Published: 30th October 2020
National Unity Day: This Kerala interfaith couple was wrongly accused of Love Jihad. In response, they changed the system
The marriage application of Athira Sujatha and her fiancee Shameem was wrongly circulated on social media last year, causing distress to the couple
Perhaps it is as serendipitous as it is strange that we celebrate National Unity Day, marking the birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, On Saturday, barely weeks after an advertisement by TATA-owned brand Tanishq disrupted that unity on social media — and caused what passes for a national uproar these days. But it does raise the question: How do interfaith couples who have married and lived among us react to these times? How do they find unity within their diversity? How deep does a trial by social media cut? Is there a lesson there for all of us? We tried to find answers to those questions.
Let us tell you a love story. It began 14 years ago when Athira Sujatha met Shameem P at a common friend's place in Kannur in Kerala. They were perfect for each other. Years passed, the love only strengthened and grew beyond all the differences set by society. Being brought up in Hindu and Muslim households respectively, the couple who identify themselves as non-believers, say that faith was never a decisive factor in their relationship. "After all, when you fall in love with someone, their faith isn't the first thing that you consider. Shameem and I have been together long enough to understand that faith was not a priority for us. We are both educated, well aware and love each other," says Athira, who works as a policy professional in Bengaluru.
After seeing each other for 13 years, the duo decided to get married in 2019. Athira agrees that convincing their parents was not easy. "However, our financial independence and our age helped a lot in getting their approval faster," she says. Both Athira and Shameem are in their early thirties. "The minute they met Shameem, they turned out to be his biggest fans. They are super comfortable around him. And when Shameem's parents got to know that we have been together since 2006, they just asked 'what are you waiting for'," she says.
While Shameem is an entrepreneur, Athira is a policy professional
What followed was a dream wedding, blessed by both sets of parents, in December 2019. The couple got married in accordance with the Special Marriage Act, 1954 on December 22. "Here, neither of us had to convert to any religion. We had a Mehendi event on the night before the wedding reception. The next day, we had the reception," she says. While Shameem tied the thali, her family gifted him a watch. The couple then exchanged rings and cut a cake. "We did everything as conveniently as possible and had good fun," she laughs. All was well.
The price of love
However, right before the wedding was an episode in their lives that Athira and Shameem still dread recalling. One day in November, a few days after the duo got themselves registered at the Sub-Registrar Office and filled out the application to get married, Shameem woke up to a certain Facebook notification. He was told that a certain user had uploaded a photograph where he might be in. He was shocked to find out that it was a copy of their marriage application, with a few other applications, where the groom had a Muslim name. "Here is the list of Love Jihad marriages that took place in September, October and November," read the post. The author of the post had also asked the people to contact the families of the brides and convince them to not marry their daughters off to the respective grooms.
Love Jihad, for those to whom the term is alien, is a theory that accuses Muslim men of converting non-Muslim women into Islam, under the pretext of falling in love with them. Athira wasn't hearing the term for the first time. "I am someone who follows the news very regularly. I have been cognizant of what is happening around me," she says. She worried that at some point when she gets married to Shameem, there may be conversations around the subject." But I never knew that social media and strangers would tag our marriage as love jihad," she says.
Athira says that the Love Jihad accusations are wrong on so many levels
"It was all wrong. This entire narrative of Muslim men marrying innocent Hindu women, forcibly converting them to Islam and taking them to Syria is all wrong on so many levels," says an angry Athira, who points out the misogyny and islamophobia in the entire narrative. "Fringe elements think that Hindu women do not have a brain and can be trapped easily. This is unfair. It comes from a purely misogynistic view of a patriarchal society. Calling a Muslim man a Jihadi is islamophobic and irresponsible. This level of deep-rooted hatred in our society is just scary," she adds.
What's so special?
If a man and a woman decide to enter matrimony under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, they are mandated to file a Notice of Intended Marriage at a sub-registrar office near to the permanent residence of either one, thirty days prior. The applications are available for public scrutiny. Athira thinks that this is quite unfair.
"Why is there a 30-day notice period when two people who follow different faiths decide to get married? Why are our details out on public display?" she asks, calling it a violation of privacy and an infringement of her freedom of matrimonial alliance. When Athira questioned this practice, she was told that it was to ensure that no fraud is committed. "Why is it there only when a couple goes for an interfaith marriage?" she questions.
Athira met Shameem for the first time, 14 years ago
A few months ago, she had put up a Facebook post about this issue, which had gone viral. Following the outcry, the Kerala Minister for Public Works G Sudhakaran had asked the department to no longer put up details of couples marrying under the Special Marriage Act on its website.
The easy and the not-so-easy things
Despite all this, for Athira, her decision to marry Shameem and live together wasn't a tough one. However, she says that it isn't the same for everyone else. "It is dependent on the privileges you enjoy because of the job you do and your financial status," she says. Also, she remembers how it was difficult for the couple to find a house to live in. "Many landlords in Bengaluru openly refused to rent their house to us because Shameem has a Muslim name," she says.
This worries her, undoubtedly. "The growing Islamophobia, hatred and intolerance around us are quite scary. The government has to address it. Even the educated are falling prey to this," she says adding, "People shouldn't believe everything that they read on WhatsApp. Also, it's high time for social media companies to review their policies and include the societal nuances of countries where they have more number of users," she adds.