Thursday, January 29, 2009

Articles - general

‘Applying Laws to Their Advantage’
Muslim Women Debate Faith, Gender and Citizenship


Researching Tamil anti-caste movements, one is struck by how often the law is invoked in the writings and debates of its publicists and ideologues. For Pandit Iyothee Thass (– 1914), the law appeared an aspect of a new, impartial state, a constitutive feature of colonial rule. On the other hand, he also expressed a sense of law as an ethical imperative, in this case, identified with the Buddhist dhamma. For political non-brahminism, members of the Justice party, in particular, the law was essentially colonial law, and a measure of a different justice, distinguished from rules and norms that attended local caste practices. Its practitioners could be prejudicial, but the law itself was grandly free from parochialisms. For the radical self-respecters, the law was a focus for their expression of rights – for their upholding of what they considered ‘samadharma’ in place of ‘manudharma’.

However, for none of these groups of men and women, the law was an absolute guarantee of justice and the common good. For Iyothee Thass, the Buddhist way was the most complete expression of social good and justice; for non-Brahmin politicians from the Justice party and even those that were independent of it, progressive legislation enacted by an interventionist state was central to their politics: but they yet felt the need to locate it in the context of a general rejection of what they considered the logic of varnadharma. For the self-respecters, the law was merely a public affirmation of their new vision of the commonweal: legally constituted rights, whether to enter temples, or to compensatory discrimination could not, by themselves, produce the good society: the practice of rational enquiry about all faiths, in the one instance, and a self-respecting mutuality in the other were the final guarantors of social justice.

It could be said that while the law was important for the discourses and practice of an anti-caste politics, it was considered neither sufficient nor complete, unless it was animated by social desire, by a reflexive practice of social justice. In this sense, the law could not be thought of outside the context of the struggles to which it gave formal expression.

I recall this sense of the law, not because I want to discuss it further, but because it provides an enabling though somewhat tangential framework to talk of something else: the question of the vexed relationship between gender and justice. One of the most contentious yet productive points of enquiry for this debate has been the uniform civil code. Feminists have differed widely in their understanding of both the need for and the usefulness of what some of them call ‘a gender-just’ civil code – the term was invoked to distinguish a feminist position from that of the Hindu right, which, as we all know, is equally vociferous in its support of the demand for a common civil code. Some feminists have gone on to embellish this demand in rather singular ways, and included the right to a homosocial existence, including homosocial matrimony and parenting within its scope. Others have suggested that women need differentiated legal spaces, as Nivedita Menon describes it, to stake their claims for justice. Yet others have welcomed initiatives for reform in personal laws.

This diversity of positions notwithstanding, all participants in the debate appear to agree that the question of gender justice, ultimately, has to do with the law and legal reform. Of course, the feminist engagement with law has never been just that: there has been a concomitant insistence on political practice, whether in the form of casework, counseling or campaigning. Flavia Agnes, for instance, has called attention to the importance of a vigorous practice of existing laws, and raised questions about calls for mere legal reform. Groups such as Saheli in Delhi and Forum against Oppression of Women in Mumbai have taken to advocacy, campaigning and lobbying to create the conditions for gender-just norms to emerge as legal fiat. The point, though, is the centrality of the law for resolving questions relating to the good and the just is taken for granted in all these arguments. Secular reason demands this and within the discursive terms that are intrinsic to it, the law is the form of a desired justice, or at least an anticipation of it.

However, this is a position that has been complicated by discussions of law and rights in contexts where civic notions of the public good have to jostle for place with other notions, especially those that draw their inspiration from an experience of faith on the one hand and laws that commandeer that faith on the other. I find this productive tension present in an implicit sense in a vigorous movement that has emerged in Tamil Nadu these past three years: this is the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat, constituted in 2003 and which is active today in over 12 districts in the state.

My paper is about issues of law, faith and justice, as these have unfolded in the practices of this unique group. Like the self-respecters and Iyothee Thass, these women display a utopian ardour which both relativises as well as insists on the valorized relationship between law and justice.


