//Tara M Rai//
Zaira Wasim will not be the next Madhubala. She won’t be the child star you can fawn over, while she’s sexualized on screen. You won’t see her grow on screen, starring in one successful movie to another, until, of course, she becomes too old. You wouldn’t be updated on the changes in her figure and romantic partners, all tailored to Bollywood’s latest demands. At 18 years of age, she has had a successful five-year career in Bollywood, displaying incredible talent in hugely popular films. However, on the cusp of adulthood, she realized that Bollywood is not for her, and decided to leave. She attributed her decision largely to her feelings towards her faith, Islam, in a letter she posted on social media. Public reaction was explosive; suddenly, it seemed that our Indian public was actually indignant that a woman was stepping out of a position of power and putting her religion before her career.
The crux of the situation is that someone was unhappy and decided to leave the space making her unhappy. And instead of expressing concern and support, many actors and media personalities attacked her decision to further their own faux feminist, liberal, and Islamophobic agendas. Or in the case of Raveena Tandon, self-righteously demanded respect for a misogynistic, exploitative industry. If one stops to think, Wasim is now 18. She has just reached the legal age of consent. That means that her participation in the film industry, as it is for all child actors across the globe, lacked the complete consent of an adult. By making this decision, she is asserting her non-consent, her refusal to live the life of a Bollywood star. It is ironic that while she was a minor playing her roles in Bollywood’s attempts at progressiveness, she was lauded by the general liberal population; but the moment she exercised her right to consent, her choices were condemned with such alacrity by the same population. No one wondered why, the moment she gained more control over her life, she upped and left the film industry.
Now we know that Bollywood is, frankly, a terrible environment for young women. We were aware of this before #MeToo, albeit perhaps in various stages of denial, and the movement has made the fact inescapable. The industry is entirely patriarchal, with rampant sexual harassment and abuse, toxic beauty requirements, substance abuse, nepotism, and too much money. The same goes for Hollywood. And the harassment runs deep and disillusioning, with directors of the most ‘progressive’ films turning out to be harassers. On top of this, Bollywood celebrities are now openly supporting Hindutva fascism, with Priyanka Chopra inviting Modi to her wedding, Akshay Kumar and Kangana Ranaut endorsing Modi, and the latter loudly espousing conservative right-wing views, to name a few. Simultaneously, the content being produced feeds into the same narrative of Hindu nationalism, especially with films like Uri reaping in the profits. It is hardly surprising, then, that Wasim, a Kashmiri Muslim woman, would feel like she did not “belong” in Bollywood and was not “truly happy” working in the industry. There are enough possible reasons for her to leave, and a feminist or otherwise progressive public would be quick to understand that, without demanding explanations.
The main criticisms leveled at Wasim were that she was succumbing to the alleged oppression of Islam by giving up her Bollywood career, thereby causing a blow to feminism, and that she was simply brainwashed – the latter involving speculations of her becoming a jihadi by Payal Rohatgi with a #JaiShriRam and a nod to freedom of expression. These were espoused with some variation by men and women in the industry and the news. Despite their apparently opposing perspectives, these two points sound quite similar. Both invalidate the actress’ agency and imply a fear of Islam. The latter is the usual Hindutva assertion, fed by the fixation of ‘secular’ liberals on Wasim’s religion. The former, however, does not quite match up. Bollywood specializes in promoting misogynistic stereotypes on how women should behave, objectifying women on screen, and teaching us that consent comes in the way of ‘real’ romance. A few movies actively denounce these ideas to varying degrees, like Deepa Mehta’s Fire, for example, but an overwhelming amount contributes to this culture, idolizing toxic masculinity as always (think Kabir Singh, Sanju, Simmba). How, then, is it feminist to participate in this industry, perpetuating these stereotypes in some way or other? Neither is it immoral (for the sake of progressiveness or conservatism), for young women to act in Bollywood – this is how one makes it big, and as a young actress, one usually has little choice in the kinds of films one acts in to rise in the industry, especially if one has no contacts. It is a career choice – careers definitely being steps to empowerment – but unless one uses it to challenge the status quo, it cannot be called feminist. And leaving the industry is not unfeminist (a point to note is that Wasim’s future career plans are unknown), especially if it is having adverse effects on a woman’s well-being, which Wasim quite clearly stated was the case. What is unfeminist is expecting her to ‘push through the pain,’ as is unfortunately valorized in women – but this patriarchal notion only serves to keep women subordinated in unhealthy, painful situations.
The issue skirts close to the ever-growing practice of choice feminism, as Barkha Dutt points out in her shortsighted views on Wasim’s exit, saying “choice is sometimes a complicated word. For women, especially.” Choice feminism is simply a fallacious (but harmful) liberal interpretation of feminism, that celebrates the making of any choice by a woman as empowering – this empowerment being purely individual, and therefore it does not matter if it is significant to the larger movement. Strikingly, it refuses to take into account the basis and historical motivations of these choices – how the patriarchy plays an invisible hand in a woman’s choice to get married to a man or wax her legs. While there is nothing wrong in making these choices, there is nothing feminist about them. Now, Wasim’s choice is not touted as feminist, though detractors may accuse her supporters of being choice feminists. However, they would be wrong, as this is not a meaningless choice that only aligns with existing power structures, because the religion in question is Islam, a minority religion. This, then, becomes an assertion of her marginalized identity, as well as being a means for her to find solace after a difficult time. Neither of these would please an upper-caste, Hindu public.
In all the outcry around the oppression of religion, people seemed to ignore the biggest religious oppressor there is, which is Hinduism and its perpetuation of hierarchy and violence. Hinduism has been consistently present in Bollywood films and the public lives of celebrities. When Nusrat Jahan, TMC MLA, and Muslim, put on sindoor for her oath-taking ceremony, where were the cries of brainwashing and fears of her turning into a Hindu terrorist? These wouldn’t even have been unrealistic concerns.
Reactions of Wasim’s fellow women celebrities were perhaps most disappointing, especially as some of them were Muslim. They displayed a lack of empathy and solidarity that are crucial in such a hugely patriarchal setting, where women are constantly targeted. A few supportive and indignant voices, such as Nagma calling her courageous, lauding her work and wishing her well; Saba Naqvi asking, “Who on earth are we to judge #ZairaWasim and her choices..a spiritual path works for many people,” were relieving. However, even feminist writers like Taslima Nasreen displayed a complete lack of understanding, calling Wasim’s choice “a moronic decision,” and lamenting that “so many talents in the Muslim community are forced to go under the darkness of the burqa,” again stigmatizing the burqa.
A lot of the unnecessary backlash stems from a larger elite liberal culture of absolutely having to declare an opinion on anything that sounds remotely political, to prove one’s liberal attitudes. And liberals usually choose to ignore serious political concerns or see them as private conversation topics, rather than speaking up in public and inviting possible discomfort to their inflow of wealth. Wasim’s case seemed a safe bet, Islam and not Hindusims was being called regressive, and women doing anything could be termed feminist or unfeminist. All of this is, however, is at the expense of someone’s well-being. This ties in with the other toxic culture of inspecting and judging every move a woman, especially a celebrity, make; men get away without much judgment unless they have other marginalized identities that are weaponized against them (the Khans do not count). The more on the margins one is in the public arena, the more one’s mundane actions are scrutinised because the dominant voice is naturally the majority’s.
Tara is a Psychology student and co-heads Feminist Collective. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author.