Here are the rules to live by as per Barkha-
1) Hindu women concentrating on problems in their own religion is perfectly acceptable.
2) Women from other religions, or agnostic women like Barkha, concentrating on problems faced by women in the Hindu religion are also acceptable.
3) A Muslim woman, who suffered at the hands of Islamic violence, needs to be asked why she is singling her own religion out.
In Martin Scorsese’s historical epic ‘Gangs of New York’, Jim Brodbent’s character explains “appearance of law must be upheld. Especially while it is being broken.” In the context of the horrible bias displayed by our journalists in various forums, this line can be modified for them as “appearance of lack of bias must be upheld. Especially when you are being biased.”
But no matter how low those minimum appearance requirements may be, Barkha Dutt’s recent moderation at the Women in the World New York summit debate slides right under it. I sat watching, incredulous, as Dutt threw all the principles of unbiased, pro justice journalism to wind. Therefore, a closer analysis of the debate and some discussion of the subtext might be in order.
The discussion panel consisted of one dissident, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two fiercely pro-Islam women’s activists; the Sharia defender Hibaaq Osman and Zahra Langhi, co-founder and director of Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace and one career politician/diplomat, along with the Indian born American Farah Pandith.
Barkha opened by taking a crack at Ayaan. Even her opening remarks were laying down groundwork for her Islam apology “why are we here to discuss women in Islam, why not women in religion? Aren’t all religions, Christianity and Hinduism included, tilted against women?” Then she added that according to her, what Donald Trump said about women was so much worse than the Muslim fundamentalists he is seeking to keep out. Really? Worse than those who conduct beheadings and put it on YouTube? She made this statement, since she knew that in a roomful of liberals, her remarks will draw no challenge. But they established her intention of Islam apology firmly at the onset.
Her first question to Ayaan was truly shocking “Why are you picking only on Islam?” she asked. Oh allow me to attempt that question madam- may be, because as a woman, Ayaan has seen problems like FGM and child marriage sanctioned by law only in Islam, may be, because her movie making partner, Theo Van Gogh, was brutally murdered (shot eight times, then stabbed with two knives as he lay on ground pleading for his life and then left with a note stuck to his bleeding body using another knife) by an Islamic fundamentalist and she had to flee her homeland after that incident?
Also, when contrasted with Barkha’s behaviour back home, this question throws some interesting anomalies. For example, when a woman’s rights activist, while responding to the question as to why she was concentrating on temple entry as an issue when there were bigger atrocities being committed against women of other faiths, said “I am only concerned with my religion.” I don’t remember Barkha asking her why she is picking on Hinduism, do you?
So if you put all of this together, you get the rules to live by as per Barkha 1) Hindu women concentrating on problems in their own religion is perfectly acceptable. 2) Women from other religions, or agnostic women like Barkha, concentrating on problems faced by women in the Hindu religion are also acceptable. 3) A Muslim woman, who suffered at the hands of Islamic violence, needs to be asked why she is singling her own religion out.
Something rotten in Denmark folks?
Ayaan, bless her soul, rattled off statistics that left no room for argument over the inherently misogynistic nature of Sharia law and its widespread acceptance among Muslims the world over. Then, she went on to differentiate between Muslims whom she embraces as people and Islam as a doctrine that according to her is inherently misogynistic and totalitarian in nature. Before any of the other panellists could jump in, Barkha was at the defence of the religion of peace again. She gave examples of women of a certain age not allowed inside a temple and then made a comment about being surprised that a country like the United States is still discussing about the women’s right to abort.
Again, hypocrisy alert. If Barkha finds the pro-life argument misogynistic, why had she never condemned Mother Teresa, one of the biggest opponents of abortion, (she termed it as the greatest threat to the world peace) for being a misogynist? Why, when RSS Chief Mr. Bhagwat talked about Teresa’s intentions to convert, Barkha chose to question the political motives behind his statement rather than accepting that the late missionary was a religious bigot? So here is Barkha’s hierarchy of religions for you folks- while condemning Hindus, defend Christianity, while defending Islamic extremism, question Christianity. Intricate, eh?
Ayaan once again slapped Barkha by asking her to concentrate on the topic of debate for the next thirty minutes, rather than getting sucked into the argument Barkha wanted to draw her in. She received a thunderous applause for that. Chastised, Barkha started leading the attack from the flank by throwing Zahira Langhi this rope “If you had to explain to (note the choice of the words) Ayaan that while you might be facing misogyny as a woman, but you are not necessarily facing misogyny as a Muslim.” Wow!! Barely ten minutes into the debate, two of the four panellists have not even opened their mouths, and our brave moderator has already reached a conclusion.
Barkha, now properly warmed up, started badgering in earnest and compared Ayaan to Trump since both of them do not want Muslims to immigrate to America. You see how our narrator flips from not accepting violence against women as misogyny in the religion, to calling a women’s right activist a misogynist by association? Slick.
Since Ayaan did not dignify you with an answer Barkha, once again allow me to do it. 1) Trump’s supposed misogyny has nothing to do with his idiotic statement of banning Muslims. Trump was being racist or communal when he said that, but not misogynist. 2) Ayaan had qualified her statement about migrants by saying, if they were to bring their misogynistic attitude with them, then they might as well turn around. You can oppose this sentiment, only if you are naïve enough to assume that the migrant Muslims will abandon their beliefs once they come to a new nation, or feel that women’s rights are not important enough, if migrant’s rights to come and enforce their culture on United States hangs in balance. Both are appalling sentiments, especially coming from a woman.
