New Age Islam
Tue May 17 2022, 05:55 AM

Interview ( 17 Aug 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Muslim patriarchs --I prefer to call them Muslim fascist forces: Banu Mushtaque

Syeda Khushtara Banu, more popularly known as Banu Mushtaq, is a well-known Kannada writer and a leading social activist from Karnakata, one of the few Indian Muslim women of her sort. She has won numerous awards for her literary works and social activism, including the International Women’s Award for  Radio and Television (1999), the Karnataka Women Writers’ Association’s Gudibandde Poornima Best Poetess Award (1999), the Karnataka Women’s Writers’ Association’s H.V. Savitramma Dattinidhi Award (2000),  the Karnataka Government’s Rajyotsava award   for literature (2002), the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award (2004), and the Akhil Bharatiya Jain Women’s Mahastambhshekha Award (2004). The Kannada film ‘Haseena’, based on a story of a Muslim woman written by her and directed by the well-known Girish Kasaravalli, won numerous national awards and was screened in several international film festivals.


Banu Mushtaq lives in Hassan, a small town in Karnataka, where she works as an advocate and still remains involved in various social movements.


In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, taken exclusively for, Banu Mushtaq reflects on her life as a Muslim woman social activist and on issues related to Muslim leadership in contemporary India, with a particular focus on the problems faced by many Muslim women.



Q: Could you describe briefly your background and how you came to be involved in a wide range of social movements?


A: I was born in Hassan, a small town in Karnataka, in 1948. My father was a senior Health Inspector, and he was posted in various towns and villages in the erstwhile Mysore state. I began my studies in an Urdu primary school in Arsikere, then a small town, where my father was posted. I hated the environment in the school. It was so strict and authoritarian. Although I was a child, I revolted and protested against the way our teachers dealt with us. And that rebellious nature has remained with me throughout my life. However, my father, who was very fond of me, constantly supported me in my rebellions even as a child. He would fulfill my every demand, and this gave me a tremendous sense of confidence. He would often tell me, ‘You are not my daughter but my son.’


Luckily, my father was soon transferred from Ariskere, and so I did not stay in the Urdu school for too long. He shifted to Shimoga, where I enrolled in the first grade in a Christian-run Kannada-medium school. The principal of the school was initially skeptical about me. She felt that Muslim children had an aversion to studying Kannada, owing to the widespread view that Kannada was a ‘Hindu’ language, while Urdu was a ‘Muslim’ language. I was the only Muslim girl in the school. The principal reluctantly admitted me to her school, but with one condition: that if in six months I did not learn the Kannada alphabet, I would have to leave. But, within just a month I mastered the alphabet, and so I was able to stay on. And, at the end of the year, I did so well in my studies that I was automatically promoted from the first to the fourth grade.


My approach to life has been indelibly influenced by my father. He earned only a modest salary, but yet was a very generous man. Several of our poorer relatives, including women who had lost their husbands and children who had been orphaned, used to stay with us, and my father supported all of them. His generosity and social concern affected me deeply. Despite his severe financial problems, he was very keen that I should study. He would buy me Kannada story books and read them to me.  My grand-father, who taught in an Urdu school in a village, was also a village qazi, and people from many surrounding villages, both Hindus and Muslims, would come to him to have their disputes resolved as they trusted and respected him. After his demise, they would come to my father, too, and he would always take me with him when he went to hear and solve their problems. This was a very fruitful learning experience for me. I was the eldest child in a family with six daughters and two brothers, and so while my father showered me with love and gave me many opportunities to learn, he also made it clear that I had a responsibility to protect and care for my siblings. Thus, from childhood itself I was able to learn the importance of understanding people’s problems and of trying to help, in my own little way, to address them.


My father was very liberal and progressive in his thinking, and this influenced me deeply as a child. He would take me to the cattle shows and cultural performances, which were the pride of Hassan town. Top Kannada literary figures and drama troupes would be present at these functions. I did not, of course, realize it then but this exposure was of immense importance in the way my life later evolved. My father had numerous close Hindu friends. When he was posted in the Brindavan gardens near Mysore, he appointed a Hindu man, Mahadev Rao, as president of the committee to oversee the completion of a mosque that was being constructed there. In the same, place my father was appointed to manage the institution where the Ramnavami festivities were held. This openness towards people of other faiths was, in part, a reflection of my family’s Sufi roots. My grandfather had served for many years as the custodian of a shrine of a woman Sufi saint, Jamal Bi Ma Sahiba, in a village in Hasan district.


