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Sabika Muzaffar and Mariyam Haider, the engaging hosts of the Main Bhi Muslim podcast, share what it really takes to tell their deeply personal stories.
What does it feel like when someone tells you flat out, that because of your religion, you are not welcome as a tenant? Or when someone tells you, “But you don’t look like a Muslim?” Why is politics disrupting some of our oldest friendships today?
When the anti-CAA protests began in December 2019, two young women who wanted to claim all parts of their identities, launched the Main Bhi Muslim podcast; simply as a space to talk freely about these stories, and what it means to live at the intersection of these identities: Woman, Indian, Muslim.
Sabika Muzaffar, a Gurgaon-based storyteller and educator, and Mariyam Haider, a communications professional, writer and researcher, currently based in Singapore are the women behind this podcast.
As part of my ongoing PodQueens series, where I interview interesting podcasters who happen to be women, I spoke to Sabika and Mariyam on their podcast which is among the most honest podcasts I have ever listened to; honest in terms of the hosts putting themselves, their fears, their joys and hopes out without holding back; without worrying ‘how it looks’ when they share some of their most vulnerable moments.
In each interview in this 6-part series, I will be talking to one or most podcasters, on a particular aspect of podcasting. In this interview, we talk specifically about what it takes to share deeply personal stories, and how Mariyam and Sabika choose the stories they want to tell.
Aparna: Let’s rewind a little, to a time before you started the podcast. Since everything you talk about on Main Bhi Muslim, is deeply personal, what was the conversation the two of you had, in terms of how comfortable you were to put these stories out?
Sabika: I didn’t really know Mariyam before Main Bhi Muslim. Yes, we went to the same college, but we never talked or had a single conversation.
Coming to your specific question, right from the beginning, when we connected last December (2019), I was very insistent that let’s tell our own stories. There is a Manto whose stories are going to be retold and reread, and doesn’t really even need it. Sure, we can quote Manto, but the stories should be ours; because, who is going to tell our stories, if we wouldn’t? Nobody is going to care about our stories until and unless we care about them.
Mariyam: What happened was, in December (2019), when violence erupted in JNU and Jamia and eventually the CAA started and Shaheen Bagh; I was (and am) based in Singapore and I wanted to understand from the ground what is happening. I found that Sabika had been making her appearances there and I really wanted to speak to someone whom I could connect to easily and get a sense of the entire movement.
So, I reached out to her and Sabika then became the channel or ‘zariya’ of knowing better how things were unfolding in Shaheen Bagh. We had a 40-minute conversation in January and that was the time we decided to do this more publicly; to have these conversations of two Indian Muslim women talking to each other. We wanted to understand what are the stories that people don’t hear enough, and if people don’t understand how difficult it is to call themselves Indian Muslims, how can we explain it to them.
From January to March we were thinking over these ideas, and then we officially decided that we would now be doing a podcast. I felt connected to Sabika in a way I hadn’t felt connected to anyone, by virtue of her being an Indian Muslim; I had never felt that kind of understanding that there is so much that we don’t share with each other as Indian Muslims. And that is why those stories need to be told.
Aparna: and even to the larger world?
Mariyam: Yes! I told Sabika that the conversations you and I are having need to translate into a public conversation. This is us publicly archiving our life, our journey as Indian Muslims even for the both of us.
Aparna: Now tell me how you decided what stories to tell?
Mariyam: If you ask us how we decided on the title Main Bhi Muslim you will get an idea of what stories we wanted to tell and how to tell them. Sabika came up with the title of Main Bhi Muslim and she will speak of what it means to her. For me, it stands for how I want to be understood as a Muslim, because there is a lot of stereotyping; sometimes, after having a conversation people are like, “Oh! You are a Muslim, you don’t look like a Muslim.” I always wondered, what is it supposed to look like, you know?
For Sabika and me, our identity is different from what traditional Muslim life would be. For me, when I am in a Muslim setting, then also I am not Muslim enough because maybe I am not praying five times a day. When I am outside the Muslim community, then I am not Muslim enough because I don’t look like a Muslim! So, for me, Main Bhi Muslim stands for, I can be a Muslim in whichever way and form I choose to be and that is just a part of my identity.
