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Meanderings of a Female Atheist Muslim Indian: Samina Motlekar

March 4, 2013

This is a guest post by SAMINA MOTLEKAR: I come with baggage, with tags not all of my own making. I was born female, and as much as I want to be acknowledged as a person, I learnt early that it was pointless to deny so physical a part of my identity. I was born to Muslim parents, but that does not make me Muslim, a distinction that is unfortunately far too subtle for many minds to comprehend. Complacent in their own inherited identities, they pile on the labels smothering me into little  boxes of their making. Female, Muslim, Indian – all accidents of birth. But not all of me is accidental. By age eleven, the idea of a deity in the sky, concepts of heaven and hell, were at best stories, at worst ramblings of deluded minds to me. Not for me the fence sitting of agnosticism. I was an atheist before I hit my teens, and my belief system has endured the trials and tribulations of time. Yet they call me Muslim.

I lived in denial too long. I fought these labels, but it was an unequal fight with the weight of an entire society’s moral authority stacked against me. No, I am not Muslim, I explained politely at first, and then with increasing levels of defensiveness and earnestness. Not even a cultural Muslim, I insisted never having liked the idea of associating culture with religion. No I do not go into raptures over Urdu poetry, or even comprehend anything more complex than a film song. I grew up on Yeats, Eliot and Larkin and Ghalib and the gazal are way beyond my skill level. It’s a vacuum in my learning, but then the world is vast, and if I choose to fill it up with learning from distant cultures, it is my prerogative. No I do not prance around in green shararas with shiny nose pins. Where I come from women wear saris and men lungis, but I have chosen for myself the comfort of jeans and skirts for ordinary working days. No my mother does not whip up biryani and haleem on a regular basis. I would be ten kilos heavier if she did. And maybe she would if she was from Hyderabad or Lucknow, where these dishes are staple. I was raised on a humbler diet of unpolished rice, fish curry and pulses and a festive occasion meant a freshly slaughtered chicken smothered in a coconut gravy. I do not adaab every morning or spout poetic Urdu. My mother tongue is Konkani, a hybrid, colloquial version of Marathi, and the abhangas of Tukaram resonate more with me than the early morning azaan, whose only purpose it seemed to me all through my childhood was to disturb my sound sleep.

The term cultural Muslim, I think is an insidious one, and I have thought long and hard before refusing to appropriate it to explain my atheist Muslim identity. Having been coined by eminent poets and thinkers, it has gained quite a bit of currency in recent times. I am sure they see a warped sort of wisdom in the argument, but to me it equates the culture of Muslims to the culture of North India, as if a love of the Urdu language and galouti kebab were qualifications enough to be a member of separate cultural club. As if the Muslims of Bengal were uncultured. As if further down south, in Maharashtra and Karnataka and Kerala, the uncultured Konkani and Malayali speaking lot that were born into Islam the religion, had no salvageable vestige of culture.

This is the same mentality that pervades the aman ki asha debates whose underlying basis is our cultures are so similar so we should be friends with Pakistan. I am all for being friends with all our neighbours, and there are many who are worthy of friendship. But is similarity a pre requisite for harmony? The very idea is fraught with chauvinism, its basis being the idea of our own cultural superiority. I have not much in common with the loud, happy go lucky, aggressive bhangra culture that popular cinema celebrates and seeks to define as the basis of our collective culture. I do not know this larger than life existence except through film. I do not judge this culture, but it is not mine and do not like the presumption that we are all like that only.

But even as I continue to deny my membership of the larger Islamic religious community or the North India based Muslim Cutural Club, I am constantly being bracketed by those around, by those who should know better. I do not live in a  ghetto. My friends and acquaintances are supposedly educated, secular, forward looking people. Most I have known for years. They do not even realise how narrow their minds are, minds so conditioned by a lifetime of prejudice, by their own need for identity, that they fail to see the person in front of them.

A big deal is always made when spare ribs or glazed ham is ordered in a restaurant, with at least a few people reminding me that I don’t eat pork and making it clear that other dishes would be ordered for me. The fact is that at least half the other people at the table, or at any given gathering in the city do not consume pork products, but their abstinence is not accompanied by the kind of fuss I face. Also what remains ignored is the fact that I do not eat beef, mutton or any kind of red meat, and I am never singled out for this kind of attention when they choose to order boti kebabs. Then there are other enlightened souls who have gone so far as to endorse someone of Muslim origin with a,  Oh, he/ she is so cool. He drinks and parties like us. This is a world of us and them where alcohol intake and ingestion of dead animals are marks of secularism, where a whisky swilling Jinnah would have been cool, for carving up a country is no crime here, and carving up a pork roast actually proves you are secular. This is also a world where a warm beer drinking Thackeray is called secular at heart, for didn’t he have a Muslim doctor. It is as if bad taste in alcohol makes him human and the presence of one Muslim physician excuses his constant rants asking other Muslims to go back to Pakistan.

It is in this world of warped values when a neighbour, a famous painter of nudes, who happens to have a  name of Islamic origins, bestowed eight decades ago by his long dead Muslim parents, was described as spiritual and secular because he also knew the Gita. How many centuries will it take for his karma to matter and not his dharma? What if he only knew the Koran or the Bible or like me nothing at all? Is the value of that secularism diminished? What if like me one put more value on the works of Tolstoy or Germaine Greer or gasp Salman Rushdie, than in the moth eaten, outdated anonymous texts that pass for holy books? This would be too complex a dilemma for a society, that likes to make simple distinctions between the self and the other.

