Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Justice in the Name of God

Justice in the Name of God: Organising Muslim Women in Tamil Nadu

V. Geetha

(Paper written for a conference organised by the Centre for Global Feminist Studies, Gotenburg University, Sweden, March 1-3, 2005, on the theme, ‘Negotiating Gender Justice’.)


This paper looks at one of the most exciting and fraught developments in contemporary Tamil society: the slow politicisation of Muslim women through the efforts of a group that has worked for over a decade on issues relating to violence against women and children.

Women’s movements in India have been concerned about the relationship between women and religion, and more specifically, women and the religious communities of which they are a part and whose customs, norms and laws are central to the way women’s lives are structured and negotiated. Over the last two decades, issues concerning women, religious identity, the community and the State have emerged as focal points of both popular and critical debate. With the rise of the Hindu Right, religious identity has been made central to citizenship – increasingly, Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Christians are exhorted to ‘prove’ their inexorable ‘Indian’ ness or face outright discrimination, humiliation and intimidation. In 2002, Gujarat witnessed extreme acts of abusive violence against Muslims, especially Muslim women, which have been rightly termed genocidal. The violence, distressing in itself, was even more horrifying since it was mandated and encouraged by the democratically elected government of Gujarat.

In this context, women’s rights activists working with the Muslim community – in Gujarat and elsewhere – find themselves battling several odds. Firstly, there is the undeniable fact that Muslims, as a community, feel vulnerable. To raise questions on matters such as women’s rights therefore becomes a delicate task: how does one do this without pushing the community into a protective defensiveness? Secondly, Muslim women themselves are caught between their sense of what they owe themselves as dignified, self-respecting women and their felt responsibility towards the community, whose very existence appears imperilled. Thirdly, the Hindu Right’s politics of hatred has pushed a section of Muslim youth to profess their faith in radical ways – aggressive assertions of identity, accompanied by a call to adhere to Koranic norms have, in some instance led to a tightening of community boundaries, and, often, injunctions to preserve community honour and faith devolve on women – who have to voluntarily submit to laws that restrain them. To organise Muslim women therefore has become a very complex task, requiring great courage, tact, intelligence and sensitivity.

To understand the issues at stake for activists working with Muslim women, and to comprehend the manner in which they work, I have chosen to look at the work of a group in Pudukkotai. This group has been active for over a decade (since 1988) on issues to do with gender violence, and over the past 7 years has developed close links with Muslim communities in various parts of eastern and southern Tamil Nadu. The group has successfully organised Muslim women’s groups in over 15 districts in Tamil Nadu and has a programme which links issues of poverty, survival, community welfare and rights. Without getting trapped by the discursive logic of the larger feminist debate about secular justice and religious laws, this small group has proceeded to elucidate from the women that it works with, what they understand by justice, faith and dignity.

It seems to me that the complex and imaginative manner in which the group has posed the question of rights within the community and outside of it provides a very novel gloss on how identities are and can be fruitfully negotiated to serve the ends of justice and equality. My paper hopes to represent a practice that mediates the claims of faith as well as the desire for rights – adhering all the while to a vision of gender justice, premised on deep compassion and respect for women’s lives and struggles.

Introduction: Another Islam

A dusty hot morning in August 2004. At a busy intersection in Madurai city, under a hurriedly constructed cloth canopy, sit over 250 women. Their ages vary – some are clearly young, in their late teens, but a substantial number are older, anywhere between 30 and 70 years of age. The backing that holds the canopy in place is festooned with posters announcing that women are not going to give in, nor put up with abuse, humiliation and violence, as they have all these years, but will, instead, resist. A few posters bear verses which suggest that women expect men to be gracious partners in this struggle, rather than hecklers and tormentors.

In itself this scene is not unusual. One is bound to witness many such sit-ins across India – protestors of diverse sorts, demanding an end to one form of inequity or another. It is also not rare to find as many women doing this as men. But what distinguished the Madurai gathering was that almost all the women who sat under a sky turning blue-white with heat were Muslims. Their heads covered with an assortment of head gear – ranging from the full black burqa that falls as a robe from head to toe, leaving only the woman’s face uncovered, to modest white scarves that some wore lightly on their heads – these women remained on the streets for the better part of the day, chanting slogans, singing songs and listening to speeches made by their comrades in the sit-in and visitors who had chanced to look in or come to lend support to their cause.

Their demands were straightforward and concrete: the compulsory registration of the Muslim nikah namah, or wedding contract, at an office of local government; the repeal of the provision of ‘triple talaq’ (the thrice-uttered divorce demand) which men in the Muslim community often use at will to abandon, get rid of wives they do not like or want anymore; an equal representation for women in local community organisations, or the jamaats which control all aspects of social life in the Muslim community in Tamil Nadu; the abjuration by Muslims of the ‘un-Islamic’ practice of demanding dowry from the bride and the further demand that those who endorse the giving or taking of dowry be immediately barred from the jamaat.

However, the sit-in was more than a protest against specific injustices. The very air that day was alert with the women’s gaiety, anger and resolve, and resonant with their insistence that their Islam required women be treated with dignity, equality and granted the freedom that was theirs by virtue of being one of the great community of the faithful. It was as if a quiet but determined passion for justice and for being heard held these women together – it is not that they were agreed on matters of doctrine, or even strategy, but they wished to demonstrate their will to collective visibility, to standing up for each other.

For many of us, of course, the women’s movement had meant this more than anything else: that we had each other, were inspired by each other and in an unashamed sort of way actually wanted to be together (never mind our petty anger, bullying, contentious and acrimonious arguing). And this same sort of psychic energy, part-political, part-euphoric held the stage in Madurai as well.

I have chosen to begin my discussion of gender, rights and Muslim women by recalling an exquisite moment of female solidarity for an important reason – for it is this that has been invoked, recalled and made to act as a catalyst for Muslim women to name their fear and hurt and seek to end whatever causes both.