I start with a late morning in March 2006. The place is Pudukottai, and the occasion: the monthly meeting of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat. I have been to three of their meetings, and participated in a one-day sit-in. On this day too the room is full – there are over 15 jamaat members, but they have brought with them several others, and then there are the petitioners – women who are in the middle of a marital crisis and wanting to resolve matters one way or another. Petitioners come from all across Tamil Nadu – they have heard of these monthly meetings, by word of mouth or through the Tamil media. For some of them, it is the first time, others might have been in touch with the jamaat, either through mail or visited local members or the Pudukottai office previously. This time around there were three of them, with their respective families.

The meeting starts off with a woman leading the others in prayer: hurriedly, women cover their heads, and fervently invoke Allah, the most just and merciful. Then, it is business as usual. After half an hour of administrative and logistical talk, attention shifts to the petitioners. Two of the petitioners appeared to have been in touch earlier wit the jamaat, but for the third one it is the first time. She sits, pale and embarrassed.

The petitions come up for discussion: there is clearly a system at work. First, the details of the petition are recalled, or explained. Previous decisions are reviewed and the jamaat takes stock of what had happened since they met the petitioner last. Then, they decide on a future course of action. The jamaat being a cohesive but contentious body, everybody has an opinion to offer. Voices are raised, points of view argued out – sometimes the petitioners or their families join in. I notice that certain clear-cut positions emerge:

The jamaat, I hear, will represent the woman’s interest, but on that account, will not demur from talking to the husband once again, to confirm his sense of what had happened. (This was a matter of unspecified bigamy, but the husband was Hindu, and the wife Muslim, and he wanted to convert to Islam to resolve his bigamous status.) Even as I listen, a woman whispers to me that often they find petitioners wanting to resolve matters quickly, especially if the case at hand pertained to property or monetary settlements; in such case, it would not do, she noted, to take the woman’s point of view without cross-checking, since financial compensation did not always imply justice had been done to the woman, or that her point of view had been taken into consideration.

As the second petition comes up, there is an audible rustle of anger in the group: much of this is directed at the local jamaat, or committee attached to the mosque to which the petitioner’s family is linked. The jamaat had once again desisted from listening both to the petitioner’s demands – the jamaat had endorsed her husband’s decision to divorce her without seeking her point of view - as well as refused to respond to the letter sent to them by the women’s jamaat, requesting their cooperation. This happens often: local jamaats irk both the petitioners as well as their defendants by their high-handedness, their refusal to listen to women, and the manner in which they openly take the part of the rich and the powerful. Women’s jamaat members are particularly incensed by what they perceive as misogyny and ignorant prejudice on the part of the heads of local jamaats. In this instance, they decide that a group of them would visit the jamaat in question and argue the merits of the case that had come to them. A member points out that this was not the first instance of that particular jamaat being impervious to women’s needs, and wonders if the women’s jamaat should not plan a public protest in that part of the state. Everyone agrees, but decide to postpone discussion until the next petition is heard.

The third petitioner, being new, is heard out in public: her father speaks on her behalf, but later on the women insist that the girl speak as well. She does, but cries all the time: this time it was a case of a woman being enticed into a marriage that turned sour, when she discovered her husband was both impotent and violent. The local jamaat had apparently taken the husband’s part and counseled her to be an obedient wife. The case is discussed and a letter drafted to the local jamaat. A woman is deputed to pay a visit to the ‘local area’, as it is referred to. The young petitioner continues to cry, whereupon one of the jamaat members goes to her side, holds her hand and asks her not to lose faith in her god – for in his mercy he would make sure justice is done to her. Besides, she should not forget, urges her counselor, that justice done on earth is one thing, but there is a greater justice which will ultimately hold sway. Meanwhile, she should learn to be strong, continue her education and pray to Allah that her husband mends his ways and not harm other women, as she had been harmed. Finally: “People tell us women that our very life is at stake in these matters. But is only life with a man a worthy life? Can’t we be happy in other ways? We never quite think about this, but foolishly accept this rhetoric…”

Once the petitions are disposed of, a sura from the Quran, relating to women’s rights, is read out and explained. The woman who reads it out solemnly praises the Shariat and notes that the word of God can never be wrong and only wrong-headed men would imagine that women need no justice. “Our jamaat men know neither the shariat nor the hadiths” quips another. “First find out if they even read the Holy Quran” chortles a third.

