Jamia Fashion Show Row: Religious Patriarchy Meets ABVP Culture

Written by: SMIW Editorial

A fashion show called Tarz-e-Libas organized by the students of the Faculty of Engineering and Technology, Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and slated to take place on March 30, was cancelled due to opposition from a group of 12 students who called it “unislamic”, “immoral” and “against Jamia’s ethos”.

According to reports, these self-appointed custodians of Islam and torch bearers of Jamia’s tehzeeb first tried to influence the organizers to call off the event, and later protested outside the venue. The show had to be cancelled because the ‘tehzeeb gang’ threatened to attack women who walk the ramp.

Seeking more details on the incident, we reached out to students and institutional authorities at JMI and spoke with Safoora Zargar, a students’ activist and an M.Phil / PhD scholar at the Department of Sociology, JMI. She gave SMIW the following account:

Safoora Zargar

Safoora Zargar

“A university demands that space be given to all kinds of ideas, and cultures. Restricting the freedom of speech and expression of any group in a university like JMI is simply legitimizing Islamophobia. It is giving validation to groups like Bajrang dal and RSS and to their fascist philosophy of Hindutva which demonizes Islam as the ‘regressive enemy’.

The idea of Tehzeeb is not dependent on what a woman is wearing. It is about respect , discipline, tolerance and a culture of love and peace. It isn’t perpetrating patriarchy or misogynist fantasies in the garb of Tehzeeb. Religion cannot be enforced on a society or an individual, it can only be adopted.”

Such religious intolerance, sectarian hatred and bigotry take one back exactly nine years ago, to the institutional murder of Professor Ramchandra Srinivas Siras who was demonized, ostracized and marginalized by the homophobic authorities of  Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Prof. Siras was thrown out of his official accommodation, suspended from his job and had a probe instituted against him for identifying as homosexual. Unable to cope with being labelled a villain instead of a victim, he committed suicide in his apartment on April 7, 2010.

While speaking with people concerned, we also had the opportunity to speak with to renowned human rights activist, Shabnam Hashmi, who was amongst ninety-one women from India figured in the list of 1,000 women nominated globally for the Nobel Peace Prize-2005. Shabnam condemned the incident in strong words:

Shabnam Hashmi

Shabnam Hashmi

“This is very undemocratic for an institution like Jamia Milia Islamia. Succumbing under the pressure of a group of students, or using that as an excuse, is condemnable.

By this kind of censorship, the Jamia administration is not only restricting its own students’ career options and exposure but also siding with a handful of conservative students.”

Such an incident of ideological extremism in a government sponsored institution also reminds one of similar curbs on students’ freedom of expression by extremist forces at various campuses across India over the last five years. Starting in late 2015, with the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarathi Parishad (ABVP) led disruption of the screening of Nakul Singh Sawhney‘s documentary on 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Haiorganized by Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) at University of Hyderabad (UoH). The disruption led to clashes between the two students groups on campus, suspension of four (ASA) members and the subsequent institutional murder of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula. According to reports, BJP leader Smriti Irani, who was the Union Minister for HRD at the time, was directly involved in Rohith’s suspension and resultant suicide.

Then, of course, who can forget the JNU controversy? The Feb 2016 incident which should have been a simple case of a group of students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University organizing a cultural event to discuss the controversial hanging of Afzal Guru. However, the JNU wing of the same bigoted ABVP disrupted the event by provoking the students and clashing with them violently. What happened next was a melee of made up allegations, doctored videos and Pakistan Zindabad slogans, which two former office bearers recently confessed were shouted by ABVP students themselves. It all resulted in FIRs being filed against then JNUSU President and current CPI Lok Sabha aspirant Kanhaiya Kumar as well as Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya. Who can forget Arnab Goswami proclaiming Umar to be a “terrorist” on national TV, in a loud, power-drunk voice? While the matter is sub-judice, as a fallout of the incident, most of India looks at the internationally renowned JNU and their students as “anti-nationals”.

Exactly a year later, similar scenes were repeated at Delhi University’s Ramjas College, where a violent scuffle broke out when ABVP (again) pressurized the college authorities to cancel the invitations sent to Umar Khalid and JNU student and activist Shehla Rashid, for speaking at a seminar in the college campus. Organizers and participants were attacked with stones, the seminar room was locked and electricity in the room was cut.

By attacking a peaceful, cultural event organized democratically by JMI students, the tehzeeb gang not only gave an opportunity to intolerant Hindutva forces to question and demonize Indian Muslims – something they just LOVE to do – but also blurred the lines between themselves and Sangh backed thugs who have been wreaking havoc across India’s campuses since the BJP government came to power.

Nitika Kakkar, a JMI alum and journalist with a leading National English daily put it succinctly when she said:

Nitika Kakkar

Nitika Kakkar

“The students of the university do not belong to any one religion. In such a scenario, cancelling a fashion show by stating that it is ‘against Islamic values’ is an attempt to assert religious dominance in an institution of learning. Moreover, the fact that the protesters threatened to throw stones if any women took to the ramp shows that the so-called protest actually has its roots in the patriarchal notion of men having ownership over women’s bodies and trying to assert the same. The culture of Jamia is a vibrant one and protesting against a fashion show in the name of the university’s culture is baseless and hypocritical.”

Interestingly, we also got an alternative perspective from Amber Fatmi, a JMI alumnus, who while opposing its forceful cancellation, also urged debating what a concept of a fashion show represents.

“What happened on that day shouldn’t have happened. Moral policing should not have a space in a university and we must resist it. But as a university we must discuss and debate the importance, form and orientation of every event including the fashion shows. Are the fashion shows questioning status quo or maintaining the market definition of beauty and thus objectification? These questions can and should be raised in a university and are worth debating but disruption or threatening should not be the order in any institute.”

The inter-linkage between fashion and society is effectual and tightly entwined, and one irremediably influences the other. Society’s desires and goals strongly impact fashion, and the role of fashion in moulding the way society thinks and behaves is also clear. However, the male gaze which pervades the fashion industry shapes how society views women, and thus interacts with them. For those confused about what the male gaze is, it is the act of portraying the world and its subjects, especially women, in an objectifying and sexualized manner, and we see this a lot in the world of fashion.

Former JMI lecturer and renowned journalist, Satyendra Ranjan, also echoed these sentiments by saying:

Satyendra Ranjan

Satyendra Ranjan

“Though I don’t support fashion shows in principle, I do believe that people have the right to organize and participate in them. So, I strongly oppose it (the cancellation) from the angle of gender equality.

If the show was cancelled to enforce conventional gender norms, patriarchal control and inequality then it should be questioned and opposed by all means.”

So, while as a feminist platform it is hard for us not to question a concept that traditionally at its base, is driven by objectification of women and furthers unfair beauty standards, we do stand 100% for freedom of expression and strongly oppose fascism / extremism of any kind.