The Women’s Question and Islam in Modern India

Gender concerns within Muslim communities have not always been viewed as pertaining to a sexually and socially vulnerable sisterhood. During the late nineteenth century and after, especially in the plains of northern and eastern India, women’s rights were invariably discussed and debated within the overarching context of the Quran. Quranic tenets with respect to marriage, the family, women’s faith and rights to learning were sought to be upheld in the face of customary – pre-Islamic - practices which denied women spiritual and individual autonomy and dignity. Reformers, ulama and those who tried to steer a middle path between the two were all agreed on one thing: that the Quran’s injunctions with respect to women were enlightened, mindful of women’s equality and dignity and guaranteed them rights which barbaric local customs denied them. Therefore, it was important for women to know what the Quran had mandated for them. Several reformers and some of the ulama in fact encouraged women to acquire the skills to read the holy book and live by it.

Male reformers thus spoke and wrote on the importance of female education – several of them started newspapers – in Hindustani and Bengali - that addressed women, others outlined curricula that women were enjoined to adopt and yet others suggested ways of engaging with the faith. Women too were part of this rush of change – they wrote, ran newspapers, lectured and exhorted women to educate themselves and claim their identity as women of a faith that demanded their intelligent and self-conscious participation in its practice.

Of the many women who wrote during this period, Rokheya Hossein stands out. She lived in undivided Bengal and was married early. However her husband, being of a reformist turn of mind, took to educating her – teaching her English and encouraging her to read. She gradually became a writer in her own right and went about – in purdah – exhorting women to claim their dignity. Her novella, Sultana’s Dream is justly famous, linking, as it did, male power with their vocation for war and aggression and calling for a civilisational turn to the so-called feminine virtues of nurture and care, which, she argued, would make for a society, based on compassion, rationality and restraint.

While these contentious and lively debates were most prominent in the northern and eastern parts of the Indian sub-continent, they produced a ripple effect that was felt elsewhere: in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south and in the princely state of old Hyderabad.

During the struggle for Indian independence, Muslim women across the country who were involved in the nationalist movement affirmed their rights claims through an invocation of ‘modern’ secular, republican values. There were several important moments in nationalist history that proved determinate in this respect: the Khilafat hour – 1918-1922- when the claims of faith and nationhood were reconciled to represent legitimate community interests catalysed women into public life and roles. From the late 1920s, Gandhi’s pacifist politics and the rise of socialism enabled women from a variety of social contexts to claim their place in the national life that unfolded during the momentous 1930s.

But in the mid-1940s and after, as partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan appeared an imminent reality, Muslim communities, who endorsed the move to draw a line across north-western and eastern India, articulated a nationalism that defined itself as much by its religious commitment, as by its political fervour. For women, this meant that rights claims would have to be resolved within the terms of the new State that Muslims wished to create. (This translated in practice into contextual readings of the Quran and the Hadiths, resulting in some instances in the proclamation of fair and sound judgements by the courts in Pakistan, and later, Bangla Desh with regard to divorce and maintenance.)

In India, after independence, Muslims became the country’s largest minority. Haunted by the violence they had survived in the wake of partition and aware that they had to conclusively ‘prove’ their patriotism, they were forced to work through a complex and delicate politics of identity. The women’s question, during this period, retreated into the background – indeed it did so for all women, who found themselves being returned to their ‘given’ duties at home, now that the nation was in place.

For Muslims, the decades following independence were not as fraught though, as the ones that came after these early years: the 1970s inaugurated the infamous Emergency, when democratic rights were suspended and authoritarian rule proclaimed. This latter sought to win legitimacy for its pro-development programmes by, among other things, targeting Muslims as a troublesome minority who ‘overbred’ and had to be controlled, in the interests of keeping the country’s population under check. Muslim male sexuality and female compliance were now seen as impediments to a planned march into a future of plenty. This on the one hand. On the other hand, during the 1970s and after, successive governments, both federal and provincial, sought to cultivate ‘Muslim vote banks’ – thereby creating a class of professional politicians within Muslim communities who were seldom sensitive to its needs, but often looked to retaining their own authority. Many amongst them, with the active support of governments, sought out the most regressive sections of Muslim clerical and social authority to lend ideological support to their claims to being the political defenders of the faithful.

Muslim women’s lives were uniquely burdened by these developments – for Islamic communities turned increasingly inward and left the business of politics to those who purported to represent them. For women, this meant that their concerns were not germane to community life and would not figure in debates about the common good. Further, they experienced restrictions on their mobility, especially in terms of access to education and public life. (How this happened in different parts of the country and the implications of these changes for different classes of Muslim women are yet to be studied.)

But the 1970s were not entirely passive years. They also brought many Muslims into larger movements for democracy and helped them re-pose issues of rights and justice, not only for them, as a beleaguered minority, but for all those who were victims of State violence. But where issues within the community were at stake, especially gender issues, reformers who attempted to articulate alternative and mildly radical positions, found themselves severely alone. As a consequence, they – for instance, the men and women of the Muslim Satyashodhak Samaj in western India - moved the debate about reforms outside the context of community concerns and faith and took up strongly critical positions against religious injunctions and laws. This did not however prove productive. It led to the creation of an institution to preserve the integrity of Islamic laws, the Muslim Personal Law Board, which, in the name of protecting community interests and faith, deferred all discussions of reform of gender practices to an unspecified later date. (Again, these are matters that await critical mapping – for they did not happen in exactly the same way across the country.)

The decade of the 1980s brought with it other problems and challenges. For one, Hindu right-wing ideas began to circulate as commonsense and Muslims were now viewed as a ‘pampered’ minority. Hindu ideologues extended these arguments to include ill-informed criticisms of the Quran and Islam. Matters came to a head over a Muslim woman’s claims to maintenance from her husband who had divorced her. A legal dispute grew into a social and political debate on women’s rights in Islam – well-meaning liberals, both Hindu and Muslim men and women, took up the cause of Muslim women as their own, and argued for a uniform code of law that would be binding on all Indian citizens, irrespective of their faith. A section of Muslim political and clerical opinion disagreed. A war of words ensued, which came to pose the question of Muslim women’s rights in these stark terms: those who looked to the Quran, or to religious injunctions were portrayed as conservative and resistant to change; whereas those who endorsed the instruments of India’s liberal state as being just and fair emerged as progressive, and supportive of women’s emancipation.

In any case, the decade of the 1980s witnessed Muslim women participate in civic life in substantial numbers. Many joined women’s groups, movements and civil rights unions within which they raised their concerns. (The decade of the 1980s saw the emergence of the so-called ‘second wave’ of the Indian women’s movements [see below], and the emergence of Muslim women in civic life ought to also be seen as part of this development.)