At this point, the jamaat’s coordinator stands up and announces that she has ordered several copies of the Holy Quran in Tamil translation, and soon all jamaat members will have their copies. Everyone smiles. Some note they already have copies, but offer to pass these around to others. One woman points out that on an earlier occasion, when some of them had visited a local jamaat, they had gone armed with the Holy Quran and proceeded to read the strictures on talaq when the jamaat head attempted to defend his endorsement of the triple talaq. “And you should have seen his face. Clearly he did not think we women know the holy book – for them it is good enough if we learn the Arabic by rote and not ask for the meanings.” “These fellows do not want us to know the Holy Quran, can’t you see? I am sure there are other things too that they are not letting us read …”

The coordinator points out that for women only the word of the Holy Quran could be conclusive.” “The Hadiths?” someone asks anxiously. “Also, but let us not forget that the Hadiths are not the word of God or the Prophet. They were written by men and like men today, they too must have been biased and prejudiced.” “Were there no women who wrote the Hadiths?” “How could there be? Even today they don’t let us talk! And back then they would have been worse…” This exchange is terminated by the woman who had originally read out the suras: “The Prophet was not like them”, she notes, “He listened to women. How many times we read in the Holy Quran of women visiting him and clearing their doubts…” “Don’t forget that he had the best adviser in the world – the redoubtable Khadija…” a voice echoes.

And thus the meeting tapers to a finish.


Most jamaat meetings veer thus between social comment and anger on the one hand, and an examination of pragmatic civic choices for the woman in question, on the other. The Holy Quran and the Prophet are veritable presences throughout, and are invoked, recalled and made to bear witness to the women’s jamaat’s desire for gender justice.

The issues that come up for hearing before the jamaat include the triple talaq, polygamy, marriage contracted – by men – under false pretences, impotence as a ground for separation, remarriage for women, recovering dowry … Domestic violence is seldom identified as a problem in itself, but always in conjunction with a host of other problems. In most cases, petitioners had first approached their local jamaats and only when they did not receive a fair hearing, approached the women’s jamaat. It is not clear whether local jamaats considered the issues before them within the terms of the shariat, as they understood it, or claimed Islamic authority for their decisions, on the basis of a commonsensical rhetoric of what constitutes correct Islam practice. It is possible that they were directed as much by the latter, as by the former. Clearly they function as caste tribunals do – heeding local custom and the balance of local social and economic relationships, and bring to their judgments an ‘Islamic’ edge.

Significantly, the women’s jamaat has trained its critique at precisely this fudging of principles: In several instances, its members have pointed out that when it comes to polygamy and the triple talaq, jamaats invoke the authority of the shariat, but when it comes to fixing meher, the taking of dowry, the sexual rights of wives, their right to a legitimate share of family property and even re-marriage, most jamaats allow themselves to fall in with local patriarchal custom.

If a petitioner is unhappy with a jamaat ruling, he or she sometimes approaches the local police, requesting an inquiry. But, it appears that at the police station, they are told to ‘go to their own people’, since they have their own laws. Only when the matter at hand involves violence and hurt are the police known to respond to Muslim petitioners. As far as the women’s jamaat is concerned, though, they see the importance of taking matters to the police and the courts, should the local jamaat prove intractable. It is as if they wish to wrest from the latter its right to judge and return this right to secular institutions. But this is not done in the faith that the latter are intrinsically more sensitive to and even objective where women’s rights are concerned. Rather, this turning to the law and the courts has the force of a civil threat, and it is the penal power of secular institutions that is invoked, rather than their ostensible objective or just character.