Childhood experiences play a crucial role in moulding people’s minds and behaviour later in their lives. I think many women who are taught to be silent and blindly submissive to authority have been terrified by their parents in their childhood into believing that this is the way a woman should be and this is what religion demands of them. I am really fortunate that my parents treated me very differently. My father never spared any opportunity to let me learn and grow and think and act for myself. I was a sort of tom-boy, but he never told me that this was wrong, or that Islam forbade this or whatever.


From Shimoga we shifted to Hassan, my hometown, where I enrolled in a Catholic school. By this time, I was a voracious reader and I also started writing. I wrote my first essay when I was in the seventh grade—it was a short story. Whenever I wrote something new, my father, who would be delighted, would call his friends and would read my essay out to them. My essays were all in Kannada, as that was the language I knew best. All the while I did well in my studies and also took part in various extra-curricular activities and won many prizes. I was even appointed as the head of the school’s students’ union. The school was co-educational, and I was among the few Muslims who studied there, but yet I was very popular among both the boys and girls. 


My mother had married my father when she was just 12 years old—she gave birth to me when she was 14. But my father wanted me to be different—to carry on with my studies after I finished school and to be economically independent. So I did my graduation in Science from Hassan, and then worked for some months in Bangalore with All-India Radio, being the only person selected for the job out of some 600 applicants. After that I taught Science in a government high school in Sakleshpur town.


Q: For a girl from a Muslim family from a small town, especially in those days, was this not seen as aberrant? Did you have to face any opposition to your education and working outside the house and living by yourself?


A: Yes, of course. Muslim patriarchs—I prefer to call them Muslim fascist forces—have all along been opposed to women’s autonomy, and I had to face my share of that. In those days the maulvis and other men were sternly opposed to women going out of their homes to watch movies or even to study in college. But my father was an exception, of course. That’s how I learned at an early age to resist and stand up to patriarchal forces who, in my view, wrongly evoke Islam to suppress women.


When I was a child I asked my cousin to teach me how to cycle. Once, when I was cycling around the boys of our locality forcibly stopped me—it was simply not done for a Muslim girl to cycle on her own. I fought with the boys, and the news of our encounter reached the men of our locality. They were furious with my father for letting me cycle—but, of course, my father was very proud of me for this! My father silenced my critics by saying that I was a good Muslim girl, and that I excelled in my studies, including in Islamic subjects.


As I grew older, I began to face more restrictions on my independence because Muslim girls were expected to remain at home and listen to whatever their menfolk ordered them. But I consistently refused to remain silent. When I was in college in Hassan, my father had been posted to a village in the interior and so his brother appointed himself as the head of our family, although actually he did nothing at all for us. He tried to curtail my movements and even had someone to trail me to see where I was going. Once, he cruelly whipped my sister with a belt for not going to school. I was shocked and enraged. I snatched the belt from his hand and said that if he dared to do that again I would cut off his fingers. I said I would order him out of the house if he dared to touch any of my siblings again.


Muslim girls are still generally expected to marry the man their parents choose for them. But I did not do so. I fell in love with my future husband when I was in college, where he was also studying. This was the first case of a woman choosing her own husband and having a love marriage in our entire family. We insisted on marrying—and that too without any dowry—and got married in 1974. My in-laws were very conservative and they insisted I must leave my job after marriage. They demanded I should wear a burkha and stay inside the house. I reluctantly complied—for the first three years of our marriage.


My husband did not have any independent income at that time. He used to work in his father’s optical shop in Hassan, along with his four brothers, and we had to make do with whatever little he earned from this work. Meanwhile, sitting at home all day was getting too stifling for me. I felt I had fallen into a trap and that there was no way out for me. I had to share the house with the rest of my husband’s family— more than 22 people in all.  This was not the life that my father had educated me for. I could take it no more and began quarreling frequently with my husband. One day, we had a terrible fight and I decided to commit suicide. I went to our room and poured petrol all over my body. I was just about to light a match and set myself on fire when my husband grabbed my hand and stopped me. He asked me why I was doing this to myself. I explained my mental anguish to him. I told him I wanted to be free to do what I liked, to go out and meet people, to visit the library, and to read books. If he refused, I said, I wanted a divorce. My husband agreed to my demands, though my in-laws were very upset, and they scolded him for ‘corrupting’ me.