Too much is also made of our syncretic culture which almost always assigns virtue to co-option of the majority culture. In a much awarded film, I remember a scene set during riot time, where a man waits in his Muslim neighbour’s house to revenge recent killings. The missing man, we the viewer know, is innocent but all around his house are signs of his piety -crude stickers of mosques and frames filled with gilded Arabic letters and we, like the man waiting to kill now begin to doubt him. When he does return, we are told he has been to Shirdi to offer thanks and our would be assailant is deeply ashamed that he suspected such a man. Indeed the audience is led to believe that as a devotee of Saibaba, he is a good man. By conclusion, it suggests that a devotee of Allah may not necessarily be so pure of thought. What if this man was away at a mosque instead? Would his killing then be justified? The film does not suggest this but its equating of co opting the opposite religious belief as a sign of an enlightened attitude, leaves little room for people of deep faith or indeed for people like me with none.

It does not bother me so much, this ghettoisation where one is refused admission into a building on account of religion. These are not buildings I would want to live in anyway. These are not people I want to deal with in any case. It is when among the people I know and like I discover buried currents of extreme religiosity that I bristle. So many times prejudice is couched as a joke that it seems almost churlish to take offence. Terrorist jokes are not funny and especially not if directed at me or my family. And what am I to make of a casual remark that my spouse is now a regular Hajiali visitor by virtue of his association with me. I fail to find humour in this. Do I joke about you crawling to Siddhivinayak every Tuesday? I recognise that like me, you are probably a rational human being with no need of rituals to define your life. I expect the same courtesy. Treat me like a human being.

Most times these incidents are mere irritants, hurriedly dismissed in the face of more pressing concerns. Only once have I ever felt fear. Only once did the labels I tried so hard to unpeel, manage to stick. It is my own personal deep dark secret I have never spoken about. My personal shame, as if it was a molestation I was responsible for. It was in the wake of the Gujarat riots. I walked into the grocery store down the road one afternoon as I had done countless times before. It was the fancy kind that carried olive oil and peanut butter, and had pretensions of being a mini supermarket. At that hour it was empty. A portable black and white television was blaring in the background. It had violent images playing, and at first I paid no attention. Kaapo, Maaro. Cut, Kill. The words bounced around the empty store like bullets aimed at me.  I understood rudimentary Gujarati and the message was clear. These Muslims have killed us. Its time to find and eliminate each one of them. And this is how to do it. I was scared to look but I did, and the fleeting visuals I saw were of violence- swords and trishuls and men with murder in their eyes. The shop owner engrossed in the contents of the film paid me no attention. I wanted to leave, but I was suddenly scared. It would have looked strange if I left midway, as if I was outraged or scared. So I bought a few items on my list and paid hurriedly, trying to keep my eyes off the television, which was now blaring its right-wing rhetoric right next to me at the cash counter. I walked back home too shocked for tears and never went to that shop again. I also never had the courage to tell anyone about it. Would they mock me for my petty fears? Would they think I was creating much ado about nothing? I buried the experience away.

What troubles me most about the incident was my response. Had any of my friends encountered this, friends without the baggage of a Muslim identity, they would have protested loudly, unafraid. They would have been seen as secular for it, even righteous. I however needed to be brave. Why did I feel fear when the correct response would have been outrage? The label I had tried so hard to shed had stuck to my skin and was scorching. Cultural, religious, foisted, inherited – whatever I may call it, the identity was mine. Since that day it continues to haunt me, lingering on the periphery of my consciousness like an uninvited friend. It continues to define me and I can no longer live in denial.

The only time when I am free of the constant pressure to define my selfhood has been in the west. I read about their prejudices in the media, but am yet to experience a single one. They do not care enough to ask me about myself. To most this may seem callous. For me it is liberating. They never ask me my religion, for they assume like themselves, I am enlightened enough to have a moral code of my own making. The colour of my skin or my eyes means nothing to them, does not define region or religion. Nor does my name, which is at best exotic, at worst difficult to pronounce. Their brimming tables are laden with foods of every persuasion- vegan, vegetarian, carnivorous, sugar laden, sugar-free and I am free to take it or leave it. I am never singled out for security checks at airports, but that I suspect may be a consequence of my being female, rather than any fair-play on their part. Other than this, they do not regard me as particularly female. Men do not sidle up to me on crowded subways. They do not judge me by the length of my skirt, but actually dare to delve into the depth of my intellect. They have their prejudices for sure, but luckily for me the one I have encountered most is the myth of the smart Indian, courtesy the Silicon valley software geniuses, and I am very happy to play along.

As a female Muslim atheist, this is the kind of society I want to live in. And I don’t want to have to cross the seven seas for a little bit of respect. I want it here, in this country I love despite itself, and from people I love, regardless of their beliefs. I want them to realise that what goes into my mouth is not as important as what comes out of it. I want them to hear what I say. It does not matter where I came from. What matters is where we are all going together.

(Samina Motlekar is a writer and advertising film producer from Bombay. She blogs at saminasodyssey.blogspot.in)

84 Comments leave one →
  1. kuldeep permalink
    March 4, 2013 3:34 AM

    Excellent Article! Very well written and insightful!

  2. Dara Shamsuddin permalink
    March 4, 2013 8:31 AM

    Society, Economy, State and Technology are the four dominant factors that would seem to determine a person’s standing. Where these four work in harmony, a person is valued as what s/he is. We hope some day, may be 100 years from now, we would have a country where an individual would live as s/he would wish with head held high.

    This is an excellent exposition.

  3. Gita permalink
    March 4, 2013 11:00 AM

    Moved me to tears.

