‘I don’t need your help or anybody else’s help, Thank you!! ’ She describes how she is asked to sit with an erect posture, so her legs don’t look fat and ugly. She struggles to keep her thighs together because they fall apart or hold her boobs up with a bra or they hang, sometimes right till the floor. There is rule for every part of the body, the fingers, wrist, elbow, the long neck, the longer hair, the various ways of doing up the hair, which lets the world categorize as classy or trashy. She wants to let her hair down and be herself. She wants to hide herself behind her long hair but they wont let her. Her face, her torso, her spine, her legs, her gait is all exposed for her to be judged. This is the gist of what beauty pageants stand for. Girls in this country have grown up dreaming of the crown from the time Sushmita Sens and Aishwarya Rais won the Miss world crown and made India ‘Proud’. The beauty standards pretty much changed in this country since then and how.
I would love to say fuck your fascist beauty standards if I myself wasn’t falling prey to it every now and then.
It was only a couple of months ago when I went to a skin clinic for a regular acne issue; they asked me to undergo a surgery for a sharper Jawline. A half an hour procedure that would apparently change my life. I was dumbfounded. The doctor told me it would give me confidence to face the world with a new face. Ha! Fortunately I didn’t think anything wrong with the current one. I smiled and walked away. But a lot of women fall prey. The rising numbers of these clinics are a proof of that. Everything is wrong with a world that tells a women a certain body type, certain shapes, particular complexion are what makes an ideal women, empowers them. Botox, skin whiteners, weight control, boob jobs are not going to let me have my place in the world. A director once belittled me when I refused to do a fairness cream TVC. He said if not me, somebody else would take it up. Exactly! I am aware.
Wearing a bikini doesn’t empower women. Neither does holding a gun and being able to pull the trigger. You are not empowered by exposing your bra strap or by being married and raising kids at 18; not by having ideal torso and limbs, not even by internalising the politics of hatred in a religious camp.
If this is power, I don’t want it. I want the opportunity to voice my opinion and be heard respectfully. I do not ask for permission before I speak. It is my right as a human. I do not want a career to escape the world you have made; I want to create my own world. Don’t allot me my space. Give me the freedom to carve my own niche. That would be empowerment. Hope Prachi and Ruhi and thousands like them comprehend this and liberate themselves from the world that is thrown before them.
Thank you- Nisha Pahuja for this hard-hitting story and Anurag Kashyap for supporting it.
(Shazia Iqbal is an Art director, and has worked in Films and Advertising since last eight years. She designed Dum Maaro Dum and many other films. Her script was selected for NFDC’s Director’s Lab.)