Mothering a Muslim in Times of Hate: How Communal Bullying Has Taken Root in India's Schools

As Islamophobia creeps deeper into India's psyche, Nazia Erum's book delves into how children are being bullied for their religious identity.

Aleesha Matharu: Today, we are sitting with Nazia Erum, the author of Mothering a Muslim, a book in which she carefully documents how Muslim children from upper middle class families are discriminated against in their schools and how this discrimination stems from conversations that are had in living rooms at homes, from the politics that is being bandied about in communities around them and their neighbourhoods. So Nazia, what initially started you on this path to write this book?

Nazia Erum: When I had a child myself. I guess once you become a mother, every moment goes into worrying about what is to become of the kid, what kind of a future will the kid have and how can I protect the child in every single way. I mean that is the universal feeling of motherhood.

When I had my child, the year was 2014, and as we know there were lot of rhetoric in the air and I wanted a positive book. I wanted to reject any kind of fear that anybody was trying to make me feel. So I wanted to write a positive book. As a new mother you want to feel positive about why you’ve brought in a child, how the child will grow up.

I found the narrative of Muslim motherhood missing in the baby talk. I found a lot about Muslim women, I found a lot about Muslim men, but nothing brought the Muslim mother out there. How were her challenges any different from any of her counterparts? As a millennial mother, I did not want to feel any different and I did not believe I was any different. So, it was important for me to talk to other millennial Muslim mothers and find out what are our challenges.

What I found out, I wasn’t ready for this. Even after writing the book, I am not ready for this. I don’t think any mother would ask her child to hate another child. I don’t think any mother would want that.

AM: A large part of this book talks about the fear that is palpable in minority communities largely especially, since this majoritarian government has come into power.

NE: The book actually does not talk about that. The book talks about how the child is going out there and is being reminded by the new rhetorics in the air.

AM: That he/she is different.

NE: That he/she is different. In fact there are two parts of the book. The first part talks about when the child goes out into school or into playgrounds, into the world, they are constantly reminded of their Muslim identity and straitjacketed into it. And when they come back to their homes, they are constantly reminded by the community itself that you are never Muslim enough, you have to keep doing more. Imagine the child, he is kind of trapped into a vortex of what am I, ‘they are telling me you are this’ and while the Muslims themselves are saying, ‘you are not Muslim enough’. So, where does the child go? Imagine the kind of difficulty the child will have, in figuring out this world for themselves, in figuring out their own identity for themselves.

AM: Your first story actually spoke volumes to me, Azania’s story, where she starts to shriek in the back of the car, saying the ‘Muslims are coming’ and the question that you ask over there is very heartbreaking – how do you tell a child, she is what she fears?

NE: I remember that mother. I had called her and she did not know me, we met through some mutual connections. I told her I am so-and-so and I want to talk to you and the book is called Mothering a Muslim. She said, “But I have mothered only a human, why should it be a Muslim.” And I completely understand her point of view and I agree with her point of view. But when she told me this story in fact, I could relate to it so much because my own child, I have never told her she is a Muslim. She knows Allah, she knows how to do the Namaz, she is just three. Why should I straitjacket her and tell her that you are a Muslim or that is a Hindu or that is a Sikh or that is a Christian? I have not yet compartmentalised humans for her. She knows God, she listens to stories from all religions that are shared in her school and she is completely okay with it. So, I was just wondering how to tell her this, how do you tell a child?

And if I don’t tell her this, now the new challenge was that, If I don’t tell her that she is a Muslim, like Azania, tomorrow somebody… It’s in the air, it’s an easy handle to hate Muslims right now and if she borrows that hatred from outside, how will I tell her that look you are a Muslim, it is not the other. So, in fact, as i said she is just three and she is just learning to draw, to colour, learning the different shades, different colours. So the easiest thing to draw right now is the Indian national flag and that is taught in the schools, that is taught at home. Straight lines, horizontal lines, vertical lines, colours, three different stark colours.

AM: I remember trying to make a roti in the shape of India as a child.

NE: And for a child it is very exciting because every day she listens to the national anthem; she salutes the flag. So whenever we go out, I find her saying, “Mumma, India’s flag.”

Wherever we go for long drives and wherever she can see, she gets excited because that is something she can identify with, because outside for a child there are so many things to take in. So one thing that you identify, you are excited about it. That is how a three-year-old is.

AM: In fact, what we learn as children is what stays with us for all our lives.

NE: Yes, she knows she is an Indian, she loves the Indian flag but right now she is in a play school. She goes to the big school next year.

AM: It must be terrifying for you to actually let her go.

