New Delhi: We can’t allow the lives of Muslim daughters, sisters and mothers to be ruined,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi, decrying triple talaq. Whether right-wing or liberal, the “plight” of the Muslim woman seems to touch a chord with everyone.
But apart from evoking on Orientalist stereotypes about the veiled and victimized Muslim woman, few have bothered to ask what they want. For instance, no Muslim women’s organisation has asked for a Uniform Civil Code that erases personal laws, and yet their champions won’t cease demanding one on their behalf.
In 1985, Shah Bano was caught in a pincer between her legal rights and her religion. But now, Muslim women are refusing to accept that false choice. Starting with the Mumbai-based Aawaz-e-Niswaan (the voice of women) that began work three decades ago, Muslim women across India have organized themselves through NGOs and coalitions. They offer support and legal aid, pressure institutions and speak out.
“This is not 1986, it is 2016, we are Muslim women demanding constitutional rights for ourselves,” says Noorjehan Safia Naz of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), set up in 2007 as a mass organisation for Muslim women. The BMMA, the Bebaak Collective and others are now petitioning the court on triple talaq, polygamy and halala marriage.
These efforts are not about rejecting religious belief, but about social practices that distort the faith, says Shaista Amber of the All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board, set up in 2005. “Sudden divorce over the phone and internet is obviously not religion-sanctioned. But the problem is that even the police used to say, `oh, this is your personal law, you take it to the jamaat, or they only talk to husbands and brothers” says Sharifa Khanam, who started the Tamil Nadu Women’s Jamaat. “We are cheated of constitutional rights and Islamic rights,” she says.
Efforts at gender justice are cast as assaults on religion by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (an unelected, non-statutory body that acts like the sole spokesman of the community). “But Muslim personal law is not divinely ordained, it was crafted in the colonial period,” points out Shahida Lateef, author of the book Muslim Women in India. The three acts that govern Muslim families are zealously guarded as sacrosanct by patriarchal clerics. Political parties are wary of expanding women’s rights (giving them shares in agricultural land, for instance) for fear of offending the maulanas, even when these rights are Shariat-sanctioned.
“We are cast as traitors to the fold by the AIMPLB, whom I consider a mafia rather than religious scholars,” says Naz.”Meanwhile, the Hindu right leaps in to save us and talks of rolling back personal law -fundamentalists on both sides feed each other,” she says.
The BMMA seeks a codified personal law, with clearer rights for women, but is emphatic about its commitment to Islam. It refuses to be torn between faith and feminist freedom. “We are proud to call ourselves Islamic feminists,” says Naz. It draws strength from the global Musawah movement of the last decade, which identifies feminist interpretations of the Koran, engages canonical traditions, articulates its aims within Islamic tradition.
“The Koran is progressive, it is revolutionary in its insistence on equality -it is a mukammal kanoon,” says Amber. The AIMWPLB represents all schools of Islamic jurisprudence and yet, she says ruefully, it is the patriarchal AIMPLB that is asked to voice the community position.After the infamous Imrana rape case in 2005, Amber recounts an open debate with maulanas who accused her of being an RSS agent, and taking money from America and Israel, though her stand was ultimately vindicated by clerics from Medina.
This is not to say that Islamic feminism has all the answers, that all solutions must be Shariat-compliant. Muslim women can, and do, seek their rights without couching it in Koranic terms. The Awaaz-e-Niswaan and the Bebaak Collective do not concern themselves with theological debates, only about women’s rights. “As a feminist activist, I see that all religions have a gender bias, they seek to control women and their sexuality,” says Hasina Khan of the Bebaak Collective. These groups think of themselves as Muslim voices in the women’s movement. Their concerns extend easily to LGBTQ rights and other forms of inequality. Their struggle is for property rights, matrimonial rights, greater room for negotiation in divorce and marriage.
The Sachar committee has revealed the real deprivations of the community, points out Naz. An earlier survey by Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon showed how Muslim women suffer the cumulative disadvantages of being poor, female and of a religious minority. “The real problem, which governments and parties and other champions of our cause don’t address, is economic and social security,” says Sharifa Khanam.