By TA Ameerudheen
Even as the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing Hindu women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple has set off protests in Kerala, a Muslim women’s organisation is moving the court demanding the right to worship and lead prayers in mosques.
The Nisa Progressive Muslim Women’s Forum, popularly known as Nisa, meaning women in Arabic, said they would petition the apex court by the end of the month. Nisa is based in Kerala’s Kozhikode.
Though Islamic law does not bar women from praying in mosques, Kerala’s more traditionalist Sunni Muslims keep women out of their places of worship. Sunnis make up the majority of Kerala’s Muslims, who constitute 26% of the state’s population. By contrast, mosques administered by the ultraconservative Salafi sects and the sociopolitical organisation Jama’at-e-Islami provide segregated prayer spaces for women.
“We are also requesting the court to give women scholars who have studied Islamic theology the opportunity to lead prayers and ratify nikah,” said VP Zuhara, head of Nisa, referring to the Muslim marriage contract. Zuhara, 69, claimed Nisa is “acting on behalf of all Muslim women believers who have been cherishing a dream to pray in mosques”. She added the organisation wanted to women imams leading congretational prayers in Salafi and Jama’at-e-Islami mosques as well.
Nisa’s announcement comes at a time when Kerala is witnessing widespread protests against the Supreme Court’s decision allowing Hindu women of all ages to offer prayers at the popular hill shrine of Sabarimala. Even women have protested against the verdict. In its judgement on September 28, the court ruled that the temple must not discriminate against women of menstruating age by prohibiting their entry. The protestors, however, contend that the ban is a matter of faith and part of the temple’s traditions that should not be dispensed with.
‘Change won’t come overnight’
Because the Supreme Court has stated in the Sabarimala ruling that “subversion of women on biological factors cannot be given legitimacy”, Zuhara is hoping for a favourable verdict in the matter of Muslim women wanting to pray in msques.
However, the Kerala High Court on Thursday may have given Nisa cause for caution when it dismissed a petition filed by a Hindutva group urging that Muslim women be allowed to pray in mosques. According to The Times of India, the court said the Akhila Bharatiya Hindu Maha Sabha had not produced enough evidence to conclude that women are being denied entry in the state’s mosques. It added, though, that Muslim women should approach the High Court if they feel aggrieved.
Despite this, Zuhara said that it was not the Sabarimala ruling that prompted Nisa to seek legal redress. Members had been “discussing ways to proceed with litigation for many years”, she said. “We will not get a better opportunity to raise the case than now. We are not worried about its political fallout.”
They have little reason to worry. For one, Nisa is almost assured of support from the ruling party. A few days after the Sabarimala verdict, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan questioned why the Sunni mosques barred women from offering prayers. If women could perform Hajj and enter the grand mosque in Mecca, he asked, why could they not offers prayers in Kerala’s mosques? This is in line with the party’s position on women’s entry to places of worship.
Zuhara said it is the correct position. “I have been to the holy city of Mecca where men and women pray together,” she said. “Religious texts tell us that Prophet Mohammed allowed his wives to offer prayers in mosques. We say the Prophet has shown us the right way. Then how can we ban women from praying in mosques?”
Still, despite hopes of a favourable verdict and likely backing from the ruling party, Zuhara knows that “change will not happen overnight”. The orthodox clergy and its supporters in political parties will oppose any reform, she noted. “We have full faith in judiciary but we have to continue the fight,” she added.
‘Women must take decisions’
Zuhara founded Nisa in 1997 to fight gender discrimination practices such as polygamy and triple talaq in Kerala’s Muslim community. It also campaigns for equal rights for women in property and guardianship as well as the right to divorce and to remarry. It played a starring role in ending the practice of Arabi kalyanam a decade ago. Arabi kalyanam was a convention by which Arab men could marry Kerala Muslim woman for a few weeks or months. Nisa was also among the petitioners in the triple talaq case.
Currently, it is fighting two cases in the Supreme Court, for Muslim women’s equal right to property and the revision of marriage laws.
Zuhara argued that Muslim women should not have to fight for these rights since they are already granted to them by the Islamic law. “But holy texts of Islam have been misinterpreted by the male clergy,” she said.
Some activists aren’t especially enthused by Nisa’s proposed petition. VP Rajeena, an activist and journalist who has faced online abuse for exposing sexual abuse in madrassas, said it was naïve to expect that women would automiatically become empowered if they are allowed to pray in mosques. Instead, Muslim women should demand a place in decision-making bodies. “The mahal committees are men-only spaces,” she said, referring to the community bodies that decide on religious matters. “Women have to abide by the decisions taken by the men. It is time women turned decision-makers.”
Zuhara said Nisa will consider adding this demand to its petition. “We agree that women should get their due in decision-making bodies,” she said. “It is a major step in the empowerment of Muslim women.”