A still from "Class" on Netflix – an adaptation of the show "Elite"
I don’t remember the precise moment I became conscious of my Muslim identity. My mother never wore a hijab, the walls in our home were not painted green, and we didn’t fawn over biryani as if it was the end of the world. None of the stereotypes that I noticed in Bollywood movies checked out. It didn’t help that some of my family rituals could be traced to the Hindu Rajput traditions and customs. To my Muslim friends, I was not Muslim enough. But for the bigots around me in school, I was too Muslim.
In Class, the Indian adaptation of the Netflix original series Elite, three underprivileged students from a government school make it to the most sought-after private school in Delhi, the fictional Hampton High School, which resembles an art gallery, a luxe office space and a swanky mall all rolled into one. One of the three students is Saba Manzoor (played by actor and classical dancer Madhyama Segal). On the school’s first day itself, Saba wears a hijab, much to the annoyance of the school principal who asks her if she plans to wear it every day. During the class introduction, she hesitates to share where she is from and lies that her hometown is in Uttar Pradesh. We discover later that it is actually Kashmir, one of the world’s most militarised zones. When I was halfway into the eight-episode series that was released on February 3, a friend asked if I could relate to the story of Saba Manzoor – a character based on Nadia from Elite who also faces Islamophobia. The answer was an overwhelming yes. I could relate to the fact that much like Saba who does not wear the hijab after the first episode, I had to dilute my Muslim identity in my co-ed, convent school in Mumbai where I studied through the early 2000s – not bring non-vegetarian food for lunch lest my friends assume it’s beef (it wasn’t banned in most of India back then but still looked upon with disgust and suspicion), trying my best to engage with their stories of gods and goddesses, or not making a hue and cry about fasting during Ramadan. Though the country loves the Khans who rule the mammoth Hindi film industry – Aamir, Salman, and at the very top Shah Rukh – I learned to keep my own surname hushed in a post 9/11 world which dramatically intensified the suspicion and revulsion that Muslims around the world face.
Unlike Saba, however, I never had to contend with a figure of authority questioning my choice of dressing because I do carry the privilege of being a man. The few other Muslim girls in my convent school, however, had no option – the hijab was not allowed. You had to wear a knee-length skirt and shirt with a tie, period. You could profess your religion all you want outside the gates of the school, beyond the statue of Mother Mary. The irony was jarring – for a school that wanted to achieve a common sense of harmony through a uniform, all of us were expected to recite Catholic prayers every morning, sing hymns in praise of the French bishop Francis De Sales who our school was named after, and even participate in the Eucharist ceremony where we watched our Roman Catholic colleagues reciting from the Bible and receiving the holy communion.
This wasn’t limited to just my school in Mumbai. Hanan Irfan, a 23-year-old pursuing her master's degree in economics from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, also faced it in her all-girls convent school in the city of Patna in Bihar. In her case, it was to do with the choice of uniform. “As it was an all-girls school, there was no need to wear a hijab inside the campus but we’d have the option of switching to salwar-kameez in senior classes (sixth to tenth grades),” she said. The default uniform was skirts and shirts. Many Muslim girls would switch to salwar-kameez but one day, this option was arbitrarily struck down in the name of uniformity, becoming an issue for those coming from conservative families that were not ready to send their girls to school in skirts.”
Irfan clarified that the girls, including herself, were not comfortable wearing skirts. There was a lot of back and forth between the parents and the principal. Some teachers would speak disapprovingly of Muslim families and how they were “forcing” their girls to be conservative regardless of what the girls themselves wanted. The uniform debate, however, was just an external manifestation of what those running the school actually believed in. “Most of the harassment and taunts were subtle because the school was elite and sophisticated enough to not overtly act out their Islamophobia,” Irfan said. “Once, some girls were caught with mobile phones in a class. The faculty seized their devices and went through all the messages; some of them were texts with boys. Even though there were a bunch of non-Muslim girls included, the principal singled out the Muslim girls in the group and asked them, ‘I thought you Muslims act very pure, is this your purity?’”
The burden of purity
The idea of purity has always been mocked in our schools. In sixth grade, I remember our history teacher explaining why 85 Hindu and Muslim soldiers unitedly rose against the British, thus triggering the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It kicked off from a rumour about the new bullet cartridges being laced with lard (pork fat, unholy for Muslims) and tallow (cow fat, holy animal for Hindus) by the ruling British. Many of my classmates could not understand why pork was a problem. They had been told years that “gai humari maata hai,” that the cow is our mother. But why was the pig an issue, they asked. We were only in sixth grade, after all. “Ask Arman,” the teacher smirked. “You can hurl any abuse at a Muslim but if you call him a swine, he will not take it.”
Sure enough, for the next two weeks, I was called a swine by some classmates eager to witness how I’d combust and perish in fury. I didn’t. Perhaps it was for this reason that my parents had an uncompromising rule in school: no sleepovers. In Class, when Saba begrudgingly agrees to go to the palatial bungalow of a classmate to complete a project, she is greeted by his mother’s silence and a look which sizes her up, disproving her hijab, making her feel like she will never belong in their world.
Were my parents preventing me from the trauma of such silences when they refused sleepovers? Perhaps. After all, they had seen how even seemingly innocent and well-meaning hearts turn overnight when riots consume entire cities, having experienced the Bombay riots of 1993 that claimed the lives of thousands. Their disturbing experience during the riots, which involved staying locked indoors for days while almost half our neighbourhood burned to ashes, was also the reason why I was given my name. Arman (it means “hope”), they felt at the time, was not overtly Muslim and could even pass off as Hindu if not spoken in conjunction with my last name. In the penultimate episode of the series, when Saba’s parents visit Hampton for the founder’s day event that marks the end of the school year, her father asks the principal if she would like to pat them down for weapons. My parents never had to ask these questions – maybe because my father never wore a skullcap like Saba’s father did. Or because my mother wasn’t in a burqa and hijab like Saba’s mother was. Or, simpler still, because my post-1993 Bombay riots name indicated to the world that I wasn’t really serious about owning up to my Muslim identity. They didn’t have to worry – my tiffin would always have vegetarian food, my parents wouldn’t scare them during school open houses, and I did not show any overt inclination to become a suicide bomber. As I’d realised over the years, this is a defence mechanism most Muslim resort to – playing down their Muslimness so that they are not mistaken as brainwashed radicals.
When I entered journalism and started writing for lifestyle publications, a friend – an award-winning journalist who writes about gender and minority rights – told me that these fancy gigs in journalism had little to do with my talent. “They have found a Muslim scapegoat to seem woke,” she said. “And they have chosen you, the least Muslim of all the Muslims.” Follow Arman on Twitter and Instagram.