Monday, March 30, 2009

Shame of a Name and The Great House Hunt

This blog has discussed the issue of housing discrimination several times in previous posts (I, II, III and IV), so it may not be very interesting to go through the legal arguments once again (for those who want to catch up, I have summarised possible legal remedies for dealing with housing discrimination here). I just wanted to share two moving stories being furiously debated on Kafila - personal narratives by Zainab Bawa and Sohail Hashmi (on last count, Zainab's story had 44 comments which themselves make a very interesting read). Also interesting is Anjum Hasan's following account:

...what it means to be a Muslim who is not quite a Muslim. Bangalore, where I now live, is perhaps the most hospitable city in the country but trying to rent a house sometimes means dealing with landlords who wish to first get the matter of religion out of the way. Now wait a minute, I have wanted to say to the house-owner who asks me on the phone if I'm Muslim. I know he is drawing on a pre-existing mental picture. I want to answer him in the negative and hope he gets the implication, which is that not everyone with a Muslim name is ‘Muslim' . But if he misses my subtle point, I will only be encouraging him to continue discriminating against those who conform to the image in his prejudiced head. Better, then, to say – ‘Yes, I am' and try to get across the subtext – ‘And so what?' Which possibly means losing the house, which seems eminently unfair.

These narratives should remind us that behind our sanitised legalese are real people facing real consequences because of choices made by our legal system (for choosing not to act is also a choice). Sohail's anecdote suggests that housing discrimination against Muslims in Delhi is (a) not recent, i.e. not a product of recent ostensible linkages between Islam and terrorism, (b) systemic and widespread enough to dictate basic life choices regarding where to live and everything else that goes with it, and (c) solely based on the religion of the applicant (the use of intelligent and innovative pretexts notwithstanding). Sadly, all we have is anecdotal evidence. This is an issue crying out for statistical analysis so that we can realise the true extent of the problem and test the generality of these anecdotes.

Incidentally, readers may be interested to know that the 2009 election manifestoes of the Congress Party and the CPI(M) promise to establish an Equal Opportunity Commission by law, while the CPI manifesto promises to 'end discrimination in the matter of job recruitment and disbursement of various economic schemes.' (For a detailed discussion on the Equal Opportunity Commission and its potential implications for this discussion, see this article).

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