When Ayaan brought up the issue of child marriage in Sharia law, Barkha tried to shut her down many times by telling her they were not debating Sharia law. When Ayaan ignored her, and completed her point, Barkha brought her anti Hindu bias into play to break Ayaan’s rhythm. Barkha said “you know what, even if it embarrasses me to admit it on the global stage, child marriage is common in many cultures, including the Hindu culture” yeah sure, except one tiny difference- In India, child marriage was first outlawed in 1929, and then again in 1978 when the minimum age of marriage was raised from fifteen to eighteen. A year later, Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran and he reduced the marriage age to nine. But guess for a journalist like Barkha noting this is just splitting hairs.
Barkha, who told Aayan that it was her job to provoke at the start of the conversation, had a memory lapse about her job description, when Somali born activist Hibaaq went on a rant against Aayan. Not only did she not ask any provoking questions to Hibaaq, but actually endorsed her view thus- “you are saying since Ayaan at some point has declared a war on Islam, there is no point in engaging with her. Reform has to come from within the society, am I summarizing it correct?” After taking the obligatory confirmation from Hibaaq, Barkha did a clever transition by asking Farah Pandith “Farah that’s what you try to do.” Subtext- Hibaaq is right, Ayaan should not be engaged with since she is a radical (with the same view as Donald Trump), and in case you do not agree with Hibaaq, we have a slightly more palatable version of Islam reformist in Pandith.
Facepalm moment for Barkha next came, when she tried to build consensus by saying “We agree on a lot of things. We agree on Muslim diversity. We agree that cultures inform Muslim women very differently as they do Hindu and Christian women, and we seem to agree that there is a need to reform Islam (interruption as Zahira Langhi said ‘no, we don’t) ——–You didn’t let me finish my sentence, (again interruption from Zahira who kept nodding in negative), there is a need to reform Islam, as there is a need in all orthodoxies that I believe are inherently misogynistic. Zahira again denied point blank that there was any need for reforms in Islam.
Barkha conceded that Muslims were diverse, she agreed that cultures had an influence on them, and yet when she tried, mildly and apologetically, to get Zahira to agree on the obvious, i.e. Islam needs reforms, all she got was a cold and a curt no. Here is the things about radicals Barkha, they may smile, and pat your back if you agree with their world view, but they are never at a negotiation table with you. On a cringe worthiness scale of 1 to 10 seeing a fellow Indian slapped like this was a full 10.
Barkha, in a damage control mode, went to the neutral panellist next. Asking Pandith “would you be more comfortable if we were discussing women and religion and not women and Islam”
This reminded me of a scene from Tom Hank’s Oscar Winning turn in ‘Philadelphia’. The AIDS afflicted Hanks is studying in a library for his upcoming discrimination lawsuit when he breaks into an uncontrollable coughing fit. People sitting around him slowly disperse. The librarian walks to him and asks, apologetically, “Sir, wouldn’t you be more comfortable in a private research room?” Hanks coughs once more and responds “No, would it make you more comfortable?” I rest my case.
More appeasement as Barkha asked Pandith “the feminist in me is confused. The veil, is it a sign of multiculturalism, or is it a sign of oppression?”
Curiously, Barkha, who is so confused and diffident when it comes to veil in Islam, knew exactly where to plant her feet when she tweeted last year on the occasion of the Hindu festival of Karva Chauth, (a day when married women keep fast for their husbands) “no power has yet been able to convince me that Karva Chauth is not inherently regressive and patriarchal.” Again, the rules change as per the religion for our fearless moderator.
With the time running out, Barkha still managed to get one last appeasement in. She asked Hibaaq if human rights supersede religious rights, and Hibaaq answered in negative. Let me say that again- a panellist told Barkha that religious rights are more important than human rights, and Barkha kept nodding intelligently, following the logic of how Islam gave enough rights, so to speak. Now imagine back home, a right winger saying the same thing to Barkha in a televised debate. Then shake your head at the hypocrisy, and go on about your life. Hibaaq was not done however. She made an absurd statement that people asking women not to veil are the same as people asking women to veil. That is like saying women fighting for abolition of dowry are the same as women asking dowry for their sons. And of course, this being New York, and the speaker being a Muslim, Barkha said she agreed with that. A little irony is good for your health folks.
For the readership of this column the fact that Barkha Dutt is a big Hinduphobe and a hypocrite is no secret, so why discuss this?
It is because, this brand of appeasement and dual standards have life and death consequences. As Ayaan put it so eloquently when Barkha gave the example of Benzir Bhutto’s Prime Ministership as an example of modernity in Islam (insert roll of eyes here) “we need to acknowledge the fight of them (reformists). It’s a dangerous fight, it’s a fight where people who disagree with you on the inside want to kill you. I don’t mind arguing with the Islamists and the radicals, but they want to kill me, I don’t want to kill them.” Allow this to sink in for a while folks. These are the statements from a person who has lived under the fear of death for most of her adult life. To obfuscate her struggle against a particular faith as just another woman fighting the regressive patriarchy, takes some of the legitimacy away from it. And in case of women like Ayaan, a loss of legitimacy can translate into the loss of life in a moment.
Closer home, it matters to us (other than our obvious ideological support for people like Ayaan), because in this information age, journalists like Barkha Dutt consider themselves at the forefront of each reforms debate that we as a society have. Journalists, at their finest, are the spokespersons of the society as a whole. Do we really want people who subscribe to the dangerous theory of Islamophobia and try their best to rob the earnest dissidents of the legitimacy of their struggle, as our spokespersons?
So next time when you see Barkha pontificating on, say, the Sabarimala issue, please remember this truth folks- this is the woman who thinks that woman wearing veil is a matter of individual choice and that anyone who wishes to reform religion should obtain approval of its most bigoted supporters first.
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Mayuresh runs a financial advisory business in Pune and is an avid marathon runner and reader. His novel ‘The Dark Road’ is now available on Juggernaut app here: https://www.juggernaut.in/books/657f2054995249e48c8a753040e01fb7