“Oh, this area isn’t very safe. I don’t want to be judgemental but this area is mostly Mohammedan and many of them are engaged in illegal activities. You know how they are.”
“Oh, the people in this village are Mohammedan, they don’t cooperate with giving us their data. They are ajeeb (strange) people, not like others. They have big homes and most of their family is in a foreign country, in Arab countries. They don’t want to give data, are suspicious because of the current government (BJP).“
“Oh, that student is Muslim. Why does he have a beard, he looks so funny. His name is so odd, what sort of name is that.“
For the last three years, my research has been situated in a predominantly Muslim region of Delhi. I did not realize how much my Muslim identity helped me connect with communities during fieldwork, until I worked in Hindu-dominant regions of Maharashtra, India. One of the first questions I am asked after I share my name (which can indicate religion and caste) is: “Are you Mohammedan? That’s a Mohammedan name right?“ Questions around religion typically do not bother me, in fact, it’s wonderful that people are interested in learning more. What is discomforting, though, is when the person I am interacting with sees this as an opportunity to share their (biased) opinions about Muslims.
Hearing these can be quite frustrating. I have to force myself to not retort, and instead, calmly question these biases. I remind them that I am also a Muslim, who was brought up in the Middle East. I ask them why is it that the Muslim identity matters here. Why is it that they think it is strange if people do not wish to share their data? I think it is perfectly reasonable, perhaps even more rational. Why does it matter what one chooses to wear or look like? The student is here to learn and is very respectful, and that should be the only thing that matters.
I wish I could rage, that I could be rude, that I could leave mid-conversation. But I know that this would not be seen kindly, even if this is a fair response (thank you queer and black feminists for showing me that anger is an entirely valid emotion!) Unfortunately, I have found that people choose to see anger as a defense, as a reason to continue to hold on to their beliefs, rather than trying to understand the source of anger. Sometimes I choose to engage and question the person’s beliefs, using logic. Sometimes I actively choose to let these things go, deciding that there are other battles that I care to fight, where my energy is better spent. And sometimes, I’m just too tired to be active, one way or the other.