NE: What if – what if, one of those stories in the book, happen to my child? And I know it will, because it is happening to almost everybody out there.

AM: In-fact, name have now become an identifier.

NE: How will I tell her if tomorrow somebody says, “Go to Pakistan, you are a Pakistani?”

How will I tell her that the flag that she loved so much, somebody is doubting her on that? I mean how do I make sense of that for her? I still don’t have an answer for this. In fact, why as a mother, do I need to have an answer ready for my child?

AM: In fact, you have juxtaposed it pretty well at the end of the book in the epilogue when you talk about how a child does not even know how to fear the dark until he/she is told to fear the dark. So, what we learn as children is what we carry with us.

NE: As a mother I can see, I can see how my child picks up small nuances, things that I subconsciously do and she picks those up and I can see the way she stands in front of mirror, is something that I would be doing. The way she treats a stranger or the house help, will be how I do it.

So, the children are imbibing meanings from our actions without us knowing about it. So even if you have not, as in such-and-such words taught hate to your child and if your child has borrowed that, we need to ask ourselves that we might not be complicit to what’s happening out there but our complacency might be the reason, that this bullying, rise in bullying on religious lines has become so, so widespread.

AM: Did you also find that a lot of schools do not have a lot of Muslims on their admission rolls?

NE: That is not a part of my research and I don’t think so because a very wise friend and a school administrator himself told me that “schools just worry about the money”.

If segregation is happening, it is not to attack a community but probably it is because it makes more monetary sense. Because it kind of helps in making the time-tables and allotting teachers and it is just easier for them so, it just makes administrative sense.

At the end of the day we also have to understand that teachers, students and administrators are all coming from the same society we live in. These are not some people who are immune to what is happening. They are you, me and my neighbour. In fact, a lot of bullying is coming from a lot of teachers. Many students have told me how a teacher would flippantly say, “You will become Osama when you grow up.”

AM: But these are affluent schools.

NE: And these are affluent schools, that is my point.

AM: Since large sums of money are being exchanged, shouldn’t they be taking some degree of greater action?

NE: Absolutely, I am not saying that they are not responsible. I am saying that they probably don’t know. Because I did write back to all the schools named in the book.

AM: You also spoke of how older children would then refuse to talk about such bullying where it was the younger kids who would initially complain and then slowly stop complaining.

NE: It is highly under-reported. The under-reporting is immense. Because as a young child when it happens to you, when you are six, seven, it is kind of pushed under the carpet. And when the child finds that it has not been addressed and the hurt is there because the intonation is such that the hurt remains, then the child realises that there is no point tattling about it again.

They decide to take things on their own. I don’t think our children trust us. They don’t trust us to handhold them and help them navigate the world of fear and hostility that we have created for them. And this is not about Muslim children, make no mistake. This book is not about Muslim children.

AM: It is also about the children who are calling out these discriminatory names.

NE: This book is about all children out there because hate swallows everyone. It does not just remain with the tormented; hate swallows up the tormentor as well. And, frankly today when we send our children to schools, we don’t know which one our child will be. Whether they will be tormented or whether they will be the tormentors.

AM: In fact, you had spoken about how even those who are tormented can sometimes be pushed towards religion because they suddenly begin to feel that it is their identity and then they begin to dress a particular way, maybe take more interest in religious texts.

NE: Yes, a lot of children said that we thought we are millennials and then when they are being straight bracketed into such things, then they decide that why not just be a Muslim in your face. At least, you then belong somewhere. They feel, they say, that we stopped belonging to friends we have grown up with for 18 years of our lives and suddenly they change.

AM: Even food creates boundaries as you spoke about one boy going to another and saying, “You eat beef, I can’t eat from your tiffin.”

NE: That was like a ten or 12-year-old, I believe.

AM: These things you cannot understand at that age.

NE: I can still understand it at ten, twelve. But, a five-year-old being asked, “Oh, you are a Muslim?” and the other five-year old’s response, “Yes, I am a Muslim but I do not eat beef.”

I don’t know whether to laugh at this because it was very, very innocently said and even the mother did not know how to respond to her child. This is how he responded when he was asked if he was a Muslim and he is five. He is in kindergarten. These are top schools. How does a five-year-old know to say this? The mother says, “We have never switched on television in our home, we don’t put on news, we read the newspaper. We don’t discuss it and I have no idea how my child picked up that he does not eat beef.”

You know all this ‘political rhetoric’ that we think happens only on television, all this 9 pm rhetoric and accusations and debates that we think are limited to the idiot box, is in reality not limited to the idiot box.

AM: It steps out into the real world.

