In 2015, Bangladeshi-American writer Sharbari Zohra Ahmed wrote one entire episode, and co-wrote another for ABC’s Quantico starring Priyanka Chopra. That season itself had nine other writers and the show, which is into its third season, has roughly 30 writers on its roster. Ahmed happens to be the only Muslim woman on that list.
A few days after social media in India erupted in outrage over an episode in the third season which suggested India had hatched a terror plot and actor Priyanka Chopra was relentlessly attacked, the Hindutva troll machinery discovered Ahmed. Ahmed’s name is not the first that surfaces if you run a search on Google for ‘Quantico writer’, the writers who have written a majority of the episodes are American, non-Muslim men and yet, Ahmed woke up to a flurry of violent rape and murder threats in all her social media profiles.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure why Ahmed — who is not remotely associated with the controversial episode — was singled out. There’s an Indian name as well on the list of writers but the surname suggests the person is a Hindu Brahmin. Whereas, Ahmed — a Muslim and a woman — is exactly the gender and religion that India’s Hindu far-right troll machinery feeds its abuse appetite with. Here are some excerpts from an interview with 47-year-old writer on how she is coping with this onslaught of abuse:
“At first I was shocked, but then I realised all these tweets had an agenda. They were not interested in the truth, they simply had an agenda”
Were you aware of the outrage around the episode before it hit you? When did the first tweets come your way?
I think it was the morning of 9 June that I first took note of this. My phone went all tring-tring-tring with notification sounds and I saw this one tweet, where I was tagged alongside Priyanka Chopra, and we were being chastised for some episode in Quantico. As a writer, I am open to and aware of criticism and I assumed that something from the first season must have pissed someone off. I didn’t pay much attention to it. Then I got some more… and more… and more and soon, it was as if the floodgates had opened. It was only later in the day that I actually figured out what was going on and thought that they must have mistaken me to be the writer. So I told them and tweeted clarifying that I was not the writer of the episode and I thought they’d stop. They didn’t. In fact, the abuse went up manifold and now, everything from me being a woman, a Muslim, a Bangladeshi, was being taken apart on Twitter…
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The nature of abuse that women face on social media is markedly different from what men face…
Yes, of course. So I was flooded with rape threats. Not just rape threats, but random people wishing that I be raped by terrorists and the ISIS. Others suggesting that I was, in fact, a sex slave of the ISIS… as if it’s something Muslim would ever women choose to be. When my friends defended me, they faced similar abuses. A flurry of these tweets also suggested I write an episode for Quantico where a Muslim writer is gangraped by the ISIS.
At first I was shocked, but then I realised all these tweets had an agenda. They were not interested in the truth, they simply had an agenda — which they think is nationalistic and they are single-mindedly following that.
Following the first few tweets, I replied to bunch of these tweeters saying I did not write the episode, but the abuse just went on. No one really apologised or bothered to correct the facts. I am still getting tagged in replies to those tweets…
Have you faced a similar situation before?
Yes, once in 2015-16 when it was Bangladeshis who were criticising me for the show. The show had a line where a character says something about bombing in a Bangladeshi nightclub. I got a flood of tweets calling accusing me of all sorts of things. Some said, there are no night clubs in Dhaka and there are no terror attacks in Bangladesh. It was the same, so-called nationalistic fervour which drove people to make really absurd claims. A few months later, at terrorists attacked a bakery in Bangladesh, where I lost one of my friends. I was itching to point that out to all those people who had claimed there are no terror attacks in Bangladesh and accused me of misrepresentation. But I didn’t. A couple of them, who were my friends, later apologised to me in private.
The liberal English media in America is mostly caught up with the Hijabi Muslim… I mean I am a non-hijabi and I know for a fact that if a woman takes to the hijab voluntarily, it’s great.
You were also invited to an Indian TV show, which turned into a shouting match…
Oh my god! That was crazy! The channel, 9X, had gotten my email from somewhere and wrote to me saying that they wanted to interview me. I had no idea that I’d be in a panel. So when I logged in at the time they gave, suddenly there was this huge cut out of my face on the screen with Priyanka Chopra’s beside it. I was like, ‘are you kidding me’, what’s happening? I have never watched these news shows before and had no clue they get conducted like this. I did hold my own in it, but I had to yell at the end of it — because everyone was shouting and yelling and not letting me speak. And I hate yelling. It felt like am ambush…
Across societies, be in United States, be it India or Bangladesh for that matter, the conservative right wing seems to be having their day in the sun. How does it affect your work and your politics?
True. As a Muslim American writer, it is a highly fraught time. We have to constantly speak up against stereotypes, constantly point out misrepresentations by our own community and others. At the television panel last day, there was a bunch of people were saying there is no such thing as ‘Hindu terror’. I was aghast. So I told them, the rape and murder of the 8-year-old girl, that was an act of terrorism. In America too, some crimes qualify as ‘terror’, while others — mostly by white American males — don’t.
Then someone else tweeted at me saying there is no such thing as a Bengali Muslims, Bengalis aren’t Muslims historically. A lot of Bengali Hindus were ranting about Bangladesh, calling it a sewer.
At a time like this, it behooves me as a writer to resist censorship, extremist tendencies and fascist behaviour. Writers, journalists, artistes should get together — like they have — to protest this attempt at the erasure of the freedom of expression. However, we also have to be extremely responsible. We live in a very globally charged time… and if we are writing something political, we should also understand the politics of the region and not write something sensational for the sake of it.
“I was upset because they gave into bullying. What I was facing was the worst, most shameless kind of bullying — and ABC’s apology emboldened these people.”
What is it like to be a Muslim writer in America right now and deal with this naked racism that the new government seems to have unleashed?
It’s a really strange time to be a Muslim, non-hijabi woman in America right now. The narrative around Muslims is split sharply and I think, people like me are caught somewhere in between and it’s not a great place.
The liberal English media in America is mostly caught up with the Hijabi Muslim… I mean I am a non-hijabi and I know for a fact that if a woman takes to the hijab voluntarily, it’s great. But many women don’t and if it is forced on a woman, it is oppressive. The space for these narratives, somehow, is shrinking in the liberal media. Identities like mine are not being hailed in the media as it doesn’t fit a stereotype, and on the other hand, the conservatives don’t spare me the vilification for being a Muslim as well.
I used to write very little about my identity — I was born and raised in America — but now I think more and more about the crossroad people like me are at. It affects my thinking and affects my writing as well — I am writing more and more about my identity these days.
You were unhappy with ABC’s apology…
Yes, I was very very gutted. On one hand, I was fighting trolls for freedom of expression, and then they went and issued an apology. I expressed my disappointment in a couple of tweets over ABC’s decision, but later deleted them because trolls were hanging on to every word I said and abusing me. Some people said, why am I upset with ABC’s apology if I had nothing to do with the episode. I was upset because they gave into bullying. What I was facing was the worst, most shameless kind of bullying — and ABC’s apology emboldened these people, who started getting at me with renewed vigour. I later deleted some of the tweets, because it was getting too much for me to handle.
That said, writers should also be cautious. If you’re going to be political, you should know the politics.
Priyanka Chopra also apologised. What do you feel about that?
I felt terrible that she had to go through that. I mean, if she had not apologised they wouldn’t let her be, right? She must have felt the need to say something, especially because she is from India.
The level of misogyny I saw in the tweets directed at her and at me, was horrifying. I am really frightened for women and Indian women if this is what they have to face for speaking their minds.