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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 12 May 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Aandolan – Fighting for Islamic Shariah, Not Women’s Liberty

By Tufail Ahmad for New Age Islam

12 May 2016

Established in January 2007, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Aandolan (BMMA, or Movement of the Indian Muslim Women) describes itself as “an autonomous, secular, rights-based mass organization led by Muslim women which fights for the citizenship rights of the Muslims in India.”[i] In recent years, the BMMA has raised many issues related with Muslim women’s sufferings but a careful reading of its positions on various issues indicates that it is unwilling to transcend the limits of Islamic Shariah. Although it calls itself a “secular” organization, there is nothing in its positions to indicate that it is secular, with secularism being a movement of ideas away from religions and towards rationality which empowers individuals with the ability to make critical judgements to live their daily life meaningfully.

The phrase “Islamic Reformation” – or reform, for short – is derived from a scholarly attempt by German theologian Martin Luther (1483–1546) to question some of the Church practices within the framework of Christianity through his “95 Theses” — which became known as Reformation.[ii] Civilization has come a long way since the time of Martin Luther, with democracy now giving us new values for our times with regard to gender equality, individual rights, secularism and values regarding political coexistence. Therefore, the cause of Islamic Reformation in our era has to be subject to human condition, with the premise being that the human condition must change if it becomes an obstacle to democratic values such as gender equality, irrespective of religious beliefs.

In this context, many of the positions adopted by BMMA contradict the Muslim women’s rights to liberty and equality. For example, the BMMA upholds mehr (the money required by Islam to be paid to woman by man) as the prerequisite for a groom to marry.[iii] The BMMA insists the woman should get “at least the groom’s annual income as her mehr at the time of marriage.”[iv] Such a demand for mehr is against gender equality for modern age and amounts to demanding money for legal sex in marriage. It is also not feasible practically to implement such a provision of mehr where the bride’s family ends up giving dowry in violation of law. The BMMA does understand that mehr is against gender equality but it is stipulating the demand for mehr in order to uphold Islamic Shariah. For our times, gender equality means that both man and woman must work.

A woman can be truly empowered only if she earns money. So, let’s assume that a Muslim woman works as a house maid. She must look for a husband who is of equal status and in work, thereby obviating the need for mehr. Otherwise, mehr is basically a template for a Muslim woman to go looking for a rich husband with whom she wants to enter a life of servitude for a higher amount of mehr. Even if she gets a very high amount of mehr, her servitude does not end and her individual liberty does not begin without income. Therefore, there is a need to abolish mehr as a prerequisite for the liberation of Muslim women and their independent empowerment. The BMMA is urged to support abolition of mehr for a genuine progress of Muslim women’s liberation to begin.

The BMMA wants to ensure that only the groom must earn in order to marry. Such a proposition is against gender equality. The requirement must be that a woman must also work and show proof that she works in order to marry. For example, the BMMA notes: “the residence proof of man and his source of income… [must be] ascertained before he enters into a marriage contract.”[v] The organization is silent as to why the same requirement is not a must for a Muslim woman. Either the BMMA leadership is hostage to Islamic Shariah or views Muslim women as a subjugated class of individuals who must depend on the husband’s salary for their freedom. Such intellectual bankruptcy of the BMMA cannot be even the first towards women’s liberty, not in present century.

The BMMA attempts to uphold Islamic Shariah in women’s life. Therefore, it opposes a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), the goal of the Indian Constitution requiring the Indian state to draft a bill of rights that guarantees equal rights for all citizens irrespective of their religious affiliation. The BMMA states: “There can be no imposition of a UCC as this would be a clear violation of Article 25 of the Constitution, which gives the right to all citizens including minority citizens to have personal laws based on tenets of their respective religions.”[vi] If the BMMA is so concerned for rights for our era, it should better demand the abolition of Article 25, under which, just to be sure, the right to religion is the weakest of all fundamental rights as per two sub-clauses. For BMMA, the goal is simply the codification of Islamic Shariah, and therefore it does not see religion as obstacle to individual freedom. It states: “Like the Christian and Parsi minorities, Muslims too have a right to a codified law that regulates all aspects of marriage and family.”[vii]

The BMMA notes that it has prepared a draft of the Muslim personal law “based on the Quranic injunctions and Constitutional values [that] calls for abolition of oral unilateral divorce, polygamy, practise of halala [divorced woman marrying another man in order to re-marry her former husband] and muta [temporary] marriage.”[viii] Some of the steps suggested here by BMMA are positive, but the BMMA, being a Shariah-compliant organization, fails to grasp that women’s liberty cannot be subject to Islam, or other religions. A simple democratic tenet of modern life is that, irrespective of what the Quran says, a Muslim husband and wife must be required to go to court to marry and divorce, thereby ending all roles for Islamic clerics. A better advocacy for BMMA should be to request all Muslim women to opt for the Special Marriages Act, 1954 – as a form of UCC.

Over the years, it has become a humiliating experience for Muslim husbands in the Shariah-compliant India republic to divorce because they are prevented by the Indian justice system to approach courts for divorce. The BMMA does not advocate ending the role of Islamic clerics. It merely wants male clerics to be replaced by women clerics. Currently, the BMMA is engaged in creating a parallel legal system in India. For example, it is training women qazis (Islamic judges) who will adjudicate on Muslim matters. It states: “The initiative began in Jaipur with a group of 30 Muslim women who have embarked on the journey to become qazis.”[ix] It says: “Women qazis will ensure that the mehr amount is received by the bride at the time of nikah [marriage] and that both the parties are entering into the marriage alliance out of their free will and not by force or fraud.”[x] A serious question for BMMA is: how is it that Indian courts cannot ensure the same?

It is astounding that the BMMA leaders describe their movement as “feminist” saying that their initiative is “part of the larger feminist movement in the Islamic world initiated by women activists and scholars who have taken upon themselves the task of presenting to the world a humane, just and peaceful face of Islam.”[xi] To my understanding, it is not the purpose of feminism to serve Islam, peaceful or otherwise. Religions are counter-freedom movements and their excessive role in the life of individuals must be curbed. There were times feminists were burning bras in open streets to claim their place and liberty in public space. The Muslim women’s freedom movement must begin from burqa. The rest will start falling in place.

At the best, the BMMA stands for Islamic Shariah, not the liberty of women. It is unfortunate, very unfortunate, that judges in the high courts and the Supreme Court of India, instead of referring to the provisions of the Indian Constitution, cite the Quran on gender equality. The BMMA leaders take pride in the role of religion, stating: “Isn’t it wonderful that the judgments given out by our high courts and Supreme Court give reference of the Quran?”[xii] Also, for Muslim women’s liberty, please teach your daughter mathematics, economics and physics from grade one through 12, and stop believing that you, whether a Muslim or Hindu woman, can be free by depending on the husband’s income. For a short-term measure, all Muslim women and Muslim men must marry under the Special Marriages Act, thereby ending all dramas involving Islam from their life. This one-point reform will eliminate a large number of Muslim problems from the Indian society.

Tufail Ahmad is Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC. He is the author of “Jihadist Threat To India – The Case For Islamic Reformation By An Indian Muslim.”


 [i], accessed May 12, 2016.