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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 8 Aug 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Empowering Muslim Women for a Better Tomorrow

By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam

 08 August 2017

Paradise Lies at the Feet Of Your Mother 

Prophet Muhammad

We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination that a woman may suffer during her entire life is unacceptable but all too common. Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become richer, more stable and better governed.

When we place capital in the hands of women, especially low-income women, who don’t have access to loans through traditional means it works wonders – unlocking her entrepreneurial impulses.  We help empower not just women, but the communities in which they live. When women are reached, they gain the courage and skills to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty.   We create the most powerful catalyst for lasting social change.

 In India, community groups set up in villages and slums to tackle specific problems are known as self-help groups. It needs great emotional intensity to break through age old barriers .This can possible only through groups who share the same emotional values and are driven by   strong impulses of mutual goals. Self help groups are ideal an ideal fit for this role. One of the primary objectives is of course to avail loans which the women access by cross guaranteeing each other’s liability. These loans are part of a financial philosophy called microfinance. Together they create a critical mass and change the perception of what women can do. Members take loans for a variety of reasons: to buy medicine, start a business, purchase animals, pay school fees, buy clothing, buy food during the lean season, and invest in agriculture.  The women   meet every two weeks to make payments and discuss a social issues or schooling for girls. There is a brief learning session   on the Qur’an addressed by an enlightened woman of the village. A Muslim woman is often forbidden to leave the house without her husband’s permission, but husbands tolerate these meetings because the women return with cash and investment ideas.

I have spent more than decades in microfinance and have been amazed at the grit and tenacity of poor women in battling out of poverty in the face of severe odds. When I initiated this programme as a banker manager, I encountered stiff resistance from the local clergy who couldn’t believe that their women could attend a meeting without a male chaperone. There were some who felt that since I was a male; I had no religions sanction to interact with women. I convinced the village elders that if their women remained ignorant, their children would also have the same fate.   I came up against many challenges, the first being: How do we convince a woman to take loans, invest them in a business and then make financial choices to enhance her income? After initial reluctance, the elders conceded some ground.

 The first woman to whom I offered a choice was Shakeela, in village Charrkhati in eastern Maharashtra. She thought she must opt for it  rather serve a lifetime of hell in the company of her cruel  husband who used to blow up the entire precious and bare savings in smoking and gambling. She did not have much else to look forward to and was expected to go on in the same way miserable way all her life. Fear of poverty and respect for society keep many women locked in bad marriage, as does the prospect of losing custody of their children. In a life bound to realities beyond the grasp of man, there was little room for an identity to emerge. Most important, Shakeela’s reputation for honesty made people adore her. In a village where honesty was in short supply I was glad to see a woman who was respected just because her only wealth was honesty.    .

 Shakeela was excited about what the bank and its manager might mean for them, but her husband tried to dispel what he considered her silly notions that any bank would actually help them.“I don’t want to have anything to do with the bank,” he said at first, with a dismissive toss of his hands to his wife who he felt was being taken for a ride by a charlatan banker.

When I first proffered the loan, Shakeela stuttered with fright. Feeling desperately sorry I asked her to believe in me I assured her that if she made a serious attempt at properly investing the loan and yet failed in generating surplus, we would not divest her of her bare belongings in the way of a moneylender. Yet Shakeela’s honest face crumpled in despair. Shakeela scratched her head, did quick mental math and decided to give the loan a try. There was nothing to lose. 

Intent on providing a better life for her children and surviving as best she could ,Shakeela decided to give it a try not out of any temptation, but because she felt she must take the first ladder irrespective of whether she would be able to make it to the next. Her decision transformed her life.

Shakeela learned to sew with a simple needle and thread – mostly from her mother and grandmother. She also spent many hours watching tailors at work as she passed by their shops. For years, she’s been doing piece work for them and making only a small cut of their profits. But she just took out her first loan of 15,000 rupees from a local credit agency. With it, she purchased two used electric sewing machines and set up shop 

Shakeela’s new sewing machines have allowed her to double production and she is now making 8-9 Cholis – sari blouses – daily. She’s also been able to employ one person to help her and is ready to meet the demands of the high season through December, when it gets colder and sales drop off.  With her next loan, Shakeela plans to increase her margins and save time by buying greater quantities of thread, sequins, beads, and other materials from wholesalers rather than from a nearby retail shop.

Shakeela is soft and introvert but speaks so well the language of the quiet. Despite being a business woman, Shakeela remains a devout Muslim, always donning a Hijab.” I choose to veil because in veiling, it gives me peace. A spiritual peace. It's my identity and a witness of my faith. When I wear my Hijab it makes me feel confident, I feel like myself, this is how I have always been.   My Hijab has never stopped me from doing anything, and I refuse to let people’s stares and comments get to me. “

Shakeela rose to become an elected village leader, a rarity for a Muslim woman.  . Today, Shakeela is an advisor to other women. The queasiness is gone and she has now taken the village stage.  Her skills at financial arithmetic are phenomenal. She and the other 30 women of the village self help group have even managed to chase the local liquor shop out of their village. They walk about proudly in their uniforms - identical saris that they bought out of the money they pooled together. Contrast them with their appearances just a year ago - a group in discoloured rags.

I visited her village recently and was wonderstruck by the transformation she has brought about. There’s a bank, a school, Women are out of the house and working on village improvement projects such sanitation systems and vegetable gardens. They have started small businesses.  People eat more nutritious foods; they use mosquito nets and repellents to ward off mosquitoes. They know they must boil water for drinking to protect the family from water-borne diseases. Even more remarkable is the social transformation that the movement has wrought. No one drinks. Only a handful smoke. There hasn’t been a crime here in years. Even the practice of untouchability has weakened. The village is brisk and prosperous. Signs of rural modernity abound.

Shakeela’s humble story, at first, strikes little interest in a passerby. However, played out over and over again in markets, slums, barrios, and villages .it shines as a compelling and inspiring story of resolute perseverance, of the power of the human spirit, and of the dignity of so many people struggling to escape the enduring grasp of poverty. 

For empowering women, men have to be properly sensitized so that women are allowed both time and freedom and opportunity to chart out a path of social and economic independence. Treating women with the inherent dignity that they were created with, ensuring that   they are given equitable opportunities to succeed is necessary to uphold the Qur’an’s vision, "O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding justice," (Q4:135). 

It is clear that Muslim women’s empowerment, like many things, cannot be imposed on a   culture from outside. Men and women within these conservative communities must first find their own reasons and their own justifications to allow women a fuller role in society. Increasingly, they are finding those reasons within Islam. Like men, women deserve to be free. Empowering women should be as much a man's responsibility, as it is a woman's aspiration. As Rumi says in the Masnawi, “This woman, who is your beloved, is in fact a ray of His light. She is not a mere creature. She is like a creator”.

 In today's increasingly global world, the stakes are higher than ever—for everyone. Societies that limit women's educational and employment opportunities and their political voice get stuck in a downward spiral. They are poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption, and are more prone to extremism.  

To those opposed to reformist ideals, let us remind them of Iqbal’s assertion: “[t]he teaching of the Qur’an that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems.”  

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades.