[Reader-list] independent fellowship-proposal

khadeeja arif khadeejaarif1 at rediffmail.com
Wed Dec 25 13:14:47 IST 2002

To the reader list:

Dear Readers
    This is the first posting of our proposal to Sarai on which we are working under the Sarai’s Independent Research Fellowships. 
This study would be spread over a period of six months. It seeks to explore the daily lived experiences of women living in our neighbourhood – Zakir Nagar.
We would be very interested in getting your feedback and suggestions.

Personal Narratives
It was the spring of 1993 when my (Khadeeja) family moved from a small town in U.P.(Sahaspur) to Delhi. This was a part of our larger collective efforts to realize our dreams. I wanted to take up studies after tenth std. our town did not have school beyond tenth. A part of our family settled in Sujan Singh Park and the rest bought a flat in Paschim Vihar. We were a huge family happy with our environment and the strong sense of ‘city’ life. In retrospect, I feel that this encounter with the city was the first instance of my family being split geographically.
Paschim Vihar was more like the city stuff we watched on television. The family switched over to jeans and sarees
the women in the family got their hair done at the local beauty parlors. We were one with the city life.
But it all changed one night. We were all asleep at around 12:30 at night. A group of men came up to my flat; all of them were heavily drunk. We were abused as musalmaans. We were the badtameez creatures of the planet. On peeping through the window, we saw that they were 8-10 sardaars.
The immense fear and anxiety made us sell our property at Sujan Singh Park and Paschim Vihar. We came to Zakir Nagar.

    I (Ambarien) was a girl of four years’ when my family moved from Libya to Aligarh. My parents sought the security of their larger family once in India. In 1984 we moved to Delhi. My father had lost his job in Aligarh. Communal tension in the city made his concerns for ‘security’ all the more pronounced.
In Delhi, we settled in Zakir Nagar.
My school was located in Greater Kailash-an obviously posh and elite locality of South Delhi. Though Tiny Tots had a lot of children coming in from my larger locality. I never felt very comfortable disclosing the fact that I lived in Zakir Nagar. As a child reading about civic amenities and cleanliness in textbooks, I felt that a place like Zakir Nagar is totally ‘unimaginable’ to my classmates. This is the reason I never had friends at school. I never wanted them to come to my place. My address at school was always accompanied by opp. New Friends Colony.
I went to college at Jamia Millia Islamia that was in the vicinity of Zakir Nagar. For my larger family a Muslim from a ‘Muslim’ university was good for nothing. But for me this meant resolving an ongoing conflict with my identity. I went to Jamia in spite of having a choice between Miranda House and Lady Shri Ram College.

The Idea.

The proposed study is an effort to seek the details of everyday existence of women in a resettlement colony like Zakir Nagar, and the contradictions in the lives of the individuals as a result of the constant movement between the world as seen from outside and inside (Zakir Nagar.). The study will be structured as an urban ethnographic project that will combine oral narratives of a cross section of women along with detailed explorations of the different ways in which notions of public and private space work within the myriad definitions of what constitutes the ‘culture’ of Zakir Nagar.
 	Zakir Nagar is geographically situated between two pulias. It is located on the outskirts of the posh South Delhi. The neighboring New Friends Colony people call it a village/ dustbin. It never gets mentioned in the mainstream media unless there is the banning of an organization like SIMI, or encounters with so-called ‘terrorists’. In such cases it gets front-page coverage. Zakir Nagar continues to be a space of paradoxes. Its present geography is defined by the constant movement of people from small villages to posh colonies like khan market. It has no fixed, defined identity. Over the years it has stretched from the main road into the countless by lanes running into each other. It has become a site of encounter between the traditional and the modern. It has both- the kebab-paratha culture of the walled city and the popping boards of cyber cafés in the by lanes.
The need to live together as a huddled up and secure community, has given rise to an assertion of a collective identity. This identity is a visibly masculine interpretation of Islam. There is the Friday Khudba where men are given the guidelines for being ‘real’ Muslim men. This is supplemented by the distribution of local pamphlets outside the mosque. Once the office hours are over, the main road is full of men eating Kebabs and tikkas
drinking karahi milk. The local press (Ifkaar Milli and Kaumi Media) stresses the need for the assertion of an ‘Islamic’ identity. To an outsider, this is the only ‘real’ Zakir Nagar and the ‘real’ Islam.
The proposed study seeks to destabilize this conceived perception of a monolithic ‘Islamic Zakir Nagar’ by foregrounding, uncovering and excavating the contradictory and fascinating space occupied by women in this area. Driven by our personal circumstances, we have felt that women are constantly engaged in a struggle between cosmopolitan and local identities. They assume cosmopolitan/ secular identities when they move out of Zakir Nagar and return to a culture of dual identities as soon as they re-enter the space of Zakir Nagar. For two of the characters of this study, Huma (23) and Rani (37), movement between the inside and outside has resulted in ‘double’ identities. At home, Huma performs namaz 5 times a day, covers her hair; preaches anecdotes she claims as Islamic (“If you wear a bindi your forehead will be burnt on the day of judgment”).Huma has a circle of friends she made at Jamia and at school (Frank Anthony.) With them she goes out to PVR, M Block, Def. Col. She loves wearing stylish western outfits. While passing through Zakir Nagar she covers herself with a Chadar. Once outside, she takes it off. Rani came to Zakir Nagar 10 years back. Her husband runs a saloon at GK. Rani has friends in GK and New friends colony. Before coming to Zakir Ngar Rani used to only wear Western outfits, but now she has stopped wearing them so often. Rani never tells her friends that she actually stays in Zakir Nagr. She never calls her friends to her residence. If she has to treat them, she takes them out to some posh restaurant. Rani while passing through Zakir Nagar covers her head but outside Zakir Nagar she loves to be free. The only reason Rani does not want to shift to some other place is that Zakir Nagar keeps her aware of her religion. She associates the spatial identity of the place with religion. Rani goes for morning walks to the nearby park and interacts with women of New Friends colony. She has also joined a gym (men women combined). Rani hates going to a women gym. She hardly interacts with the people of Zakir Nagr. She does not go to any of the beauty parlors in Zakir Nagar. Despite these contradictions, Rani never wants to leave the place, though she comes to Zakir Nagar just to spend the night.
Rani and Huma’s stories provide us with a glimpse into the different ways in which women’s desires, aspirations and dreams work within the spatial politics and culture of Zakir Nagar. During our interactions with our characters and our own circumstances, we have realized that simple stories of women’s repression within ‘Islamic culture’ does little to explain the contradictions and complexities of their existence within particular urban spaces. There are women who never interact with the world outside as often as Rani and Huma do, and yet they are comfortable with their identities. Two of the characters of the proposed study, Dilli wali Amma and Shabnam, wear the burqa and do all the work, from arranging the Plummer and carpenter for their neighborhood to the daily chores at home. For them, the Burqa has almost become a daily ritual
sometimes liberating, for the anonymity it provides.
We as women studying at MCRC Jamia, most expectedly a place of liberal interaction between ‘secular’ minds, have suffered from a presumption about our lives as Muslim middle class women. People come to us and ask questions like “what do we eat”? Why do we not wear western clothes so often? In the process we have seen how individual identities are assumed in relation to a place. 
Our study is an attempt to move against the grain of dominant scholarship on Muslim women where religion, family, marriage laws (civil code) and customs have been the primary focus. While these are all important issues, the proposed study seeks to interrogate all these issues by using the cultural and social space of Zakir Nagar, its routines, habits and daily life patterns as the context for our exploration. We will focus on issues of clothing, gestures, habitation, entertainment, physical movement, the very texture of the daily-lived experiences of the women as something that is intrinsically linked to the peculiar formation of Zakir Nagar. As a space, Zakir Nagar is seen as a ‘cohesive inner space’, secure from the communal culture of the city/country. At the same time it is a space that necessarily exists both in relation to its internal dynamics as well as the city of Delhi at large. The movement from the ‘inner’ to the ‘outer’ and back has led to the emergence of a fascinating space of tension, contradiction, and cultural identity. By focusing on the gendered nature of this contradictory space, this study attempts to draw attention to the complexities of women’s existence in urban/city spaces

Research methodology

Our research seeks to explore the daily texture of the lives of women in  Zakir Nagar.Zakir Nagar as a resettlement colony has witnessed a massive transformation in its geographical outlook due to the huge migration of people from different parts of the city. The migration has been a repercussion of communal strife within the country. Whether the communal tension is outside country or within the country it has generated a great sense of insecurity within the Muslims in India. In places like zakir Nagar we get to see a hybrid test for life, which, time to time, has been tried to put under the garb of monolithic ‘Isalm’ and its direct implementation is imposed on the women of the community. Our study tries to explore the 
contradictions in the existence in the lives of women in zakir Nagar. This conflict has arisen out of a sheer sense of individuality of its women and regressive, masculine Islamic ways of life guided by some self-proclaimed authorities of Isalm. In the course of our study we would look for an alternative definition of also the men of our community, who are much more diverse than the Lungi and the beard clad stereotype of the mainstream.
        Our research method would include the documentation of lives of our characters in the form of photographs, recorded interviews followed by a write up. In order to contextualise our characters we would try to get a historical overview of the place both in written as well as oral form .we would also try to incorporate the alternative histories of the place-the history as perceived by the historians and the history as narrated by the people who actually live here and those who moved out. 
    In our study ‘memory’ plays an important role in imaging the place according to the individual ways of seeing and perceiving reality. The role of local media is phenomenal in projecting a contrast between the guidelines provided to an ‘Ideal’ Muslim woman and the actual life that our characters are leading.  We would also use the photographs and the content of local newspapers and magazines to support our study. 

Khadeeja Arif
Ambarien Al Qadar


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