Author Nazia Erum Tells Us What Happened Over Multifaith Iftar With Strangers
- IWB Post
- June 26, 2017
Eid Mubarak! Today is the Day of Eid al-Fitr. It marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
The specific date of Eid is difficult to predict as it is based on the Islamic Lunar Calendar. It is an auspicious day for the Muslim Community across the globe.
The reason why I am telling you this has to do with a report by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), which states that only 33% of Indian Hindus have a close Muslim friend. It also states that the Muslim community in at least 4 states is “isolated.” Perhaps that is why religious tensions are always high in our diverse country. It allows us to stereotype a community without knowing anything about them.
Statistics matter very little when it comes to our daily lives. We might not have a friend from another religion simply because we may never have interacted with that particular community. Or most of our interactions might have happened in the comment sections of Facebook. You know how vile those can be.
Cue a group of women who have taken inspiration from this and are conducting Multi-faith Iftar parties across cities in India. Where people from all faiths were invited to experience Muslim culture first hand. And at the centre of it all is, Nazia Erum. A woman so multi-faceted and versatile that her accomplishments will surprise you. She’s a mother, an author, a public speaker, the founder of a luxury start-up and a believer of religious harmony.
In a conversation over the phone, Nazia tells me the importance of interacting with people outside your own religion. How breaking bread can lead to breaking stereotypes.
How did you get the idea to host a Multi-Faith Iftar Party? And what were your goals?
Nazia: It all started with the book I am currently writing called “Mothering a Muslim.” For that, I began traveling across the country to have a better understanding of India. I had the fortune of meeting 100 families on the trail. There were real, progressive Indian women. After returning, I read the CSDS report, and I was shell shocked. What about the 67% of Hindus who don’t have a Muslim friend? They might have never even visited a Muslim’s house.
So, I put up a Facebook Post at the beginning of Ramzan inviting people to my house for Iftar. I was expecting 2-3 people would respond. But I got such an overwhelming response that I was surprised. Seeing my situation, one of the women who I met on the trail commented on my post saying, “Need Help?” She then posted a similar post on her timeline. That way we had about 60-70 people invited to an Iftar Party.
Basically, everything happened on Social Media. We had 12 women co-hosts ready to help, none of us had met before. One of the women even offered to host it at her bungalow! So, on the day of Iftar, we had a houseful of strangers.
How was that experience like?
Nazia: It began with everyone having apprehension. People were sitting quietly and not interacting a lot. They had questions about the meal. Whether it’d be vegetarian or not? Iftar usually is vegetarian. But they didn’t know. So, to break the ice we hostesses introduced ourselves. We had very accomplished women in our midst, that really surprised people. As the food started rolling out, people were again surprised at how much vegetarian food there was.
By the end of Iftar, everyone had made friends for life. People began to connect to each other. We hadn’t explicitly set out to break stereotypes, but it happened anyway. The next day I posted about the success of the event on Facebook, and I got some 600-700 likes. I don’t even have that many friends! (laughs)
Many non-Muslims offered to host the next Iftar as a sign of respect and affection. It was truly heart-warming.
Can you narrate some of your favourite interactions during the preparation for the party?
Nazia: I had people call me the day before the party asking me what colour they should wear? (laughs) I said to wear whatever you like. It doesn’t matter. They asked me if they should bring something? All I said was bring an open heart and empty stomach. But of course, people did bring a lot of things. One guest actually researched on all 12 of the hostesses and made personalized gifts for us all. It was so beautiful.
After the party ended all 12 of us just sat and opened the gifts! It was so much fun.
Did interacting with people of different faiths somehow also broaden your own worldview?
Nazia: All of us, we grow up not feeling the need to interact with people of other faiths. We are content with our communities. It is honestly surprising how little people know about the other faiths. For instance, the day after the party many people sent us Thank You Notes. One man sent us a note where it said, “I had never seen so many Muslim women under one roof.” And I feel that makes sense. We (Muslim men and women) are quite less in number. But I feel it’s time for Muslim women to reclaim this space. We’re calling it the silent revolution
How was the experience for people who were first-timers to Iftar?
