Modelling when Muslim: How a bikini shoot angered my relatives but made me confident

I was accused of bringing “disgrace” to the family for “shamelessly exposing” my body.
Modelling when Muslim: How a bikini shoot angered my relatives but made me confident
Modelling when Muslim: How a bikini shoot angered my relatives but made me confident
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By Andleeb Zaidi

I still remember the first phone call from my father. One December night in 2015, he called me to say that my mother was terribly upset because of what our relatives had said about me. That they had taken printouts of a bikini photoshoot I had for FBB Femina Miss India 2016, waved them in my parents’ face and said, “Look at what your daughter is doing!”

I got off the call and couldn’t hold back my tears. Even though my parents told our relatives that they knew what I was doing and wasn’t hiding anything, it didn’t stop my own family members from saying that I had brought “disgrace” to the family. Why? Because I was modelling and “shamelessly exposing” my body?

One of them even told my parents that I wouldn’t find place in hell for what I was doing.

It’s been over a year now and yet, my relatives and I don’t see eye to eye. My parents, thankfully, have moved on and give me the freedom to pursue my modelling projects.

But let me start from the beginning.

The first time someone suggested that I model professionally was in late 2015, back in my second year at NIFT, Hyderabad. I had modelled for some of my seniors for a college project when one of them suggested I apply for Femina Miss India 2016.

I had no idea how beauty pageants worked then or how to do a ramp walk, even. But despite my scepticism, I applied and forgot about it. Imagine my surprise then, when I received a response that I had been shortlisted!

Even my mother was apprehensive at this point. But papa convinced her to let me try it out.

I entered the competition made it to the south zone finalists in December. And then the bikini photoshoot happened and all hell broke loose at home.

There was a time where my cousin back in Lucknow, who’s also my best friend, stopped speaking to me. She became judgmental and the calls and messages that kept us in touch ceased for about four months. But when I visited her a few months ago, she realized what she was doing. She watched my photos and videos, congratulated me and told me she was proud. I remember the happiness in her eyes to this day.

My family’s reaction disturbed me deeply because these were educated, well-respected people. Some of them even hold PhDs. I could not fathom then, why they would choose to besmirch my name when my parents are okay with what I am doing? Who are they to look at my clothes and decide whether I am going to heaven or hell?

Let me be clear: I am not irreligious. But being a Muslim, for me and my parents, has little to do with what I wear and more with who I am at heart. And I’d like to believe that I have a good heart. I eventually want to become an animal rights activist and even open a shelter for strays. I try to work hard and be good to people around me. Is that not more substantial?

Anyway, the storm dissipated back home (although I’m still sure that my relatives tell whoever they can that this is what happens when girls are sent away to study), but there was no running from it on social media.

As I began getting more and more commercial projects and the pictures went online, the hatred increased. It’s not uncommon for me to come across comments which doubt my religion (are you even a Muslim, they ask). They accuse me of going against “Indian culture” of setting a bad example for other girls. “Why must you, an educated girl, expose your body to earn money?” they ask me.  

I have been lucky, for my parents and my friends have been my pillars of support. The only thing my mother ever told me was to not do another “outrageous” photoshoot unless I had good reason too. I am willing to comply by that, unless it’s for a competition. But thanks to that very photoshoot, I am a more confident person. And for that reason, I will never regret it.

I am also aware of the privilege I have: liberal parents who haven’t told me to wind up my education and get married. They have also shielded me from the worst of character assassination that must have come my way: I still don’t know the worst of what my own family said about me because they never told me.

What I do know is that I am going to follow my dream: complete my education, continue modelling and help as many stray animals as I can. I don’t want to expect complete acceptance because you can never really do away with hatred: even when I feed dogs on the street, people look upon me with disgust. You’d think that respecting life would count for more, right?

Over time, I have learnt to ignore them. Because they don’t understand the passion I feel when I pose for the camera. They don’t know confidence pulsating within my body when I walk down the ramp. Or maybe they’re just jealous that a 20-year-old has taken more control of her life than they have.

(As told to Geetika Mantri)

(All photos provided by Andleeb Zaidi)

Views expressed are personal opinions of the author.

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