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Kerala: a state of hope for Indian Muslims

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NEW DEHLI: Muslims are discriminated against in Hindu Narendra Modi’s India, and religious violence is growing across the country. Yet in communist-run Kerala, visible signs of Muslim identity are everywhere.

Three women in black niqabs, only their eyes visible, sat chatting at a bus stop under a huge portrait of Che Guevara. Above them, hammer and sickle pennants fluttered in the breeze. Surprising? After all, this was not Saudi Arabia or Cuba but Kerala, India’s southernmost state.

MS Visakh, a young Keralan sociologist, said, ‘Women wearing the niqab or pardha, a version of the niqab that doesn’t cover the face, first appeared about 15 or 20 years ago. Today they’re everywhere.’

Thiruvananthapuram. ‘Muslim women used to dress like everyone else, in a brightly coloured sari or kurta and churidar [tunic and narrow trousers], with their head covered by a long coloured piece of cloth called a thattam,’ he said. ‘When they went out in a sari, they just threw the end of it over their head to cover their hair.’

Kerala is a relatively small state, with a population of 33 million, but it has a far higher proportion of Muslims (27%, mostly Sunnis) than India as a whole (14%); in many towns and cities in the northern Malabar district they are a majority. (Kerala also has a high proportion of Christians: 18%, compared with 2% nationwide.) Islam arrived in northern India in the 16th century with the Mughals, but in Kerala it dates back to the time of the Prophet, when Arab traders came from the Gulf to buy spices on the Malabar coast.

The sight of these women in black in a country known for colourful clothing is all the more surprising since Kerala is India’s only communist-run state. Communist symbols are everywhere: pennants on posts, busts of former leaders on city streets, portraits of new leaders on Bollywood-style billboards, sculptures of the hammer and sickle on roundabouts, portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin (almost as numerous as in Soviet Russia), reproductions of Alberto Korda’s 1960 photo of Che gazing into the distance.

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