  4. March 4, 2013 11:10 AM

    I agree with kuldeep. Excellent article. I was not born into a Muslim family but can relate to parts of this article—the cultural parts of a religion. The religion I was born into does not eat meat or dance or do other similar “dangerous” things. I too face judgmentalism.

    Anyway, I feel for you. I wish for a better India, too.

  5. March 4, 2013 11:35 AM

    excellent Samina you have put it so well together what I too feel.but i wont be able to write such ointed and exact manner also because I went to a municipality school and i did not study english medium but anyway i am very happy that you exose this weakness for all of us Indians to put people into boxes depending on which religion and caste they are born in, something for which we ourselves have not contributed the least bit. I am born in a Kashmiri Hindu family and called a Kashmiri Pundit. I am suposed to be a Brahmanic believer and all that. the fact that I studied and lived and worked in Germany for a third of my aged life and had a similar sort of liberal company even my husband being a german, as you mention about the West. it was only a few times in the time span of my 22 years of living there that anybody asked me of my religion or caste or the like. yes i was liked for having a tanned colour of my skin and I was appreciated particulalry by the male students for being a student of pure mathematics which most german women would not be. though I disliked my status as an exotic woman but otherwise it was a much more liberated living than here where the ambekerites as well as many secularists leftists dont like me, my views to issues relating to religion and culture, bcoz I am a brahmin. more so because I am a feminist. the men feel often threatened and at the top of it because I have had a good education and a good job so that i live relatively well economically independent life, so even my brothers feel jealous when I once in a while fly or travel upper classes in train or when I drink beer or wine once in a while. they say a woman working with the “poor” and associated with NGO’s should not be doing so. i am a bourgoise for them, what can I understand of the dalit woman, says a director of a big funded NGO nearby, who is proud to be helping Dalit women wiht an acre of stony land he got them from the govt.i have purposely ot applied for an fcra, never taken donorfunds for the work i do/did for the small women farmers, whom i tried to empower. anyway what I am trying to say is that we have to come out of this box thinking and treaat every person as a human being with his/her own mind and analyse what he/she does or not does before we judge about his/her credentials. you are not a Muslim and I am not a Hindu/Brahmin. we are in a position to be what we want to be, not what our family or the dominant society thinks of us to be.

    • March 4, 2013 11:46 AM

      Are you an atheist like Samina?

      • March 4, 2013 12:20 PM

        yes I am an aethist. the fact that I love the symbol of saraswati as a goddess of learning and music//arts may be disturbing you, but i dont believe in gods and goddesses in the way generally people do. why should there be a comparison?

        • March 4, 2013 4:27 PM

          Saraswati does not disturb me; what disturbs me is how seriously you take yourself

          • March 4, 2013 6:14 PM

            dont you? it would not speak well of anyone if he/she does’nt even take one’s own self seriously, i am sure you do it too, at least as much as I do.

            • March 4, 2013 8:34 PM

              Haha you don’t even deny it. How can you? Every comment of yours is more about yourself than the post you are commenting on. No, I am not even one-tenth a narcisist as you are.

              • March 4, 2013 9:18 PM

                dear Shivam vij you seem to have lots of problems with me, my being. you have to understand that i believe in “personal is political”. I live what I say. you have to have courage to do that. at least I admit that I firmly believe in myself, the result of my life experiences. and i am open for learning. I dont like people who are stuck with their ideologies and see everything through that prism only you may call it narcissm. do i harm you or anybody in any way?

      • chitra permalink
        March 4, 2013 2:59 PM

        Samina, It was dejavu reading your well articulated piece. I have the same sentiments, thoughts, feelings for different reasons. You are so spot on ! Wish you were in Bangalore, and we could have met over a coffee or sangria :)

    • Virendra permalink
      March 4, 2013 9:13 PM

      Seriously, looks like you have been waiting to tell your story more than a comment on original article. what a hypocrite :-)

  6. Mukul Dube permalink
    March 4, 2013 12:26 PM

    Well said. But you swim against a powerful current. On a different tack, it may be that you haven’t spent enough time in the West to see the warts, which are better hidden than those of your “supposedly educated, secular, forward looking” friends.

  7. Rohit permalink
    March 4, 2013 12:37 PM

    This is what happens when you let children play for too long at Kafila. Please turn this now into a campus magazine.

    • March 4, 2013 8:44 PM

      i dont know what exactly you mean but at some level i love ur comment …maybe because it refers to the naivete of the writing

      • Rohit permalink
        March 5, 2013 1:41 PM

        The naivete was bearable…and I enjoyed reading the article…until towards the end.

  8. shourav permalink
    March 4, 2013 12:55 PM

    Who cares about religion?! Being human is enough.

  9. Melanie permalink
    March 4, 2013 1:39 PM

    What a brilliant piece! Heart-rending too. Thank you for posting, Aarti.

  10. crostipunctus permalink
    March 4, 2013 2:00 PM

    Nice article. What a change a generation makes. Or maybe it’s social circles. I can recall only one instance––that too, in school––when I had to clarify that I do eat pork because I am not a Muslim–despite my name.
    Even random social encounters––like I had on a train this time on the way to Jaipur, when this guy asked me if i was a Hindu or a Muslim––are more likely to get resolved when one says ‘I’m an atheist’. I think we’re getting more ‘real’ these days; more real, less mythical. And in a large part due to the New Atheist movement: Dawkins, Hitchens, etc…And also possibly because of a backlash to religious bigotry: people are more aware of the opposition.

  11. Sohail Hashmi permalink
    March 4, 2013 2:40 PM

    Spot on Samina.

