‘Comrade in burqa’ divides ‘progressives’ in Kerala

A photo of a young Muslim girl working with the Students Federation of India, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has reopened questions around whether the Left movement in Kerala is straying from its ideological roots and commitments.

Ameera Khan from Haripad in Kerala has shot into prominence after a photo — posted by Khan’s father and showing the young comrade in a nikab and holding a flag of Che Guevara — went viral on Facebook.

Khan and the SFI faced immediate ridicule for the seeming contradiction within the imagery — the nikab, a symbol of oppression for many ‘progressive’ supporters of the Left — and Che, the South American revolutionary who represents the uncompromising revolutionary spirit.

“We should be thankful to her father for showing us the direction in which the CPIM is moving,” said a post by Basheer Swami, a Facebook user known for his criticism of the Left parties.

Swami — likely a pseudonym — is known for his unconventional take on many political events, and was probably taking aim at the tendency of the Kerala unit of the CPIM to co-opt the forces of organized religion to attain power, contrary to traditional Communist theory.

According to Communist dogma, religion is the opium that ruling classes use to keep the masses sedated and unable to fight the injustice and exploitation inflicted on them.

However, Communist leaders in the state regularly pay ‘courtesy visits’ to religious leaders such as bishops, and the photos of such visits are often displayed prominently in the newspapers next day.


In a scathing reply to those who criticized her father’s congratulatory post, Khan blasted them for questioning her right to wear what she wants.

She said she was working in a “revolutionary” students movement, and the decision to wear what she wants is no less “revolutionary”.

Khan said she came from a progressive family and she did not wear the veil till she completed her 12th standard.

Even now, she said, she does not wear the veil for religious reasons, but purely out of personal choice.

“Even though my facial veil is not related to my religion, many vested interests are trying to link it to my religion,” she said, responding to her critics on Facebook.

“Why do I wear the veil? Because I like it, and only because I like it. I have the right to decide what I should wear, and to what extent I should cover myself,” she said.

She said her father was a supporter of the Leftist movement, and she was attracted to the Left movement after hearing the discussions between her father and his friends.

Khan, who has been a delegate at SFI’s district conference, said she never faced any inconvenience or discrimination within the organization due to the veil.


She said all the controversy around her veil has helped her take her core message to a wider audience.

“My message is that a woman can hold firmly to her religious beliefs and values and still work in the Leftist movement,” she said. “In these days of rising Fascist threats, it is the responsibility of every young person, especially women, to lend their support to secular forces,” she added.

“My clothes, my food etc are personal choices. The biggest benefit of all this controversy is the knowledge that my organization gives me that choice,” she said.

For now, the controversy has divided ‘progressives’ in the state, with many expressing their unease, while others see it as a pragmatic and accommodative stance adopted by the party to continue to attract Muslims.

In the last 10-15 years, more and more Muslims in Kerala have started donning the burqa and wearing the veil. The Indian Union Muslim League — which traces its route to an outfit formed to demand a separate country for Muslims after independence — has also seen a rising support within the community.

Ameera Khan participates in an SFI rally | courtesy: Ayub Salim

Meanwhile, the Left movement in Kerala derives much of its support from the OBCs, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe sections of the population. But it has also enjoyed the support of a minority within the Muslim community of Kerala, support that is increasingly under threat from rising religiosity.

At present, about 70% of the OBC+SC+ST population are estimated to vote for the Left front, while about 25-30% of the Muslim community is expected to vote for the CPIM-led front. About 60% of Kerala’s Muslim votes are estimated to go to the Congress-Muslim League combine, while about 10-15% accrue to other parties.

The Communists are keen to attract more supporters from the Christian and Muslim communities in Kerala that make up around half of the population. However, the anti-religious slant of Communist dogma has so far proved to be a big impediment to this effort.