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Anisha Sheth | The News Minute | September 14, 2014 | 12.18 pm IST On September 5, while releasing a book by a prominent Kannada journalist and writer, a senior Kannada journalist made an insightful speech about journalism, social relations, and the role that literary figures play in shaping society.  Towards the end, he urged upcoming Muslim writers to carry the baton forward in discussing the problems that Muslim society faces. Giving an example, he said that one of burning questions before Muslim society was the wearing of the burqa by women. He said that before Hindu groups begin to rake up the issue, society must discuss it.  He said: “If Muslim women between the ages of 25 and 30 were to vote through secret ballot on whether they wished to wear the burqa or not, a majority of them may say no. They may not have the courage to say openly that they don’t want to wear the burqa. A writer must be the voice of these inner voices. A writer must be the voice of Muslims’ problems and dilemmas. Only then will we be able to build a healthy society. I hope B M Basheer’s future writing takes this course.” This speech was made in Mangalore, in coastal Karnataka. The speaker was Dinesh Amin Mattu (in the above photo), currently the media adviser to Chief Minister Siddaramaiah . He was releasing “Baadutada Jotege Gandhi Jayanti”, written by B M Basheer, who is a journalist with a Kannada newspaper which has a state-wide presence. For a few days, things were quiet. On September 8, a written copy of the speech appeared in Kannada website Vartamaana, which is a space for social and political commentary. The same day, Naveen Soorinje, a journalist with a Kannada news channel shared the link to the piece on Facebook with the closing remarks as his status, generating a huge debate that lasted several days. As is the case with any debate on a subject that people feel strongly about, there were all shades of opinion. There were many comments appreciative of the views expressed in the speech. Many lambasted the views expressed by Amin Mattu and others who commented. Some explained the different types of veils with images. Many others quoted the Quran, and several others cordially disagreed with each other’s views, but defended their right to say it when others generally told people to “shut up” when they knew nothing about the Quran. Are there any new arguments about whether or not Muslim women should wear the burqa, hijab, head scarf or their variants? Perhaps not. But the range of opinions, the tones of arguments in over 170 comments show that there are many people who think about these issues and are more than willing to engage with others on the debate. And these are only the ones who have recorded their comments on Facebook. There is no way to ascertain the range of debate and discussion that has not found its way to the electronic media, or to any media for that matter. But this was not the only article that has been discussed on Facebook. A day later, Vartamaana published an article by Mohammed Irshad, a journalist with a Kannada news channel, titled “When voice was given to the silence within the burqa”. This piece too generated a lot of comment, often of the colourful kind.  It is written as a short story in the voice of a young Muslim woman who was responding to Dinesh Amin Mattu’s comment about holding a secret vote. The woman in the story says she can neither go to college with the burqa because she stands out as a Muslim woman and is targeted by fundamentalists who see her as nothing but a Muslim woman; nor can she go to college without a burqa because her family and society want her to wear it. She also talks about how society uses religion to enforce the veil. Towards the end she says that she, like many other women had gotten used to looking at the world from within a burqa. The debate - not just Facebook comments - on both articles has not yet died down. In the overwhelming bulk of responses to both Amin Mattu’s speech and Irshad’s story, two things stand out. First, the bulk of them have missed the point entirely. Second, is that most (not all) of those who commented were Muslim males.  The scope of Amin Mattu’s speech was expansive, drawing parallels between the role of journalists and writers in society. He spoke about how in the past Muslim writers such as Bolwar Mohammed Kunhi, Sara Abubakar and others wrote about the society they lived in, and how its people battled for their rights and dignity. He said that one cannot expect them to continue writing until they are 80 or 90 years old.  Using the Kannada word “chaluvali” meaning people’s movement, Amin Mattu said that people’s movements were a relay race and that the mantle would have to be taken up by younger generations. While lauding Basheer’s writing for being sensitive towards society at large, he pointed out that it did not address the concerns of Muslim society. He criticised Basheer for this failure and said that a writer’s responsibility was to be the voice of those whose speech had gone unheard or had been stifled. He also placed this in the context of the rise of fundamentalist Hindu groups and how these had had the consequence of giving birth to fundamentalist Muslim groups. This was the crux of Amin Mattu’s speech, but most people either did not bother to read the whole speech and only went by the status that accompanied the link, or did not understand the context.  The fact that the many (not all) of those who commented were male Muslims is telling of the way in which society operates. There must be many Muslim girls who have Facebook accounts and use them just like any other individual does. But there is the observation among people from coastal Karnataka, that ordinary Muslim girls and women (not the more affluent ones) in the region do sometimes face restrictions – said or unsaid – in the way they use social media.  A prominent activist from the region told this journalist that a Muslim girl from Mangalore who is studying Bangalore would comment on his posts, expressing her views about women’s rights and fundamentalist groups. Suddenly, all the comments stopped. Much later he learned that activists of fundamentalist groups in the region had gone to her house and told her parents about her views and said that it was not right for her to talk like that, and that her Facebook account had been de-activated.  In small town communities (communities in general, not in terms of religion), these little incidents are Chinese-whispered among acquaintances, relatives, and neighbours and nothing really remains secret for very long. The ghostly presence of variations of the original story exert their sphere of influence on everyone, creating unspoken worries, fears and questions with no outlet. It is precisely these unspoken worries, fears and questions that writers need to address, and give voice to, and this was what Amin Mattu referred to in his speech, and which almost everybody missed when they read the word burqa.

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