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Daud Sharifa Khanum fights for Muslim women's rights

Last updated on: August 6, 2010 14:34 IST

Photographs: Amit Dave, Reuters Yoginder Sikand
Based in Pudukkottai, a small town in Tamil Nadu, Daud Sharifa Khanum heads the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women's Jamaat, a network of some 25,000 Tamil Muslim women working for Muslim women's rights and empowerment. She has been widely acknowledged for her pioneering work, for which has received numerous national-level awards. Khanum is also planning to start India's first women's mosque. 

In an interview with Yoginder Sikand, Khanum speaks about work and the manifold problems facing Indian Muslim women.

Could you briefly describe your background?

I was born in a small town in Tamil Nadu in 1964 in a family of modest means. My mother was 47 years old when I was born. I was the youngest of her 10 children. Shortly after I was born, my parents separated because of my father's illness, and I was brought up by my mother, who was a strong, independent woman. She suffered and struggled a lot in her life -- and that was an inspiration for me. She taught in an Urdu school in a village near Trichy. I lived with her, studying in the village till the twelfth grade.

At that time, my brother was a student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. He wanted me to study in North India, so I enrolled for a three-year course in office management at Aligarh Muslim University. My brother and mother wanted me to have a good education, and to grow up to be economically independent. After my studies at Aligarh, my brother wanted to me stay on in North India, but I decided to return to Tamil Nadu to be with my mother.

My brother, who was a very 'religious' person -- in the conventional sense -- and also very dominating, was angry with my decision and stopped helping both me and my mother financially. At that point, I really had no plans as to what I should do. At most, I thought, I should follow my mother and become a school teacher. When I got back to Tamil Nadu, I began giving private Hindi tuitions to children in the same village where my mother worked.

How did you get involved in women's activism?

Shortly after I got back, in 1988, I heard about a women's conference that was to be held in Patna. They needed a translator for the 70-odd women from Tamil Nadu who had been invited as participants. I applied for the job, hoping to earn some money, and got it. I was the only Muslim woman in the entire Tamil Nadu team.

The conference proved to be a turning point in my life. Till then, I had thought that male control over women was something natural, and that it was to be expected for men to boss over and even beat their wives. After all, I had experienced that in my own home. But at the conference I heard women speaking out against male domination, which they did not see as natural or something to be passively accepted at all. I heard so many harrowing tales of women, from different castes and communities, having to suffer the same sort of patriarchal oppression. It made a deep impact on me.

After I returned from the conference I began getting invitations to numerous other women's conferences through the women I had met in Patna. I learnt so much through these meetings. I travelled to these conferences by myself -- this was the first time in my life when I could do things on my own, travel and go about by myself out of the house, free from male control. It fired me with a sense of independence, which was really exhilarating.

These experiences encouraged me to work with women back in Tamil Nadu. I shifted to Pudukkottai, a small town near Trichy where, with a group of women, mainly non-Muslims, we began to work on women's issues, seeking to address their problems. All sorts of women, of different castes and communities, came to us for help. We did this work in an informal way, with our own personal financial resources. I used my own money, earned through giving tuitions and buying saris from Bangalore and selling them in Pudukkottai for a small profit.

One day, we organised a poster exhibition in a school, where we put up dozens of posters on gender oppression and women's rights. The collector of the district, a woman called Sheela Ranisugat, came to see the exhibition and was very impressed. She encouraged us to organise such exhibitions in more schools in the area. She also helped me participate in a literacy programme for women in a coastal area in Tamil Nadu which had a heavy Muslim presence.

Some time later, the district collector told me that I should work in a more organised manner for which, she said, we needed to register ourselves as a society. This we did, and STEPS, our registered NGO, came into being. The collector very kindly granted us a plot of land in Pudukkottai, where our office is located today. We started building a small structure there -- this was in 1991 -- but we had to face tremendous opposition from local people, who were jealous that we had got the land which had a fairly high value. 

What made you decide to focus mainly on issues related to Muslim women?

All this while I was working on issues related to women in general. I was hardly conscious of my Muslim identity. Compared to North India, relations between Hindus and Muslims have always been much better in Tamil Nadu. However, things began to change in the 1990s. In 1994, communal clashes broke out between Hindus and Muslims in our district, and this emerged as a new issue for us to focus on.