NE: It is happening around us. The children are listening. So I remember my kid’s doctor saying this that, “Remember you are not the one who will be watching your kid, it is the kid who will be watching you.”

And all these stories tell us that.

AM: That is a very telling statement.

NE: All these stories tell us how the kids are watching us, learning from us. As I said, even if we are complicity involved in this or we are being complacent about allowing this to happen. Either way, all parents are responsible. And I think, as mothers we need to collectively address this. If we are not worried about this, then this hate will swallow up all our children and they will spit out such disturbed adults, that we have to be worried about the India, that the next generation is going to be.

AM: Talking about the next generation, it is now the previous generation that has been full of hate over Pakistan breaking away from India and a certain idea of what Muslims are, especially with the rise of terror across the world, with the rise of ISIS, with Taliban blowing up the World Trade Centre in 2001. All of that hate is going to be taught to this new generation and create anew cycle of hate.

NE: The only systematic way that I can think of is, first of all, we recognise this as a problem. We stop living in denial. I think that will be the first step because as of now all the schools that I wrote to, except one, who said that they do not want to comment on this, said that nothing like this ever happened.

And these schools that I know where it has been reported, I won’t name them, but I know even where it has been reported, the principals have called me or written to me and said, “No, we have not had such a thing happen.”

A few schools did show concern. A few schools I know, that did interesting workshops with the children, but these are handful. This problem that I have talked about, is just the tip of the iceberg that I have been able to address.

This, I am afraid, is a problem in every school, at every level of the society across the country. It is rampant in Delhi but other cities are not behind. It is catching up. Last elections were the first ones. Election by election every city, will come at par with Delhi. The trend is very clear.

AM: Do you not think these children are now imbibing a fear that they really should not, at this age, which is going to affect even the way that they play in a playground; the way they sit in a library.

NE: The reason is in fact that parents have started, I found so many parents making sure that their children don’t do certain things so that they don’t get associated with certain images. There is a form of self-censorship that has come in. Like I remember this father asking his kid on Eid, not to go down to play in the traditional kurta pyjama. I remember these women who had been told not to go out of certain areas, because they wear the hijab. And, there are many, many more stories. Kids being asked not to say certain words when in public, at airports.

How do you tell a five-year-old to not call you ‘Ammijaan’ but rather ‘Mumma’ in a certain place? And what do you think the five-year-old will think? That why all of a sudden is he/she being asked to change the word they use to call their parent, which is so dear to them. It is natural to them. It is the first instinct to one, how can one just change it for the next one hour?

In fact, giving children ambiguous names. All this is happening. But, how will this play out for the next generation? There are so many things that we need to be worried about. There are so many things that as a parent, you need to be worried about.

AM: Just screen time for children.

NE: This is added nuisance. As I said, our kids don’t trust us. We don’t even know this is happening. So many mothers who believed that all is well and honky dory and that this is something that just happens on the television and is not really happening in the society around us.

So many mothers said to me, “No, my child is not getting bullied” and then probably call their child who’d say, “Mumma, I did not tell this to you before, so-and-so happened, I get bullied a lot” and the mother would be shocked and embarrassed. Out of that embarrassment they will make sure that the child does not say anything more.

As a mother, I think we know that when one is injured, we address it. We don’t hide it into layers of branded clothes, that is what we are doing though. That is what we are doing as parents, we are hiding the hurt of the society, the rift in the society, by hiding it under branded layers of clothes and by pretty talk. That is not how you do it. We need to address this and we can do that by recognising the fact that this is happening and it is widespread.

Hate and love are not casual words. Why have we made them into such casual words?

AM: I have a similar argument that way, I feel that people bandy about the word ‘love’ too much. They say, “I love that burger, I love this dress”, whereas love has got a much heavier meaning to it.

NE: I think we have to stop being selfish. I see a lot of people right now trying to say,” Mothering a Muslim, that name of the book, I don’t want to read it. Look at the name of the book, you are trying to incite this on religious lines.”

I said that you are being selfish when you say that because you are only worried about yourself. You are not worried about your children.

AM: About the larger diaspora.

NE: You are not worried about the Indian children. About all Indian children. As I keep saying, this book is not about Muslim children. This book is about all children and all parents.

AM: Do you think your research may have found that many young Muslim parents shy away from giving their children names that are very prominently Muslim?

NE: See, it goes two ways. They either give very prominent Muslim names or they are give ambiguous names.

There are many dynamics at play. There’s just not one thing, there are many dynamics at play. So, if you remember there is this incident in the book in either the stories or the interview later, about this girl from one of those South Delhi schools, really respected for their liberal and balanced values.

