Javed Akhtar on Muslim-Hindu fundamentalists

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A police van is stationed outside Javed Akhtar’s Mumbai home when we meet him on Monday afternoon. Even we are closely monitored as we enter the building. As soon as we meet him, the senior lyricist and poet lauds Mumbai Police and clarifies that they have deployed security at his home on their own, after the Karni Sena’s threat to him on Sunday, over his comment on banning the ghoonghat and burqa. The fringe outfit demanded an apology from the writer within three days, threatening him with “dire consequences”. Concerned by the unsettling language of fringe elements, Javed sahab settles down and explains that he is scheduled to meet the police commissioner later in the day to talk about the issue. He reiterates that his statement was meant for women empowerment, and that he has been striving to achieve gender equality for the longest time and receiving threats isn’t new for him, especially from Muslim fundamentalists. Excerpts:

In the wake of your comment on banning the burqa and ghoonghat together, the president of the Maharashtra wing of the Karni Sena told TOI, ‘The burqa is associated with terrorism and (is a question of) national security. We have asked Akhtar to render an apology about ghoonghat within three days or face the consequences’. What’s your reaction to this?

People who are asking me to apologise perhaps don’t know that my friends and I have been relentlessly fighting the burqa, naqab and purdah practice for 20 years. We have spoken against triple talaq years ago, when it wasn’t in the news. My credentials in these matters are impeccable. I have always stood against the regressive mindset of the minority community, because to bring about a change, you should first look at the community that you were born in. That’s your first duty. I have mentioned ghoonghat once and you want me to apologise? Are you trying to destroy my credibility in my fight against the mullahs? You want me to lose face in front of the people I’ve been fighting against for years? Is this what you want to achieve? Everybody knows that ghoonghat is not a religious belief, but a tradition. I have received messages where people have told me that the ghoonghat tradition is withering away and it’s only left in villages. If it’s not that prevalent anyway, why react this way?

They also said, ‘We will gouge out your eyes and pull out your tongue if you don’t apologise. We will enter your house and beat you’…

Haan, consequences ki detail bhi di hai. People can oppose. We can mutually disagree. Their idea of morality and culture is different and what I say can be outrageous to them. If you are upset, then you can even go to court and sue me, but this is not the way to function in a civilised society, where you are being forced to apologise. You can’t say that intolerance has increased or freedom of speech has been curtailed, because if you do, then you will be labelled as anti-national or pseudo secular, etc. This is not the India that I have grown up in. We are known for our ability to co-exist. It saddens me a little as I am proud of our democratic constitution that grants you the freedom of expression. We can say things here that are not possible in our neighbouring countries. Different points of view should be heard.

Did you fear that your statement might trigger such an uproar?

I don’t know why they have made this into such a big issue. I have always opposed the burqa. Most of the time, these Muslim fundamentalists think that I only oppose them. Likewise, Hindu fundamentalists think that they are always the target. My point is, any form of covering the face, whether it’s a ghoonghat, naqab or burqa, any tradition whether religious or social, which expects a woman to cover her face, is a hindrance to her empowerment. That should be banned. Maybe, in Sri Lanka it’s done for security. In our country it should be done for women empowerment. It may or may not be a threat to security, but it is a threat to a woman’s progress.

Javed Akhtar (Photo Tejas Kudtarkar)

Why did you feel the need to equate the burqa and the ghoonghat? A burqa covers a woman from head to toe, while a ghoonghat partially covers the face. Why the need for ‘if you are banning the burqa, then ban the ghoonghat’?

There is no ‘if’. It’s not tit for tat. I am not trying to balance things out. Why would you cover a human being’s face? Anything that restricts freedom and progress should be stopped, period! I didn’t speak from the security point of view. I spoke about women empowerment. It’s not about equating. Whether you are covering a woman’s face for religion, tradition or values or culture… you are still covering her face. There is no difference. Why restrict women?

Several countries have banned full-face veils…

France has stepped ahead of others and I appreciate that. You can’t wear your religion on your sleeve in public offices. That way France is even-handed. You can’t show your religious identity so overtly. Country comes first. I like that.

However, in October 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Committee said that the ban imposed by France on face-covering veils is a violation of human rights…

I totally disagree with this. To say that it’s a choice of a woman? No. You have banned sati, haven’t you? Did you say it should be a choice of a woman? You said it’s wrong, so stop it. Should it be a choice of a minor or her parents or the man marrying a child whether to indulge in child marriage or not? There are certain practices that are wrong and you don’t have to wait for your communities to decide that for you. Some things need to be imposed. I have always opposed triple talaq as well. These things can’t be a matter of choice. If it’s wrong, it needs to be abolished. Uncle Tom was a happy man, but Abraham Lincoln still chose to abolish slavery.

Why shouldn’t a burqa or ghoonghat be a matter of choice?

I feel that because most women can’t decide that out of free will. There will be peer pressure. They are brainwashed since childhood and conditioned to believe that that’s the way forward. Some women may feel that if I wear the burqa, I will win some brownie points from my community, the men folk in the family will be happy and that will give me more elbow room. There are many reasons… First give them that freedom for 100 years and then ask them if they want to wear a burqa. Let a few generations live without the naqab first and then give them a choice to decide if they want it back.

Recently, a woman’s video went viral where she criticised young girls for wearing short dresses and ‘inviting rape’.

So all the women who wear long dresses, saris, salwar kameez and lehengas, which cover them from head to toe are never raped? Within women, a lot of women are brainwashed into believing the wrong things.

Shahid Afridi revealed in his book that he won’t allow his daughters to play cricket. He wrote, ‘Cricket? No, not for my girls. They have permission to play all the indoor games they want, but my daughters are not going to be competing in public sporting activities. It’s for social and religious reasons that I’ve made this decision and their mother agrees with me.’

I didn’t have an idea that for women, cricket is haram in Islam. But what else do you expect from this Pakistani intellectual giant like Shahid Afridi?

What’s your take on religious identity?

Be it kebab and biryani or my love for poetry… I have cultural commonalities with my community — North Indian Urdu-speaking Muslims. But I am not religious at all. I don’t share my community’s beliefs as far as religion is concerned. I am an atheist.

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