Alternately, they came to a sense of their status as Muslim women in and through the politics they learnt and practised in the women’s movement. This meant that they re-read the Quran, in order to claim the rights it promised them, and to recover the radical equality which lay at its heart.
Thus, some of these women argued, with reference to the legal wrangle that had assumed such centrality for all Muslim women, that the question being debated had, in reality, nothing to do with the Quran or the rights it conferred on women, but everything to do with the manner in which the rights of Muslim women were being subsumed to narrowly defined community interests. What was being lost sight of were the real problems of poverty, destitution and thoroughly misogynistic readings of Quranic injunctions (Bhatty, 1986). The fact that an emergent Hindu Right attempted to convert the problem of Muslim women’s rights into an indictment of Islam and Muslims further complicated matters. But, insisted those women who were active in the cause of Muslim women’s rights, this did not mean that the latter should be decided or construed within the terms of the debate as it existed at the moment. Rather the historical moment demanded, that the problems of Muslim women be considered within the intersecting contexts of community, the larger civil society and a State ostensibly committed to equality towards all its citizens (Engineer, 1987).

The 1980s and early 1990s threatened to roll back the gains garnered by Muslim women in terms of civic visibility and outspokenness. For, these years saw the Hindu Right attain political prominence, and granted its parties that moral legitimacy which had been denied them in the early years of the young Indian republic. The Right’s campaign against Muslims and Islam in India now acquired a certain shrillness that often collapsed into a rhetoric of hate and violence. It comprised two main aspects.

First, there was overt propaganda against Muslims: that they were ‘backward’ and resisted an integration into a secular, civic world; denied their women the rights due to them; were not sufficiently patriotic and inclined towards a politics of sedition and violence and importantly unmindful of Indian’s Hindu ethos. To illustrate the salience of these arguments, right wing ideologues resorted to examples that were profoundly gendered. Muslims tended to ‘overbreed’ and would, in the future, outnumber Hindus (The ‘nationalist’ Congress party had presented a variation of this argument during the Emergence, as we have noted above). Muslim men were habitually lustful and desired to sully Hindu women’s honour and assail the integrity of the Hindu community. Muslim women were mere slaves and required the protection of civil laws that saved them from the Shariat. (These arguments were however not entirely new or unexpected. In the early decades of the twentieth century, in a context of Hindu-Muslim rioting and political contesting, Hindu ideologues, some of whom belonged to militant revivalist groups such as the Arya Samaj, expressed similar view [Charu Gupta, 2001].)

Secondly, such arguments were backed by acts of hoolganism and assault – with Muslim homes burnt or destroyed, property looted, business overthrown and Muslim women subjected to cruel acts of sexual violence.

Hindu right-wing ideologies were voiced not merely in political forums, but actively disseminated through the media – in and through a covert, insidious style of argument that was almost always vaguely menacing and resonant with self-righteous indignation. And, through the decade of the 1990s, as the Right swept to political power in parts of the country, these ideas came to be embedded within State policies and acquired the support of official power, of sections of the police, the bureaucracy and even the judiciary, in some parts of the country. A series of violent acts against Muslims across India, took place through the late 1990s, culminating in the horrific riots of 2002, which witnessed gross murder, sexual assault, destruction of property and worse, the systematic annihilation of the dignity and confidence of the Muslim community.

The late 1990s, fraught with fear and haunted by violence, have posed unprecedented challenges to Muslim women and their work on rights. The threat to their existence as a religious community was felt as acutely by women as men and, in some instances, brought home with a cruel immediacy – when women were ‘marked’ out for rape and sexual assault and their ‘dishonour’ proclaimed as a victory for Hindus over Muslims. On the other hand, such acts of wilful dishonouring meant that women were sought to be even more ‘protected’ from within. In the wake of repeated acts of violence or rioting, both in order to keep women ‘pure’, and often out of sheer fear, Muslim families sought to – and continue to seek to - limit women’s mobility, stop them from going to school, or marry them off early.

Muslim women see the importance of challenging the Hindu Right and have done so in many instances, lending their support to various democratic and left-liberal efforts. At the same time, they are unsure if they should surrender their questioning of gender injustice within their communities to the historical imperative of fighting Hindu chauvinism and state-endorsed terror. For those Muslim women – for instance, the women of Awaz-e-Niswan in Mumbai - to whom the women’s movement, rather, its particular strands, have provided valuable political anchoring points other issues too appear relevant: issues to do with sexual autonomy, choice, economic and cultural independence and a right to declare themselves irreligious. In this context, it is important to recall and not underestimate the strengths garnered by Muslim women active within one or the other women’s groups from the early 1980s onwards. During this period, Muslim women’s concerns came to be linked to other imperatives – to protesting and challenging larger cultures of sexual violence, which appeared to pervade all communities and existed as inalienable aspects of diverse patriarchal social and familial arrangements. The debates woven around sexual violence, which unfolded during the 1990s proved enabling and exciting, even though it did not always answer those specific questions that Muslim women found important, poised as many of them were between their own political work and the imperatives of community building. For it shifted the question of oppression onto a larger and variegated terrain, affording Muslim women activists important moments of political and social cognition and action.

It is in this context that STEPS – whose work is the subject of this study - was formed and to this we will turn now.

STEPS: Inside the Women’s Movement

STEPS was formed in 1987 – by Sharifa Khanam, a 24 year old Muslim woman. She was living at that time in Pudukkottai (she lives there now as well), a modest but old city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The decade of the 1980s had witnessed the emergence of the ‘second wave’ of the Indian women’s movements – that is, if we consider the organising around issues of freedom from colonial rule as constituting a ‘first wave’. The late 1960s and early 70s were turbulent years in India, as they were in the rest of the world. Left-wing militancy was on the rise and attracted several young people to its camp. The Vietnam war gave an impetus to a simmering anti-imperialist rhetoric, which, in turn, rendered the communist cause even more urgent and attractive. Women, as well as men, joined or constituted various left groups, with some of them taking to arms – especially in the jungles of eastern and central India, where social and economic injustice defined everyday existence for millions of people. But it was the imposition of the ‘Emergency’, of the declaration of authoritarian rule by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, that actually lent the events of those years an urgency and demanded a radical re-statement of political and social objectives.