We brought a group of activists from the People's Union for Civil Liberties to tour the area and organised peace meetings. Shortly after, communal violence broke out in Nagore, in coastal Tamil Nadu. Muslims bore the brunt. There I met with a Muslim woman whose husband had been killed in the violence. She had no one to support her and her two children. That really struck me. The rising tide of communalism made me realise the desperate need to work with Muslim women.

In 1995-96, I did a project on the socio-economic conditions of Muslim women for the London-based Women Living Under Muslim Laws network. We covered five districts in Tamil Nadu, and I discovered to my horror terrible cases -- of women arbitrarily divorced, beaten by drunken husbands, harassed for dowry, some being forced into child marriages, and of even cases of murder and forced suicide that were carefully hushed up. Then, I turned to the Quran.

All this while, I had, like most other Muslim women in India, read the Quran in Arabic, not understanding anything at all but simply reciting it. But when I read the Tamil translation of the Quran, I discovered that all these practices had no sanction at all in the Quran. I increasingly came to realise the magnitude of the problems faced by many Muslim women, the need to address these, and also the fact that many Muslim men were wrongly interpreting Islam in a very patriarchal manner to justify the subordination and oppression of Muslim women.

As I said, I was never very conscious of my Muslim identity before. I was not actively involved in Muslim-specific issues. I was working on issues related to women in general, and these included women from various castes and communities. But my perceptions changed drastically in 2002 when, in the wake of the massive anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, I visited Gujarat for a fortnight. The charged communal environment, when every Muslim was being looked upon suspiciously, heightened my sense of being a Muslim. That's when I felt it was necessary to begin working with Muslim women.

Typically, secular women's groups are reluctant to work with Muslim women. This could be because of a subtle prejudice, in some cases, or simply because Muslim women's issues are seen to be inextricably linked to Islam, and these groups are scared that by taking up Muslim women's issues they might provoke the wrath of the maulvis, who might accuse them of interfering in Islam. So, I felt that Muslim women must form their own groups and speak out and work for their own emancipation.

'In most cases, Muslim women simply cannot expect to get justice from jamaats'

Photographs: Arko Dutta/Reuters
How did you go on to establish the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women's Jamaat?

In 2002, as a STEPS initiative, we set up the Tamil Nadu Muslim Pengal Jamaat, or the Tamil Nadu Women's Jamaat. In Tamil Nadu  -- and I suppose this is the case several other parts of India as well -- local Muslim communities manage their community affairs through committees or jamaats that meet inside the local mosque. Women are generally forbidden from praying in, or even entering, mosques across most of India, and so these jamaats are entirely male. The jamaats function like caste panchayats, deciding cases of marital disputes, divorce, and so on. Women have no voice in their functioning.

The jamaats are dominated by the maulvis who, like the rest of the men, are generally characterised by a very patriarchal mind-set. Even their understanding of Islam is deeply shaped by their patriarchal mentality. Generally, the jamaats turn a complete blind eye to men dumping their wives or taking a second wife, for which they readily provide so-called 'Islamic' sanction, but they rarely, if ever, invoke Islam when it comes to men demanding heavy dowries, beating their wives or denying them their property rights. The jamaat people remain silent on that glaring contradiction.  

In most cases, Muslim women simply cannot expect to get justice from these jamaats, nor even a sympathetic hearing. The jamaats even presume to have the authority to excommunicate people from the Muslim community -- such is their power. If, out of desperation, a Muslim woman in distress approaches the police for help, they often refuse to listen to their complaints, saying that Muslims have their own personal laws, which the jamaats administer, and that they should approach the jamaats for justice. But since the jamaats don't generally deliver justice to them, there is nothing they can do.

That is why we felt the need for a separate forum just for Muslim women, where they could discuss their problems and work together to have them solved. This is the basic idea of our women's jamaat.

You must have faced considerable opposition from men, especially maulvis, for setting up the women's jamaat and for decrying the injustice of the male jamaats, isn't it?

