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Image courtesy of Kashmir Observer

Of Big Brothers and Bigotry -- Arshia Malik

My father died recently. I lost him in just three weeks, from the time he was diagnosed with acute leukaemia to respiratory failure, a deterioration of a man with stubborn strength and the ego of being quite independent, right in front of my eyes. I was still coping with the tragic loss of losing my 40-year-old husband when I was forced to confront the meaning of life and death once again. In the days of grief and introspection that followed one thing stood out the most. Under the excuse of coming for condolences, Kashmiri men of all forms and sizes and relations tried to exercise their control on the decision of my mother to stay alone in her home, and me pursuing my career outside the state. This control doesn't extend to my sister who is in the "respectable" profession of being a doctor and also with a husband. In a patriarchal setup, this can mean all the difference between men having the audacity to advise me to my face and just shrugging and shaking their heads uncomprehendingly while trying to understand my motivations.

I'm used to this patronising, this gaslighting, this dismissive attitude, this mansplaining since the 1990s, though I did not know the terms for these attitudes. Now I have the patience of listening to them, storing material for my writings and reflections in my mind. But once in a while, in common parlance I give it to them, using the sarcastic skills I have seen my friends, my late husband and my son display while dealing with hypocrisy and religious bigotry. In South Asia, a woman kind of achieves certain freedom in her forties and if she is displaying her age, patriarchy generally tends to leave her alone to make her decisions. 

I know they all (my brothers-in-law, uncles, cousins, even the womenfolk) would love getting hold of my only son and initiating him into the tribal mentality and aspirations, but I still hold the reputation of being a fierce rebel, who doesn't hesitate to use her fists in the face of coercion if need be. Hence, the cowardly psychological manipulation of guilt and religious admonitions. It brought to my mind the recent controversy about the budding actress Zaira Wasim quitting Bollywood because she felt it was taking her astray from her religion (my summation of her post). 

I can easily see the compulsions which must have led her to declare it openly. Not just declare it but word it in such a way that she ended up dismissing all other Muslim heritage actors not only in Bollywood but also around the world who have dreamt of cinema as their careers and even rebelled against their respective families and communities to follow that dream. Of course, she has a choice to do whatsoever she wanted, it is this demonising of other Muslim heritage actors that drew frowns from secular and liberal people including celebrity former news anchors, so I heard.

Well, ever the empathetic about women in a patriarchal, misogynist society which uses religion as an excuse to oppress women, my first instinct is of pity, how an icon for young adults had to bite the dust after the severe trolling and negative reviews she had to endure. Connecting it to the men's words in my ears almost daily, I could literally see the months, weeks and days that must have led to her decision considering her place of residence and the day to day life that one has to live in the Valley. 

The control that men and women exercise over their daughters, sons, the different, the non-conformist minorities, those who have a different world view from the tribe; that control is not something parents, guardians, seniors, mentors, teachers, prominent members of society will ever give up. Be it the force of the gun or acid attack threats that enforced the hijab and closure of cinemas in the 90s or the simple conditioning in the matrix of an Arabized society that denies its roots and heritage and tries its best to identify with the Middle East. 

People like Zaira are seen as threats to a system, the tribal collective, the ummah, where music and dance are termed as temptations from the Devil and all of the cinema equated with nudity. People like me who believe in secularism and focus on the zanadiqa (heretic) traditions of Islam so that our societies may become tolerant about diverse views and beliefs are seen as those rocking the proverbial boat and upsetting the apple cart and hence vilified and character assassinated in the media or those "intellectual" circles where only one narrative is given space and promoted. 

It has been eventful weeks in the city of my birth, a city that won't accept my liberalism or progressive views, yet a city that tries its best not to let me go either. I sleep with images of the swamps of tar in prehistoric forests which never let any animal escape its clutches and ended up preserving its fossil for posterity to study. For progressive views there has to be space, platforms to voice those views so that networks and connections are made. Sadly, those platforms (newspapers, channels, conferences, hangouts, classrooms, university campuses) are as one-sided as can be in a bowl-shaped Valley that despite the flow of information or technology refuses to think out of the box, and continues to rely on the Olympics of Oppression to make their case. 

This control on ideas, views, beliefs, thoughts, actions, decisions has rendered a massive population delusional and paranoid as can be seen by the increasing number of patients at every psychiatric clinic, private or government. Yet the "intellectual" guardians of the narrative refuse to face the truths which sometimes pop up in the media in the shape of deviant behaviour, paedophile crimes, delinquent scrapes and even a few homicidal tendencies which are brushed under the carpet as the influence of "Western Civilization", and to paraphrase Zaira Wasim, "forces which are deviating people from their religion". 

The same "intellectual" circles keep quoting Orwell, write reams about the Orwellian dystopia, or semantically appropriating his famous fictional character 'Big Brother' watching you from his novel Nineteen Eight-four, that they do not even realise the irony of doing that in a place which relishes in keeping a watch on its neighbours and relatives as well as acting as the thought-police of generations [again from Orwell,   the Thought Police (Thinkpol) are the secret police of the superstate Oceania, who discover and punish thoughtcrime, personal and political thoughts unapproved by the Party]. In this case, the Party which, I like to call the intifada factory, borrowed from a rational friend, which comprises of journalists, photographers, reporters, prominent members like doctors, engineers, professors and also many bureaucrats. 

Readers may be trying to see if I lead up to a solution in this piece. There is none except for the trend to take its course. As ancient history, anthropology, and studies regarding human behaviour and groups go, conflict is a staple of human species and they will always find excuses for war or fights instead of focusing on perils that can hurt us collectively like climate change, water shortage, food shortage, overpopulation, disappearing resources and the increasing anti-social and psychopathic tendencies of individuals and groups. Of course, once in a while a hero activist or a deeply-spiritually motivated individual does inspire people to strive for their better selves, like Abdul Sattar Edhi from Pakistan and our Nobel Winner Kailash Satyarthi, to name just two. But these are too few and far in between.

At a time when the control of our natural resources, our oceans, forests, rivers, atomic energy and even space is showing how destructive we are, abandoning control or trying to come up with an eco-friendly, tolerant, communally harmonious lifestyle wouldn't be a bad idea. The Lakota do not have a word for possession in their language, that's why they could never understand the White Man's obsession for more and more land. But then private property, according to Marx, is what started the whole thing in the first place. Though I am not an advocate for the Noble Savage myth, it really is time to stop and introspect, and think if we can reverse the wheels on the destructive parts of civilisation and share the constructive ones globally. 

As my days of reflection and grief spill into amusing observations of men trying to wrest control of my life, I could only put thoughts down on the screen to see if I came up with something. Death seems a welcome rest, but for the time being this is the only life I have and hence no time to lose to make it better, even if it means resisting the control of those who think they know what works best for me. 

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