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Who will speak for India's Muslim women?

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By Syeda Hameed

Muslim women suffer from a double oppression. The first, of course, is the experience of facing innumerable discriminations that Indian women face. The second has to do with the way in which their status has been undermined by Muslim Personal Law, which, to me, as a person who knows Islam and who has read the Koran, is not in accordance with what the religion enjoins. So having to negotiate these two difficult realities, Muslim women today find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.

The psyche of patriarchy within the Muslim community is not unlike what prevails in other communities, but it is given the additional weight of authority because it is seen to have religious sanction. Nobody tries to understand what the Koran stands for or what the Prophet stood for, and believes that what ever is pronounced by anyone who claims to be an interpreter of the Koran is the actual word of Allah.

Multiple marriages and triple talaq, both specific to the Muslim community in India, arise from a misinterpretation of the Koran. In 2000, as part of the National Commission of Women, I brought out a report called the 'Voice of the Voiceless'. This document was a compendium of views of Muslim women from the ground that were captured through public hearings held across the country. The voices we heard were from remote districts in Assam, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and accurately reflected local realities. One of major traumas that emerged was the propensity of men to pronounce triple talaq and throw their wives out of the home. Or the man would have remarried and completely abandoned his earlier wife and often the children too. Three years after those hearings, I did a follow up study and realised that nothing had changed in the intervening years.

These women suffered because they had no independent means of survival. The poorest of the poor were now reduced to an almost sub-human existence, eking out a living as domestic workers, rag pickers, beedi rollers, zardosi workers - all women who laboured with their hands as piece rate workers. I have not had occasion to revisit those places since 2003 but when I became Member, Planning Commission, I tried to work more at a macro level to devise policies and programmes for Muslim women. Things have marginally improved but only because there has been an awakening among some sections within the community.

Today, divorce by triple talaq is pronounced by word, sent in a letter, and now more recently as an SMS message or email. This, incidentally, is specific to India. There is an injunction against such a practice in Pakistan, where a fair degree of reform has taken place after the Family Reform Code Bill was introduced in the Sixties. In Bangladesh, too, there is an injunction against the practice. India, unfortunately, has not been able to address the concern despite many efforts having been made. Every time the issue is broached, the so-called representatives of the community let out a howl of protest and the matter is dropped. The tragedy is that their views are based on a wrong interpretation of religion. As I have been saying for the last 20 years, triple talaq is really a contravention of the religion.

Then there is the issue of education. Remember, educational reform in the Muslim community for women started over a hundred years ago. Unfortunately that legacy is all but forgotten, and most Muslim families today maintain that there's really no need to educate the girl child; that all she needs is some household training since she doesn't have to work outside the home and only look after a family and home. What has lent weight to this argument is the infrastructural geography of our cities as well as the general vulnerability of the community. Usually the schools closest to minority areas are the poorest, and developments like what happened in Gujarat in 2002 can always happen.

As for traditional madrasas, they are generally very closed, segregated institutions. I remember visiting a madrasa for girls in the Mewat area of Haryana. It was like a garrisoned space. There were hundreds of girls there and it really scared me to see them, because I wondered what kind of education was being imparted to them. A government's intervention - the provision of quality education in madrasas - is trying to introduce subjects like science, computer learning and so on, into madrasa education, but there are many, like the Mewat one I visited, tucked away in distant corners that seem immured to any change. We have just not been able to reach them.

I also believe dress is definitely an impediment to the progress of Muslim women. Of course, many women I have known and loved, who have adopted the burqa, say they feel a sense of safety when they wear this garment. This argument seems to suggest that, somewhere, these women have a perception of insecurity that makes them want some kind of a protective shield. The fact is that the hijab or burqa is a marker and the minute you wear one, you are regarded as someone who needs to be treated differently. I remember in my mother's generation, 50 years ago, women actually gave up the burqa after independence. It was a big step that was accepted by the men of the family. Immediately they became like everyone else and could participate in public life.

It was the Sufis who brought Islam to the mohallas of this country. The Sufis encouraged the people to remain true to their own customs and ways of life, which is what made Islam so palatable to the local population. Some of the Sufis wore dhotis. So this diktat about how women should dress is a recent phenomenon and I find it disturbing that wherever one goes in the country, you see Muslim women adopting the hijab and burqa. In earlier days, if you went to Kerala, you could never make out the Keralite Muslim women from the others because she dressed more or less like her counterparts from other communities. Now you will find here that even when women wear saris, they sometimes don a hijab.

My religion enjoins me to dress modestly but modesty, according to the Koran, means that you protect your private parts. Covering one's head has never been laid down. I personally feel this ethos of dress is dictated by patriarchal values and is creating a lot of polarisation.

For a more equal future for Muslim women, patriarchy has to go. Women are speaking out across the world, but the stranglehold of patriarchy on Islam continues. Today, the Muslim community has been stigmatized as anti-gender, anti-development, anti-progress. But any change introduced from the outside will only invite a backlash from within the community, which will only make things worse. Therefore I believe change should come from within the community. The Muslim community must find a more enlightened way of addressing gender concerns.

I hope more and more women within Islam push the boundaries - lead the namaaz, for instance, do khullah openly, or speak up against triple talaq. In this way, they will help create a new destiny, both for themselves and their community.

(Courtesy: Kashmir Times)
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