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Heeramandi: An Experiment in Islamic Wokeism

“Heeramandi” (Diamond Bazar) is an Indian web series directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who proudly claims that he’s not interested in ordinary women standing in a ration line or something like that. Set in pre-independence India, the series delves into the lives of courtesans (tawayafs) in then Akand Bharat’s Lahore’s red-light district. The eight episodes explore themes of family politics, love, betrayal, and independence-era politics, all across the backdrop of haram habits shown as cool. 

“Wokeism” began in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), where “woke” meant being aware of social injustices. It gained prominence during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. It resurfaced in the 2010s with the Black Lives Matter movement, predominantly inspired and driven by the Frankfurt School of Marxism. The term is supposed to refer to awareness and advocacy for various social justice issues. However, the terms and practices associated with the agenda and policies are the most divisive rather than inclusive. Wokeism has taken over public and private institutions as well as education and media realms, focusing on indoctrination and propagation of the Marxist agenda. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practices – the most recent policy child of Marxism operate with ‘my way or the highway’ principles where entities and individuals quickly get canceled if not in line with said agenda.

Islamism is a political ideology that seeks to implement Islamic principles and law (Sharia) as the foundation of government and society. It advocates for the reordering of society according to what it views as fundamental Islamic values and seeks to establish a political system that reflects these principles where non-Muslims are seen as inferior or Kafir. Kafirs are second or third-class citizens who do not share the same rights according to the dogmas of Islam. Therefore, Islamism is also exclusionary in nature, similar to wokeism. What both these exclusionary practices have in common is their parentage – Abrahamism. 

The Heeramandi series meticulously cast predominantly Hindu actresses to play roles, tackling 21st-century experiments in Islamic wokeism. The characters are all Muslim, and Bhansali feels confident in showing promiscuity, drinking, smoking, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, and not just justification for it all, but via the empowerment lens of feminism, making this series a new type of experiment in Islamic wokeism. Some of these intersectionalities are discussed below via characters and their roles.

Fake Feminism 

One female tawayaf – Richa Chadha – is shown suffering from a mental illness, is prone to staying drunk 24×7, and is not adept at taking rejection very well. The murdering, manipulative, and star duo – Manisha Koirala and Sonakshi Sinha – are shown to be heartless stones, dressed in the finest of those times. These greedy women are constantly trying to one-up each other and use whatever resources they have available at their disposal, including British bureaucrats and cheating Nawabs of Lahore. 

The most interesting characters are the house help and the Ustad, a man trapped in a woman’s body. Farida Jalal’s character reminds us of the simpler times in Bollywood. Jalal’s role is insanely woke as she wishes to send her vilayat-returned grandson to the kothas of heeramandi to be schooled in the art of culture, love, and zuban. Interestingly, Bhansali’s choice for the main male lead is a Muslim, who plays a spoiled, vilayat-returned, and thereby indoctrinated guy, but a true Islamist at heart as he insults tawayafs to their faces. The woke hypocrisy here is that he, too, falls for a tawaif’s daughter and is ready to marry her after getting her pregnant. 

Bhansali is confused about whether he wants to showcase the feminine and vulnerable or turn the tawayafs into the masculine. The chain-smoking and day drinking, while casual mentions of nath-utarna, are something Bhansali tries to paint as progressive. Given all the haram debauchery, the women’s frequent visits to dargahs intermittently remind one that these Hindu characters are indeed playing Muslim roles. Here, the Muslim tawayafs are seen to be carving new narratives and new norms as they keep deluding themselves of their “Malikas” and “Queens” of Lahore status.  

On the one hand, the female Muslim characters all desire patronage and protection of men. On the other hand, they use their sexuality as an empowerment, as a weapon, to constantly manipulate both genders. They have no qualms about sleeping with married, multiple men, making these practices look cool to the audience. They also don their headscarves and pray. These mad experiments in feminism make one wait for declarations of hijab to be fashionable and justification for female genital mutilation to be a ‘khandani’ practice.  

There is not one Hindu character developed by Bhansali. However, a Sikh household is shown as a wafer, only to be manipulated and broken by the heer mandi system. The Nawabs and British are shown to be more napunsak than the Ustad. The freedom fighters are a mixed bag of misfits, relying on a tawaif to provide intel, given cozy relations with the Muslim and British elite where the theme is Azadi. 

Azadi from what? Nothing in the first seven episodes indicates that the heer mandi begums want freedom from their peshas. Yet, the forced intersectionality emerges—of the oppressed Muslims under the British and perhaps the tawayafs from themselves? It’s all confusing, yet it’s colored with empowerment and Azadi. The story of less than 1% is glorified as the Muslim prostitutes of Lahore and their pivotal role in defeating the British. The romanticization of prostitution and sexual deviance are portrayed as some great cultural virtues. In fact, it is anti-feminine and degrading feminity. There is nothing empowering about it.

Woke-Islamic Experiments with the Truth

This series will continue beyond the eight episodes. Still, the gist of the series so far is Islam’s experiment with wokeism. A complete exclusion of ‘normal’ Muslim characters, especially wives of those who frequent the kotha, is excluded. The same is true for the common citizenry – their views towards heeramandi are excluded. Not mullah or maulvi is in sight, and all religion’s indoctrination and exclusion practiced, preached, and demonstrated in Islam find themselves missing in Bhansalis’ make-believe world. One wonders what type of backlash this series would receive if actual Muslim women were shown guzzling “sherbat” from flasks in public. This series doesn’t bother distinguishing between Islam and Islamism; instead, it takes liberties to make that which is considered haram to be cool and mainstream. 

The real heeramandi was depressing, a cesspool of prostitution, mistreatment, child abuse, and pedophilia; a true dozakh for Muslim women. So, what other woke agenda can one expect as this saga rolls on? One can predict that Ustad, once ravaged by a bisexual British officer, will find a homosexual partner(s) in the next episodes and not be lynched in pre-Taliban times. More characters will be introduced, pre-marital sex will completely be normalized, and new suitors or Valis will come and go as the revolving door to heeramandi will never stop spinning. Islamists are probably rolling in their graves by now. Bhansali will enjoy being lucky if his sar is not tan se juda.