20
Feb
06

All Issues are Connected – Shabana Azmi

 

“All Issues are connected”

A Conversation with Shabana Azmi
By Asif Saleh
With her outspoken stand against fundamentalism and communalism, Shabana Azmi has now become the icon of the South Asian activists worldwide. I met with the activist Shabana recently on behalf of Drishtipat and talked with her candidly on her philosophy, life and the social issues she is working on. And her answers, just like her, were hardhitting and straight to the point.

Asif: From slum dwellers rights to fights against fundamentalism, you have so far worked on a number of issues, what is the issue that is closest to your heart?

Shabana: All the issues are connected. From the slum dwellers rights to the issue of communalism — they are connected in certain ways. When communal riots happen, it affects the slum dwellers the most. They become the victims because they are the weakest in the society. I got involved with an organization called Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti which sees itself as an agitational group that fights for the rights of the slum dwellers in Bombay. We are helping almost about 40 slums in Bombay to fight for their rights. Here we see that all the issues that we work for helps these people regardless. However, I strongly believe that ultimately it is women’s empowerment that is the key to development of any nation. If we keep the women down and oppressed, we will never be able to move ahead in this world.

Asif: So is your focus is on urban areas in regards to women’s issues?

Shabana: My work is connected to rural areas. All these people who live in the slums are people who got displaced from the rural areas for lack of employment. If they had employment in their areas, they would never come to the city and face such injustice. My father worked for a village all his life. He worked on creating a model village in his time where he focused on these issues.

Asif: In this regard, I would like to quote your father who once said “When you are working for change, you have to build into that expectation the possibility that change might not happen in your lifetime and yet to have to continue to work towards it” — Do you believe it?

Shabana: Oh yes. I sincerely believe that. I thought it was wonderful coming from him, somebody who had spent all his life working for social change. My father (the renowned poet, Kaifi Azmi) settled down in a tiny village in Azamgarh, U.P. and he had been working towards making it a model village. In his 20 years of living and working there, he has transformed it from a place that didn’t have water and electricity, to a place that has three schools, a health center, roads and even boasts of a computer-training center. He has done all this single-handedly – at snail’s pace, all by himself, quietly, patiently, without raising a single slogan.

It wasn’t easy but my father worked around the difficulties. For example, the villagers did not want a school because the place where he was going to set it up was the place that they put their cow dung. Instead of scoffing at them he found them an alternative space for the cow dung.

So oneday I asked him doesn’t this frustrate you and that’s when he told me that and since then that has become the motto of my life. I have internalized it. You can’t wait for a change to happen overnight. The process of change is slow and gradual. It is a work in progress all the time. It happens through legislation, it happens through social transformation, attitude change, and mindset change. So it is indeed a work in progress all the time. You have to keep working on it without worrying too much to see the outcome in your lifetime.

 

Asif: You have made a number of trips in Bangladesh recently (to make a film on Aids) . How would you say the state of human rights in Bangladesh?

Shabana: Well, I’ll have to do more homework on it and I am no expert on it. But I have been concerned about the recent rise of minority oppression in Bangladesh.

Asif: Recent Election in Pakistan and the current governments in India and Bangladesh paint a picture of surge in nationalistic and religion based politics in the region. Is this a defeat for the secular side?

I will not call it a defeat but a setback. This is a very recent phenomenon and indeed causes of great concern. However, I don’t think our reaction should that this is the end. But the situation is grave enough to be addressed. We all need to be vocal and take a stand against religion based politics.

Asif: While we see you in processions and issue driven activism, we see celebrities like sachin tendulkar and Hritik Roshan in Pepsi commercials only? Why the indifference towards social issues on the part of south Asian celebrities in general?

Shabana: Indifference is a strong word. Actually I don’t think they are indifferent. Amitabh Bachchan, Tabu, Sunil Sethy to name a few– they have all worked with me on a number of issues when I have approached them. I think it is also related to the fact that people don’t approach them with these issues. They think such and such is working on these issues, so let’s call him or her. So the end result is that one or two people get over burdened with every single issues. You can’t work on every single issue; you do support issues of equality, equity and justice in principle. So I think the people organizing events need to branch out to them more. If the right people approach them, I am sure they will come. Also it takes a little time to feel passionately for any issue.