Three years after our marriage, just three days after my first daughter’s first birthday, my in-laws, who were fed up with what they thought were my wayward ways, ordered us to leave their house. They also told my husband that he could no longer work in the family shop. And so we shifted to my father’s house in Hassan. We faced terrible economic problems then. My husband took to working in a shop as a watch-repairer for a sum of just 20 rupees a day, while I started sewing clothes to add to our modest family income. Then, after some months, when we had saved a bit, my husband opened a watch shop of his own. By this time I had had my second child—again a daughter.


In the meanwhile, my father began to feel that I was wasting my talents and was very upset. One day, sometime in 1978, he took me to the taluqa office and announced that he was nominating me for the forthcoming municipal elections. Although our family had no political background, I contested the elections. My election symbol was a sewing machine—I chose it because I was now earning a living making clothes on such a machine and selling them! I went with my father from house to house distributing pamphlets and canvassing for votes. I lost the elections by a single vote! Many Muslims of the town were very upset about my standing for elections. They felt this was ‘un-Islamic’, and not something that a Muslim woman, who, in their view, ought to remain house-bound, should do. They went around telling people not to vote for me because I did not veil myself. When I addressed meetings, they would scold me saying that I had come out of my house without purdah.


Although I narrowly lost that election, I later contested the Hassan municipal elections twice and on both occasions I was elected.


Q: Was this the time when you also became involved in a number of social movements?


A: Yes, I was going to talk about that. One day, around this time, I was on the way to the local library when I saw a group of people demonstrating on the road. I walked up to them and asked them what they were doing. It turned out that they were Dalit activists, members of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, who were protesting against caste discrimination. I befriended them and soon they began inviting me to their meetings—not just to listen but also to address their gatherings from the dais. Whenever I went to these meetings I insisted on taking one of my children with me, just as my father had taken me to the meetings he had attended, because I wanted them to be exposed to social activism at a young age itself. I could readily understand the plight of the Dalits, because as a woman, I, too, had been oppressed and subjugated like them.


Then, the farmer’s movement, led by the charismatic Professor Nanjundaswamy, became very active in Hassan. I soon got involved in this movement, as well as also in the Bandaya Sahitya movement, which sought to promote social protest literature centred on themes related to the poor and the marginalized and in their own language. I served as the state convener of the movement for many years. This was when I began writing in a major way—mainly short stories and scripts for street plays—on issues that these various left-oriented and progressive movements that I had got engaged in were taking up.


I must also add that I was the only Muslim in the district who was playing such a central role in these movements. Unfortunately, even today few Muslims take any interest in wider social movements that are not Muslim- or Islam-specific. As long as Muslims continue to remain aloof from wider causes, how will they be able to reach out to people of other faiths? How will they be able to work practically for communal harmony? How will they be able to show that they are concerned not just for their own community but also for the wider Indian community and the country as a whole, and thereby earn the respect of others? These are very crucial questions that Muslims need to seriously address.


Q: How did your involvement in these various movements lead to your emerging as one of Karnataka’s leading progressive writers?


A: Sometime in 1981, just after I had given birth to our third daughter, I fell into another spell of depression. To cheer me up my husband brought me a load of books and magazines. As I flipped through one of these magazines—Lankesh Patrike, which is one of the few progressive and secular magazines in Kannada—I chanced upon a report about a Muslim woman named Najma Bhangi, a high school teacher in Bijapur. The maulvis of her town had forbidden Muslim women from watching movies by visiting theatre, but this intrepid woman refused to be cowed down and went off to see a film. The enraged maulvis and other men of the town raised a ruckus against her defiance. This story was widely reported on in the media.


Although I was just recovering from my delivery, I got down to writing an article to express my anger at the way this hapless woman was being treated and sent it to Lankesh Patrika. In the article I asked the maulvis that, if Muslim women were banned from watching movies, what source of entertainment did they consider permissible for them? Did they deserve any entertainment at all or not? Did Islam allow for it or not? If watching films was, as they claimed, bad for Muslim women, was it not equally bad for Muslim men? Why forbid only Muslim women from watching movies and exempt Muslim men? If movies promoted immorality, surely this applied as much to men as it did to women? 


