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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

How I challenged my parents’ Islamophobia

A gentle nudge, a slight push or a small question to your family members can bring along small but steady changes.

Written by Divya Sethu | Updated: February 9, 2020 3:10:23 pm
Islamophobia in India, CAA protest India, India citizenship law, challenging Islamophobia India, Citizenship law india Islamophobia, Sunday eye indian express Designed by Suvajit Dey

I’m not a regular dad, I’m a cool dad.”

This version of the Mean Girls (2004) quote is heard around my house often. My pot-smoking, alcohol-enthusiast parents, with good education and exposure, have given my brother and me an open environment to grow in. No restrictions on dressing, dating, going out, making friends, or even career options were imposed on us. My fiercely religious parents don’t question my lack of faith. My mother, who was married off as soon as she turned 18, wholeheartedly supports my decision to remain single forever. My father believes education and financial agency is paramount for his daughter.

One lesson my brother and I were raised with was to “treat everyone with kindness. In the end, we’re all humans”. In theory, it’s a wonderful principle to follow, but when I watch my parents’ implementation of it, I am forced to rethink if they truly believe in it themselves.

My Brahmin parents keep separate utensils for the house help. They don’t have any Muslim friends. In fact, a statement I heard often while growing up was, “All Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”. I’m allowed to “marry whoever I want”, as long as he’s not a Muslim, because “Beta, you’ll never be able to adjust, they’re too different”. Though the prejudice has been subtle, it surfaces too often, and, considering it comes from two people who so strongly believe they’re open-minded, this intolerance is jarring to witness.

Debates with my father, the product of a right-wing Brahminical belief system, are always aggressive. His arguments often put forth the idea of “us vs them” (“They live on our land” and “This country has done so much for them”), and his defences mostly include statements along the lines of “I don’t hate anyone, but…” My mother, on the other hand, is as apolitical as they come, unable to truly understand how the cushioning of her privilege has allowed her to stay that way.

Of course, I do believe my parents are good people. Human beings are complex and can’t be put into broad categories. Our own experiences and struggles also contribute to our values and outlook towards life. We’ve all had our share of disagreements with our parents on socio-cultural issues, but do we love them any less for it? Differences in opinions do exist but is it truly just an opinion if it, say, threatens the existence of an entire community? Is my parents’ Islamophobia justified because it hasn’t caused active or physical harm? Is their casteist behaviour acceptable because they buy our help saris as “these people deserve gifts, too”?

Indifference, hatred and ignorance are found in abundance on social media, where they don’t necessarily have a face. Trolls exist, as do friends who you don’t agree with and uncles and aunties with prejudices. Clashes with them can be frustrating. But dealing with radical ideology coming from the people who have raised you seems like a different ballgame. My open-minded, “cool” parents hold opinions that can be easily classified as bigoted, and stand by them so firmly that it’s hard to reconcile these two versions of them. When protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act gathered momentum, I was wary about hearing what my parents had to say. We tiptoed around each other and avoided bringing up the subject, knowing the outcome wouldn’t be civil. After an ugly Facebook fight with an old family friend about the current ruling party a month ago, my mother and I decided to broach the subject.

Our first conversation was short and frustrating, with both of us unable to see the other side. We circled around the concept of “respecting opinions” and what that truly means, placing destruction of property over human lives lost, understanding why supporting a government cannot be equated with loving or hating your country, and other such things that we hadn’t really spoken about before. Slowly, things looked up, and the breakthrough came when my mother asked me to explain “what CAA and National Register of Citizens (NRC) are really about”. I realised that so much of how she felt was influenced by what she had only seen on the social media, or things she’d heard my father say. My mother just needed a small shove in the right direction to form her own beliefs, and when she understood the problem in its entirety, something clicked.

One morning, I woke up to an article she had shared on my Facebook wall about the importance of good role models for the youth in trying political times. It was a small step, but a steady one – my mother, who actively and consciously refrains from expressing any strong opinion publically, had decided to share something that many of her right-wing friends would not approve of. When I speak to her now, she engages with me in conversation, admits when she lets her prejudice take over, and agrees that some of her previously-held beliefs have been problematic. My 47-year-old mother is willing to question and attempt to change opinions and prejudices she has held for decades, and it has brought a significant change in our equation.

Protest and dissent come in various forms,and what truly matters is that we do our bit. Engaging with our elders – parents, bosses, colleagues, friends, relatives – is essential, because discourse opens avenues for so much more learning and understanding than we realise. Sure, as you grow older, opinions you hold only solidify, but a small question can snowball into big, powerful changes. There is no wrong way to protest, because just like most revolutions, ours begins at home, too.

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