So, that is where stories also emerged, whether it is of my father’s friendship with a certain person or my experience of living in a home which doesn’t have a name plate because of a worry that if someone comes to know that we are Muslims, there might, in the future, be an emergency. These stories emerged because I wanted to establish my Muslim identity to a larger public with the comfort I live in, and not by someone else’s standards.
Sabika: I must say that though I came up with the name, it was only when Mariyam added from one of her pieces, ‘Jitni bhi, jaisi bhi, hu toh Main Bhi Muslim’ (I’m Muslim too in whichever way, whatever form I choose to be) that the whole thing comes together.
The first few months of Main Bhi Muslim, every day I was getting some message that made me break down; that made me ask, should I cry or not? Okay, let’s cry. It was so overwhelming that I just didn’t want to keep it inside my system. I wanted to get it all out. But in the first two months, we got a lot of responses which was so heartfelt and bare-all. Since people were making themselves vulnerable, it allowed us to become vulnerable and it became a vulnerability chain.
Aparna: When we are talking about deeply personal stories, it comes with not only the potential for trolling but also of letting your listeners know you in your most vulnerable moments. As an example, in the episode where someone denies you a flat because of your identity, your only thought is, I don’t want to cry in front of this person. To hear that just as a listener was heartbreaking. How do you grapple with this when you decide to tell that story?
Sabika: This episode took a lot of effort in terms of form but as far as making myself vulnerable is concerned…both of us have been psycho-educating ourselves for roughly the same time. We are constantly banking on our ability to talk about things which are difficult, irrespective of others’ opinions, be it our families’, friends, or colleagues’.
The answer to your question lies more in our journeys to become better human beings by talking about human stuff. Be as humane as possible. So, I think it comes through in all our work.
Aparna: I am processing this as we talk… Mariyam do you want to add to that? When you decide what stories to take, there is also the question of, ‘yeh kitni badi baat hai’ (how big a deal is this?) In one of the episodes, you explore this question of the ‘ladne layak ladayi’ (a fight worth fighting). In terms of all of these intersectional identities (Muslim/Indian/Woman), does the external voice ever play in your head, that is this an issue worth talking about?
Mariyam: You said a very important thing about the voice in your head. This feeling has existed for a long time that what you are feeling inside is not what you are seeing on the outside. We have done over 10 episodes so far, and we are first telling those stories to ourselves and being at peace with it and then sharing with the audience. Because if I am not at peace with my story, I can’t make someone else be at peace with this. Because there are some stories which I did not tell myself for such a long time.
The story of how we don’t have a nameplate outside our home despite living in that home for 20 years is not in my journal somewhere as a story that I want to share. It came to me because of the conversations I kept on having with Sabika; of understanding the underlying fear that always creeps up when I am in a situation of being expected to show my Muslim identity. This story troubles me, that my parents had that fear years ago, even when the CAA was not even in the picture. When I know that this story has been troubling me for a very long time, this story now needs to be told.
We already know the weight we carry by virtue of being women. There is so much baggage of being a woman in an unsafe place and a world that is telling you that the world is not made for you. And add to that the baggage of being told that, now that you are a Muslim…bigger trouble. So, I want to lead my life with as much peace as possible. If that peace comes from sharing my stories, I will do that.
Aparna: In that sense, each story has its own importance simply because it means something to you to tell that story.
Mariyam: Absolutely. This story will take its own path. I am a channel of the story and today when you hear that story, how do you implement that story and perhaps, as someone who is from the majority community, you should really listen to this podcast and understand what they go through. Just give yourself 5 minutes. Those 5 minutes are what we are hoping will happen as a chain effect of understanding what we go through.
Aparna: Sabika, I think you wanted to add onto that.
Sabika: For me at some point in December (2019), there was a strong sense that there’s something that needs to be done…and that I need to be a part of something beyond protesting on the streets.
I tried to take my poetry to every protest site possible and during one of these meetings, when we were sitting down and trying to understand our relationship with the constitution, I suggested, why not try and humanise our relationship with the country in a less abstract fashion? So, when I did the personification of the country, I realised my relationship with the country is like a very toxic marriage. Because all my primary identifiers, be it being a woman, being a Muslim or being an artist are troubling identifiers. I am not really respected for being a woman, let alone a Muslim woman. And as a freelance artist, the last two and a half years have been very lonely. I am on my own and I fail, I get up and start again.