Although I had been writing articles and short stories before this and had sent them to newspapers and magazines, none of them had been published. But this one was liked very much by the editor of Lankesh Patrike, who published it at once. As soon as it came out and news of it spread, the maulvis and other men of Hassan were enraged at what I had done. They hauled my father to the mosque, which was located just adjacent to my father’s house and admonished him severely.


Shortly after that first published piece of mine appeared, Lankesh Patrike appointed me as their reporter for Hassan district. I had to travel extensively for this work, meeting people from different walks of life. I did many investigative reports, some that involved great risk, but wherever I went I always took one of my children with me so that they could learn. I worked with Lankesh Patrike for ten years, and also began writing for other leading Kannada papers and magazines, mainly on social issues related to marginalized groups such as women, Muslims, farmers and Dalits. I must say that my husband never tried to stop me from my work, whether as a writer or as an activist. He was a constant source of support. Although I soon had a fourth child—a son—and had to manage my large family, I never let this come in the way of my activism and literary pursuits.


Over the years, I have written dozens of short stories, all on socially-relevant issues, such as communalism, poverty, caste discrimination and the plight of women, and many more articles, all in Kannada. Five volumes of my short stories and two novels have been published so far, many of which have been translated into various other languages, including English ,Urdu, Punjabi, Tamil, Marathi and Malayalam.


Q: You are also a well-known advocate. How did you branch off to the legal profession?


A: When I stopped working for Lankesh Patrike after I developed differences with the editor on some issues, I began to feel that I no longer had an identity of my own. That’s when I decided I needed to establish myself in another field. At that time a woman—who happened to be a Christian—approached me asking me to help her get a divorce from her husband. Her case had been going on for six long years, and when she pleaded with her advocate to expedite the case, he replied by suggesting that she accompany him for a ‘holiday’ in return for which he would oblige. That made me think that it was not just within their families that women are oppressed and denied, but that even within the judicial system they have to face relentless patriarchy. And so I decided to finish my law degree that I had earlier started but had left incomplete. I earned my LLB degree in 1990 and began practicing in the Hasan courts as a lawyer. I continue to do so even now, and this is my source of income, with which I have been able to give my children a good education, so much so that all my three girls shone in their studies, all winning gold medals from Mysore University. My son Tahir has just completed his B.E .


I have handled thousands of cases so far, and my clients are from different castes and communities. My legal work takes up much of my time now, and so I am not able to devote as much time as I want to my writing, although right now I am trying to work on my autobiography.


Q: How have Muslim groups in Karnataka responded to your writing and to your being one of the very few well-known Muslim writers in Kannada?


A: Over the years I have won dozens of awards, from government organizations, from Christian, Hindu, Jain, and Lingayat organizations, but just two from Muslim organizations. I don’t think Muslim groups, especially those that are led by conservative maulvis, really appreciate my work or even know of it. In fact, I have had to face considerable opposition and resistance from such elements on various occasions. The most serious such opposition arose over an interview I gave to a newspaper some years ago. I was asked by the interviewer that if Dalits, who were banned from entering temples for centuries, were now able to do so in various temples, why was it that Muslim women in most parts of India were still not allowed to pray in mosques? He asked me if I could take up this issue. I replied that there was no need for this to because Islam actually did permit Muslim women to pray inside mosques but that it was only Muslim men who were preventing them from doing so.


No sooner had the interview been published than a storm of protest was raised against me—led by none other than the son of my uncle. He mobilized several maulvis and young Muslim men in Hassan’s central mosque, and the maulvi of the mosque declared publicly that I was no longer ‘among them’ and that I and my entire family had been expelled from the jamaat or community. Thereupon, they announced a total social boycott of me and my family. No other Muslim could visit us or have any social relations with us and we could not be buried in the Muslim graveyard, the maulvi declared, without at all investigating into the matter or even giving me a chance to clear or explain myself.


The ban was so sternly enforced that even the scores of local Muslims who in their hearts supported me did not dare defy it. A close relative of mine, who was, at that time, suffering from blood cancer, wanted to meet me but, because of the boycott, he could not, and he died soon after without my being able to meet him. My Muslim clients and even home help could not meet me, so stiff was the boycott.


