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Sania, Shoaib and the “new” subcontinent April 11, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Stoddart, Brian , trackback

Brian Stoddart

Superficially, the circus surrounding the proposed marriage between Indian tennis star Sania Mirza and controversial Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik might simply be put down to a need for personality fodder on the part of the now insatiably competitive Indian media. Indeed, that is a prime driver – news channels like NDTV have carried the story in massive detail on all their language outlets, newspapers across India and Pakistan have given it front page status.

But underneath the boil and bubble lie some intriguing dimensions of how the “new” subcontinent comes to terms with “old” traditions and practices.

The story thus far goes like this. In late March Sania Mirza’s family announced in Hyderabad that India’s leading woman tennis player would marry Shoaib Malik in mid-April. That was good news for Shoaib, for he was one of the players fined and banned for a year by the Pakistan Cricket Board following the team’s disastrous tour of Australia that involved allegations of ball tampering. The initial view was that the couple would live in Dubai and that Sania would still play for India and Shoaib for Pakistan once and if he was reinstated.

Then things turned sour. In Hyderabad, Mohammed Ahmed Siddiqui alleged that his daughter Ayesha was already married to Shoaib, and the family published what they argued to be the marriage certificate. Ayesha herself then went public and said that Shoaib was avoiding talking to her, that they had married over the phone, that she had undergone weight reduction surgery to please him, and that she spent time with him in hotel rooms in Hyderabad and Dubai among other places.

By this time Shoaib was in Hyderabad at the Mirza home, and scrums of journalists assembled outside each day for the latest briefings. Shoaib and Sania together fronted the mob. Shoaib argued that while he had spoken to Ayesha he had never met her because she was never available. The story took additional twists with Shoaib then saying that the photograph he was shown of Ayesha was, in reality, of her sister and that the proposed telephone agreement was therefore nullified.

The Siddiqui family then laid serious criminal charges against Shoaib, including one under the Indian Penal Code dealing with the harassment of a wife by her husband or his family members, and another relating to dowry pressures. By now Ayesha claimed to have miscarried with Shoaib’s child. The police arrived at the Mirza residence to interview Shoaib, then took off with them his mobile phone and his passport.  He was stuck in India. Still vowing to clear his name, he was hit further when Ayesha handed over to the police what she said were her wedding night clothes.

The following day Shoaib effectively admitted to the first marriage and signed a talaqnama to formalise a divorce, agreeing to pay Ayesha a statutory Rs 15,000 in return for the withdrawal of the charges. Reports suggest that he was persuaded to act this way on advice that the police considered the case against him sound, that he might wind up in an Indian jail and could take some time to emerge from there.

That resolution seemed to clear the way for the Mirza marriage, but the issue of the charges might still remain. One version has the head of the relevant court in Hyderabad telling police they could not withdraw the cases “for lack of evidence” because, in fact, they had gathered the evidence and presented it to the court!

Amidst all this, the proposed Sania-Shoaib marriage stirred passions in widely different quarters. Predictably, Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena blasted the marriage and said that Sania should now play for Pakistan because she had effectively renounced her right to remain an Indian.

Now that was interesting because Thackeray seemed to think her being Muslim was less of an issue than Shoaib being Pakistani, such is the convolutions of the Sena. Sania might have welcomed that, because she has been in some strife herself and, ironically, still is with some quarters of the Hyderabadi Muslim community.

It should be remembered that much of this marriage strife took place publicly in Hyderabad at the very time the city was suffering serious communal violence with large chunks of the old city around the Charminar shut down. Some conservative Muslim leaders were unhappy that the divorce issue was being resolved publicly and not necessarily in line with sharia provisions. Above all, they thought the publicity highly unhelpful given the timing.

Being a tennis star has never been easy for Sania, and she has fielded criticism from several directions. Earlier she was taken to task by some Muslim commentators for the skimpy clothes that she wears on the circuit. Rightly, she claims it is simply part of her profession but the unyielding critics see it as being a denial of being a Muslim when, in fact, she makes no secret of being serious about her faith. The clash of old and new is palpable.

Then, she still faces possible criminal charges on the grounds that at the Hopman Cup in Perth she allegedly put her feet on or near the Indian flag, thereby showing disrespect. That might draw Thackeray’s ire more than her marriage to a Pakistani.

Shoaib has his own Muslim identity issues during a period when the Pakistani cricket side has openly adopted a more pronounced adherence to the faith, most spectacularly with Mohammad Yousuf. Formerly Yousuf Youhana and a Christian, Mohammad Yousuf became a world star after converting and was Shoaib’s captain in Australia but he, too, was banned by the PCB and promptly retired. Shoaib, meanwhile, was not considered one of the most devout of team members and was widely ridiculed for claiming that “all Muslims”, including those in India, would support Pakistan in the World Cup. The apparent first marriage and his subsequent social activities further undercut his claims of being close to the faith.

He also took some cuts from Pakistani cricket figures with long memories. Sarfraz Nawaz, the former “great” bowler credited with discovering “reverse swing” and a controversialist in his own right, leaped in to say that just as Shoaib was involved in match-fixing of cricket, he would now do the same in tennis for Sania! This referred to rumours that Shoaib’s current ban was earned for match-fixing, but the PCB is now said to be considering lifting that ban. The match-fixing rumours are just that, rumours, but represent the constant controversies that surround Pakistani cricket.

Inevitably, that feeds into some extraordinary rumours and allegations, especially on the Web. One has Shoaib connected to Dawood Ibrahim, the notorious Mumbai underworld figure. There is no public evidence for that. Another suggests that the Sania-Shoaib marriage is a deep-seated plot, perhaps orchestrated by Pakistani intelligence agencies in order to gain advantage in India. What that advantage might be is not clear. Yet another suggests that Sania and her family might be of a particular Muslim sect unwelcome in Pakistan. Again, that is not at all clear, but it all indicates the layers of meaning being attached to a relatively simple matter of marriage.

The resolution of the divorce was itself indicative of that. A four person resolution team was formed under the leadership of Abid Rasool Khan, a Sunni Muslim and General Secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Congress. Another member of the resolution group was Major S.G.M. Quadri,  Abid Rasool Khan’s brother-in-law and a prominent Hyderabadi social activist. Both are said to be close to the Mirza family. This was a highly visible “public interest”, even political matter and several reports imply that many of those involved are concerned by the profile Shoaib has now developed.

On top of all that, the inevitable debates about “modern” and “traditional” marriages have emerged amidst the defence and criticism of modern lifestyles. Ayesha Siddiqui attracted considerable support from women’s organisations and activist groups who demanded that Shoaib be prosecuted under all possible reformist laws.

This cause celebre may still have a way to run but it is already a potent mix of romance, public transparency, nationalism, sectarianism, foreign affairs, social change, modern mores, Islamic law and practice, popular culture and good old-fashioned rumour and gossip.

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