However, the women’s jamaat has also been very discreet in the manner it draws on penal authority. In late 2005, a meeting of the jamaat organized in the port city of Tuticorin met with tremendous resistance from locally powerful men and the jamaats of which they were members. Women from the community were determined to hold the meeting, and there were several tense moments, for the men called in the police, claiming that they envisaged a threat to civil peace. Women members countered this accusation but when asked to press charges against the men refused to do so. As the local women’s jamaat coordinator put it: we don’t want the police to use this a chance to harass and threaten young Muslim men, which they are always waiting to do. We merely want men to know that if they chose to go to the police, we would too.

As a mediating body, as a self-defined Islamic forum that arbitrates between families, local authority and state institutions, the women’s jamaat functions at different levels. It clearly wishes to undermine the power of local jamaats, and it does this by questioning the religious knowledge and authority that this power so easily assumes. As an arbitrator, it gestures towards the police and courts, suggesting to the families that are party to a petition that if they cannot mend matters on their own, the police and courts would have to be called in. As an Islamic forum, the jamaat is avidly interested in bringing the authority of the Quran to define and measure its own sense of justice. This latter is located as much in what might be called a feminist commonsense, as it is in readings of the Quran and the one informs the other in unexpected ways.

Feminism is not articulated as a self-conscious ideology and exists as an instance of righteous indignation, which is then framed in terms we would recognize as feminist. This is done at the instance of the jamaat’s chief coordinator , who has been active in the women’s movement for over fifteen years. A Sunni Muslim herself, she remembers 1992 as an important year, for she was forced to acknowledge then that she was irredeemably a Muslim. The spate of riots that followed in the years after convinced her of the importance of mobilizing Muslim women: “we had become news in a specific sort of way, as victims of violence. But what about the violence within, the discrimination that we dare not speak about openly? Between the outside world that threatened us, and the inside world of poverty and discrimination, I saw there was no way out but to organize ourselves.” The issues that she wished to focus on included routine patriarchal violence and she realized that once she learnt to engage with local communities, it was important to distinguish the actual practices of abuse and discrimination from whatever was considered ‘Islamic’. This also meant then that one engage with Islam not in a combative fashion, but with the intention of understanding its core.

The shariat did not engage the jamaat’s attention even in its earliest days, when it was as yet an incipient movement. While their demands, three years ago, included a new nikah namaah, the annulment of the triple talaq and the re-institution of meher, these were articulated less in terms of a desired legal reform, and more as discursive moments that would enable Muslim women to speak and argue (those who wished to invoke the shariat as law soon distanced themselves from the activities of the jamaat). And they spoke and argued, they also directed their questions to Muslim men and leaders who they noted boasted about how Islam had granted rights to women centuries ago, but did not ever want to define what these rights were, or change their attitudes to reflect this nobility of what they were so obviously proud.

To counter these men and to know what the Quran held for them, women took to reading it avidly. They also took to discussing amongst themselves the import of the Prophet’s life and in meetings and sit-ins, proclaimed aloud his feminist credentials on several counts: he had married an older woman, and a widow; he heeded her counsel, and was respectful of all women; though he married several wives, his choices were not dictated by desire or lust, but a sense of duty and history; he urged companionship between men and women (in this context, they also note that only someone as spiritually powerful as the Prophet could do this and mere mortal men who attempt to vindicate their polygamous intentions by recalling the Prophet’s life are opportunists and revilers of the faith); he spoke of the importance of spiritual living, not because he did not want justice in this world, but he wanted his followers to not become slaves to a life of flesh, and instead wanted them to cultivate their minds, their intelligence, and here he called upon women of the faith as well …

This peculiar mixture of registers and approaches, the manner in which legal and secular options are intermeshed with civic and religious ones, the almost iconic place accorded to the aniconic Quran and the zeal with which the holy book is made to yield laws for everyday living – Islam is invoked less as faith, and more as a way of living, available to all those interested in justice and peace - cast our certainties about secularism and the law, religion and authority into embarrassing disarray. So, how do we make sense of this?