Soon after the boycott was announced it was widely reported in the media. Some of my close non-Muslim associates and friends were so enraged at the boycott that they suggested that they would boycott all Muslim shops till the boycott against me was lifted. I did not want that to happen because then the matter would take a communal turn and become a Hindu-Muslim conflict, and so I told them not to do so.


The boycott lasted for almost three months, and life at that time was really difficult for me and my family. When my daughters would go out, they would be taunted by some Muslim men who would say, ‘There goes the daughter of that mad woman’. But she would reply, ‘Everyone who is creative is considered to be mad, and I am glad that my mother is, too.’


By this time my father, who had consistently supported me in my work, was no more. My mother was a very simple lady. She had  been to Arabia for the Haj, where she had seen women praying in the mosques. She defended my stand, saying that in Mecca and Medina she had seen women pray in the mosques and that, therefore, I was right. She told me to carry on with my struggle and not to retract my words. She even said that, at the most, those who were so angry with me could take my life, and that if that were to happen she would look after my four children. My husband and children also supported me fully. They insisted that my stance was right and that I should refuse to ask for forgiveness, which is what the jamaat was insisting on.


The trauma I had to suffer in that period took a heavy toll on my professional life and also on my health. I could not go to the courts to work because I could easily have been assaulted. I already had high blood pressure, and it only got worse at that time. One day, I developed terrible chest pain. I refused to go to the hospital because, if I did so, I said—and here my family agreed with me—this would delight those who had instituted the boycott against me and would further embolden them. We did not want them to know—and gloat over—how I was suffering.


But life could not go on like that, in a small, conservative town, for very long.  Also, pressure by the various progressive organizations was mounting upon the maulvis. The maulvi of the mosque sent me a message asking me to repent or, as he put it, to do tauba for what I had said about women praying in mosques. I replied that there was no question at all of doing so as I still stuck to my views. Then, the jamaat people sent a message saying that in any case everyone generally asked for tauba from God a hundred times or more every day, and so I could do the same without needing to mention what I was to do tauba for. So, a meeting was fixed at a local hotel—not in the mosque, for while women are allowed into hotels, they usually cannot enter, or, at least, pray in mosques in most places in India!—where I met the jamaat men and said that I had done tauba. I then told them that I was leaving the matter for God to handle. Interestingly, five days after this incident, one of the maulvis who had been railing against me was arrested when he was trying to deposit fake five hundred rupee notes, which he had received from a businessman, into his account!


Six months after the lifting of the boycott, a man attacked me when I was driving my new car and smashed its windscreen with a hammer. The next day, another man came into my office and tried to assault me with a huge knife. However, soon the issue died out and things went back to normal.


Q: But, to come back to my question, how have Muslim groups responded to your work?


A: I must say here that when the boycott was instituted against me, the local unit of the Jamaat-e Islami supported my stance. They were opposed to the boycott and tried to convince the men behind it to lift it. Then, in 2002, in the wake of the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, some Jamaat-e-Islami members approached me, because they knew of my involvement against communalism and were aware that I had numerous secular non-Muslim activist friends. They suggested that we work together to promote communal harmony. Then, when Hindu communal forces were raising the issue of the Baba Budhan dargah in Karnataka and sought to turn it into a temple and spread communal hatred and anti-Muslim violence, I worked as state convener of in the  Komu Souhardha Vedike, a group of civil society activists struggling against communalism, which included several Muslim organizations.


But, that said, I would also like to say that despite all my work as a writer and a social activist I find that, in general, Muslim organizations, with notable exceptions, do not respect or even acknowledge my contributions. I think this is because of a deep gender bias, a deep-rooted notion that the more a Muslim woman is restricted to her home, the more pious she is seen as. I do not, however, think this is what the Quran teaches. One of my Hindu friends once said—and there is some truth in this—that had I been born in a non-Muslim family, my community would have recognized, even wholeheartedly encouraged and celebrated, my work, but the Muslims behave as if they could not care less. Every time I have voiced my views against patriarchy wrongly parading in the guise of Islam, misinterpreting Islam to bolster patriarchy and the subjugation of women, I have been told that I have no right to speak on Islam, to interpret my religion on my own. I have been told that because I do not have a madrasa education I have no right to do so. But this is my right, as a believing and practicing Muslim woman, and the maulvis cannot take it away from me.