Asif: Increasing after 9/11, talking about Islamic fundamentalism in considered by some moderate Muslims as bad timing and thus alienate them and at the same time it is capitalized by the Hindu fundamentalists to create more anti Islamic hysteria. How can we balance this? You yourself got a fatwa from some fundamentalist group and at the same time has been called Islamic terrorist by the VHP group.

Shabana: The answer lies in your question itself. Muslim fundamentalists are the best friends of the Hindu fundamentalists. They always have and will capitalize on each other’s actions. So, fundamentalism has no color or religion. If I am a moderate Muslim, this is the time for me to speak out even more, than to be quiet. If I am seeing my religion is getting stereotyped and hijacked by some terrorists, shouldn’t I fight back and stop them from corrupting my religion further? If all Muslims are being portrayed as terrorists, then the most important thing for you to do is to distance yourself from the stereotypes and say “this is not what Islam practices, this is not what it preaches, I am a practicing Muslim and I do not agree with the fundamentalists who are distorting Islam.” Surely that is going to clear the air and create a better perception; rather than you keeping silent and allowing the fundamentalist to dominate. That is exactly the same situation with Hindu fundamentalism. You can’t suddenly say that that is going to be acceptable mode. We have to really keep understanding that there are wheels within the wheels and the only way we can keep our head above the water is when Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs speak up and unite.. In this changed world, we cannot think in terms of countries any more. We need to think in terms of regions. I feel like there is a vast majority of people in both religions now, more than ever, who need to speak up from the South Asian region. The voice of the silent majority MUST be heard.

Asif: What is the best way to engage these moderates which the reactionary force seems to have been able to do successfully through cultural events?

Shabana: The problem with us is that we rush in only after the riots take place where as the greatest amount of work needs to be done in the times of peace before the riots occur. The interventionist work that needs to be done is to be done in times of peace. We have seen cases where many religious functions are organized abroad and marketed as the way of “Indianization”. That is the more insidious and dangerous part. Because people are going into those functions thinking they need to hold on to their identity in country like the US. Whereas in many cases they are donating money here and without their knowledge, the money is actually going to fund to organizations which promote communal tension. So you can see they are working very cleverly on this. I think one of the main problems we have is that most of the people who are working on issues of humanity have other full time commitments they have to attend. So they do not have the time to focus on it completely. We need funds to work during the peacetime. We need to better organize ourselves. What you saw in Gujarat and the recent alarming trend of the rise of Hindu nationalism did not happen overnight. It has been a gradual process that took eighty years to take this shape. To counter that I think we need to network among ourselves better and build more bridges with like minded people and organizations. We need to work in peace time to engage more and more people. We can’t let the fundamentalists dictate the course of our work.

Asif: How are you using you status to do this?

Shabana: I am speaking in Universities. I have been talking to different organizations and trying to network between them. I have used my time to put people’s focus on these issues.

Asif: These days do you consider yourself more a social activist than an actor?

Shabana: I don’t think these two roles are different. Every actor has a social responsibility. I feel like, being an actress and doing the kind of roles that I have been doing, I have been working on the issues that I would like to focus. What I do tend to do is to not think of every single roles in terms of whether it is issue driven or not. Because when I start doing that, I stop being an actor and being an actor is of tremendous value to me. I have to lighten up a bit. Over the years, my political beliefs have become more and more straightened and I have become more and more choosy in picking the roles. In picking roles, some cases are just black and white and I know what to do. However, in certain cases there are gray areas, which create confusion in me. On one hand there is a professional responsibility and on the other hand there is the social responsibility. I can not ignore the fact that the tremendous respect that I have got from people over the years, a lot of that has come from the fact that they respect the kind of cinema that I have been doing. I always keep that in mind.

Asif: Thank you very much for your time and good luck in your future endeavors.

Shabana:

Thank you and I also laud the work that Drishtipat is doing for the cause of the less-fortunates.

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