By Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com
The Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, organized a three day seminar on ‘Muslim Women’s Struggles for Equality, Justice and Empowerment’ from the 21st to 23rd of May, 2011. It was attended by some twenty academics and social activists from across the country (and one from abroad) who are working on Muslim women’s issues.
In his key-note address, the well-known scholar-activist Asghar Ali Engineer of the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society and the Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai, spoke about alternate readings of the Islamic scriptural tradition that can be marshaled as a resource for Muslim women in their struggles for legal equality and empowerment within the home and in the public sphere. He contrasted such alternate readings with the deep-rooted patriarchal tradition of Islamic exegesis which remains dominant within many Muslim communities, in India and abroad. Although he agreed that secular, human rights-based discourses for pursuing legal equality for Muslim women was important, he stressed the need for alternate religious arguments as well, for only then, he contended, could such proposals for equality gain acceptance among Muslims in general.
The first session of the seminar, titled ‘Promoting Gender Sensitive Islamic Discourses’, was devoted to a more detailed discussion of the themes that Dr. Engineer had dwelt on in his presentation. A. Faiz-ur Rahman of the Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought Among Muslims, Chennai, dealt with specific Quranic verses that have been interpreted by patriarchal exegetes to justify women’s subordination within the family. These readings, he contended, could be questioned on the basis of an alternate, gender-friendly Islamically-grounded epistemology, such as by exploring alternate meanings of key Quranic terms.
Sheeba Aslam Fehmi, a Ph.D. candidate at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and one of the few Indian Muslim scholars who write regularly on gender-egalitarian readings of Islam, argued the case for what is now termed broadly as ‘Islamic feminism’. Evoking the notion that there was no Quranic sanction for the claim that only madrasa-trained clerics could interpret Islam, or that the interpretations of what are regarded as ‘classical’ scholars (almost all male) are binding on all Muslims for all times, she stressed the need for Muslim women to study and interpret the Islamic texts on their own, freed from what she regarded as the interpretive hegemony of the clerics. The women’s-friendly reading of these texts would be grounded in a firm commitment to gender equality and justice, and hence would necessarily have to interrogate the juridical or fiqh prescriptions of the traditionalist clerics that, she argued, were premised on the subordination of women to male authority. She pointed out that this task had hardly begun in India, where few Muslim women had acquired sufficient grounding both in the Islamic scriptural tradition as well as feminist analysis required for this purpose.
The seminar’s second session consisted of two presentations. Nasiruddin Haider Khan, senior editor of the Delhi-based Hindi daily Hindustan, spoke about the claim of the All-Indian Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) of representing both Islam and the Indian Muslims, expressing the view that this claim was specious, even though it was taken at face value by political parties and influential sections of the media. He provided a summary of the Board’s history and argued, on the basis of a content analysis of its resolutions, statements and practical work, that it was still reluctant to seriously consider the question of Muslim women’s marginalization and the issue of suitable reforms in Muslim Personal Law.
The other presentation in this session was by Zakia Soman of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a Muslim women’s movement with over 20,000 members across India. She argued the need for linking Muslim women’s struggles for substantive and legal equality within the family to broader efforts for empowering Muslims as a whole, including the struggle against anti-Muslim prejudice and state neglect. Muslim women’s rights within their families and communities could not, she stressed, be divorced from ongoing struggles to counter Hindutva chauvinism and state involvement in targeting Muslims. She insisted that efforts to secure Muslim women’s rights as citizens had to be linked to broader democratic interventions involving other marginalized social groups, such as Adivasis and Dalits, as well as class-based movements.
The theme of the third session of the seminar overlapped with the first, and was titled ‘Islamic Feminism and Muslim Women’s Mobilisation’. Mohammed Wajihuddin, correspondent for the Times of India, Mumbai, spoke about the role of the ‘mainstream’ (non-Muslim) media in highlighting cases of Indian Muslim women who were seeking to evolve a gender-friendly understanding of their faith so as to challenge the deeply patriarchal readings of influential male clerics, using such readings for their empowerment within the private and public sphere. He also noted that, by and large, the Muslim-owned media ignored such women.
R. Santosh, Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at Mangalore University, who has just completed his Ph.D. on Muslims in Kerala, spoke about the efforts of some Muslim women in Kerala to interpret Islam in a manner that accords with their aspirations for gender equality within the home and in public space. He provided a broad overview of the responses of the major Islamic organizations in Kerala to such efforts, noting that it was mixed and varied according to school of thought.
‘Indian Muslim Women: Religious Injunctions and Social Realities’ was the theme of the fourth session. Roseena Nasir of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the Central University, Hyderabad, reflected on the tradition of patriarchal exegesis of religious texts and how these impacted on the lived realities of Muslim women. Jameela Nishat, a noted feminist poet and activist from Hyderabad, provided a graphic and chilling account of the exploitation of Muslim girls in poverty-stricken parts of her city. Esita Sur, who teaches at Scottish Church College, Kolkata, and is doing her Ph.D. on Muslim women in Bengal, spoke about efforts on the part of some Kolkata-based Muslim women to mobilize for legal equality as well as economic and educational empowerment, using both secular as well as Islamic arguments to back their case.