On the other hand, I keep seeing illiterate mosque-managers or mutawallis interpreting Islamic law wrongly to suit their own purposes, but the maulvis rarely, if ever, speak out or issue fatwas against them. And so scared are people, including even politicians, of the ability of the maulvis to stir up people’s anger that no one dares criticize them. The maulvis have made it seem that to criticize them and their views is tantamount to criticizing Islam itself. In other words, they have hijacked Islam for their own personal interests. In this they are no different from, say, right-wing Hindu chauvinists like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who declare that if you oppose them and their interpretation of Hinduism, you are not a Hindu at all.


Q: What do you have to say about the willingness and ability, or otherwise, of Muslim ‘leaders’ to provide meaningful leadership to the Muslim community in terms of social issues?


A: At the pan-Indian level, Muslims suffer from a lack of meaningful leadership. The cream of the Muslim intelligentsia and political elite migrated to Pakistan in the wake of the Partition. They thought they could corner all the top posts there, but they were soon disappointed when Pakistan came under Punjabi hegemony and the migrants from India were reduced to virtually second-class status. The Muslims who remained behind in India were largely from the poorer classes. They turned to the conservative maulvis for leadership, who soon filled the leadership vacuum created as a result of the migration of the Muslim elites to Pakistan.


In pre-Partition India, Muslims were able to produce several enlightened leaders, some of whom had a traditional madrasa education, but this is not the case today. Maulana Azad, who rose to become India’s first Education Minister, was a traditionally-trained maulvi, but yet he took a leading role in India’s freedom struggle, advocated modern education and economic empowerment, and worked for good relations between Muslims and others. Sadly, we do not have maulvis of this sort today, who are truly ulema in the actual sense of the term—people with knowledge, not just of the scriptures but also of the real world in which they live. Today, everywhere mullahs, whom I contrast with real ulema, want to monopolise all our community platforms and rule over others. They have little or no knowledge of the real world, of changing social conditions, of the problems and concerns of the marginalized, including Muslim women. Many of them are simply power-hungry power-mongers. Obviously, this is not the sort of leadership we want or need.


I think there is a desperate need for our madrasa students, who will later become community leaders, to be much more socially aware and socially involved. This will go a long way to make Muslim ‘leaders’ more socially responsive. At present the madrasa system is structured in such a way that only a few graduates get coveted posts, while the rest have to be content working as lowly-paid mosque imams forever at the mercy of mosque committees and living off the donations they receive in the month of Ramadan. This is not a life of self-respect. They are not taught subjects and skills that can enable them to stand on their own feet and earn a living other than as paid religious professionals. Some maulvis argue that madrasa students must not be taught English or other modern subjects because otherwise they will be ‘ensnared by the trappings of the world’ and that then very few of them will want to become low-paid mosque imams. They insist they should be taught only religious subjects because then they will have no choice but to become imams. I think this is not at all right. How can you force these children to become imams in this way by denying them other forms of knowledge? As far as I know, Islam does not allow for this at all. I feel that madrasa children should get both forms of knowledge—Islamic as well as modern—and that those who genuinely want to become imams, and not because they are not skilled for anything else, should do so, while others can take up other occupations. You just can’t force children to be blind to, or ignorant of, the world simply in order to make them maulvis.


And then, we really need to question this belief that there is a radical distinction between ‘Islamic’ and ‘worldly’ knowledge. All forms of useful learning are legitimate in Islam, as far as I know. It is also not correct to think that if a madrasa student does not become a maulvi but chooses a secular occupation, he is being ‘ensnared by the lures of the world’, as some conservatives believe. All useful occupations are legitimate, and one can be a good Muslim at the same time as one is a good lawyer, a journalist or whatever.


Q: What, then, is the sort of leadership that you feel Muslims need?

A: We need leaders who have a good education—both modern as well as Islamic—and who are of a liberal outlook. They should have risen from the grassroots, not handpicked by political parties because of their family connections or because they hold top posts in this or the other tanzeem, anjuman or jamaat. They must have strong, organic relations with the Muslim masses, know their problems and concerns, and represent them accordingly. They must also be strongly committed not just to the welfare of the Muslims alone but the country as a whole as well. That, however, is something quite missing among those who project themselves as Muslim ‘leaders’. Rarely, if ever, do the problems of other marginalized communities, such as Dalits or Adivasis, evoke their concern. That probably has to do with a sort of internal communalism, but also the fact that, generally, Muslims are apprehensive about being too vocal about such issues for fear of being targeted by the police and other arms of the state machinery.