This child says that all of a sudden during the run up to the elections, the conversations changed. All of a sudden she started feeling othered, for instance, when she would step into the classroom, everybody would become quiet because they were obviously discussing pro certain governments. The teacher would then say,” Oh, that is quite old, this is the way forward.”

You know, teachers they also push out propaganda in class. So, the child started feeling…

AM: Alienated.

NE: Alienated, isolated and singled out. The moment she felt that, she said, “These are my friends that I grew up with. If it takes them one year of campaigning to change who they are and to look at me in a different way suddenly. All of a sudden, I become only a Muslim class mate for them.”

AM: And it is not those children’s fault also in its own way, it is what they are learning at home.

NE: It is not, it is not. So, she said, ” I better start behaving like a Muslim. I will start wearing the hijab just to make a statement. If this is what you want me to be, I will be.”

Older boys tell me that whenever there is a terrorist attack, they come to us and say, “What is this, that you have done,” so we will also show them what we can do, we will also hit back. So, there is a lot of anger, resentment for being held responsible for what you have absolutely no connection with.

AM: And it is tearing away our country’s social fabric, bit by bit, this hatred, this fear.

NE: Forget social fabric, forget everything. I think it is affecting every child. Do you want your child to hate another child?

I think that is a question for all mothers out there. Do you want your child, your five-year-old, your 15-year-old, to hit another child for just…

AM: Differences of religion.

NE: And how do you think that will spiral out when they grow up? When they know this is allowed, when they know this is an easy handle – we need to at least introspect all this.

AM: And these children do not understand the history of where this hate is stemming from.

NE: I don’t think elders understand that as well.

As I said, our kids don’t trust us. They don’t trust us to hand-hold them in this fear and hostility that we have created around them. Elders don’t, we as parents don’t know how to navigate the way and we have left the kids to fight out on their own. And I feel bad for the kids out there, doing the standing up to all this, all alone.

AM: Do you have a flight plan of sorts for when your daughter goes to school, if something like this happens?

NE: I don’t, I still don’t after having spoken to so many mothers. What do you say to that child? Like one mother said that she told the child, “It is okay to be a Pakistani, first of all. It is another country, but you are not a Pakistani. You are an Indian.”

AM: I thought that was very well put.

NE: Yes. You know, I believe that as a woman you are every woman that you meet in your lifetime. We borrow, we learn from each other.

So, that is where the book started. It was supposed to be a learning experience for me and to borrow from stories across all mothers and that is what the book is. It is a collective memoir of Muslim motherhood in India.

AM: You speak about how your mother said her prayers and then sent you out so that you could be wrapped in a bubble.

NE: I can understand that. At that time, it was so funny.

AM: And, that is every mother.

NE: It was funny at that time; you feel like your mother is being so emotional. You grow up and tell her, she is being so emotional and that she should stop being so.

AM: Mothers get crazy if we don’t come back on time.

NE: In the beginning it is funny, but now I can understand it. Now I totally relate to her.

AM: Religion is not something children grasp very well.

NE: I think religion is what our mothers tell us it is. We grow up and discover for ourselves.

AM: When I was eight, my parents asked me, “Do you want to be a Sikh or a Hindu? Why don’t you navigate both religions for the next few years and figure it out?”

I went back to them when I was 11 and though did not fully grasp what the word atheist meant, I said that’s what I am.

NE: Because you did not want to choose sides.

AM: I did not want to choose it. In fact, I didn’t particularly like bowing my head to pray, I enjoyed the gurudwara more, I found a sense of community over there.

But, luckily my parents never force fed any kind of religion and they entirely stressed on how India is a secular country. On how you must never hate and I am very grateful because that is a learning, that has lasted me a lifetime and I hope I can pass it on to my children.

NE: But, I don’t think it is in our control anymore. We have let this spiral out of control too much, our complacency has allowed to spiral it out of control. I know many parents who have taught this to their children and yet their children have behaved in ways that we wouldn’t want them to because as I said, it is an easy handle. Bullying happens everywhere. It has always happened but now this is the easiest target.

This is the easiest target to say, “You’re a terrorist, go feel bad, go shoo away.”

They push you into a corner, that is how kids are, right? That is what bullying is, to push you into a corner, to make you feel small and this is so easy now.

AM: Also, when you speak about how teachers are complicit in a sense… well, not all of them obviously. You have fantastic teachers out there. But there is a story you tell of how one teacher spoke of 2002 and how she said that it was a ‘clean-up operation’.

NE: Or, the hostel dorm-master saying, “Not all Muslims should be in the same dorm because we do not want to make it Pakistan.”

