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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 4 Jun 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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An AIDWA Perspective on Some Issues Concerning Muslim Women

By Subhashini Ali, Vice-President, AIDWA

I have been associated with the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) since its formation in l981.  While we in AIDWA are proud of the fact that our membership, which is renewed and expanded every year, has reached more than one and a half crores, we are humbled by the sheer magnitude of the problems that about 60 crore women and children face every day of their lives in our country.

The vast majority of our membership comprises of extremely poor rural and urban women and it is their issues that concern us the most.  We define the oppression of women as threefold – as women, as citizens and as workers.  This means that we try to organise campaigns and struggles against gender-bias and patriarchy, against a discriminatory State and against economic exploitation.  Our experience has also made us realise that, even within the same social and economic strata, different groups of women face different sets of problems because of differences in caste and community.

Similarly, while agricultural workers, home-based workers, domestic workers are all covered by the broad definition of working women, each group has very special problems.  We, therefore, adopted the concept of ‘sectional work’ among different groups of women like Dalit women, Muslim women, Adivasi women, agricultural workers, members of SHGs etc. We believe that it is absolutely essential that all those committed to gender equality and economic and social emancipation develop the greatest sensitivity to the problems of those women who face the greatest exploitation and discrimination.  Class and social divisions between women have to be recognised and opposed by all women fighting for their rights if their slogans are not to be rendered hollow and unrealiseable.

There are many in the women’s movement who supports the formation of caste- and religion-based women’s organisations.  While we have a positive experience of joint programmes with many such groups, we hold that the necessity of a strong women’s organization, the vast majority of whose members belong to the most socially and economically exploited groups and which takes up their specific problems along with problems common to all women remains valid.   While a sense of identity can be an impetus to consciousness and resistance, “identity politics”, in the ultimate analysis ignores the reality of class oppression and the need for class and gender solidarity and generates divisiveness that weakens united campaigns and struggles.  Even as a prolonged wave of identity politics sweeps across the world, it needs to be remembered that the larger context of mediations/ intersectionalities and linkages with socio –political processes cannot be overlooked. All women, including Muslim women, live their lives in a fast changing and globalised world that determines and impinges upon changes that come about in all their lives.

Muslim women do not form a homogenous group and, therefore, the ways in which the processes of globalization impact upon them are very varied.  Even their religious identities which are undergoing redefinition and reinvention constantly also see great variations. For example, the way in which the issue of ‘burqa’ is being used by its defenders and its opponents to, among other things, emphasize their commitment to women’s rights when, in actual fact, their commitment is suspect and their real agenda far removed, has created a focus for women’s movements which they have to engage with whether or not it is in any way a priority for them.  It is imperative, therefore,  to keep bringing the focus back to the issue of equal citizenship while displaying sensitivity and involvement with the myriad issues that revolve around Muslim women.

The Shah Bano Judgment

From its inception, AIDWA has had large numbers of Muslim members, especially in Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.  They were always participants in general campaigns and struggles around issues like dowry, gender-just laws, domestic violence, divorce and civic problems.  The Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case in l986 and subsequent developments changed the course of Indian politics and also the way in which the Muslim Women’s question was interpreted and used to further diverse political and communal agendas.  This had a crucial bearing on AIDWA and women’s movements’  involvement with these questions.

Shah Bano, an elderly lady from Madhya Pradesh, was divorced by her husband in 1978. She went to court and, like millions of other women belonging to all communities, claimed maintenance under Sec. 125 of the Indian Penal Code. Shah Bano’s husband, being a lawyer, went in appeal against all the favourable decisions given by lower Courts in her favour until the matter reached the Supreme Court. In, l986, the Supreme Court upheld the earlier judgments but, unfortunately, its verdict contained certain incendiary comments on the ‘nature’ of Islam and the need to enact a Common Civil Code in order to protect the rights of Muslim women. Muslim clerics, politicians and fundamentalists immediately raised the slogan of “Interference in Muslim Personal Law” and mobilized lakhs of Muslims across the country to protest against the judgment and to force the Government to enact legislation to keep Muslim women out of the purview of Sec. 125.

A delegation of women leaders led by AIDWA met the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi and impressed upon him the need to resist this pressure and went on, in l987,  to  mobilise more than 2000 Muslim women from Kerala, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to demonstrate in front of Parliament.  This was AIDWA’s first mobilisation of Muslim women on an issue of this kind and perhaps a first for the entire women’s movement.

Unfortunately, Rajiv Gandhi, calculating that this would help him garner Muslim votes,  pushed through legislation that denied divorced Muslim women the right to maintenance. The BJP immediately pounced upon this godsend of an issue and began a campaign against what was to become its future ‘mantra’ – appeasement of the minorities. Unfortunately, because of the Congress Government’s rank opportunism and pusillanimity, this slogan found resonance with large sections of society for the first time. The BJP also adopted the demand for a Common Civil Code, ostensibly as an expression of sympathy for Muslim women but, actually, of course, as part of its campaign of communal polarization. To make matters worse, Rajiv Gandhi then, in an attempt to appease ‘Hindu sentiment’, went on to facilitate the opening of the locks to the Babri Masjid which only gave a further impetus to the BJP and Hindutva forces.

We in AIDWA learnt many lessons from the Shah Bano campaign: the negative impact of fundamentalism and communal politics on women’s rights; the exploitation of gender injustice to further their own political agendas by communal forces who have no sympathy whatsoever for the victims; the importance of community leaders in any fight for democratic rights and the need for careful preparation and strategising in order to wage a successful struggle

It was very apparent to us that the BJP insistence on a Common Civil Code was just one more example of its minority-bashing and attempt to portray the entire Muslim community and its religion as anti-women. Every time they raised the demand, ‘community’ leaders, Muslim politicians and clerics responded predictably with the bogey of ‘Islam in danger’ and also with the most retrograde defense of anti-women practices. This not only gave credibility to the BJP campaign but also made it increasingly difficult to organize and take forward the struggle for a gender-just implementation of Shariat law.