Besides political leaders, we also need Muslim leaders in various social fields, for which we need a lot more Muslim NGOs than we have at present. I regret to say this, but Muslims have not learnt how to be socially relevant at all, and nor have they understood why they continue to lag behind others. Few Muslim organizations are professionally run, and almost all of them lack far-sightedness. Many of them keep harping on religion, but this is more in the nature of show off-ism. Today, the vast majority of NGOS run by Muslims are madrasas and other such institutions that are concerned mainly or entirely with religious education. We have relatively very few Muslim-run institutions working in diverse fields such as health, modern education, protection of the environment, and so on.


We need organizations working to promote inter-community harmony as well. Till recently, Muslims generally stayed away from close interaction with secular, non-Muslim social activists and NGOs. But, from the 1990s onwards, with the rise of Hindutva chauvinism, I think they increasingly realized the need to work with secular forces because they now know that they cannot fight anti-Muslim communalism on their own. We need to further strengthen this process.


We also need leaders in the intellectual field who can provide Muslims with proper direction and take up the various economic, social, political and gender-related issues and problems. Unfortunately, in this the Muslim media, which is largely in Urdu, has largely failed. In any case, the number of Muslim readers of Urdu newspapers is rapidly declining as they prefer to read English papers or papers in vernacular languages instead which do a better job. Urdu papers generally suffer from a lack of professionalism. They give only a very limited coverage of local issues while they constantly highlight issues in far-off Muslim lands such as Palestine and Afghanistan. Naturally, this has little appeal for Muslims who want to know about what is happening in the places where they live.


Q: Conservative maulvis—as evidenced, for instance, by the spate of fatwas from various ‘leading’ madrasas—keep speaking out against Muslim women studying and working outside their homes, particularly in spaces that are mixed in terms of gender. How, as a Muslim woman who has been so prominent in public life, do you see this?


A: I am not an Arabic scholar, but I am a practicing Muslim, and, from my own reading of the Quran, I do know for a fact that Islam does not prohibit education or employment for Muslim women. Nor does it debar them from social involvement and activism. I am of the firm view that for Muslim women to feel confident and self-dependent they must go in for modern education and must also be able to earn a living even after marriage—otherwise, they will always feel insecure. I know of numerous Muslim women—many of whose cases I have handled as a lawyer—who have been thrown out on the streets by their husbands after being arbitrarily divorced by them and who, because they are not well-educated, are living lives of sheer hell. Can anyone say this is at all in accordance with Islam? Obviously not.


The fact remains that no number of fatwas against Muslim women studying, working or participating in politics is going to drive them out from the public sphere, from jobs, from institutions of higher learning, because these women are already there—and in ever increasing numbers. In fact, nowadays, Muslim girls’ enrolment in institutions of higher education is higher than that of Muslim boys in large parts of India, because Muslim boys often drop out as soon as they enter their teens and take up jobs as auto-rickshaw drivers and automobile mechanics in order to supplement their families’ incomes. Interestingly, the burkha has played a facilitating, rather than restraining, role for some Muslim girls who don it because their parents feel that they are thereby protected and safe thereby and so allow them to attend college. These girls then go on to take up jobs as teachers or social workers and, besides being more educated than the men whom they marry, they might even earn more than their spouses. This is one factor for the increasing rates of divorce today since many men cannot tolerate a wife who is economically independent and who is more educated than them. Nor can educated women put up with the consistent oppression of their husbands.


The fatwas targeting Muslim women’s empowerment are not taken seriously by educated, working women. In my view, they reflect a deep-rooted patriarchy that has nothing to do with the spirit of the Quran, if it is understood properly. They reflect a mentality, so deeply-ingrained among the conservative maulvis, but which I strongly disagree with, that the more restricted a woman is within the four walls of her home the more pious she is. They also reflect a completely unacceptable assumption that women are the root cause of evil and strife—but this has no sanction at all in the Quran.


Banu Mushtaq can be contacted on


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