Those that know of the women’s jamaat, including Muslim women, are clearly drawn to its work, but are not quite sure as to how to ‘account’ for it. Some have insisted that perhaps the jamaat ought consider its reliance on the Quran as importantly strategic, but should soon move on to conceptualizing a vision of gender justice that relies on a secular understanding of the world. Others have pointed out that by assenting to the determinate status of the Quran, the women’s jamaat is perhaps legitimizing the role of faith in defining social justice. This is what fundamentalists do and in this war of interpretations, they clearly would – and do – have the upper hand. Yet others have questioned the wisdom of relying on the Quran for all matters to do with gender justice: for instance, they argue, with the Quran being openly inimical to sexual choice and homosexual desire, one cannot expect the holy book to answer the needs of lesbians and gay people.

The jamaat’s response to these questions has been considerate and interesting. The chief coordinator to whom these questions are often addressed has this to say: that at present the Quran defines the horizon of what we consider possible, and what is meaningful for us in the context of our life situations. It is true that the Quran is open to different sorts of readings. Well, these are our readings, and we wish to claim the Quran as equally ours in these very distinctive ways. It is not that we consider the Quran alone as a source and index of justice. But unless and until we learn to identify for ourselves other sources as being as meaningful and as valid for our purposes, the Quran will remain central to our work. In sexual matters, things are complicated, but we will have to wait and see how we work through Quranic injunctions in this respect. Our women are not inhibited, or as bound by the forced decorum of chastity. We are far more robust and open to the idea of sexual happiness, and same sex love is not unknown. But we might not want to talk about it in terms of a rights discourse – things happen, are acknowledged or not, but this has not been as central to our sense of what we want. When it does become important, we will work through it as we have worked through other issues.

Much of the unease with respect to the jamaat’s characteristically mixed discourse of faith, law and justice stems, I suspect, from our own secular desire to claim for social movements a rightness that reflects our sense of justice. In doing so we burden movements with an impossible innocence, and demand from them a tidy coincidence of motives, ideas and action, which ultimately resolves into a grand universal plea for secular justice. Impatient and uneasy with the attractions of faith, we seldom interrogate our own good faith in secular options – a faith that has been disproved and rendered illegitimate in any number of instances. Perhaps it might be useful to consider, in this context, how feminists living in Islamic societies have responded to the question of faith and justice.


Afsaneh Najmabadi, an Iranian feminist has pointed out for secularists like her “the
emergence of women’s activist currents, including feminists, from Islamist ranks” seemed as if it would “jeopardize the already precarious social space for secular feminism”. But, she notes, “their very existence and multiplication into many feminist and gender-activist voices over the past decade, by muddying the clear lines of what or who is Islamist … has been exasperating to hard-line Islamists set on keeping these boundaries clear and patrolled. Unfortunately, it has also been received as unsettling and discomforting by some secular feminists who often demand that these women clarify their stance and draw this or that line, whether the line of separation of religion from government, or the line of autonomy from men. This is quite a dangerous move; for if it succeeds in forcing them “to choose’’ instead of keeping the ground muddled, fluid, and shifting, it will constrict the transformative possibilities of the present moment.”
Najmabadi’s own work has focused on the manner in which gender and sexuality are figured and re-figured in Iranian modernity: she argues that sexual identities and choices as these were negotiated in the early decades of the modern period, in the nineteenth century, indicated to us that sensuality and piety, desire and suffering are matters that cannot be understood only in terms of a register of rights. They appear both elusive and fragmentary, and call for a deeper interrogation of cultural practice itself – which is neither secular nor religious, but happens in between, in a threshold space which traffics between the two worlds.

In fact, it is clear that this threshold space is produced by what women do, the choices they make. Referring to the manner in which women have sought to claim the Quran for themselves in contemporary Iran, Najmabadi notes: “the most significant difference is not only that women are prominent reinterpreters, but that these interpretative ventures are carried out in the printed pages of a women’s journal, in a public space, rather than the private chambers of religious scholars. The authors are posed as “public intellectuals” rather than as private teachers and preachers. Their audience is other women (and men) as citizens, rather than theological students and other clerical commentators. Not only have these openly feminist reinterpretive ventures produced a radical decentering of the clergy from the domain of interpretation, but by positioning women’s needs as grounds for interpretation and women as public commentators of canonical and legal texts they promise that political democratization … would no longer be a “manly” preoccupation. Moreover, by declaring their interpretive enterprise open to nonbelievers and non-Muslims, emphasizing expertise rather than faith, and by placing woman, in her contemporary social concreteness and her needs and choices, in the center of their arguments, they have opened up a productive space for conversations and alliances among feminists in Iran beyond previous divisions between secular and Islamist...”