Women, especially those associated with left-wing groups, and involved with trade-union work found themselves in jail or made the victims of state terror in different ways. As the Emergency came to an end, and a democratic government returned to power in 1979, radicalised young women began to re-examine their lives – both in a personal as well as a social sense.

Other developments too enabled women to claim rights which they discovered had been habitually denied them. The declaration of 1975 as the International Year of Women, the first conference to commemorate the occasion which took place in Nairobi, the Government of India’s admission – in 1974 – in a searching policy appraisal document that the lives of Indian women, with regard to health, survival, work and a life lived in dignity and freedom, were difficult and oppressive: these events constellated into a moment of historical recognition for women, who were in a position to think through their concerns and articulate their sense of the times and what it owed or denied them. These were of course mostly middle class educated women, but given the general militancy of the times, their words commanded attention even from those women from the working classes, whenever they had an opportunity to hear such views being expressed.

What really catalysed a historically distinctive second wave into existence though were two gruesome acts of sexual assault: in the one case, against an adivasi girl and the other a Muslim woman (in the early 1980s). These instances of rape were reported but the attitude of the police, the judiciary and the general public was so appallingly misogynistic that women – and a few men, especially lawyers – were moved to protest them. And as the protests unfolded, there began a widespread public debate on sexual violence, which soon transformed itself into a new discourse on rights, gender and patriarchal power. ‘The personal is political’ became a rallying cry for those involved in these debates and led to the forming of several women’s groups, which announced their explicit commitment to challenging sexual violence and the economies and cultures which produced it.

The immediate result of these deliberations were two conferences held in 1981 and 1982 in the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) where women from different parts of the country met and exchanged views and discovered how much they had in common. Many amongst these were from left-wing groups, but appalled by the latter’s unrelenting male biases. Some were from voluntarist development groups – these had emerged all over the so-called third world, in the wake of a general call to develop a pedagogy of the oppressed – which were committed to consciousness raising and mobilising the poor around existential issues of poverty and economic discrimination in rural India.

When Sharifa started STEPS along with others, she had this history to turn to, and she became a part of it, even as it unfolded. How did this happen? To quote her:

‘I come from a fairly conventional, lower middle class Muslim family in Southern India. After I finished high school I was sent away to Aligarh Muslim University in Northern India. I got involved in a ragging (hazing) incident which resulted in the Principal complaining to my brother. He grew suspicious and accused me of wanting to hang around boys all the time. I was heart-broken – shades of this accusation continue to haunt me, especially when my brother reproaches me for this and that – and tried to leave the university. But I was forcibly returned to it – I left again, but eventually came back to study a secretarial course. This time, I felt bolder and actually enjoyed not being at home, not being ordered about by my brother. I returned home, I think in 1987.

During this period, I met a woman who worked in a ‘development’ organization. She appeared to have been impressed by my knowledge of languages – in addition to my mother tongue, Tamil, I knew Hindi and English – and asked me if I would be interested in accompanying her and a group of women for a conference of women’s organizations in Patna, Northern India as a professional translator (Hindi is spoken widely in the north but not the south of India). This was in 1987. I agreed. The conference – the third national conference of women’s movements – proved to be a turning point in my life. I was overwhelmed by the stories I heard at Patna – stories of hurt, pain, humiliation, but also of resistance, courage and humour. I saw how women from different contexts and backgrounds could actually sit and talk to each other and discover comradeship. Most of all I was impressed that women could thus hold meetings, discuss their concerns with intelligence and protests instances of injustice – I liked the manner in which they communicated, their approach was so appealing. I also understood instinctively what they were saying about violence – after all, I had seen my mother suffer, my sister persist in a bad marriage. I also understood why my brother had been so unpleasant – not only to me, but my poor mother and had left her to look after the family, all by herself.

Back home, I started giving Hindi lessons – this gave me a chance to interact with a range of women, whose homes I would visit to teach Hindi. I also started to help them in different ways, write a letter, accompany them on a mission outside home – since I was a ‘teacher’, I was trusted! Soon I began to wonder why can’t some of us begin a group that would assist women - we had no clear idea as to what form this assistance would take, but we knew that we wanted to be involved with women’s issues. We enrolled girls for karate classes, organised a poster exhibition on the problems faced by women … We called our group, ‘STEPS’, meaning literally steps to women’s empowerment. And so it grew …’

1990 proved a catalytic year for STEPS – for the fourth conference of women’s groups was held that year in Calicut in southern India. Developmental groups in Tamil Nadu, individual women, and women’s groups that had been formed in the 1980s came together to plan for their participation in the conference. At the conference and afterwards, the question of violence against women was eagerly discussed amongst the Tamil groups, including STEPS. STEPS, meanwhile, found itself in the thick of these debates. Now, however, it had to learn to act – for various instances of sexual and domestic violence against women were being brought to the STEPS office in Pudukkottai. One such case of violence, of child sexual abuse, proved significant: it brought home the realities of fighting a culture of sexual secrecy, voyeurism and brute power. As Sharifa remarked on the details of the case:

‘The child’s parents were extremely poor and were, initially, reluctant to make the matter public. We spoke to them and convinced them that we would make sure that the child was not harmed, or put through the trauma of a re-telling. We registered a case with the local station, where our complaint was met with much jeering and contempt – how would anyone do this to a child? Surely we were not serious? Perhaps the child had invited this, in some way? It took us hours to even file a first information report and ask for an investigation. Meanwhile, we contacted local newspapers hoping media pressure would make the police act. To our horror, we found the media’s interest in the case extremely voyeuristic. After several fights with the police, and interventions with the media, we managed to bring the case to court. This was the first of many cases that we would handle – cases of unimaginable violence and abuse, assault and hurt, sometimes leading to death. In each instance, we found out the hard way, that the police, the courts and the media are all equally susceptible to patriarchal and misogynistic biases. But in almost every instance, we were able to garner the support of other women’s groups, and even if we did not successfully prosecute the case, could at least bring into the open instances of sexual assault that most people were determined not to see for what they are.’