Indeed. Initially, for a few years we had to contend with stiff opposition to our work of mobilising Muslim women against oppression and for their rights. I even received several death threats. But I refused to cow down. Only God knows when I shall die, and that will happen when God wills. Men whose hegemony was being threatened by our work wrongly accused me of being anti-Islam. Any challenge to the mullahs is quickly branded in this way, as if the mullahs were synonymous with Islam itself.

How does the women's jamaat function?

Our women's jamaat is loosely structured, not tightly controlled. We have grown rapidly over the years, and now have some 25,000 members across Tamil Nadu. Our district units organise meetings once a month, where members as well as women who may not be members who have problems come together to sort out issues.

Most of these relate to women being harassed and tortured in their homes, sexually abused, arbitrarily divorced, or forced to endure their husbands taking a second wife and so on. Some extreme cases even involve murders and forced suicides. Our members help first by listening to the women's stories and offering them comfort, and then by taking the case up -- through lawyers, the local jamaats, the maulvis, the human rights commission, the media, the district administration and, if need be, the police and public demonstrations.

The more serious cases are brought to the state-level meetings that are held every three months at our headquarters in Pudukkottai, where we then work out a plan of action. We also work closely with the police, and our district coordinators regularly attend the police helpline to counsel Muslim women in distress. Till now, we have handled several hundred cases involving Muslim women across Tamil Nadu. Around 40 per cent have been solved through counseling, a third through police intervention, and the rest through legal action.

So far, we have organised over a hundred state-level Muslim women's conferences, campaigns, workshops, seminars and training programmes. We have units in ten districts in Tamil Nadu, each of which is headed by a district coordinator. We also have a team of five women, including some non-Muslims, in our central office in Pudukkottai. Two out of our ten district coordinators are Hindu women. We have arranged for all our district coordinators to do a bachelor's degree in sociology -- through a correspondence course conducted by the Annamalai University -- so that they can better understand the issues that they have to deal with.

Besides addressing cases of Muslim women being harassed by their menfolk, what other work is the women's jamaat engaged in?

The issue of Muslim women's economic independence and empowerment is a very crucial one. This is particularly important for women who are abandoned or divorced by their husbands or made to suffer various forms of atrocity and oppression silently because they are economically dependent on their men.

One of our major focuses now is to promote a generation of Muslim women entrepreneurs. We have established contact with some financers -- incidentally, all of them are Hindus, because, lamentably, few Muslim men would support such an initiative -- and have formed village- and town-level Muslim women's self-help groups through which we provide small loans to poor Muslim women at a very low level of interest. So far, we have loaned over Rs 2 crore in this way, and the rate of repayment has been almost hundred per cent.

Over the years we have been able to promote almost 500 Muslim women entrepreneurs, who are running small retail and manufacturing units. Most of these women are women who have suffered some sort of marital discord or who come from very poor families. They earn between two and ten thousand rupees a month from their businesses. Besides enabling them to become economically independent, this work gives them a new sense of confidence and freedom, access to the public sphere, and an empowered identity.

My dream is to increase the number of such Muslim women to 5000 over the next few years.

'Even mullahs admit that triple talaq is a wrongful innovation'

Photographs: Krishnendu Halder, Reuters
How does the women's jamaat engage with issues related to patriarchal interpretations of Islam? Does it also seek to engage in the debate about Islam and women and promote a more gender-sensitive approach to Islamic law as it relates to women?

Besides trying to address the domestic problems of Muslim women and seeking to empower them economically, we feel it is imperative to try and promote gender consciousness among them. One way to do so is by networking with other Muslim women's groups who are engaged in developing what is now called Islamic Feminism.

I have had the good fortune of attending several meetings organised by various Islamic feminist groups -- including a big gathering of Muslim feminists brought together by Sisters in Islam in Kuala Lumpur, a Islamic Feminist convention in Barcelona, in Spain, a meeting on gender justice for Muslim women in Kabul, a UN meeting on the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in New York, and two gender training programmes in Sri Lanka. Recently, I was selected for the International Visitor's Leadership Programme to spend a month in the USA. All these experiences have enriched my understanding of women's issues in a very major way.

We try to convey these ideas about Islamic feminism and gender-sensitive readings of the Quran to our members through discussions in our regular meetings, through our publications, and through our shariah training programmes, of which we have organised seven so far in different places in Tamil Nadu. In these programmes, resource persons discuss various aspects of Islamic teachings about women, showing how the Quran upholds gender justice, and critiquing unwarranted, patriarchal understandings of Islamic law.