In a different vein, Asma Barlas points out that when women read the Quran, seeking to interpret it on their own, they do so, not as subjects of the shariat, but as equal members of the faith. Whereas most male interpretations of the Quran consider justice to be its subject, she argues that equality is as important a concern with the Quran. She defines her own strategies of reading as influenced by her acknowledgement of a multiplicity of readings and the “freedom to choose between them through free and reasoned discourse”. She notes that “in the very connectedness of existential and hermenutical issues … we have a reason to press for just and democratic societies in which we arrive at ever better interpretations of the Quran that can foster the practice of equality.” For women, this means resisting what she calls a “certain rigidity, arrogance and defensiveness bred by both adversity and privilege”, and this, in turn, implies not giving into the calls to heed the basically ahistorical and closed readings of the Quran, advanced as its very core by a scholarship and a clergy that refuses to look beyond the seventh and eighth centuries. For, the Quran itself is the best guarantee against closure: since meanings are to be constantly received and reinterpreted, for the word of God cannot ever be considered frozen in time. As Barlas concludes: “we cannot arrive at the best meanings in the Quran so long as we treat our past as the end of history and thus fail to interrogate it or improve upon it.”

This recourse to the claims of reason and faith, the simultaneity that we witness in arguments that ably shift the civic and the sacred into each other’s realms, the manner in which the Quran is made to signify over and above the shariat, and the agility with which the shariat is refigured as a patriarchal text: these point to a new and distinctive engagement with issues of faith, law and justice.


I would like to conclude by returning to the self-respect movement. For self-respecters, the law was a normative guarantee of not merely the good and just, but of a transformed and changing social consciousness. Thus the relationship between the law and the movements that looked to express their anticipation of justice through it was always an uneven one. And, as long as it remained thus, the law did not attract exclusive political or civic attention. With the women’s jamaat, we find that the law is not granted normative value rather it is viewed as an instrument that can impose restraint, serve as a warning and an indictment. For them, normative worth resides elsewhere; in the Quran, as it is learnt, refined, understood in argument and through public conversations. In both instances, the law is always already an incomplete guarantee of the good and just society.

It seems to me that here are several lessons for the women’s movement: we have found it very difficult to engage with normative worldviews that are not sanctioned by secular reason and with a justice that is not expressed through the law. We have feared, and rightly, the implosion of endlessly relative options, sanctioned by local custom or faith or by folk wisdom, even if in practical terms they have resolved issues of equity and justice where the courts and the police fail. On the other hand, though we have not been able to work the courts or the police always to our advantage and so often we are left with a choiceless endorsement of the supremacy of secular law, even when this secularism remains a trope, rather than an active principle. The problem is that we are not able to re-work secularism in an affective, hermenutical sense, for we want it to remain ‘pure’, but unless we bring the existential and hermenutical together and make the one speak to the other, we may not be able to salvage our good faith in secularism.

More notes:

When a jamat elder referred to how Allah had noted women were the cause of all troubles: ‘well, he was a man too…”
To the question of a divorced wife remarrying her husband only after marrying another man and divorcing him: ‘so you want us to sleep with one man and then another, and you are same ones that tell us we must be in purdah. Also, don’t I have a right to choose who I sleep with .,.”
Earlier: the Labbaikidikadu Jamat – ‘you address and reform women through your jamat, we will do the same with men through ours …)
Sharifa: ‘ see right now women want what is guaranteed to them in Islamic law. If at some point they feel that the Quran is also biased against women, who knows, they might reject it as well …’

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