Around this time, STEPS was also working on a range of gender issues. They had managed to get some land allotted to them by local government and constructed a shelter home (which doubled up as Sharifa’s residence). This place became a general clearing house for people who wished to report various sorts of gender discrimination, and was sought out by women in distress or crisis. To quote Sharifa again:

‘By the mid 1990s we were sort of viewed as a general all-purpose women’s rights center and sometimes the police, rather than enquire into cases that came to them, re-directed these, especially if the complainants were women, to our office. Thus we found ourselves dealing with issues of not only sexual violence, but also domestic abuse, inter-caste marriages contracted without the prior sanction of families, which usually ended in the bride and groom being harassed, unwed mothers seeking help, lovestruck teenagers who had nowhere to go, issues that had to do with customary and ritual prostitution …Sometimes other issues came up as well: unequal pay, especially for female manual labour, on construction sites, water and sanitary deprivation in villages, which women felt were their responsibility, the rights of women to participate in public bids for government contracts, women wanting loans under various government sponsored schemes, women demanding that a certain piece of land in the family be registered in their names …In most of these case, we spoke to women, directed them to or ourselves networked with organizations that worked with particular issues to assist them, many times, accompanied women to local administrative offices, helped them fill forms, write out complaints, constantly kept in touch with local government officials so that we could call on them for help. In cases of sexual or criminal assault of women, we had to necessarily work with the police, accompany them in their investigation, expedite post-mortem reports, and network with higher police officers in the State capital …Sometimes, we held public meetings and protests, organized sit-ins, especially if the issues involved had to do with land or pay.’

For Sharifa, though, it was not only her group’s success – or failure, as the case may be – in addressing these issues that proved enabling and educative. She was, by this time, a member of a collective of feminists, rights activists and women thinkers that had been formed in Tamil Nadu after the Calicut Conference – this was the Tamil Nadu Women’s Coordination Committee, constituted in 1991 and it recognised the right of individuals, but not groups, to membership in what was conceived as a genuine, independent feminist collective. The Committee organised several meetings and at one such meeting it was decided to host a state-level conference on violence against women in 1992.

The 1992 conference on violence against women disseminated new definitions of violence in the Tamil context – it called upon women to examine their lives, recount to themselves the times they had been abused, sexually humiliated, hurt, and urged them to see violence as an informing principle, which underwrote female existence and organised gender relationships, rather than as comprising accidental, random acts, provoked by specific circumstances. Further the idea of violence as an experience shared by all women, in a greater or smaller measure, invoked a sisterhood bound by vulnerability, creating a powerful secular rhetoric of suffering and indignant anger. At the conference, and later, this rhetoric enabled all women, irrespective of their social classes and contexts, lay claims to a political notion of rights and justice - and helped them comprehend their personal and existential concerns within a logic of power and authority that held together both intimate and social worlds and structures.

For Sharifa and STEPS, as for several others, the conference provided a forum to realise female comradeship and solidarity – and taught them the value of women forming strong public links with each other. In a more specific sense, for Sharifa and STEPS, the Tamil Nadu Women’s Coordination Committee’s support proved personally inspiring. For one, the Committee became, over the years, a mainstay, a moral and emotional anchor for Sharifa (and for others who were part of it). Secondly, as Sharifa started working with Muslim women, her association with it enabled her to preserve a sense of herself as a civic person in her own right, bound to the world and those around her through her commitment to a just cause. For now it seemed that she would have to answer to being a ‘Muslim woman’. She was uneasy with being called thus – not because she did not want to own up to being one, but because she considered herself a feminist, first and foremost and did not want the effort and labour she and her group had put in to articulate this sense of themselves to be subsumed within a narrow politics of identity.

Two events that unfolded in the late 1990s proved decisive both for the sort of STEPS would undertake in the future, and for the nature of the issues that they would have to confront.

Though Sharifa’s work brought her into contact with a variety of social groups and Muslims were also part of the constituencies STEPS addressed, the organisation did not see itself as addressing Muslim women as such. But the Hindu-Muslim riots of the early 1990s forced their attention on the group and Sharifa had to negotiate the consequences of being a ‘Muslim’ woman, though, until then, she had hardly regarded herself as that, that is, in a self-conscious sense. But as riot victims came to her for assistance, she was forced to confront the fact that Muslim women faced problems that were distinctively their own. “I saw how Muslim women, already oppressed and unfree, was now rendered additionally vulnerable. Not only were they easy targets of Hindu hooligan sexual violence, but also if the men in their families died or disappeared or were arrested, they had to take on familial and public responsibilities – matters for which they are usually little equipped. Besides, given the endemic poverty in which most working class Muslims live, these responsibilities translate into financial burdens as well.”

So began STEPS’ work with women from Muslim communities – initially, to get a sense of the issues at stake, STEPS commissioned a survey of around 1000 households. The survey was to search out the sorts of problems Muslim women faced in an everyday sense, and inquire into their knowledge of the rights guaranteed them by their faith as well as by the laws of the land. The findings shocked Sharifa. She knew, in an impressionistic sense, that Muslims, by and large were very poor and women duped into unhappy marriages but she was not prepared for the findings that her survey brought to the fore: of very young girls being married to older men; of unspeakable sexual violence that women endured in marriage; of the pervasive presence of the triple talaq; of marriages that merely shackled women to their marital homes as unpaid household workers … And most of these women were unaware of the Quran’s pronouncements on women, on its radical position on equality and the very distinctive rights it guaranteed women.

Around this time STEPS also got involved in the so-called Swami Premananda case – the case of an infamous Hindu religious leader who lured young women to his ashram near Pudukkottai and sexually abused them, not only grown women, but also children, and teenagers. The goings-on at the ashram came to light, when one of the Swami’s victims fled to a police station and registered a complaint. Soon after, the place was raided, the Swami arrested and 14 young women enlisted as witnesses for the prosecution. STEPS came forward to shelter these women for the period of the case – for there were great fears that the Swami, who enjoyed political and monetary support, would try and harm them. STEPS and Sharifa were now accused by Hindu right wing groups of being part of a conspiracy to destroy the integrity of the Hindu faith. This experience brought home to the group the manner in which gender issues could be wilfully subsumed in religious rhetoric. As Sharifa noted: “this incident made me think long and hard about religion, gender and women’s rights. I had been thinking on and off on this matter, especially after we had done that survey (see above). After Premananda, I felt that I had to look at the links between women, sexuality and religious laws. That was also the time when I seriously began to think of working closely and focusedly with Muslim women, in whose lives these matters were so closely linked. I asked myself: why not use my position as an ‘insider’ to gain their confidence, set up consciousness-raising groups, organize economic programmes, and workshops on law and rights.”

