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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 22 Jun 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islamic Feminism in India and the Media

By Adab Nawaz,

The Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla organized a three-day seminar on Islamic feminist movement in India. Over a dozen scholars/activists participated in it. Adab Nawaz presented this paper. 

 Decades ago, the Urdu poet Majaz had called upon women to use aanchal or scarf as a banner or flag. In a couplet which later became a reference point for the progressives, he said:

 Tere sar pe yeh aanchal khub hai lekin,

Tu ise parcham bana le to achcha hota

(The scarf on your head looks good,

But it will be better if you turn it into a banner).

 Perhaps no other groups need to follow the poet’s advice more sincerely than the Muslim women. By discarding scarf or burqa which anyway is not religion-mandated but custom-commanded, Muslim women will be asserting a right Muslim men have denied them. Fortunately, there is an increasing group of liberated women who have raised a banner of rebellion. They're not burning bras, or burqas. But a bunch of non-conformist Muslim women activists are making an attempt to free their sisters from the clutches of a patriarchal clergy. 

The national media which never loses a chance to paint Muslims as regressive and backward have fortunately sided with this group of Muslim feminists in India. These women and their activism routinely get reported in the press and are covered by Television.

Last year, Lucknow-based feminist Shaista Ambar was on television several times. Once she appeared on Television was when she sided with the three daughters-in-law - Nishat, Hina and Arshi - who had beaten up some maulvis at Sultanul Madaris, the city's famous Shia madrasa which also houses a Sharia court. The maulvis had given talaqnamas (divorce documents) to the women's husbands without consulting them when they tried to get justice against the advances of their father-in-law.

Incensed, Ambar batted for the brave women whom the clergy predictably attacked for taking the law into their hands. "The maulvis should have spoken to the women before they wrote the talaqnama. The patriarchal, misogynist clergy will have to mend its ways or women know how to avenge injustice," Ambar had told reporters.

Ambar belongs to a small but increasingly influential group of Islamic feminists in India. They may not be as powerful as the senior maulvis who head leading Islamic seminaries or run Muslim Personal Law Boards and Sharia courts, both Shia and Sunni. But this band of non-conformist women is silently and successfully ushering in change. These women know the power of the media and they use it to their advantage. No wonder, Ambar called the media persons immediately after she heard of the brave sisters’ act in Lucknow. 

They may not equal the audacity of the bra-burning feminists of several decades ago, but they've hit hard at the patriarchal and misogynist elements in Muslim society. And their guiding sources are the Quran and Hadith (the Prophet's traditions). Ambar was among those who opposed the Darul Uloom fatwa that called women's earnings illegal. Evidently, India's Islamic feminists are bucking trends courageously and cannily.

In August 2008, Planning Commission member Sayeda Hameed created history by becoming the first woman qazi when she solemnised a nikah ceremony in Lucknow - that of activist Naesh Hasan and PhD scholar Imran Naeem. Hameed drew flak from a section of clerics who said there was no precedent of a woman acting as a qazi. "I asked them to show me a verse in the Quran or a Hadith which prevented a woman from becoming a qazi. If it was not forbidden by Allah and His Prophet, who were the maulvis to oppose it?" she asked. After they couldn't come out with a convincing reason, some maulvis spread the lie that Hameed had not covered her head while she chanted Quranic verses during the nikah. This was a lie, claims Hameed, fabricated to malign her as the Television footage and the videos of that historic celebration convincingly prove that Hameed had covered her head while she chanted Quranic verses. Here again, the national media highlighted Hameed’s courageous step.

However, the Urdu press, also known as the Muslim press as most of Urdu readers are Muslims, mostly ignored and continue to ignore activism of the likes of Ambar and Hameed. Urdu dailies live in an illusion that Muslim society is not ready to accept change. They are actually catering to a small group of orthodox clergy. The Urdu press has either failed to read the pulse of the Muslims masses or have put blinkers. They wrongly believe that most Muslims do what the maulvis say.     

The Islamic feminist movement is not confined to occasional acts of rebellion by contrarian "progressives". There are some feminists who are respected by even senior clerics and regularly invited to their meetings. Mumbai-based Uzma Naheed is one such. Coming from the family of the clerics that founded the famous Darul Uloom Deoband (UP) in the mid-18th century, Naheed is a member of the All- India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIIMPLB) and heads Iqra International Women Alliance (IIWA), an NGO committed to empowering Muslim women. A few years ago, she drafted a model nikahnama which had, among other provisions, a right to talaq-e-tafweez (delegated talaq) which allowed women a right to put certain conditions in the nikahnma. If the husband failed to meet those conditions - like not taking another wife till the first wife was alive - the woman could divorce him. Many members privately appreciated Naheed's revolutionary nikahnama, but are yet to implement it. Here again, the Urdu press has failed to tell the world that there are Muslim women who want the regressive nikahnama of the Muslim Personal Law Board changed.

Another Indian feminist who has made the best use of media is Mumbai-based Zeenat Shaukat Ali, who teaches Islamic Studies at the city’s St Xavier's College and has made "freeing Muslim women from the clutches of the clergy" her life's mission. Thirteen years ago, Ali created a stir among educated Muslims with her critically acclaimed book Marriage and Divorce in Islam (1997). "The book's main argument is that since Allah made male and female as complementary to each other, there is no reason to treat women as inferior to men," said Ali. Ali claims that her   feminism is not about male-bashing, but about sharing space with them. She has organised several multi-faith programmes, including a cricket match featuring maulvis, Hindu pandits, Christian, Zoroastrian and Sikh priests as players. Her Art for Peace project had similar multi religious participation where the participants were asked to paint on a theme of peace. Mumbai’s newspapers gave wide coverage to Ali’s initiatives.

Fiery woman activist Daud Sharifa's aim is to build a mosque exclusively for women in Pudukkottai, around 300 km from Chennai. It will serve not just as a place of worship but even as a cultural centre where women can air their views and discuss their problems," Sharifa is reported to have told journalists.

Though the national media is by and large very prompt in reporting the initiatives of Islamic feminists, it too has often betrayed the deep-rooted bias against Muslims. While it justifiably supports author Taslima Nasreen’s right to live wherever she wants to, it sweeps the issue of morality under the carpet. It condemns the mullahs who are baying for Tasleema’s blood, but doesn’t tell the world the kind of rubbish Taslima produces in the name of literature. If the media takes a balanced approach, much of anger and fury against writers like Taslima will vanish.

We want Islamic feminism in India to be in the league of feminism in the 1990s in Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, South Africa and the United States. It will be a robust international movement with more and more women pushing for a progressive Islamic discourse to promote gender equality. And the media can be a catalyst to this much-needed movement which will help change Muslim society. Then the poet’s clarion call to use aanchal or head scarf as a banner will truly be met and his wishes fulfilled.