So, I thought, there are countries out there which don’t care if I am a woman, a Muslim and there are countries which will really support me as an artist. For the first time in 30-31 years, I considered moving out to London or to Canada. The biggest achievement of Main Bhi Muslim for me is that if I hadn’t found family in Mariyam and a home in Main Bhi Muslim, I am pretty sure I would have moved out. The ability to tell your stories has the ability to rehabilitate you. Sometimes, all you have to do is just speak up to feel like you are being heard.
Aparna: I will take off from what you said, Sabika; the feeling of one is telling you a story, but also the feeling that you are being heard. When it comes to family, the bigger circle of friends and then the listeners at large – these three kinds of people, do you want to talk about the kind of reactions you received, or if there is a particular story that you would like to share?
Mariyam: I had reactions from all three categories. The family’s first reaction was as expected: fear. My parents were worried that I am publicly going out and reclaiming my Muslim identity when we are living in a very difficult, volatile time to express your identity and stand up for it. But they said, just take care of yourself and you should know what you are doing.
With friends; we have some friends whom we call chosen family, who have stood with us for 10-15 years and they are just like your siblings. One of the reasons why we were so determined to have these discussions was because our friends respected us and came up to us asking, what can we do? And of course, the way we tell our stories is not like say, “Oh! Something bad is happening to us, how dare you do something bad to us.” We are as human as you are. We live with fear, and of course you live with fear; while your fears might not be the same as ours by the virtue of our being Muslim, we are humans. That is what gave us all the more encouragement to tell our stories, especially in the most humane manner possible.
The stories are not very different; like, Sabika had challenges in finding an apartment by virtue of being an Indian Muslim. Of course, if there is a gay couple, they will find challenges as well, our society does not accept them the way they are. I don’t speak for any other community, but when you look at people who belong to the Dalit community, they face challenges as well when they are house hunting. So, there is this overlap when you listen to our story and think that there is something I need to do to change the way society functions.
These three categories of people have come back to us with different ways of questioning, encouragement and fear. For me, fear is always a very good indicator of where to take my next direction. If there is fear, I want to eradicate that. Fear becomes my stimulator. With Main Bhi Muslim, I have been tackling this fear that people have by the virtue of being a minority. I will give a small example in terms of a comment we received. After one of our live sessions, a girl from Rajasthan, who is not a Muslim, wrote to us saying that in her family, she had heard Islamophobic comments day in and day out. She hasn’t yet had the chance to stand and say, “You are wrong because there have been so many Muslims who have been like us.” She was very young, just 18-19 years old; but the fact that she listened to it meant she could use it as an example to feel less Islamophobic and more compassionate, that it is an identity, and you don’t need to make them demons of the society.
Sabika: When we started Main Bhi Muslim, my dad said, you will have to build a fairly thick skin. He was prepping me for getting trolled, but he never discouraged me. My mother keeps telling me what our next step should be, and I am like, this is not your podcast. (laughs). She would say, you should know things, then only you would be able to tell others in Main Bhi Muslim and I said I don’t want to know anything, I just want to tell what I know. The whole part of ‘Jitni bhi, jaisi bhi, Main bhi Muslim’ was that we can just say what we want.
Aparna: One final question is to both of you is, do you have a podcast recco for our readers? Ideally one Indian and one non-Indian.
Sabika: I love Modern Love, I really, really love that. So, I would recommend that. From India, Urdunama from Fabeha Syed is very good. She has got a real good command over the craft, having been a radio jockey and a voice artist. Urdunama is a podcast done really well, in terms of both the writing and delivery.
Mariyam: I have a lot of non-Indian ones, but the one that I listen to and like the most is this podcast, On Being by Krista Tippett. I think there is so much to learn from her in every episode. If I would have to recommend only one podcast, then it would be this.
You can listen to Main Bhi Muslim at any of the common podcast players such as Apple, Google, or Spotify and follow them at Instagram.
Top image courtesy Mariyam Haider (L) and Sabika Muzaffar (R)
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