Feminist and Muslim

Sharifa and STEPS’ decision to work with Muslim women did not mean that they stopped working on the sort of issues they had been working on, until then. But it did mean that they adopt a focused and sustained approach to the specific concerns they now wished to address.
The question of Islam, gender and women’s rights had not really been contentiously debated in the Tamil context. But for at least two decades, since the 1980s, there had been isolated attempts to address the anomalous nature of the Shariat, as it existed in practice, and to bring some of the strictures based on it, in line with the Quran’s more expansive definition of women’s rights. Bader Sayeed, a lawyer and Nazneeen Barkat, head of a Muslim women’s college had been urging a reform of certain practices within Muslim communities, including the giving and taking of dowry from the bride, the frequent recourse to triple talaq by men wanting to end their marriages and the wilful disregarding of the mehr or bridal settlement, usually bestowed on the bride on marriage – and which often served as her financial guarantee against destitution. Bader Sayeed tried to build a group that would address these issues – Roshni – but it never really managed to acquire the public stature required of a group that wishes to lobby and mobilise women and the general public on issues that are not usually deemed pertinent. (It is also possible that the group was not representative of the diverse Muslim communities of Tamil Nadu and reflected the concerns of urban-based, educated Muslim women, belonging to a particular sect.)

Nazneen Barkat too has been a persistent advocate of Muslim women’s rights, and a passionate defender of the Quran’s promises in this regard. She had carried the women’s question forward into various all-India Muslim forums, and insisted on her right to be heard. But she too had not found it easy to mobilise women around issues dear to them, which included issues to do with dowry and the triple talaq, and retain them within an organisation, though she had formed one (Awaz). However she had been marginally successful in getting reformist men interested in the cause of Muslim women’s rights and could and did debate with them on ‘un-Islamic’ practices that denied women equality and dignity. In the late 1990s, both Nazneen Barkat and, to an extent, Bader Sayeed, spoke out in feminist forums in Tamil Nadu – in a 1997 conference on ’50 Years of Indian Independence: Politics, Public Life and Women’, organised by the Tamil Nadu Women’s Coordination Committee, Nazneen spoke on what it meant to be a critical insider in the Muslim community and how she and others like her conceived of women’s rights, drawing on the Quran for argument and inspiration.

By 2000, Sharifa and STEPS began to work closely with Nazneen Barkat and her Awaz group. Awaz was linked to disparate non governmental groups (NGOs) that desired to address Muslim community and gender concerns. Members of these groups had been part of larger rights efforts or development initiatives and had come away from these to form their own organsiations. Together, these groups, including Awaz, formed a collective – called SAYA, meaning shade or refuge. STEPS enrolled itself as a member of this collective network. SAYA organised workshops for Muslim women on questions of health and around legal concerns specific to the community as well as on the rights guaranteed to all citizens in India, irrespective of their faith and origins. As SAYA grew, its members felt emboldened enough to call for a state-level conference. This took place in August 2003 in the south-eastern city of Ramanathapuram, with a large Muslim population. The conference saw women who had probably never spoken in public express their grief and anger at the manner in which the men in their communities would airily refer to how the Quran granted women equal rights and then go ahead and act as if these rights had nothing to do with them and their behaviour towards women.

Those women who proved articulate at the conference were explicit in their criticisms of not merely individual men who disobeyed Quranic injunctions, but also of the ‘jamaat’ or the common body, which represented Muslim concerns within a defined congregational location, based on attendance at a particular mosque. Jamaats are usually all-male groups that meet in mosques and arbitrate on community matters, including domestic concerns, and pronounce on marriage, divorce and property arrangements. Women are not allowed to sit in on jamaat meetings or granted membership in the jamaat – ostensibly on the ground that the jamaat meets in the mosque and women do not usually enter a mosque when men are there. But for the women who spoke out in Ramanathanpuram this seemed a specious argument – and some wondered angrily if women should not then have their own mosque and constitute their own jamaat, where they would be assured of a fair hearing. “At least, we would be present when our lives are being discussed”, quipped a young woman. Sharifa and others from STEPS were in fact serious about this demand for a mosque for women, and even raised it as a point of discussion.

We need our own organisation, our own jamaat – this is because when we go to a jamaat for our problems, we find that we do not get a fair hearing, that we are not given justice – so we need this, to think, and to get together and pray, we need our own mosque –
It is thought that it is only men who can make decisions, that they are the ones who can love, have the right to love and desire – if a man is promiscuous, this society considers it alright, but if a woman is so, it decries her – we must ask where this double standard comes from – We must ask why is it that just being a man gives a person the right to do anything – we must question this and do away with this – and we must ask why is it that only men have the right to pleasure and not women, why is this so? We must be able to claim our equality … Balkies, 32 years

Opinions on the mosque question varied: some women pointed out that there did mosques for women and so there was no question of women not being allowed into mosques. Others argued that the Quran did not forbid women from praying in mosques and in some Islamic countries there did exist mosques where both men and women prayed in segregated spaces. Not all were sure, though, whether women should have the right to a common mosque space – they felt that they would hardly go there, if there was such a space, since their domestic duties would not leave them much time to do so; and in any case, they would be a heedless distraction for the praying men who would therefore be inclined to be less pious.

These differences notwithstanding, what emerged at this conference was consensual anger and resentment at being denied rights in the name of Islam by men who were themselves guilty of ‘un-Islamic’ practices – such as the taking of dowry, drinking, charging interest on loans. Dowry appeared a major concerns, as did triple talaq. The denial of education was another issue that was passionately discussed.