AM: I luckily grew up in a dorm where we were 16 children, 16 girls and there were five Muslims and of them four would pray every day. Kids would do their Navratri fast, kids would pray in every possible way, and no one ever bothered anyone about religion in the very least.

NE: That is how it should be, that is how it should be. In fact, many principals call me up personally from the list that I have mentioned and I have mentioned the schools that have called back and showed concern. They actually said that their school is extremely secularly grounded and that they don’t take secularism to be a light matter.

So, I could see a genuine concern in their voice and their statements but they did not know that this is happening. As I said, it is so under-reported. How does a child go and tell this to a school which has – I mean how many Muslim teachers do we have in school? I am not saying that they are not taking in Muslim teachers, I am just saying, how many are there?

I am not trying to blame people out here, let’s stop reacting to this as a blame game. I am inviting everyone – all mothers, all institutions, all parents, all schools, all teachers to come sit together and introspect on this and if needed talk on this. This is a conversation that needs to be had, right now, that it is not about one individual or one school or one child or one community, this is about all of us.

AM: Do you think it gets worse for Muslims in the lower strata?

NE: It does, it definitely does. That is why it was important to talk about these privileged, elite schools. It was important to bring out this data because it kind of tells you that it is in every house, it is in your front yard, it is in your drawing room. Don’t think you are privileged enough. You cannot be privileged enough to hide from this hate. It is coming from all of us.

What was the idea of India? The idea of India was to live together; I believe that is what it was. How are we living together if we are segregating our houses and then segregating out kids in schools?

AM: In fact, a certain section is teaching people to hate Jawaharlal Nehru, who espoused this idea of India.

NE: No, as I said, it is not about blame game. This is not about playing a Muslim card. This is not about playing a Hindu card. Any card you play today; you are being selfish. Because you are not worried about the children, any card you play today, any political party. Everybody is equally complicit in this matter.

AM: I was speaking to this teacher after I read this book. She is a Christian mother and last year she was trying to teach children about Janmashtmi in school and they were drawing out certain symbols and then a Muslim child in her class piped up and said, “I refuse to do this, this is not my religion.”

So, this is when you speak about how it can go both ways, the extremism, because it is not just hatred coming from, say, Hindu children towards Muslim children. That hatred is stemming from the other direction as well.

NE: Yeah, many teachers told me how Muslim children refuse to enter a mandir when they go out for school excursions.

AM: They do not sing the Gayatri Mantra while the entire class does.

NE: Absolutely, as I said this is not about blaming. The second half of the book talks about the ‘haram bullies’ within the community and how you can never be Muslim enough. Even if you are a complete burqawaali, they will find a new level of Islamism that you need to add her to.

So, it is never enough. I have talked about the authentic Muslim woman, I have met all kinds of Muslim women out there and all of them were talking about the same values. Be it a hijabi gynecologist or a completely burqa wearing ex-Google employee or an extremely modern basketball player, scientist, teacher – they are everywhere. Yet they all have the same worry.

There is also this worry about, if you look at the statistics again of the research done, that a lot of children who go into extremism from Muslim community do not come from the lower strata.

AM: You spoke about that.

NE: They are coming from people who have gone to the best of institutions.

AM: Studied in good schools; great schools.

NE: Who are MBA’s, who are doctors. We have to ask, what have we done to alienate them?

There are usually many factors that are playing together. There of course is, a rise of extremism there. I have also talked about how there is a correlation between the kind of dialogue we have out there, with the rise of Islamic extremism internationally.

As I said, there are many factors that come into play and as a Muslim mother, just too much on our plate to worry right now. We are worried if our child like this story from ISB where the child had gone and had never before been very religious and suddenly comes back and says, “I am fasting during Ramzan.”

So, his mother says, “How do you have sehri?”, he says, “We have five different Muslim kids from different countries who come together and we do a sehri.”

The mother then says,” Please be very afraid of what kind of brand of Islam you are going to be told, is the right one.”

I think that is one of the problems. Be it any religion, we tell our kids that this is it, this is the line. We don’t give them space to figure out things themselves.

NE: I think as a parent we need to do that; we need to stop being that chip on our shoulder that ‘We know it all.’ I think we all our children, we all are constantly learning about things.

AM: And re-learning.

NE: Re-learning, so I think for the kids also we need to understand that we need to give them a bit more space to figure things out and not hand them down straight jacketed versions of what we believe in. That is also a needed way, that would be parenting.

AM: So, what your book truly, actually puts forward is that a conversation is the most necessary thing that we need today.

NE: A conversation and a recognition of the problem.

AM: Thank you so much for being with us.

NE: Thank you so much for having me over.