CHAMPION OF CHANGE
Wassim Akram is the nephew of poet, politician, and activist Rajathi Salma. Originally an unwavering critic of his aunt’s progressive and comparatively eccentric lifestyle, Wassim has had the opportunity to broaden his horizons through working outside of their conservative village Thuvarankurichi in India. His experience and complete change in opinion and behaviour is an example of the transformation that can happen through contact with new experiences and information.
Wassim was first introduced to the world in the documentary about his aunt, Salma (2013). His attitude then could not be more different than it is now. The documentary showed Wassim talking to his mother and aunt, telling them he disapproved of the way they behaved. At that time, Wassim felt the women in his life should have acted more like respectful Tamil Muslim women, which meant wearing a head scarf, staying indoors, not going to the cinema, and not speaking their mind. He felt this was for their own good, and that wearing a headscarf, for example, was their responsibility for “men and society.”
“This fight would happen every time she was at home,” says Wassim about Salma.
Wassim’s cultural beliefs were the product of the conservative Tamil Muslim environment he grew up in. As a boy growing up in Thuvarankurichi, he witnessed the girls around him being denied an education while he was able to stay in school. Socially constructed attitudes to gender meant that as a man, Wassim was allowed to move around freely, and was expected provide financially for his family and protect the women in his life. For Wassim, this was the only way of life that he knew.
It was only when he moved to the city to work, that Wassim realised that life, both for women and men, could be different:
“When the documentary was filmed, I was still the person I was when I was growing up in that society. Then I changed.”
Wassim realised that up until the time he moved, his opinions were not his own, but were the product of the conservative society that he grew up in:
“But then I moved to a different place to work. And when I saw the difference in culture in the city I realised that if I remained the same person I was I could not be in any other place in the world. I can only go back to my village. And now I’m educated and have a really good job. And the most important thing: before when I was just working in a Muslim community I thought, along with everyone else, that if a woman went out of the house there would be some kind of problem. She would get raped or something would happen that would bring some dishonour on the family. But where I am now I have seen women working and earning money and having a good time and everything. Their life is really good! So that changed what I believed: I realised that just because my society believes in something doesn’t make it right.”
Wassim also felt a personal shift in his beliefs and stance on the role of women in society. He could see the positives that could come from women’s equal participation in life, and realised that it wasn’t fair for women to be banished to the home instead of following their dreams and aspirations.
Wassim is now one of Salma’s biggest supporters. However, he still feels powerless in his community back home. Deeply ingrained traditional beliefs are still held onto by his friends and colleagues, and when he shares his new views on the importance of gender equality and giving women the same freedoms and rights as men, he is met with backlash.
Wassim hopes that, in the near future, he will be able to share his beliefs with his friends. Until then, he will continue to expand his knowledge and experiences in the city, and do whatever he can for gender equality in the spaces that allow him to.