How “free” was Zaira Wasim’s decision to quit films, which won Hindu Mahasabha support?
The debate, in effect, boils down to what constitutes choice. Is it something that belongs to our own volition or is it conditioned by the values that we imbibe from society?
Film star Zaira Wasim, who publicly announced that she was quitting films as they were taking her away from Allah, has found an unlikely ally in the All-India Hindu Mahasabha.
Hindu Mahasabha national president Swami Chakrapani took to twitter to praise her decision and asked “Hindu actresses” to take inspiration from her.
“Actress Zaira’s decision to withdraw from films because of religious beliefs is praiseworthy. Hindu actresses should also take inspiration from Zaira,” he said.
“This field indeed brought a lot of love, support and applause my way, but what it also did was to lead me to a path of ignorance, as I silently and unconsciously transitioned out of imaan (faith). While I continued to work in an environment that constantly interfered with my imaan, my relationship with my religion was threatened,” Zaira had said in her Facebook post. “It was always so easy to succumb to the environment that damaged my peace, imaan and my relationship with Allah.”
Zaira had shot to fame for the progressive roles she had played in the Aamir Khan starrers Dangal and Secret Superstar. In the first movie, she is a girl who breaks stereotypes by training to be a wrestler, with her father’s active support. In the second movie, she goes against the wishes of her conservative Muslim father to become a singer, with support from her mother when push comes to shove. She dramatically throws away her veil in the last scene of the film.
Her post has led to divided opinion on whether her decision is praiseworthy or regressive. While many have said that it is her “choice”, a sort of “spiritual quest”, many others have dismissed her argument that professional life militates against religion or God.
The debate, in effect, boils down to what constitutes choice. Is it something that belongs to our own volition or is it conditioned by the values that we imbibe from society? And if all choices are conditioned, should all of these be taken as equally good or bad or judged in terms of what influences they reveal?
Zaira had been trolled in 2017 when she had met then Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. People went to the extent of questioning her career choice, seeing it as “immoral”, and admonished her for going against her religion.
Her views in the recent post echo those who trolled her at that time. But while they were seeking to impose a code of “religious discipline” on her, her post is about the self-imposition of similar values on herself, apparently not as coercion but as “free choice”. It is difficult to say, in the absence of evidence either way, whether the coercive power of society had a role in her decision to quit films.
However, if indeed it is a case of "free choice", as it seems, it points to a dilemma one encounters often as a votary of a modern, secular, democracy. The path is far less complicated for social conservatives.
The question here is whether any male Muslim celebrity has had to undergo this disciplining or self-disciplining? From Dilip Kumar to Shah Rukh Khan, many members of the community Zaira comes from have made a big name for themselves acting in films. And not once were they questioned or felt the need to question themselves.
A key concern in gender studies has been the earmarking of distinctive social roles to men and women. The former are supposed to be achievement-oriented and the latter nurturance-oriented. This, in a nutshell, is the basis of patriarchy.
And patriarchy – or male dominance – does not always come across as oppressive. It is often ingrained since childhood and begins to speak the language of “choice” by the time of adulthood.
Is patriarchally imbibed choice to be seen as free choice? True, even gender equality is an idea that is socially imbibed; it is yet another socially conditioned choice.
The question then is: which sets of socially conditioned choices – gender equality of patriarchy; secular orientation or extreme religiosity determining one’s material choices – is better for a society.
Seen from this prism, Zaira’s choice does not send out a progressive message. She is free to be in or quit films, but the reason offered shows a regressive social conditioning. It is like a historian quitting history writing because it diminishes her faith in mythological stories. If so, the person has certainly failed the test of “scientific temper”, which any society does need to surge ahead.
No wonder not just conservative Muslim opinion but also the Hindu Mahasabha – a Hindu right-wing body that holds Islam in deep suspicion – has backed Zaira. The limiting of the diversity of women’s lived social roles is part of conservative thought. To ensure there are few independent women and to perpetuate patriarchal power in the family. In the case of cinema, the notion of patriarchal honour – which thrives on disciplining women’s bodies and minds – is an added incentive to insist women stay away from the profession.
Zaira has chosen to quit films, which is her own decision. But in justifying this choice, she has spoken the language of deep social conservatism.
Coming from an 18-year-old, the assertion that movies took her away from Allah is a statement that does not augur well for society. For, it hints at the growing power of social conservatism on young minds, unless she is an exception.