Interestingly, this conference provided a gloss – though unintended – on larger debates on religious laws and citizenship in India. Women’s groups in India had, by and large, always been in favour of gender-just secular laws and critical of the personal laws of religious communities which denied women justice and equality. But in the late 1990s, it was no longer possible to maintain such a position, without one’s arguments being coopted into the standard Hindu Right debate on a ‘uniform’ civil code that would apply to all communities, irrespective of the fact that some of them might prefer to abide by their personal laws – a preference guaranteed to them by the Constitution of India. So some women’s groups wondered if it was not better to insist on reforms within personal laws, rather than ask for a common gender-just legal code. Others attempted a compromise, suggesting that women ought to be given a choice – they should naturally, as it were, be allowed the relief of the country’s civil laws but should they wish to, they could take recourse to personal community laws. However rich and contentious, these debates were conducted within a discursive and legal – rather than a historical - context and informed by passionate theoretical concerns about equal citizenship in a diverse society. Even when it was argued that to ask for a common civic code would feed into the Hindu Right’s strident rhetoric and render minority communities, especially Muslims, vulnerable, the argument assumed a knowledge of Muslim minds that was ahistorical and not sufficiently attentive to actual debates and dissensions within Muslim communities. Besides, what was construed and accepted as community opinion was, in most instances, expressive male opinion and it was ironic that feminist debates on law, rights, gender and faith should have been as uncritical as they proved to be of this explicitly gendered mediation of community concerns

The Ramanthapuram conference unpacked the discursive meanings of ‘secular’, ‘religious’ and legal solutions to women’s rights concerns in unexpected ways. For one, it demonstrated that for Muslim women the issue was not one of defining their stance as either religious or secular. They would not be bound by this dyad and their articulations of injustice and what they understood by justice rested on a complex of ideas. They named their felt and perceived injustices using terms from everyday life, drawing on metaphors supplied by popular culture, many of which incorporated political notions of oppression, victimhood and rights, and on the rhetoric of sexual violence and discrimination made available to at least some of them through the women’s movement. But the normative basis for their anger and resentment at what they were forced to endure was provided by another system of knowledge – afforded by the Quran, which women felt was as much by theirs to own and interpret. Besides, the injustices that they recognised now as instances of a crime that could be spoken of in public appeared patently wrong by the diligently Islamic standards they felt most of them were living by.

Clearly for the Muslim women at Ramanathanpuram, such justice and rights that they sought were being denied them, neither by abstract religious principles nor by imperfect secular legal instruments. Rather specific individuals in defined situations, individuals who were mostly men and who controlled and dominated institutions meant for the common good, and who used the prerogatives assumed by them as aspects of their masculine existence to deny women what was due to either as members of an expansive faith, appeared the culprits. The Muslim women of Ramanathapuram thus came to a knowledge of patriarchal social arrangements which, in spite of the imperatives of their faith, proved intractable in the authority they assumed and exercised.

A Mosque for Women

In the days following the Ramanathapuram conference, STEPS found itself busy attending to complaints and petitions brought by Muslim women all over Tamil Nadu. Many of those who came seeking help were clearly surprised that such a forum for considering their claims existed – and that a Muslim woman had actually dared to take on customary practices and male-headed community organisations. Many of these petitioners had been refused a fair hearing in their respective jamaats and sometimes turned away from police stations, with the ostensible explanation that ‘you have your own laws, go to your own forums’. (This was the local policeman’s reading of Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India which guarantee minorities’ rights to practise their faith, abide by their personal laws – that is, laws to do with matrimony, divorce, maintenance and guardianship of minor children. What the police, in these circumstances, do not admit to the Muslim women who thus come to them with petitions, is that they do have right of access to the country’s civil laws, if they wish to avail of them.)

Meanwhile, Sharifa re-worked the demand for a woman’s mosque, raised at the Ramanathapuram conference – she and her comrades argued that if women were to realise for themselves the rights granted them by their faith they needed forums that would grant them a just hearing. A Muslim women’s jamaat, which met in its own mosque appeared a solution that would both honour as well as subvert community norms. For, in her view, a woman’s mosque would be a place where women prayed, talked, shared their personal and familial concerns as well as discussed community matters, and planned for women’s education, childcare and work. It would prove a feminist workplace and place of worship, combined into a single sacral structure. After all, the Quran did not have anything against women praying in public and besides, had not the Prophet commandeered women to know the details and logic of their faith? And had he not called women to him to discuss what was due to them, and had they not sought him out in public places?

Men talk easily to other men, in a way that we cannot. We cannot really tell men about things that matter. We need to talk to other women, and we need to be able to freely exchange our thoughts – currently women jibe against women, talk ill of each other in an unbecoming manner. But we must give this up – we, all of us here, all of us in the jamaat are of one kin, one family, and our men here are our dear brothers, and all of us, this entire society is one huge community. So our jamaat is everyone’s. There are bound to be protests. Your husband says, don’t go. Your son says, why do you have to go? Why do you women want this separate place, why, in the future we men will have to walk with our heads down. But our God has enjoined us to be brave – Islamic women are brave women, we wear this burqa to affirm our modesty, our morality. But if someone was to harass us, it will not help if we draw the burqa tightly around our shoulders. Do you think such a man will let us be, simply because we are Muslim women …This burqa is there to state our ethics, not to prevent us from being brave. Nisha, 38 years

Sharifa’s feminist friends in the Tamil Nadu Women’s Coordination Committee, who had been supportive of the work she and others undertook as members of the SAYA network, were both aghast and sceptical of her desire to build a mosque. The year was 2003 – a year after the terrible riots in Gujarat in which over 2000 Muslims, men, women and children, had been killed, tortured and humiliated by Hindu right-wing militants. The party of the Hindu Right had been returned to office in Gujarat and besides led the federal government. Muslims everywhere were still in a state of shock and fear and besides continued to be vulnerable to popular hatred and violence in parts of the country. Given this context, Sharifa’s friends in the Committee argued that it would not be prudent to raise demands – such as the one for a mosque for women – since this would provide the Hindu Right with an occasion and arguments to further preach against Islam and Muslims. Besides, this would cause dissension amongst Muslims at a time when they perhaps needed to remain unified. Might not Sharifa, therefore, want to start a dialogue within the community before she launched a public campaign for a women’s mosque?

There were others who felt uneasy with this development as well – for instance, Nazneen Barkat and several members of the SAYA group decided to distance themselves from this demand for a mosque. Nazneen continued to endorse women’s rights to equality and justice, within the terms outlined in the Quran, but did not consider it opportune or right that they demand a place of worship that was all their own. To ask for representation for women in the jamaat was one thing and could be considered a legitimate demand, but to construct a mosque for women and realise it as a community space was altogether something else. A section of progressive Muslim women backed Nazneen’s approach on the mosque question and lost no time in enrolling her as a member of a local jamaat committee.

