From Zaira to Nusrat, India’s Women Need the Space for Free Will

In a civilised, democratic society, a young woman should have the freedom and agency to make life choices.

At the best of times, a young actor’s decision to quit her profession while at the cusp of fame would likely excite enormous media attention. But when the actor is a Muslim, and the reason she cites for quitting the profession is her belief that acting runs counter to her faith, her decision is bound to provide fodder for the right-wing commentariat to engage in its favourite pastime: Islamophobia.

As an actor, Zaira Wasim, who is 18, made her mark in Amir Khan’s Dangal, where she won a National Award for her role as a wrestler. Her second film, Secret Superstar, was well received too and she has just finished filming for the acclaimed director Shonali Bose’s The Sky is Pink.

Had Zaira chosen to quietly withdraw from a career that she said had “led me to a path of ignorance, as I silently and unconsciously transitioned out of imaan”, there might not have been much debate. Instead, she chose to go public through all her social media handles – presumably because she felt strongly enough about the basis of her decision.

From Cameron Diaz and Elizabeth Hurley, who retired from their successful acting careers to devote more time to their families, to Dolores Hart who left her glamorous profession as an actor in Hollywood and became a nun, there are many examples from around the world of women – young and old – quitting the entertainment industry and finding the meaning of life elsewhere.

Also read: It’s Only a Job Zaira Wasim Quit

In India, among others, Madhuri Dixit and earlier Mumtaz left the Bombay film industry at the peak of their careers for supposedly low profile family lives. Mandakini is another example of a movie star who quit her acting career, married a former Buddhist monk and became a yogini. Not to forget some very promising women actors from recent times like Asin Thottumkal and Genelia D’Souza, who had big hits but impulsively bid adieu to Mollywood and Bollywood after getting married. In none of these cases did we see heated televised debates about the impact of religion, culture and patriarchy on the career choices of women.

So what is so unique about Zaira Wasim that has turned her private decision about her own life into a big public political debate? Though many have defended her choice, others have called it regressive and blamed it on religious indoctrination.

What was the reason for people who otherwise advocate freedom, choice and agency for women to outrightly condemn her for what she had done? Was it the mention of Islam and how her religion demands that she keep away from her ‘sinful’ acting career that drew so much attention towards her? Or was it the burden of her ‘unpopular’ religious identity that brought her all the negative publicity?

For the Islamic right, Zaira Wasim’s decision was a convenient handle on which to revive an old debate. They believe Islam, as a religious doctrine is fundamentally incompatible with art, cinema and music, and that its followers must shun all these ‘distractions’ in order to achieve the status of a true ‘Momin’.

In their eyes, prominent people like Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari and Nargis, Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan and A.R. Rahman, and all Muslim actors, producers, directors and musicians working in Bollywood, are sinners.

For the Hindu Right, too, Zaira’s statement was like manna from heaven because it allowed them to give full vent to their political agenda of portraying Islam – and Muslims – as backward, hidebound and anti-woman.

Ironically, the same religious rightists – Hindu and Muslim – who either praised or attacked Zaira took exactly the opposite stand when confronted last week with a personal decision taken by another Muslim actor, Nusrat Jahan Ruhi from Bengal.   

Ruhi, an MP from West Bengal on the Trinamool Congress ticket, created quite a flutter when she arrived in parliament for her oath ceremony with sindoor in her hair and a mangalsutra around her neck. Nusrat recently got married to businessman Nikhil Jain and came wearing the symbols of matrimony normally associated with traditional Hindu women.

Like many married women, she took her oath as Nusrat Jahan Ruhi Jain, using the last name of her (non-Muslim) husband. When clerics at the Islamic seminary in Deoband accused her of flouting Islamic norms by marrying a non-Muslim and conservative Muslims on Twitter trolled her for her “un-Islamic attire”, Nusrat countered that she represented an ‘inclusive India’.

Also read: For the BJP, ‘Women’s Rights’ Are Really All About the Men

None of the Muslim conservatives who hailed Zaira for standing up for her right to personal freedom saw fit to accord Nusrat the same right. Others, however, largely hailed her as a symbol of empowerment – a new-age, strong, independent and progressive woman who was free to exercise the agency to take her own decisions about her life.    

Ironically, Nusrat, who evidently challenged orthodoxy and tradition by marrying a man of her choice outside of her religion, came to parliament wearing the symbols of Hindu religious traditionalism. And she was promptly hailed by TV channels as ‘Bharat ki Beti’ and ‘Sanskari Saansad’.

Now imagine a scenario where Nusrat had been a Hindu woman who had married a Muslim man and come to the parliament wearing, say, a hijab. What reaction would she have encountered in the media? The honest answer is that in our current majoritarian and polarised polity, a Muslim woman wearing Hindu cultural symbols will be hailed but a Hindu woman wearing Muslim symbols would be mocked and ridiculed. 

At a time when our politics is forcing homogenisation of communities based on faith, it is fascinating to see Nusrat and Zaira, two Muslim women, making completely divergent choices that will eventually lead them to different ways of life. 

Also read: When Two Young Tollywood Stars Overcame Sexism to Become MPs

Now the fundamental question is why should the freedom of choice that is so readily available to Nusrat, not be allowed to Zaira? Can we deny the fact that it is the burden of her ‘unpopular’ religious identity that has brought her all the criticism and negative publicity?

To be sure, the incident also exposes the hypocrisy of conservative Muslims who are vehemently advocating freedom for Zaira Wasim’s ‘moral’ act of quitting Bollywood and even advising other Muslim women to follow the same path but who trolled and harassed Nusrat Jahan and declared her ‘immoral’ for doing exactly the same thing – exercising her freedom of choice.

In a civilised, democratic society, a young woman should have the freedom and agency to make life choices that the rest of the world may not approve of. She should also have the freedom and space to assess, reflect and take decisions and also take ownership of them if they go wrong.

In Secret Superstar, Zaira Wasim played the role of Insia Malik, who broke the shackles of tradition and inspired a generation of young girls who are fighting conservatism on a daily basis to lead a life of their choice. But in real life, the same Zaira Wasim has chosen the ‘path of repentance’.

Even if most people think it was imprudent and irrational to give up an already successful and hard-earned film career, Zaira should have the liberty to make mistakes, learn from them and hopefully emerge – out of her own free will – as a better person, and professional.