Some years ago, we launched a Tamil magazine, Pengal Jamaat, which highlighted cases of harassment and various other problems Muslim women face as well as articles about Islamic feminism and gender-just understandings of Islam. The magazine was a tri-monthly, and we brought out eleven issues. It was widely circulated among our members. However, due to paucity of funds, we had to discontinue it.

We use both Quranic as well as secular, human rights arguments for our work of conscientising Muslim women. We also use the secular laws. We do not define ourselves in a narrow religious fashion, and we closely collaborate with non-Muslim secular women's groups, whose meetings we attend and who also attend our meetings. I am thankful for the immense support I have received from numerous non-Muslim sisters -- activists and writers. Most of the members of the STEPS board are non-Muslim women. So are many of the women's groups we collaborate with. We stand for a common cause -- of women, irrespective of religion.

What strategies do you suggest for reforming Muslim Personal Law in a more gender-just direction?

We have consistently demanded that the State immediately ban the noxious practice of triple talaq in one sitting. Even the mullahs admit that this is a wrongful innovation, which is not sanctioned in the Quran, and so they call it talaq-e biddat. But, according to them, all biddats in matters of religion are condemnable, so how do they continue to uphold this biddat form of divorce? It was not sanctioned by the Prophet.

What we are asking for is that this practice, that has ruined the lives of countless Muslim women and keeps married women constantly insecure in their marriages, threatened by the ever-present possibility of their husbands divorcing them at will, should be banned at once, and that it be replaced by the proper method of divorce that the Quran describes. What we are demanding is our Quranic right, and I am really saddened that this demand is branded as 'un-Islamic' by ignorant mullahs and their male Muslim followers.

Our demand continues to go unheard. We are routinely told that because we are not trained Islamic scholars, we have no right to critique the mullahs, even on solid Islamic grounds. I have been told that I have no right to speak on Islam just because I do not veil myself. Rather than logically answering my questions, which they cannot, they resort to character assassination.

We deliberately do not talk about veiling and pardah, which is the pet theme of the maulvis and patriarchal men. I believe that women have the right to dress as they want, as do men. Several of our members cover their heads, and some even veil themselves. Others do not. But we do not talk about this issue as then it would sideline all the major issues that we want to focus on -- domestic violence, women's educational and economic empowerment and so on.

We also do not focus only on the problematic issues related to Muslim Personal Law which discriminate against women, although this is one of our major areas of concern. I have problems with the media focusing only on these issues, ignoring other very real and pressing issues of Muslim women's educational and social marginalisation -- which are not just a product of patriarchy within the Muslim community but also have to do with discrimination and neglect by the State and the wider society.

I am saddened by the fact that some sections of the media constantly highlight the problems of many Muslim women face at the hands of their menfolk and the mullahs while conveniently neglecting the problems that they face, along with Muslim men, in society at large, at the hands of the State and, in many places, at the hands of dominant communities.

In this way, they want to locate the source of all our problems within the community itself, as being unrelated to patterns of deprivation and discrimination that emanate from without. In this manner, they want to create the very wrong image that all the problems of Muslim women are simply a result of the evil doings of Muslim men, and, thereby, to misleadingly suggest that Muslims, as a rule, are a hopelessly 'backward' community.

Let me cite an instance to illustrate this point. Some years ago, a group of Muslim boys in Tirunelveli, a town in Tamil Nadu, killed a Muslim girl just because she was found talking to some other boys. We organised a protest meeting and then a press conference in Chennai. Instead of asking us about the case, a non-Muslim journalist stood up and asked me my views on terrorism and India-Pakistan relations and other such unrelated matters. I replied curtly, saying that our sole concern was Muslim women. But he lost his cool and began shouting. It was clear that he wanted to use the occasion simply to reinforce negative stereotypical images of Muslims.

'It is intolerable that the maulvis keep mum on women's oppression'

Photographs: Fayaz Kabli, Reuters
What do you feel about how the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, which projects itself as the representative of India's Muslims and also as the authoritative interpreter of Islamic law in the country, relates to Muslim women's issues?