  12. Bilal permalink
    March 4, 2013 2:49 PM

    Well written… But probably because of my lack of understanding I still can’t get my head around the term “Muslim Atheist”. Doesn’t prefixing a word with religious connotation undermines the meaning of “atheist”?
    Even though I haven’t been to the “west”, but it seems you are generalizing a bit too much when you mentioned about the absence of stereotypes and prejudice. Maybe you haven’t experienced it so far but that is certainly not representative of everyone.

    But that aside very well put.

    • Virendra permalink
      March 4, 2013 9:16 PM

      Mr Bilal – Stop your surgery on the article and get too much into technicality to display your intelligence. It is an article and hope you got the broad message; just leave it a t that…”Prefix, post fix after fix… please leave it.

      • bilal permalink
        March 4, 2013 11:00 PM

        Dude i m not trying to prove anything here… as i already have said it may be due to my lack of understanding. Its just I don’t know how to comprehend phrases like “muslim atheist” or “hindu atheist”. That was the whole point.

        Besides I already have appreciated the article if u haven’t noticed. I agree with most of what she has said. Its time perhaps you don’t read much into the comments except what they mean.

    • December 28, 2013 11:14 AM

      Bilal,
      May be by the term “Muslim Atheist” the author meant, while she accepts the ethical aspects of Islam, she rejects the Supernatural aspects. However it’s rare someone puts it that way in Islam. But, incase of Hinduism, as it accepts difference of opinions, since BCE Atheist streams like: Charvaka, Samkhya were in place. So, a Hindu Atheist is a very common term among us.

  13. Esther Elias permalink
    March 4, 2013 3:27 PM

    This is wonderfully argued. but there’s a slightly unsettling high-handedness to how the believing are so easily dismissed. “Enlightened enough to have a moral code of my own making,” and “moth eaten, outdated anonymous texts that pass for holy books” for instance. For someone so articulate, i wish she could also fathom the possibility of religion practiced without blind belief and with reason. That breed does exist.

    • March 4, 2013 5:11 PM

      I loved the article, but i have to agree with Esther Elias–

      ‘…but there’s a slightly unsettling high-handedness to how the believing are so easily dismissed. “Enlightened enough to have a moral code of my own making,” and “moth eaten, outdated anonymous texts that pass for holy books” for instance. For someone so articulate, i wish she could also fathom the possibility of religion practiced without blind belief and with reason. That breed does exist.’

      • Savita Sriram permalink
        March 4, 2013 5:39 PM

        There can be no religion practised without blind belief for no one has seen god. most religious texts are outmoded and anonymous. I will concede on the moth eaten though:)

        • Esther Elias permalink
          March 4, 2013 7:38 PM

          I most certainly don’t mean blind in the literal sense and there are most certainly rational ways of belief in the unseen. if we all stuck to only what we physically saw to peg our beliefs on, we’d all be mighty short-sighted.

        • Mukul Dube permalink
          March 5, 2013 12:02 PM

          All religions claim to be absolute. None may be challenged. Their answer to all questions is, “Have faith”. This “faith” thing is merely the suspension of rationality and common sense. What is worse, no two absolutes can co-exist. If one is right, the other(s) must be wrong. This is why, throughout history and across the globe, religion has been the direct cause of hatred, discrimination and spilt blood.

      • March 4, 2013 6:23 PM

        my reply is same as Savita Srirams except the last sentence. why do we have to stick to some documents out of a sense of fear of God? it does’nt appeal to me.

    • Samina Motlekar permalink
      March 4, 2013 6:32 PM

      While I do believe that ancient texts have no room in my own life, I do recognise that all people of faith are not alike. In fact I make a case for the people of faith in the piece when I say, ” its equating of co opting the opposite religious belief as a sign of an enlightened attitude, leaves little room for people of deep faith or indeed for people like me with none”

  14. March 4, 2013 3:51 PM

    Written so so very well. this indirect racism is something we are all guilty of.

    I also loved how she is a “film producer from Bombay” I am also from Bombay. I will always be a Bombayiite

    • Samina Motlekar permalink
      March 4, 2013 6:23 PM

      I am what I am because of Bombay. It is one identity that I will never let go. Even if Bombay is disappearing into Mumbai.

      • March 5, 2013 1:04 AM

        Long Live Bombay, both the city and the spelling.
        And Long Live Bangalore, where a supposedly liberal intellectual named U.R. Ananthamurthy used his influence with politicians to flog his silly, illogical and expensive name-changing hobby horse.

        • manjunath permalink
          March 5, 2013 11:20 PM

          i believe you need to be very sensitive to peoples emotion before judging them. for example some people like samina motlekar are very fond of their identity as some one from bombay. it may not be very different from someone identifying themselves as muslim. the problem is not in liking but in disliking like someone from bombay not liking someone from bangalore or a muslim not liking a hindu..

  15. Aditya Gilra permalink
    March 4, 2013 4:09 PM

    Powerful and touching.

  16. March 4, 2013 4:25 PM

    This is a wonderful write-up. Sharing it.. Thanks for writing such a beautifully explained piece, Samina.

  17. Pythagoras permalink
    March 4, 2013 4:34 PM

    As an atheist you opine that you would carve out a path for your walking based on your own morality. The freedom of choice of what you decide to put in your mouth is unlike any other choice or deal between consenting adults.
    The freedom to slaughter a chicken, to butcher a hog, to roast a whole bull, I believe is different from choosing what you would wear or bear or what shade and transparancy your windows would be. Your idea of shedding blood is different from the entire debate of how consenting adults choose to deal with each other.Afterall Violence is hard to justify.There are ethical limits to your choice regardless of whether or not it is legal just like majority rule in a democracy should not mean majority tyranny; or must we continue with the debate morality versus legality for as someone said “If there is no God then everything is permitted”.

