Zaira Wasim, the young star of the hit movie Dangal, was recently the target of a maelstrom of hatred, simply because she dared to accept an invitation to meet with the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti. Critics (of whom 99 percent are apparently male) piled on her with glee, calling her ‘unIslamic’ for both the meeting, and daring to act in the film. She tried to diffuse the situation by apologising for her actions – twice – at which point she was once again the target of trolls for a series of tweets with sports minister Vijay Goel, and once again for an old social media post her mother made in 2014, which has a pro-Pakistan message (relations between the two neighbouring countries are almost always strained).
I am tired of the double standards that exist in India between men and women, and that are constantly reinforced time and time again, so I decided to write Zaira Wasim an open letter, which is as follows.
I want to begin by telling you how proud I am of you. It can’t have been the easiest thing in the world to fly against tradition – I know this because I’ve done it too – and then to dare to persist in a world that so often tells us, as Indian women, that we are simply not enough. But you. Look at you. You are flying free, a kite in the wind, soaring. I want you to know that it takes courage, and it takes conviction to do what you’re doing, and to make it look as effortless as you make it look.
I know what it is like to feel like you have to straddle two worlds; for you, I think, it is the world that you are creating for yourself, and the world you come from, the world that created you. You walk the line so graciously between so many worlds. Between the world of Kashmir, and the world of India. Between the world of girlhood, and the world of beckoning adulthood. Between the world of tradition, and the world of modernity. You embody, in your self, what so many other Indian women do, and we see it, and we identify with it, and we see you.
It broke my heart recently when you felt the need to apologise for actions that weren’t even your own, and in so doing, you felt the need to be as self-deprecating as you were. I want you to know that you have nothing to apologise for. You owe nothing to anybody. In a world that will often tell you that you cannot, and more importantly, that you must not, I want you to know that you can. You are. You will.
I want you to be proud of your every accomplishment; I want you to claim it, and celebrate it. You deserve to be celebrated, Zaira, and more importantly, you deserve to celebrate yourself. When you wrote that you weren’t proud of what you were doing, it made me wonder why you felt the need to say that. I hope you are as proud of yourself as we are of you. I hope you look at yourself in the mirror sometimes and tell yourself, ‘Zaira, you are awesome.’ And when you do, I hope you believe it.
One of the most important lessons you will learn in your life is this: you cannot please everybody, and you shouldn’t even try. But you’re still young. You’re only sixteen. That’s a lesson I learned in my twenties. You will too.
I cannot imagine for one second what it feels like to be you; I would have collapsed under the weight of so much media scrutiny at the age of sixteen. I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. I am certain that I could never have handled it as graciously as you do. In fact, I don’t think I can now, as an adult.
You’re under a tremendous amount of pressure, so I hope that you’re kind to yourself. I hope that you give yourself permission to just be, and I hope you understand, truly, that you are wonderful, that you are talented, and that you deserve every ounce of success that you get. Ignore the naysayers, and embrace the people who celebrate you. I promise you, that’s what life is all about.
I can’t wait to see what else you’re going to do with yours.
Awanthi Vardaraj lives and writes in the port city of Chennai, in the south of India, where she runs her own small artisanal bakery, and keeps a garden full of jasmine plants and herbs she still cannot nam