I don't give any importance to the Board at all, and so there is simply no need for me to comment on its leaders' attitudes or to suggest any way for them to reform. I know they are a bunch of patriarchs, and they have no meaning or importance for me at all. I am simply not at all interested in how they interpret or misinterpret the Shariah. Let them have their views, just as I have mine. They can keep claiming what they want -- that they represent the Shariah and all the Muslims of India or whatever. I simply don't buy that claim at all.

Mobilising women against injustice to them is, of course, essential, but what about the equally vital task of sensitising men against patriarchy?

The struggle for equality, justice and dignity for Muslim women -- or women generally -- cannot be waged only on one front. Besides protesting against women's oppression and demanding women's rights, we also need to sensitise men to issues of patriarchy and gender equality, because the root of the problem lies there. We are not radical feminists who believe in hating men. We have organised five gender sensitisation workshops for men so far in different parts of Tamil Nadu, where we discussed issues related to gender justice, bringing insights from both a secular, human rights perspective and from the Quran. Gradually, and this is a heartening development, we have been able to win over several men to understand and appreciate our work. We now have some 300 male members.

Earlier, some of our women members used to be extremely hesitant to come for our meetings, fearing their menfolk. But this is no longer as it used to be. In fact, some mosque-based jamaats are now referring difficult cases to us to handle. We also now have around a dozen gender-sensitive maulvis who sometimes come to our meetings to discuss Islamic issues.

What about the anti-women fatwas that are routinely issued by various maulvis that clearly aim at restricting women's empowerment and rights?

I don't agree with them at all. As far as I am concerned, Islam does not and cannot sanction such oppression and injustice. Tragically, few Muslim women dare to speak out against the ridiculous anti-women fatwas of patriarchal maulvis even if personally they find them stifling. They are simply too frightened to voice any protest. And so, these fatwas have the dangerous potential to make women even more enslaved than they already are.

They make, or seek to make, Muslim women even more disempowered than they are, even more incapable of comfortably operating in a modern, plural society. The fatwas warn Muslim women not step out of their homes without being fully veiled, not to talk to unrelated males, not to contest elections, not to take up jobs, and so on. How can Muslim women then survive in the modern world if they are going to be tied down with so many restrictions?

It is simply intolerable that the maulvis, with notable exceptions, keep mum on women's oppression even when the forms that this oppression take are clearly anti-Islamic. For instance, in Tamil Nadu -- and this holds true for much of the rest of India -- dowry is rampant among Muslims. Girls' families are routinely harassed for dowry. We have handled many cases of recently-married Muslim women being killed by their in-laws and husbands or forced to commit suicide because they were unable to satisfy their greed for heavy dowries. This phenomenon is not just restricted to Hindus, as some Muslims imagine. Dowry is clearly anti-Islamic, so why don't the mullahs issue fatwas against men who demand dowries from their wives? They won't, of course, because the men will protest and refuse to follow them. They don't want to lose their power and influence, and so they keep silent on this grossly un-Islamic custom.

It is really tragic to see how some of the important rights that Islam has given to women are completely subverted by the connivance of patriarchal mullahs. Islam insists that a marriage is incomplete without the mehr. The mehr is intended to protect the bride in case she is divorced so that she can then stand on her own feet.

Naturally, the amount should be substantial. But the patriarchs, including many mullahs, argue that brides should be paid just a nominal dower, because, they say, Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet paid a modest dower to Bibi Fatima. Some men even say the mehr can be as small as a date! And so, generally, women get just a very small mehr -- between five hundred and two thousand rupees -- which is nothing at all in today's world. But, on the other hand, the groom and his family expect the bride to bring with her a dowry of a hundred thousand rupees!

I have yet to come across maulvis issuing fatwas against such men. I am pained that the jamaats do not raise a word against this blatantly anti-Islamic practice, and that the mullahs do not issue fatwas against the men who take dowries. On the other hand, they never miss any opportunity to clamp down on women and to control their every thought and movement. So, these patriarchal mullahs may claim that their anti-women fatwas are in accordance with Islam, but I refuse to accept their claim. It is their version of Islam, not mine.