  18. Savita Sriram permalink
    March 4, 2013 4:44 PM

    I always knew you to write eloquently but this piece of writing is superb! I’m so, so proud to count among your friends. like you said , when i hear a persons name I tend to make assumptions about them and find myself constantly surprised at how wrong I am.
    My children on the other hand hav’nt learned to judge people based on religious stereotypes and for this I am eternally grateful.

    • Samina Motlekar permalink
      March 4, 2013 6:25 PM

      Children learn from their parents. And while I hope the future is in the safe hands of enlightened kids like yours, the bigotry I see around me everyday makes me worry for the children of India.

  19. Michelle permalink
    March 4, 2013 5:50 PM

    Excellent piece! And I get what you say. We Indians are an inherently curious lot. And so much of stereo typing has been drilled into us right from school and college to society and bollywood ….. Combine the two together,and you get the pre conceived notions and then the anger/ shock /concern/ surprise,because those notions are challenged!!!

  20. Sabina permalink
    March 4, 2013 6:23 PM

    Hey Samina, Lovely expression of Identitification Crisis! This resonates so well with all other identity prejudices like not being woman enough, if your womb does not carry, or not being ‘normal’ enough if your thinking challenges established status quos, or the most derisive of them all, not being treated ‘human’ enough, unless you are ‘licenced’ to be treated so; seems like just being born human doesn’t cut it anymore. Kudos!

  21. Joshi LR permalink
    March 4, 2013 6:24 PM

    Thank excellent article many people sufferer to their religion it is perceived by men what he she hope the world would soon not religious only human being just like their anatomical structure congratulate for excellent article.

  22. Shubhendu bhattacharya permalink
    March 4, 2013 7:21 PM

    Dear samina, you are my mirror image . Your male counterpart. Buried under the identity of a hindu brahmin. Would love to hear from you again and again and again………..

  23. Hitesh permalink
    March 4, 2013 7:59 PM

    Excellent! We need more secular Muslims like you

  24. March 4, 2013 8:40 PM

    hah rubbish, the west is completely paranoid about browns and muslims, america has invaded iraq for no justifiable reason, palestinians have been labelled terrorists and thrown out of their land to make way for european jews, sikhs have been attacked coz their turbans confuse and its perceived in the west to be alright. after 9/11 muslims have been tortured or locked away without trial. because of my name and colour i have been random checked at airports in austria, germany…in washington they even swiped my laptop for explosives while i had to wipe that smug self righteous smile of an atheist in denial and obey their orders.no that not caring about the rest of the world, not knowing enough about other cultures society is not for me, give me the east anyday. i agree however that the west is better on the account of gender though the recent oscars with that sexist presenter who put the prism of the boob on every woman, will counter even that :)

  25. March 4, 2013 8:51 PM

    It’s a good piece. I didn’t expect this from Kafila which is more like old-fashioned, unreconstructed Marxists’ blog. That aside, I appreciate your courage, sensitiveness and your expectation to be treated as a fellow human being. Good luck to you. You have a personality and style.

  26. March 4, 2013 9:11 PM

    Amazing!!!! heart touching !! while reading your thoughts & the sequence of events I could actually feel the pain, anguish & annoyance. The write up has a stupendous flow with ultimate analysis of how a non believer/ atheist is actually taken in our nation.
    I could substantiate & corelate with your stay in west experience where like you even I have an amazing non discriminatory stay since a year where it hardly matters If I am a brown skinned third world citizen.
    Being atheist is yet another challenge in a country where the rationality & practice is always shunned away by the only statements like ” batao jada pad likh lene se yahi hota hai iswar ko hi nahi Manti” and ironically It starts from your own home leave behind the repurcussions of society. Is it so difficult to accept that religion is a personal practice and If people like you or me just beleive in evolution of human species rather Creationism, resurrection, rebirth or the innumerable Gods , practising no religion or faith is as well your fundament right!
    Keep writing will love to read you again and again! hats off!!

  27. Ramesh Narendrarai Desai permalink
    March 4, 2013 9:22 PM

    We all suffer from being labelled as something or the other. That is the price of being individualist. The thing to remember is that we can not beyond a point , influence others’ thinking. We can only change ourselves if we want to, not others.

  28. Virendra permalink
    March 4, 2013 9:23 PM

    No religious books teach hatred or bad thing. Most of the religions created a framework to live a human life…. No cheating, killing, lie etc….
    You can get an inspiration from it and live a positive life; like some people get it from other non religious or holy books.

  29. Surya permalink
    March 4, 2013 11:29 PM

    This is an engaging piece but I find two notions within it unsettling. One, that all believers must then be at core deeply problematic and two, that the west (undefined) is the land of wonderful equality of gender and religion.

    Secularism is not the province of only the non-believers and we do ourselves little good when we equate believers with irrationality and unthinking performances of ritual. Similarly, as many will testify, the “west” in its complex and diverse ways (different in different geographical and cultural locations) is just as prejudiced against Muslims as Indians (again diversely and complexly) are. Lets not forget the War on Terror.

  30. KafilaJunkie permalink
    March 5, 2013 1:17 AM

    An excellent, well-written article. Could completely identify with you. What I do not agree with, however, is the portrayal of the West as paradise. Nothing can justify the post 9/11 demonisation of Muslims and the many wars America is currently involved in. That aside, an outstanding piece!