The fifth session was devoted to chronicling the struggles of Muslim women for equality and justice within their own communities. Both the presentations in this session focused on the specific case of the Dawoodi Bohras, a branch of the Mustalian Ismaili Shias. Zehra Cyclewala, a noted Bohra reformist and feminist activist from Surat, recounted her own story—of challenging the dictatorial writ of Syedna Burhanuddin, the chief priest of her community, of enduring various forms of persecution and even of being excommunicated for her refusal to fall in line with priestly diktats. Zainab Bano, head of the Department of Political Science at Mohanlal Sukhadia University, Udaipur, and one of the pioneers of the Bohra reformist movement, provided a brief history of the role of women in the movement. She also pointed out that despite the enormous hold of the Bohra priesthood on the community, Bohra women were distinct from Sunni Muslim women in that almost all of them were educated and many of them were economically independent. Divorce and polygamy were rare among both the reformist and orthodox Bohras she said, although she noted that the practice of female circumcision, unknown among the Indian Sunnis, was still observed by many Bohras.
The sixth session consisted of two presentations. The first, by Sehba Farooqui of the Delhi unit of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), dealt with the proletarianisation of large sections of Muslims in Delhi, owing to several factors, including ‘globalisation’, that had forced a considerable number of Muslim women to turn into waged workers in their homes. For long hours of work they were paid a mere pittance, while middle-men and large corporations thrived on their cheap labour.
Subhashini Ali, senior leader of AIDWA, spoke about the role of her movement in taking up Muslim women’s issues. She critiqued the NGO approach to social reform, contending that this was a means to absolve the state of its role in addressing Muslim women’s substantive concerns. She referred to AIDWA’s interventions in seeking reforms in Muslim Personal Law, in countering communalism, in struggling for justice to victims of anti-Muslim pogroms and in speaking out against the targeting of Muslims in the name of countering terror, which had spelt havoc for the lives of large numbers of Muslim women. She argued that while using Islamic arguments, based on alternate readings of religion, for empowering Muslim women might serve, for some, a strategic purpose, such struggles necessarily had to focus on citizenship rights of such women rather than remaining limited simply to articulating gender-friendly readings of religion, an approach that she felt was limited in its scope and possibilities.
The seventh session focused on Muslim women’s activism in regional contexts. Mushtaq ul Haq Sikander, a young writer from Srinagar, Kashmir, spoke about attacks on women by both armed forces as well as militants in Kashmir. Awsaf Ahsan, proprietor of Other Books, a publishing house based in Kozhikode that focuses largely on Muslim-related literature, spoke about the challenges faced by a new generation of women among the Mapilla Muslims of Kerala, particularly in the face of high rates of literacy and the growth of a large middle-class in the community. These transformations had led to new gender roles and were also prompting new interpretations of Islam on the part of Mapilla women seeking gender equality within their homes and in the larger society.
Hadil el-Khouly, an Egyptian activist who works with the Kuala Lumpur-based Muslim women’s network Musawah, spoke about the work of Musawah in seeking to bring about legal reforms, based on alternate readings of Islamic texts, the lived realities of Muslim women as well as international human rights agreements, in personal laws in various Muslim countries.
Finally, Yoginder Sikand, fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, presented a paper that examined fatwas about women issued by one of India’s most influential Sunni madrasas, the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband, arguing that many of these, that sought to justify women’s subordination, had been critiqued on the basis of alternate readings of the Islamic tradition by a number of Indian Muslim scholars and activists.
Each session was followed by a lively discussion. The general conclusion of the seminar was that the struggles for legal and substantive justice and equality for Indian Muslim women had necessarily to take recourse both to alternate readings of religious traditions as well as secular, human rights-based arguments, and that such struggles had to be linked to efforts to facilitate the economic and educational empowerment of Muslims as a whole. It was pointed out that discussions about justice and equality for Muslim women needed to go beyond suggestions for reforming Muslim Personal Law or articulating gender-just understandings of their faith to focus also on their economic, educational and political empowerment. It was generally agreed that majoritarian communalism and the targeting of Muslims had to be countered, for only then could efforts for justice and equality for Muslim women gain greater acceptance within their communities. The role of the state and of male, largely cleric-led Muslim organizations in perpetuating the economic and educational backwardness of Muslim women was also critiqued. Unless they made positive efforts for empowering economically and educationally, Muslim women, particularly from the poorer sections (the bulk of who belonged to the so-called ‘low’ castes), mere legal or religious reform could not suffice. Linked to this was the assertion that Muslim women needed to insist that leadership of the community could not be restricted only to some male religious and political figures and that Muslim women, too, needed to be facilitated into positions of leadership in order to speak for Muslims generally, and not just for Muslim women alone. It was also stressed that struggles for Muslim women’s were not a concern specific only to Muslims or to Muslim women, and that sympathetic non-Muslims, including secular human rights groups and women’s movements, also had a role in raising and addressing their issues.