It is an insult to Islam to oppress women in its name. Taking the name of Islam, if they simply want to boss over others it is totally unacceptable. The tragedy is that most Muslims believe them because they speak a bit of Arabic and claim to have mastered various texts. Most people are simply too scared of them to speak out against nonsensical patriarchal fatwas for fear of being excommunicated or attacked by mobs instigated by the mullahs. The government and various political parties not only remain silent in the face of these fatwas but also actively seek to court the mullahs' favour because of their vast influence among the Muslim electorate. They simply don't dare alienate them for fear of losing Muslim votes.

'Islam does not forbid women from praying in mosques'

Photographs: Parth Sanyal, Reuters
Would you say that it is the textual, literalist approach of the maulvis to Islam, ignoring social realities, that is the main cause of what you regard as the insensitivity of many of them to the manifold problems of Muslim women?

That is one factor, surely, but another principal reason is the prevalent patriarchal culture in society at large, which influences the way they understand religion, often in very subtle and unperceived ways. It is crucial to have knowledge of the Quran, of course, but also of empirical realities. Only then can one properly interpret and apply the teachings of the Quran in society.

In my opinion, many maulvis do not understand even the Quran properly. They also have little or no understanding of the actual, empirical problems faced by vast numbers of Muslim women. That is certainly one reason for the sort of anti-women fatwas that many of them routinely issue. It is not enough for them to deliver long, winding lectures about women's rights in Islam, as they generally do. When Muslim women like us start demanding those very rights, many of them, as well as many other Muslim men, tell us to shut up.

But, I must say, things are slowly changing now. When we started off demanding our rights, we faced a lot of opposition from maulvis and other men, some of who even went to the extent of branding us as against Islam! But now, perhaps seeing our work and that we are not violating Quranic teachings, but, rather, seeking to uphold them in addressing women's problems, some of them are even helping us. It is not that all the maulvis are bad or are against women's rights. Not at all. In fact, some of them now attend our meetings and teach our women about the rights that Islam gives to women, rights which many Muslim men simply don't want us to access.

But it is not enough simply to rely on the goodwill of a few progressive male maulvis. It is crucial for Muslim women to start studying and understanding the Quran on their own and to develop a gender-sensitive understanding of the text. We do this in our meetings, where we highlight the various rights the Quran gives us and also critique unwarranted patriarchal interpretations of the Quran. Many Muslim women do read the Quran, but in Arabic, so they cannot understand it at all, and have no idea what rights it gives women. When they see the male maulvis, with long beards and speaking Arabic, they get scared and shut up, thinking they are God's representatives.

But there is no intermediary between God and the individual believer, male or female, in Islam. Once women start studying and understanding the Quran in their own language, they will, I feel, no longer feel that they should blindly accept whatever the male maulvis say, but that, instead, they should judge their statements in the light of the Quran.

This can prove a very powerful means for women to challenge oppression in the name of religion. To cite an instance, a Muslim woman was arbitrarily divorced by her husband, who recited the word talaq thrice in one sitting. One of our members approached the head of the jamaat in the village where this had happened and read from the Quran verses that describe the proper Quranic way of divorce. The man was taken aback. He had no idea that this was what the Quran said, and that the divorce that had taken place was not at all in accordance with the Quran.

You have received much praise, but also a tremendous amount of criticism, for your plans of starting India's first women's mosque. What is this mosque all about?

The mosque, to be set up on a piece of land near my house in a village 30 km from Pudukkottai, is still not complete. We have had to halt construction work temporarily due to lack of funds.

I am grateful to the media for highlighting the mosque project, but I am a little distressed with reports that create the image that this is our main agenda. Such reports are sensationalist, and they inadvertently or otherwise create the very wrong impression that we are trying to construct the mosque simply to antagonise Muslim men, including the maulvis. This is not true at all.

The fact of the matter is that Islam does not forbid women from praying in mosques. At the time of the Prophet, women routinely did so. So, by demanding a mosque for women we are not doing anything radically new. It is only later that women were banned from praying in mosques -- and that too only in some schools of Muslim law. In many Arab and other countries, women are allowed to enter and pray in mosques, so why is it that in most parts of India we are forbidden from doing so? The only time they are allowed to enter the mosques is when they die.

A mosque is not the property or sole preserve of men. It is not their birthright. According to the Quran we women have as much right to pray in a mosque as men do. And if the men forbid us from praying there, is it not but right -- and Islamically legitimate, too -- that we should have our own worship space?