  31. March 5, 2013 1:38 AM

    The term Muslim atheist is indeed an oxymoron but I like that that Samina chooses to use it. But the term Hindu atheist is not an oxymoron. It even has a Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism_in_Hinduism which says that amongst the prominent Hindu atheists was Veer Savarkar, man who coined the term Hindutva! The Hindu religion accommodates a lot of deviance despite today’s increasing homogeneity. Islam, on the other hand, requires you to be a “believer” in the one and only god.

    This is why when a Hindu teenager declares her or his atheism to religious parents, there is no shit-storm.

    But there are other reasons why Indian /S Asian society is so obsessed with identity stereotyping. We need to know caste, class, city, village, language, region, job, marital status and so on, to fix you, to understand who you are. What I mean to say here is that judging a “Muslim” by his or her name is not *only* about communalism, though it’s that too. But many want to see a ‘Muslim’ as a ‘Muslim’ not for communal reasons but for the same reason as they want to know if you are from the same city as them, and if yes, which mohalla?

    Of course I wish Indians were easier about identity, but that’s just not who we are.

  32. ankit permalink
    March 5, 2013 2:11 AM

    Socio-Economic/Religious/Ethnic Minority, Prejudice, Stereotyping/Typecasting, Cultural Evolution; these are some of the words that came to my mind while reading this piece.
    Generalizing one’s identity is never right and deserves most severe condemnation; albeit it trivializes a lot the things for the observer, it can completely disorient one’s self identity. The practice of putting people in a labeled box starts before birth. Your parents’ socio-economic status determines one box, then religion, gender, different factions within that religion, etc. These stereotypical inclinations are all around us to the point that they have become part of our cultural fabric.
    My only point of contention in the article is on the alleged liberty the “West” provides to its inhabitants. The grass is always greener on the other side, the age old saying holds true when expressing our views on that mythical west – a land that provides equal freedom for all. The fairytale West is just as bad as wretched East, importance one gives to a particular stereotype varies from place to place and region to region. For no reason other than having lived here longer I feel the condition is much worse in India.

  33. RoyGroupie permalink
    March 5, 2013 8:45 AM

    Maybe what Samina wants to convey through the term “Atheist Muslim” is that even though a person might be an atheist, people would want to know about that person’s “religion”; that even though a person might be an atheist, his/her religion *WILL* affect his/her life.

    • Mukul Dube permalink
      March 5, 2013 10:16 AM

      Precisely. See the words with which this fine piece of writing begins: “I come with baggage, with tags not all of my own making.”

  34. March 5, 2013 1:50 PM

    It is a shame that we have to bare our personal choices in this manner to make a political point which is in any case lost on most.

  35. March 5, 2013 2:06 PM

    Brilliant and insightful. A brave and personal write. Thankyou for sharing.

  36. Ranbir permalink
    March 5, 2013 2:40 PM

    Thank you Samina. I feel light and enlightened. I have always felt like you do, regrettably I havent had the courage to openly state the same as you have done. Thanks again.

  37. Mariam Mamaji permalink
    March 5, 2013 2:43 PM

    I am a Muslim female just like you and I agree with everything you say except about the western attitude.
    I have traveled to many place and even lived briefly in NYC, since you are Indian it is not obvious that you are Muslim thus no hesitance but say somewhere in conversation if it does crop up you get the same strange vibe and weird questions.
    I have experienced it on several counts so I don’t necessarily agree that the west is more progressive and less judgemental.
    I truly believe that the attitude needs to change worldwide.

  38. Samina Motlekar permalink
    March 5, 2013 3:15 PM

    So many different people thinking my thoughts. I’m not so alone after all.

    • Khan permalink
      March 6, 2013 6:47 AM

      As someone who can directly relate to your experiences, I’m at a loss of words to describe how glad I am to read this piece. I agree with you totally about the capitulation of all cultures and moral codes to the dominating culture. I remember in college how Marathi students would collect donations for Ganesh puja and most non-Hindus would rather pay up than explain their beliefs. And this mental picture from college will always remain vivid – it was this girl from my class who had this totally puzzled expression on her face when I said I wouldn’t be going to the Saraswati puja. To me it symbolizes the failure to overcome one’s prejudice and comprehend nuance. Then there’s the patronizing attitude by people associated with the Hindu belief about how difficult or strict life as a Muslim is. And of course the jokes. About terrorism, multiple wives and 72 virgins, and how consuming pork and alcohol would plunge me into hell.

      However in the last four years or so since I’ve started asking serious questions about Islam, I’ve found it much easier to discuss my religious dilemmas or beliefs with anyone but my Muslim friends. Yes, for Hindus and even to some extent Christians, disbelieving in faith is probably not as big a deal nor as uncommon as Muslims, yet somehow I find that despite all their prejudice and misinformation about Islam they are more receptive to my beliefs than Muslims. One of my closest confidant repeatedly advises me “don’t get killed” thanks to my newfound beliefs (although it’s also got an awful lot to do with the fact that I moved to Saudi Arabia just a few months before giving up on Islam!) but his advise would have been the same if I were living in a Muslim ‘mohalla’ in India too. However, I dare not even state my beliefs explicitly to any of my closest Muslim friends (forget family!) for I know I’d have to deal with both ridicule and unnecessary advise. Even after repeatedly making it clear to them that I have no interest in prayer of any sort, I get dragged along anyway. Any reasonable debate that you try to initiate over social and legal issues in Islam get reduced to a lecture in piety and accusations of being communist, atheist, feminist as if it were a crime to be any of these.

