Muslim Women in India: How Activists in Tamil Nadu are making a Difference
Indian Muslims make up about 12% of India’s vast population of over a billion people, making them the largest minority in the country (Kazi 3). India holds the second largest Muslim population in the world, many of whom live in the northern Indian states. Muslims in India also make up one of the most impoverished minorities, with over 50% living below the poverty line (23). Muslim women, within this overall minority, fare the worst of all being among the poorest, educationally deprived, economically vulnerable, and politically marginalized group in the country (31). Despite broad differentiation across caste, class, and region, Muslim women throughout India share the common disadvantage of being a minority within a minority. Due to this issue, Muslim women share a many problems stemming from being uneducated, illiterate, and subordinated by Muslim leaders. This has led to mass control on the part of Muslim clerics, and ignorance on the part of Muslim women of their rights and the true tenets of the Islamic faith.
Muslim Personal Law
Presently, Muslims in India are governed by their own set of bylaws called personal law. India’s Constitution allows Muslim leaders to retain control over their personal law, which is based on Muslim religious laws, or the Shari’a. Although the Constitution guarantees all citizens equality and freedom from discrimination, Muslim women are governed under Muslim personal law and, as a result, are treated unequally in their communities (Narain 3). The government of India tries not to intervene in Muslim law to give the Muslim community a certain degree of autonomy. However, most of the Muslim leaders who make the rules for personal law do not represent the views and opinions of many Indian Muslims. This has led to the government considering Muslims as one single entity with the same beliefs, and is undermining the rights of particular groups within the Muslim community (Sharma 177). As Kazi explains, “devoid of a national or visionary leadership [on the part of Muslim women], the voices and experiences of Muslim women [come] to be usurped by male Muslims claiming to represent the community” (Kazi 20). The male leaders of the Muslim community (mainly elite, religious fundamentalists) argue that Muslim personal law and the Shari’a are derived directly from the Quran, that they are divine and completely beyond human intervention. Since Muslim women are unaware that the Shari’a is a historically evolving document that has been reinterpreted in various political, social, and cultural contexts throughout history, the assertion that either the Shari’a or personal law is unalterable is unfounded (28). Nonetheless, insisting that personal law is unchangeable is used as a political tool by male Muslim leaders to keep Muslim women politically and economically impoverished. Moreover, because the Indian government has refused to revise the use of personal law, they encourage the plight of Muslim women and display hypocrisy on Indian women’s constitutional rights to equality.
The Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat Committee (TNMWJC)
Within the last year, a group of Muslim women comprised of about 40 members from Tamil Nadu’s ten southern districts have come together to form the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat Committee to fight for Muslim women’s rights. The group is headquartered in Pudukkottai, Tamil Nadu, and is led by a woman named Daud Sharifa Khanam, a Muslim activist and Director of India’s STEPS Women’s Development Organization. The committee was formed to ensure human rights, social empowerment, and an improved standard of living for Muslim women. It came as a response to complaints from Muslim women about male-dominated jamaat committees, which in most states are domestic dispute settlement forums that do not exercise legal power. However, in Tamil Nadu, the jamaats constitute a unique and powerful group of male elders who legally adjudicate on family issues, such as dowry, divorce, domestic violence, custody, and child abuse (Lakshmi 1). The complaints about the jamaats are that they intentionally hand out verdicts that are unfair, unrepresentative, and favor men. The jamaats convene inside mosques, which women are not allowed to enter, so the women cannot even represent themselves in their own cases. A Muslim woman’s father or brother can represent her case for her, but she is not allowed to communicate her side of the story.
One of the largest controversies surrounding the rulings of male jamaats is the issue of triple talaq, a divorce enacted by the husband by saying the word talaq three times in one sitting. The male jamaats have continuously overlooked the illegality of Muslim men pronouncing talaq over the phone, by letter, email, or through the jamaat. These divorces go into effect immediately, without the consent of the wife. This unfair practice acts as a legal and psychological threat to Muslim women, who have no such reciprocal right to unilaterally divorce their husband. If a woman wants a divorce, she must have consent from her husband either verbally or contractually (Kazi 21). A survey conducted by STEPS revealed that in one out of every five Muslim households, there is at least one case of desertion or second marriage by the husband, citing some physical or mental disability of the first wife (Singh 1). When these cases are taken to the police, the women are told to settle it with the local jamaat, which leaves them helpless, deserted, and without justice.
To counteract these injustices by the local jamaats, the TNMWJC has organized several hunger strikes in Madurai to bring awareness to these problems and demand action by the state and central governments. They have organized workshops, seminars, and conferences for Muslim women, along with offering legal counseling and helping women who have suffered unjust rulings to become economically independent. The committee has also approached the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and challenged them for their lack of courage to question the present interpretations of the Shari’a. Sharifa Khanam herself has translated portions of the Quran to Tamil that deal with women’s issues and distributed the material to women in Tamil Nadu villages. She believes that the Quran is an open book that women should interpret themselves because Islam demands that all believers, male and female, should read and understand its implications.
The most controversial endeavor that the TNMWJC has taken is planning the construction of a women’s-only mosque, which would be the first mosque for women in the world. Traditionally, women are not allowed into the mosque for any reason, even if fully covered. After demanding entry for women into the mosque for over five years and being refused by religious leaders and male jamaats, the committee members want to build their own place of worship, where women can openly pray, voice their opinions, seek justice by settling matters with their own jamaat, and discuss issues of importance for Muslim women. They believe it will give women a place to disseminate issues like health care, education, and talaq. They hope to welcome men into the mosque, but all aspects will be managed by women, including having a woman moulvi (preacher) well versed in the Quran and principles of Islam. Sharifa Khanam avows, “A mosque-jamaat axis is a power center that controls the community. When women are refused representation here, we have no choice but to have our own jamaat. And since a jamaat is attached to a mosque, we have to build our own mosque” (Anand 2). She believes the mosque will be a symbol of Muslim women’s awakening and empowerment, and will further Muslim women’s rights in Indian society.
As to be expected, the TNMWJC has directly confronted harsh opposition to their efforts, especially to build the mosque, from male religious leaders and jamaats all over the country. Many of them believe that a women’s-only mosque is unacceptable, and Muslim women should not be protesting because they have certain rights that Hindu or Christian women do not have, such as the right to widow remarriage, divorce, and access to property. Although this is true in theory, most of the time it is not respected in practice. Other opponents, including ruling Ulemas, have threatened those who have tried to contribute land for the mosque and have initiated character defamation of the women involved. Despite these threats, however, Sharifa Khanam assures that the mosque will be built and the committee will continue to move forward with their plans.