Schools becoming breeding grounds for intolerance? A new book opens the discussion

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By Azera Parveen Rahman

New Delhi, Feb 15: Nazia Erum’s “Mothering a Muslim” has been dominating the bestseller charts for many weeks now and has opened up prime-time discussions on the telly, columns in newspapers and reams of reviews on how — through the cases she has documented across cities — religious bigotry has been seeping into schools, playgrounds, and into children’s minds. Some of the accounts are shocking, most of them are heartbreaking, but above all, the book finally puts into words what has always existed but not acknowledged.

Nazia begins with the most basic question that any parent faces when a child is born. What name should I choose? In her own words, “it was 2014 and our country stood divided along religious fault lines”. A palpable fear found its way inside the new mom as she held her little girl — she didn’t want to give her a Muslim-sounding name. Nazia is the founder of The Luxury Label, a work-wear brand for women, and “as an educated, working, metropolitan woman, I wanted to reject this unnamed fear”. So she reached out to other mothers like her, an eclectic mix of woman — doctors, IT professionals, lawyers, a burqa-clad, single mother of two who has worked with Facebook and Google, sportswomen, and homemakers.

A well-researched book, the questions it raises have brought the whispers within bedroom walls into the drawing room. And Nazia found that her concerns were not hers alone.

Sample this: Zareen Siddique, mother to six-year-old Samaira, recounted how her daughter came home one day and told her how she had been beaten up by her bench-mate in school. “Are you a Muslim?” he asked, and then started hitting her, saying, “I hate Muslims.”

In another case, five-year-old Azania hollered and screamed, utterly panic-stricken, when the car in which she was travelling was halted briefly as men, dressed in crisp white kurtas and skull-caps, emerged from the Friday prayers in a mosque somewhere near Aligarh. The little girl’s parents were amused, but the smile soon faded away when she shouted, “The Muslims are coming! They will kill us!”

Both Samira and Azania live in Delhi-NCR and go to internationally accredited, reputed schools; schools which children of the so-called upper-middle class, affluent and well-educated families go to. The seeds of intolerance that have sprouted through the little children find their obvious roots back in their homes, slashing, yet again, the notion that biases exist among the lower socio-economic strata, those who are not “modern”, not educated.

It also leads us, as readers, to bring to focus the barrage of unfiltered information that children are getting exposed to. After all, where do children get such questions in their head: “Do your parents make bombs?” “Do you eat beef?” A mother Nazia interviewed said that while bullying in campuses — in terms of childish rebukes — always existed, it is now getting pronounced along religious lines, with slurs that are borrowed from angry debates on TV channels and on the internet.

About 100 children among those of the 118 families in the Delhi NCR region that Nazia spoke to said that they have been called terrorists or Pakistanis at some point of their schooling. Another mother in Bhopal recounted the day when her son, studying in a well-known boarding school in Indore, called to ask if they were Pakistanis. The alarmed parents got in touch with the school and they promised to counsel the students after a due apology. But the incidents kept resurfacing and the school said they could only do so much. The mother observed that while she and her husband — an alumnus of the same school — have a mixed group of friends, many of them non-Muslim, her children have started keeping company of only other Muslim children.

On the other side of the table, the fear of their children being discriminated against has put in place a kind of self-censorship into parents’ hearts. A mother in Bengaluru banned her young son from playing video games after she overheard his friend congratulating him with a “Ayan, you are a pro at bombing your way out!” “But everyone is playing them, Amma,” he complained. “You are not everyone; I don’t want to hear your name and bomb and guns in the same sentence again,” she said sternly, masking her fear.

The book has several examples from Nazia’s own life, of her family and friends being “careful”, of being conscious of their identity while going on about their day-to-day life. “What can I search on my laptop or mobile?” “What can I sell on OLX that cannot be misused?”

But it also calls for a wider form of self-censorship. Of being mindful of what is being passed on to the young generation; if it has the potential of tarnishing our future, of further creating stereotypes than there already are, “particularly in the present politically charged atmosphere”.

Nazia ends her book with some suggestions for parents and schools to counter communal bullying: Address the subject, have inter-faith discussions, create “diversity” leaders, be clear about the school’s zero-tolerance policies — although in most cases, the schools were not even aware of such incidents as a result of under-reporting.

Not talking about a problem, Nazia reinforces time and again, is never a solution and in this case, “the problem is compounded by the fact that the urban middle-class Muslim is intimidated by his/her own largely conservative community”.

“I never wrote this book keeping only a Muslim audience in mind; it was always the Indian diaspora. It was only after it came out that I realised it also has a global audience,” Nazia says, overwhelmed at the wave of response to her book. “I am glad it has started discussions… much-needed discussions.”