Nazia: For this, I’ll direct you to one of my co-hosts response. Her name is Asiya Shervani. “Yes, there was a young man who said he had never been to an iftar or a Muslim home. I think he said something to the effect that this made him realize that Muslims are pretty much the same. There is not much difference. When asked to eat a few ladies looked hesitant and cross checked with me ” I hope there is some vegetarian food, I am a vegetarian.” I told her that Iftaars usually have mostly vegetarian food and are associated with dishes like Dahi vada, chana, fruit chaat, pakoras, samosas, etc. She seemed relieved. On the other hand, many Hindus were actively asking for non-vegetarian food ( they expect that in Muslim households). The non-veg kababs and the Haleem were the first to disappear from the table, and it was not the Muslims who consumed them!”
Do you believe that intolerance is increasing in the country? Is that why initiatives like yours are essential in today’s day?
Nazia: I deal with this issue in my book, “Mothering a Muslim.” Which will come out in a month or so, so watch out for that! But in short, I believe intolerance is growing. It is being exasperated by the misconceptions, misunderstandings, and stereotypes. I mean you read about lynching mobs killing innocent people over rumors, then you have a real problem.
This is why I believe an Iftar is a perfect occasion to celebrate the multiplicity of India. Because usually there is a lot of intolerance over food itself. So, when you have so many different communities coming together to break bread, that is revolutionary.
You’ve never minced your opinion on being a Muslim in India. Yet your Twitter bio says that you’re not an activist. Isn’t that a dichotomy?
Nazia: I feel I am simply a concerned citizen of India. I am a writer, so I like to document people’s lives and stories. I love to observe things that are going on, and this was simply my observation. I am an entrepreneur, first and foremost.
You mentioned the CSDS report, on how only 33% of Hindus have a close Muslim friend. And how that drove you into action. Do you think that is the reason why people are so gullible to being religiously baited?
Nazia: I cannot tell you how many times people have told me, “You don’t look like a Muslim.” When I inquire, what does a Muslim look like, they tell me things like you’re not wearing Kajal or that you have short hair? Then I ask them which Muslim do they know? They tell me their butcher is Muslim, or their maid is Muslim, so on. So essentially, they are judging a whole religious community based on a select few people from a particular class. But the fact of the matter is everyone is different, almost by definition.
How important are real civilian actions of unity in today’s India where a simple social media post can create Religious tensions?
Nazia: You know I always used to say that Social Media is hopeless. It is the reason for all this hatred. But after this experience, I’d like to change my opinion. Social media can spread the love if it is leveraged that way.
What was your final takeaway from this whole experience? What is the message you’d like to give to different communities and faiths?
Nazia: Open your houses and sit down with one another. The human ability to surprise is very astonishing. I’ll tell you after the Iftar, I saw a post on one of the guests’ timeline, saying, “A long weekend is coming up, instead of going on an outing, spend some time at your Muslim neighbour’s house.” And this amazing young lady is actually a staunch right-winger. Which is all the more pleasant. In fact, most of our guests that day were from the other side of the spectrum. The most important thing is reaching out. Both sides need to do that. All religions should do that. Most importantly it should be without an agenda. When that starts to happen, the message of religious harmony will resonate throughout the country.
This Eid, things in the country are different. There is tension due to the lynching of 4 Muslim boys in a train over the rumor of beef, which led to the death of one. Religious ties are strained and seem to be in free fall. At this time, it might feel like we’re heading towards disaster.
But Eid is a festival of camaraderie and you, yes you, can make sure it stays that way. By opening your heart and interacting with a person of another faith. Like Nazia did. Understanding them and their culture. Where their thinking and point of view come from. How experiences make us all different people, and that that is not a bad thing at all! You can befriend a Muslim, a Hindu, a Sikh, a Christian, a Jew, a Parsi. And you absolutely should.
Because in no other country but India, do you even have the opportunity to do so!