      I feel your piece left out the most important group that an ex-Muslim has to be terrified of – the Muslim circle. In my experience it has turned out to be the most difficult, intransigent and unreasonable group when it comes to explaining differing beliefs and positions.

  39. neha permalink
    March 5, 2013 5:16 PM

    “But many want to see a ‘Muslim’ as a ‘Muslim’ not for communal reasons but for the same reason as they want to know if you are from the same city as them, and if yes, which mohalla?” said Shivam Vij

    My thoughts exactly when I read the piece.

    As for being mapped about things like my food choices (in my case on account of my being a Brahmin, however loosely the term may actually apply to me), I don’t even have to open my mouth or react in any way before my friends (secular/non-secular, no big diff. actually) are taking away a plate of any kind of non-veg food, including eggs, from in front of me and deciding for me that I would shudder at even a look at what’s on the table.

    And when, further down the line, it comes to notice that I’m a Marathi Brahmin, I’m “automatically a political, personal supporter of Mr. Thackerays and ilk”, again those who judge me thus are both secular / non-secular, there really is not much difference.
    On top which, if I happen to raise my voice against the, at times, high-handedness and rude, and on occasions abusive, behaviour suffered at the hands of some random “outsiders”, my being categorized as a militant, non-tolerant Marathi is as certain as the ground I stand upon. No “secular” person stops to hear out the threats and name-calling that I would have received.

    And, I can’t write about the gamut of one-sided reactions that I get from non-Gujaratis when it comes to light that I have been brought up and chosen to live till now in Gujarat. All of which come down to the perception that the state is the private property of this one man and us, all its residents, are brain-washed morons owing their every passing thought to him.

    There is no getting away—one religion/caste/community, (the list is the endless in this country) or the other.
    Again, quoting Shivam Vij: “Of course I wish Indians were easier about identity, but that’s just not who we are.”

    One learns, learns to live, and try to make a change for the better in any big/small ways possible.

  40. Bhole permalink
    March 5, 2013 5:40 PM

    I really don’t understand why being atheist is so hard in other religions. This i am saying after meeting Jews in NYC who have written books on their experiences including Muslims and Christians.

    I was atheist when i was 13 and till date in all my extended UP family in Banaras, Azamgarh and Agra no one gave a flying Hanuman’s fuck to it…not my 9 day Durga fasting mother and none of my extremely religious family members. That’s when I am so openly and deliberately offensives towards their belief!

    • Savita Sriram permalink
      March 5, 2013 9:01 PM

      Just curious, are you a man? If so then that explains why nobody gives a flying hanuman f*%*. Women on the other hand are supposed to be the keepers of tradition. Hence your fasting mother. I wonder if any of your female relatives are Atheists like you?
      If you are a female, I salute you and your liberal family.

  41. Sachin permalink
    March 5, 2013 6:31 PM

    Still I feel comparatively it is safer in India than most Asian countries to avow that one is an atheist.. Judging by the comments, and no death threats as yet (just joking), India is becoming more aware about non religion as a choice (6% of Indians are atheists)..

  42. indianabroad permalink
    March 5, 2013 8:37 PM

    I am glad that Samina’s experiences in the West are so positive and that she finds her name to be ‘exotic’ at best. I would not want to be ‘exotic’! I wonder how many rural areas she has visited in the West which laid out vegatarian and vegan foods to choose from.
    I also find it interesting that the colour of her skin or of her eyes, she believes, mean nothing to westerners. I have been living in the ‘West’ for 9 years now and that has not been my experience. Also, I find it amazing that she can discount so much that researchers have already documented about institutional racism, racism and Islamophobia in the West.
    While, I appreciate the comment on the limits to womanhood, religion and culture that India presents (and god! they are relentless), I find this comparison with the west and the ideal of the west a bit troubling.Nevertheless really interesting account of different positions in society and how they interact for Samina.

  43. Avinash permalink
    March 5, 2013 11:13 PM

    @ Samina Motlekar, I cannot understand why a “Motlekar” should have any problem with being a “Mumbaikar” also. I do not think any one will be calling Kanpur as “Cawnpore” now. Why should we continue to use the name as mis-spelt by the foreigners?

  44. let me in permalink
    March 6, 2013 8:37 AM

    Similar sentiments are expressed here as well!

    http://www.anindianmuslim.com/2013/01/food-fascism-non-vegetarian-family.html

  45. damitr permalink
    March 6, 2013 1:23 PM

    Thanks for the write-up. I enjoyed reading the article, you have put your thoughts out well. Were they waiting to come out for a long time?

    Though I would like add a few experiences in regards of the ‘food habits’ of people. There were a few colleagues (I won’t call them friends), who were *seriously offended* when not asked about the food preferences (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian ), whether in a eatery or at one’s house. In this (extreme, but not so rare) category of people the so called Hindoos prefer pure ghaas-phoos bhawans, they won’t eat in a place which even serves meat of any kind (don’t even think about beef), and the so called Muslims who would eat meat only in a Muslim owned place, as they would definitely know they will get served halal meat (don’t even think about pork). And education has no effect on this behaviour, as most of them are highly qualified in the formal sense, (PhDs mostly). It is utter failure of the education system that the people concerned do not look critically at their own behaviour (we are all made of stardust, eating stardust to survive, though I might sound too reductionist), in regard to these issues, whereas in other aspects of their professional life, they are reasonable (so to speak). But the disconnect between the personal and professional is huge and they do not bother to look at the chasm which divides the them. Or rather why such a chasm should exist in the first place is a question that they do not see.

