She wanted to be like Kareena Kapoor, and “could not wait to act in a movie”. In her last year of college, she “got offers from casting directors who would scout for faces in campuses and on Facebook”. But her “well-to-do” Mumbai-based Kashmiri Muslim family would not allow her to take up any film job unless it was offered by Yash Chopra’s YRF (Yash Raj Films). That was in 2012.
Two years on, Murcyleen Peerzada, a 23-year-old Kashmiri woman based in Mumbai, does not idolise Kareena. She now dreams of “being like Yasmin Mogahed”, an Egypt-born American preacher known for her talks and articles on Islam.
There are other changes in Peerzada’s life. She has given up her “Westernised, flamboyant” lifestyle. From a “crazy shopaholic” who would lap up the “most expensive dresses and jeans”, she now wears an all-black burqa. Speaking to The Indian Express over phone, she says, “During my last trip to Dubai, I bought a lot of burqas; earlier, I’d shop for Western clothes.”
Her social media profile pictures have gone from her posing in glamorous tops to one in which she is draped in a hijab. All covered up, Peerzada is now an orator with the Mumbai-based, Zakir Naik-headed Islamic Research Foundation, and gives public talks on Islam in the city. Her last talk was at a ladies-only conference in Srinagar.
What caused the sudden, drastic transformation in Peerzada’s aspirations and lifestyle? The Islamic preacher, though, says the change was anything but drastic. It began, she says, with Bollywood. Her father, Feroze Peerzada, a wealthy businessman who “had known Yash Chopra for the last three decades, since the days he wanted to be an actor” introduced her to the late Yash Chopra & Bollywood to Zakir Naik & hijab: such a short journey filmmaker in 2012. He offered her the job of an assistant director on the movie Ek Tha Tiger.
“That, I took, as a stepping stone to becoming an actor. I was fascinated with acting.” Then, she was signed up for YRF’s Shuddh Desi Romance as a costume assistant director. But since the director Maneesh Sharma likes to take up newcomers for his movies, he asked her to do a screen test. “When I faced the camera, I suddenly felt exposed, emotionally and physically, even though I was wearing a salwar kameez. I felt vulnerable and uncomfortable. I just got up, and said, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” she says.
After some introspection, she realised that “actors are always so exposed” and texted Yash Chopra’s son, filmmaker Aditya Chopra, that she has changed her mind about acting. “I didn’t even want to be an assistant director any more. It’s too hectic a job. What’s the point if you don’t want to be an actor any more?” she says. She then decided to become a costume stylist and began working with designer Manish Malhotra. Then, in October 2012, Yash Chopra passed away. “He was my mentor, and when he died, I felt I lost a big support. The idea of death shook me. I started questioning life. I wanted to look beyond singing, dancing and all that rubbish. What is the purpose of this life, I started thinking,” she says.
Peerzada quit her work with Malhotra, and sat at home for three-four months. “I was depressed. All my friends were being launched in the film world. And here I was, giving up all opportunities,” she says. Then, she saw a file of papers gathering dust in her home. “It was lying around in our home for six years. Someone had come and given that file to us, and we never bothered to look it up,” she says.
That evening in early 2013, she finally looked it up. It was a transcript of a video of Zakir Naik on the topic ‘Women in Islam’. “I was not religious. I would pray only occasionally. But this file gripped me. I finished reading it that evening itself,” she says. That helped her find her “purpose in life”.
“I researched online and watched YouTube videos of Nouman Ali Khan and Yasmin Mogahed. I felt very enlightened and wanted to be like them,” she says. But she first needed to learn about religion. So, in March 2013, she enrolled for a course at IRF, under the tutelage of Farha Naik, the wife of Zakir Naik, “the most accurate researcher”. “I am doing their most advanced course in order to become an IRF orator,” she says. Giving talks at the IRF centre in Mumbai is a part of her course. She has delivered close to 10 lectures so far and, on August 10, she organised an ‘Islamic peace conference’ in Srinagar with the help of her father, “who has been supportive of and is inspired by” her transformation.
Her tweets are usually re-tweets of Islamic scholars, and most are spiritual, asking people to turn to Allah to solve problems in their lives. “I don’t believe in teaching extremism. I have a very liberal approach towards religion. Angry speeches are not going to eventually appeal to the young, only love and wisdom can. Islam is a religion in controversy, and it needs youngsters like us to reach out to young Muslims in a humourous, light manner. American preacher Nouman Ali Khan cracks jokes in between his talks. That’s how it should be,” she says.
None of Peerzada’s talks are up on YouTube, but on Instagram, where she goes by the username ‘turntoallah’ and has 19,000 followers, she has posted 10-15-second videos of the Srinagar conference. In one, she says, “Nobody forced me. I started wearing the hijab on my own. I have never felt so strong and liberated in my life.”
In another clip, she says, “I don’t want to be a seductress, calling people to the wrong things, which is why I left and I think that is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.” One video has her saying, “Be friends with the righteous people, the company that will guide you to the right side.” Peerzada, in line with her lectures, has cut off with all her “partying, clubbing friends”.
Though Peerzada, who is doing her Masters in Islamic Studies from the Islamic Online University in Qatar, says she focuses on the “spiritual aspects” of the religion, and “has no say on who wears what”, some of her posts on Instagram suggest otherwise. “They (the media) reduce women to objects that satisfy men and cause only a negative impact in people’s life including social networking sites. All the girls should learn to value themselves and their bodies. Cover up for the sake of Allah! Your body and also your character… My friends aren’t the girls who display themselves to the world, my friends are the girls who say they believe in Allah and prove it everyday. They’re the kinds that will Insha Allah reunite with me in jannah. Their goal isn’t ‘boys, parties and fashion’. Their goal is jannah.”
Peerzada feels that young Muslims are “bombarded with Westernisation”. “Half the songs we listen to and hum support a swag lifestyle. You know, like Kanye West’s song I am a God.” Her other issue with young Muslims is that they “don’t understand the meaning of the Quran because they’ve only read it in Arabic”. “We need to connect to the youth, speak in their language, be like some online preachers who are so joyful and approachable,” she says.
It seems she is on that path to “connect to the Muslim youth”. She writes in a post on Instagram: “Yesterday there was a musical concert in Kashmir 15 minutes away from our conference which was attended by Bollywood actors Sohail Khan and Suniel Shetty. For Kashmir, that’s something rare. We were asked to move our conference so that we may be able to pull a crowd. But look at Allah’s greatness, we gathered a crowd of 4,000 people and the concert a crowd of 200.” In a video she posted, Kashmiri women are haggling to shake hands with Peerzada, dressed in a shimmering black cloak. “I was walking in a street in Mumbai, and five young burqa-clad girls came to me and said that they recognise me as someone who’s give a public talk,” she says.