In the situation after l989, when the battle for the demolition of the Babri Masjid began assuming mass proportions, and communal polarization became accentuated, the siege mentality created among Muslims along with the very real terror of repeated communal rioting successfully reduced the space for the issue of gender justice.

Campaign against Communalism and Fundamentalism                                                    

AIDWA had to respond both to the vital issues of communal polarization and brutal attacks on Muslims and to that of gender-just laws. We were able to undertake a number of campaigns on the former and an important intervention was the joint statement that we issued along with the other National Women’s Organisations (AIWC, NFIW, JWP, YWCA, CWDS and MDS) after the Babri demolition in 1992 that stated, unequivocally, that all forms of religious fundamentalism constitute the gravest threat to women’s rights and gender-justice. Our units also intervened in situations of rioting, organized relief for victims and conducted campaigns for communal harmony.

AIDWA also had a responsibility to ensure that the issue of gender-just laws did not disappear from the public domain in this atmosphere of violence and hatred against Muslims. We, therefore, formulated our position in the form of a resolution – “For Equal Rights and Equal Laws’- that was passed at a very successful Convention held in Delhi in l995. We do believe that our understanding and stand have been widely appreciated and supported.

Our later interventions in the form of signature campaigns for reform within Shariat law as it is applied in India and then for a Model Nikahnama were natural corollaries to the 1995 Resolution. Our efforts in this regard included interactions with the All India Muslim Personal Law Board on these issues.

The terrible carnage in Gujarat in 2002 was the most ghastly demonstration of the nature and consequences of communal polarization. An AIDWA delegation visited Gujarat while the rioting was still underway and was able to publish one of the first eyewitness reports of the horrors of that State-sponsored massacre. We were also able to mobilize relief and resources for the large relief camps that had been set up in the State by organizations run by the minority community itself and then to engage in relief work ourselves. Our small unit in Ahmedabad was helped to set up mixed SHG groups once ‘peace’ was restored.

Citizenship Rights of Muslim Women

AIDWA has tried to maintain its focus on the rights of Muslim women as citizens i.e. not just concentrating on the problems they face because of the way in which aspects of Muslim Personal Laws are applied in India, but on the discrimination that they face in their everyday lives as unequal citizens.  It is with this perspective that we have organized Muslim Women Conventions in various districts and States and a National Convention of Muslim Women in 2008 which was attended by more than 800 women from 15 States.

Despite the fact that it was our intention to focus on problems other than those connected with Personal Laws, it was a common experience in all these conventions that the women participants themselves seemed to feel that discriminatory Personal laws or the gender-unjust interpretation of these Laws that they were subjected to were a large part if not the largest part of the problems that they faced.  It has also been our experience in the course of the case-work undertaken by our units all over the country that this is an aspect that cannot be ignored.  For example, in both the Imrana case (Muzaffarnagar, UP) and Najma case (Bhadrak, Orissa) that we took up it was the problems of triple talaq and halala that were responsible for heartbreaking injustice being meted out to the two women concerned.

Our perspective also found reflection in the Memorandum that we submitted to the Sachar Committee.  (In this context, it is important to remember that the Sachar Committee itself did not have a single woman member and its final report did not make any specific recommendations for Muslim women.  It seemed to assume that their requirements would be met by either the Government or by Muslim men or by both.  These acts of omission underline how essential it is to raise the question of gender at every stage of any intervention motivated by the imperatives of social justice.)  After the Sachar Committee’s Report was made public, we discussed it in innumerable meetings of Muslim women and also carried out a signature campaign demanding a gender-component in its implementation.

Impact of terrorist activities in India and abroad

Events of the last decade have made us acutely aware of the way in which the “War Against Terror” has impacted on women’s’ lives, responses and attitudes.  A situation has been created in which the Muslim community as a whole has been subjected to further demonisation.  Already portrayed as being synonymous with backwardness and inequality, it is now also being portrayed as a community that harbours and sympathises with terrorists.  In the aftermath of each bomb blast and terrorist strike, Muslim areas are made the targets of police brutality.  Men and boys are arrested, beaten, tortured and jailed in hundreds and women are made to bear the brunt of abuse and humiliation. It is shocking that despite the fact that Hindutva organisations are now known to have been responsible for Malegaon, Samjhauta Express, Ajmer Sharif and the Mecca Masjid bomb blasts not only has the prejudice level against Muslims not abated but the Muslims arrested in connection with these cases have not yet been released or given bail. AIDWA has through its publications and activities tried to confront this unacceptable abuse of the citizenship rights of Muslim men and women.

Agenda for the Immediate Future

While we continue to move in the direction that we have set for ourselves, it is also important to pick up threads that have gone slack.  The campaign for gender-just laws and the necessary interaction with community-leaders has to be revisited;  bonds with others working in this area have to be forged or strengthened;  monitoring of the implementation of the recommendations of the Sachar Committee and the Rangnath Misra Commission and the fight for Muslim women being recognised as beneficiaries has to be taken up consistently;  livelihood issues of Muslim women and recognition of their rights as workers have to be fought for;  the access of Muslim women to Government schemes and to all their entitlements as citizens has to be ensured and the battle against communal forces has to be joined in ways that go beyond slogans and platitudes.