For me, the struggle to have a mosque for women is, in part, a symbolic struggle, to reclaim the word 'mosque' for women, too. It is a statement to show that a mosque can, or should, be for all, and not reserved just for men alone. If men treated us as equals, we would have had no reason at all to demand a women's mosque,  or even a separate women's jamaat for that matter.

We don't have to call what we are building a 'women's mosque'. Perhaps it would be better to call it a mosque-cum-meeting space for women, a place where women can pray, relax and discuss their problems and affairs. In fact, it would be open to like-minded males as well. It would be a community centre in a way, in the same way as the mosque was at the time of the Prophet, where people not only prayed but also got together to discuss their issues and concerns. In that sense, we are not deviating from tradition, but, rather, reviving a lost Islamic tradition.

I must add here that, partly due to our work, a few mosques in Tamil Nadu have begun allowing women to pray therein, in separate sections set apart for them.

'All Muslim organisations have no women in key decision-making posts'

Photographs: Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi, Reuters

There are more than a hundred million Muslim women in India, but why is it that there are such few Muslim women as yourself visible in public life, vocal, bold and struggling for Muslim women's rights?

Muslim women across India, with notable exceptions, are subjected to various forms of subordination and discrimination: as Muslims, as women, and as Muslim women. Most mullahs, in league with the men who support them blindly and who think they are great religious authorities, deliberately seek to curb Muslim women's mobility at every level, through absurd rules about pardah and denying them access to the public sphere.

Is it at all surprising, then, that Muslim women's voices are stifled and silenced? That they cannot mobilise for their rights? That they remain invisible, along with their plight, to the outside world? And if they dare speak out against oppression, they readily branded as 'anti-Islamic' simply for doing so although they may use solid Quranic arguments, as 'dividing the community', as 'playing into the hands of the enemies of the Muslims' and so on.

It is true that there are very few Muslim women's groups in India who are actively engaged in championing Muslim women's rights within the domestic space and in the public sphere. There are many reasons for this. One factor is, of course, the overall educational and economic backwardness of the Indian Muslims as a whole. Then, within the community, women are characterised by very low levels of education, and few of them are economically independent. Thus, they are reluctant to question the authoritarianism of Muslim males, including the mullahs. They are simply too scared of the mullahs, who will readily brand them -- wrongly, of course -- of being against Islam if they dare oppose them for their patriarchal views.

As for middle-class, educated Muslim women, few of them, too, are ready to court the wrath of the mullahs. They are happy with their middle-class comforts and don't want to rock the boat. Then, there is the fact that, by and large, Muslim women -- and this cuts across classes -- are socialised to be submissive to male authority. They are not taught to be independent in their thinking and actions. They are not reared to be bold and outspoken. That is why they hesitate to speak out against men, even if the need arises. They have few, if any, living role models they can emulate. The contrast with, say, Hindu or Christian women is really stark.

What do you feel about how Muslim organisations in India, which claim to represent the Muslims of the country, relate to Muslim women's issues and concerns?

If you do a survey of the entire country, you will realise to your dismay that there are very few Muslim-run NGOs working for the economic and educational empowerment of the poor and women. The vast majority of Muslim NGOs focus on religious education -- and that too not in the correct way or proper sense. Most of them propagate a patriarchal and extremely sectarian interpretation of Islam.

Sometimes, I ask myself why this is so, why, when the Quran stresses social justice and compassion and commitment to the poor -- irrespective of religion -- Muslims are hardly active in this field. Is it because Muslim 'leaders' want to perpetuate structures of domination within the community with respect to class and gender? Or is it because of the deep-rooted, and what I regard as unwarranted, ritualistic understanding of Islam that many of them uphold, one which is concerned only about rituals, but has no room for women's rights and for the empowerment of the poor?

All these Muslim organisations are all male-led. They have no women in key decision-making posts. In their demands on the State, they never make any reference to the desperate need to address the manifold economic, educational and social problems and disempowerment of Muslim women. They have simply no concern about these issues. If at all they refer to Muslim women, it is only in the context of Muslim Personal Laws, demanding that patriarchal -- and what I regard as un-Islamic -- interpretations of these laws be continue to be imposed on Muslim women.

We have consistently demanded that local jamaats include at least two women members, whom women can talk to and who can articulate their concerns. We even organised a signature campaign for this, and got some 10,000 signatures to back our demand. But the jamaats refuse to listen to this demand. That is why we have begun petitioning the government to set up a separate Muslim Women's Board, through which the State can channel funds for the economic and educational empowerment of Muslim women.

This task cannot be left to the male-led Muslim organisations, who are indifferent to our plight. At present, many government schemes are accessed by these organisations, but their benefit does not accrue to Muslim women. These organisations simply do not want to see us as empowered, autonomous beings, not dependent on Muslim men. If the government sets up the Board, which should be controlled by women themselves, things might be different. 

'Some wrongly think what we are doing is un-Islamic'

Photographs: Arko Dutta, Reuters
How have Muslim organisations reacted to your work?

I don't get any support, or even words of praise, from male-led Muslim organisations. They simply don't appreciate the sort of work we are doing. However, some progressive Muslim women's groups in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka occasionally invite me to their meetings, where I share my experiences with them. Some of them have sent their activists to us to learn about our ways of working.

As for the Muslim media, only very few Muslim papers have had anything positive at all to say about our work. This is in complete contrast to the wide and positive coverage we have had in the non-Muslim media. Some Muslim papers have even gone to the extent of condemning us as rabble rousers and trouble-makers and even worse.

We are constantly short of funds. I have had to put in a lot of my own money, earned through my own work, for some of our activities. Presently, our only source of financial support is a small grant that we get from HIVOS, an international NGO. No Muslim organisations are ready to fund the work we are engaged in. Some of them wrongly think what we are doing is 'un-Islamic'. They don't want to support anything that might hamper male privilege. They will spend crores on building mosques and madrasas and organising festivals but will not at all consider supporting the sort of work we are doing.

I must add here that one has to be very careful that in critiquing patriarchy which is wrongly sought to be legitmised in the name of Islam, one does not further strengthen widespread anti-Muslim prejudices. This is a very delicate task. Many Muslims who support our cause tell us that as it is Muslims are being demonised as terrorists, and that by bringing to light the manifold problems and sufferings of Muslim women we might inadvertently be reinforcing this negative image.

In this climate of heightened Islamophobia, practical work to address issues of Muslim women's marginalisation has thus become increasingly difficult, and a very sensitive issue. This is why we do our work in a very careful manner so that it is not used by Hindu chauvinist forces and others inimical to Muslims as fodder in their anti-Muslim propaganda. At the same time, we are also convinced that the existence of Islamophobia cannot be used as an excuse to remain silent on the problems of Muslim women.

What other initiatives does the Tamil Nadu Women's Jamaat plan to take up in the future?

We have several plans for the future -- there is so much more that needs to be done. But our funds are extremely limited. One of the many things we want to do is to organise a regular national-level convention of Muslim women activists as well as other women working for the empowerment of Muslim women. At present, the few women who are engaged in this sort of work in the country are not in regular touch with each other -- there is no network or organised mechanism for this.

We would also like to start a resource centre for Muslim women that would host materials related to women and justice, Islamic feminist texts, cases and court rulings about Muslim women, information about government schemes for the poor, women and minorities, a database of Muslim women activists in the country, and so on. Through this we want to carry forward our work of sensitising Muslim women about their Quranic, legal and Constitutional rights and promoting Muslim women's leadership so that they can speak out for themselves instead of having to rely on men to do so, who, as experience shows, are extremely reluctant to do so.

We want to further this work through a legal aid cell for Muslim women. We would like to employ a Muslim woman lawyer, who would be sensitive to Muslim women's issues, to fight Muslim women's cases. At present, we work with a Muslim woman lawyer in Chennai, who handles some major cases that we refer to her, but right now, due to financial constraints, we cannot afford to do this on a sustained and regular basis.

Another dream I have is of setting up a short-stay home for Muslim women who have been driven out of their homes or who are facing unbearable torture therein. They can stay in the short-stay home till their cases are decided. In the premises of the short-stay home we could also start a number of vocational courses for such women so that they can be economically independent. But all these plans require funds, and that is something we are perennially short of!