    One would rather not have people like this in one’s company, but it is not us who will /always/ make the choices. And I have a few friends (yes, they are good friends) who like you, are offended when one asks them (or rather makes the choice for them, Muslims: no pork, Hindoos: no beef) for food they eat. I am myself offended when anyone makes a choice for the kind of food that I should eat, because of my birth. But there are also people unlike us, who are preferential in eating, whether we like it or not. And most of their rationale comes from a logic, whose flawed premises are based on “moth eaten, outdated anonymous texts that pass for holy books”, and sometimes not even that. For example The Myth of the Holy Cow.

  46. sholok permalink
    March 7, 2013 1:33 AM

    I’m a believing non-Indian Muslim woman, but I could relate.

  47. March 7, 2013 3:29 PM

    You are Konkani!, well, that’s enough to understand your understandings of being Muslim :)

  48. March 7, 2013 9:32 PM

    The Eternal Law of Creation is ‘Differentiation’ . This is true since the Big Bang. That is why the ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ need not be necessarily be interpreted as ‘monotheism’ but a wonderful concept of plurality, within ourselves. Each follows a pattern of ‘speciation’ and becomes a species (life forms) or ‘class’ (non life forms). Each defined by a set of characteristics. That being the case, it’s hardly surprising that ‘these labels’ exist. humans are an expression of functions of genetics, time & space ; and Humans are more complicated in their communications – the entire gamut is used– visual, audio, olfactory etc. and in addition to this, the tool of ‘language’. All to understand and seize up and update the knowledge of the ‘other’. Unfortunately, ‘language’ has a ‘cultural baggage’. Thus, Ms.Samina need not declare she is a “Muslim’. People in Karnataka familiar with names and surnames, would place her in a slot and make some assumptions. This too is natural and can never be overcome. It is done on a subconscious level. Notice the way Shivam Vij attacks ‘ashakachru’ ? Every post speaks of a virulent ‘pro atheist’ ideology. The assumption is that ‘atheists’ are better human beings than ‘believers’. This assumption further presumes that ‘ashakachru’ is a ‘pseudo aethist’. How is this so different from ‘people making assumptions’ just because ‘Samina’ is a Muslim? This is no different from the ‘anti abortionist’ howling at ‘right to determine’ supporters or the extremist (be it of any religion) decrying each other or PFA screaming down the ‘non vegetarians’.
    Evolution of the mind, is a function of time and environment, for that matter, ‘Regression’. Both are relative and purely a view point. If one were to attribute any negative or positive connotations, than ‘evolution as positive’ and ‘regression as negative’ would hinge on the ‘flexibility’ to allow the ‘other’s view point’ and put forth one’s own view point (assumptions) in a dispassionate manner without the ‘Ego’ butting in, never stooping to the level of ‘Himsa’ or ‘Personal attacks’. Strange, those who vouch for ‘Gandhian Ahimsa’ never apply it on oneself.
    Anyway, Samina, be what you are ‘Tat tvam Asi’ alternatively, can claim ‘I am what I am’. Assumptions or in common parlance ‘seizing up another’ requires some amount of pre conceived popular notions, to begin; thus, those who start with ‘assumptions’ are not dangerous. It is those who do not are not ready to consider any ‘change’ in their ‘convictions’, being their path towards extremism. It is Extremism we should fear and not ‘notions’. Ideas, which fixated in a mind and bound with ‘Ego’ form the roots of a ‘peepul’ tree of ‘fanatism’ which shall bring down the ‘structure’, of any society or ‘civil conversation’ be it personal, or by ‘posts’.

  49. Deekay permalink
    March 8, 2013 1:37 AM

    Hey Samina, your post raises difficult questions. It’s not easy to kick old habits or forget ingrained learnings… Got thinking about how I interact with my wife… I was born to Hindu parents and am married to my old classmate who was born to Muslim parents. We’re generally careful to not step on each other’s toes but I can now remember, with deep regret and shame, countless occasions when I’ve been either condescendingly ‘secular’, or unthinkingly partisan… Got to watch it!!! Thanks for the eye-opener…

    Our pre-teen children face awkward questions at school and with friends… how are they to be slotted? Hopefully, they’ll discover the answers soon…

  50. Fariha permalink
    March 8, 2013 1:05 PM

    Samina ,Iguess everyone sailing in the same boat.You’ve got the talent or say God given gift ,you could pen it down so well.Love you.

  51. March 14, 2013 6:10 PM

    thought-provoking…

  52. Kettan Jhaveri permalink
    March 20, 2013 6:55 AM

    Well written Samina… I would like to say…. Very well written… You have evolved into an excellent writer…. Kudos to you. Keep well and keep smiling.

  53. Volko permalink
    March 20, 2013 3:25 PM

    There’s no such phenomena as Muslim Atheist. Either one is theist or atheist. I am sorry to say that your knowledge about both, the religion Islam and science is limited. I am a theortial physicst and was formally an atheist until I converted to Islam. The more I studied the universe the more I became certain of the the fact that there exists a God. I just want to tell you that don’t judge a faith by its followers as they may not be perfect. You have written that your mind didn’t grasp the concepts like paradise and hell. As a physicst, I can with no doubt say that scientifally such places/universes are plausible. I am sure that if you study Islam and science closley and do independent research on both you will definately realize that you are on mistake.

    • Adama permalink
      March 28, 2013 8:02 PM

      Its okay…Its her choice whether she wants to be an atheist or a theist.This holier than thou attitude is what pisses people off and what drives atheists who happen to be from muslim families from even sharing their views…The very fact that she wrote a blog is amazing…

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