However, Sharifa did not imagine that progressive Muslim men would prove to be consistent in their support of Muslim women’s demands. She had good reasons for her scepticism. As soon as she and STEPS put forth their demand for a mosque for women, a local jamaat came forward to support their claim and even offered land for the mosque. But widespread clerical uproar, which resonated across the country, held the jamaat’s members back and the support quickly died down. Besides, around this time, sections of the Tamil Muslim media wrote extremely hostile stories on Muslim women who had dared to come to the streets – they were depicted as shameless and wanton women who would only bring dishonour on Islam and Muslims. While glad that the cry for a mosque had caused sections of the Muslim communities to face up to the question of women’s rights, Sharifa would not go so far as to grant the communities’ largely male leadership the credibility they so anxiously sought. Likewise Sharfia was not inclined to view the opinions of the Tamil Nadu Women’s Coordination Committee as valid in this instance. While she appreciated their concern, she was convinced that they were not aware of or in touch with the very real anger and discontent experienced by several hundreds of Muslim women, as she was. She was also not sanguine about beginning a dialogue with men who would be sympathetic to her concerns. Those who desired such a dialogue on matters of gender and the community clearly wished her to drop her mosque proposal, in fact, would not even debate it, and this appeared unreasonable to her.

Sharifa had found her constituency – angry, indignant Muslim wives and widows who were determined to wield their faith in a manner that ratified its deepest truths. The old feminist slogan, the personal is political, stood to be reinterpreted by these intrepid women – for them, questions of desire, loyalty and conjugal comradeship appeared also to be questions of faith that ought to be discussed and debated within the terms outlined in the Quran.

Sharifa is, of course, aware that a single mosque in an obscure south Indian town would not really challenge the spiritual and temporal authority vested in male clerics and community leaders. But, for her and others who supported her demand, the fact of women wanting and building their own house of prayer, worship and justice possessed a significance that went beyond a lone building. The mosque represented both religious faith and social desire – it constituted a radical claim on Islam, on the promise it offered them and others in search of justice, the promise of a equality mandated by the Holy Book.

I want to ask why must there be one justice for men, and another for women, why is that men go on talking, whereas a woman has to only open her mouth and she is shushed up. Why, did not our mothers bear us too for ten months, just as they bore these men? And they say they can enter mosques and we cannot. Though we may know our prayers and though they may be drunk, drugged and whatnot. Where does it say in the Holy book that we cannot enter mosques… But …because we are submissive and go further down with every blow, … because we have not spoken up, these men feel that there is no one to hold them accountable…And this women’s jamaat, how necessary this is. Where will women go with their suit, otherwise? And they say such things about us, - we just have to talk to a man - to all and sundry to whomsoever they meet, that “she has kept this man, she has slept around with that one”; but what about them, how they sleep around …and they think they can get away with everything because they are men, because they earn money … but how dare they think we should remain passive, sit at home, and do nothing and worse, not speak. Okay we can remain silent, because we wish to retain our dignity, our self-respect because we are raised modest, because we have children, we find ourselves at home, and we feel we cannot talk, because we have been put down. But why for any other reason? No, we will not, cannot remain silent. I will not, for I have been so for all these years. So let us now talk back, and to this end, I call upon Allah to be with us, to guide us and grant longevity, good will and luck to all of us. Akhtar Beevi, 50 years

Soon, STEPS worked out an agenda that would bring Muslim women together into small and large forums where they could debate their common concerns and plan for their mosque. This agenda, supported by a sympathetic donor agency from northern Europe has, since, been put to work – several protracted meetings have been held at various towns and villages since December 2004, small all women self-help groups formed in predominantly Muslim villages, articulate and fearless Muslim women willing to debate issues of equality and justice keenly have been identified… These developments, in turn, led to the forming of what has since become an independent political form: the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat Committee, comprising women from over 15 districts of Tamil Nadu.

The Prophet’s Promises

The Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat Committee is now more than a year old. It meets once every month and discusses both particular disputes that are brought to its attention, as well as general matters, such as Quranic injunctions with respect to equality and justice, the need to build community institutions that would support women’s education and employment, and the importance of locating Muslim women's concerns within a larger civic and political discourse and practice of rights.

The Jamaat Committee is not a singular body. For example, members often differ with respect to the approach they, as a group, desire to adopt with respect to a particular dispute: should they be confrontational? Conciliatory? How should they engage with local jamaats that direct disputants to them, or are themselves the disputants in many instances? Arguments are vociferously made, publicly argued and contested and decisions are taken only if there is a general consensus. As Sanma, one of the more active members of the Committee notes: “We’re like a court of law. But in a court, there is only a single judge and everything depends on him, his moods, attitudes. And there is no one to check him, hold him back if he makes a mistake. But here there are over twenty of us. Even if one of us errs with respect to a problem, you can be sure that there are others who see the thing clearly for what it is. So, you see, we are even better than a court.”

In practice, the Committee does function like a tribunal. A petitioner brings a dispute – this could be either a matter of domestic abuse and violence, or a betrayal of good faith which the wife and her family have reposed in her husband; the giving of dowry, or falsely contracted marriages or hastily undertaken ones, which serve to hide a man’s defects (such as male infertility or impotence). The Committee members hear the petitioner out, closely question her, her family, ask after her children, if any, and then discuss how they might hold the man accountable. Sometimes, a counter-petition is made out and sent to the jamaat where the woman’s family might have taken her case previously; or if the woman has been subject to gross violence and cruelty, a petition is sent to the police station. In certain instances, a jamaat which had received a petition involving domestic violence visits the Committee on its own accord and seeks to settle the matter through discussion and debate. Very rarely is a petitioner despatched to the courts of law. Each case is addressed and decided on its own merits – the woman’s needs are heard out, her children’s future discussed and the Committee attempts to balance what is owed to her with what is possible to obtain from her husband. The Committee, with support from STEPS, also offers other options to women who are not likely to obtain monetary support from estranged husbands, and who cannot expect their labour to pay for the children’s education and well-being. Women are found jobs, are referred to various social service organisations that might support their case for childcare and employment. STEPS has, itself, begun a girls’ hostel – an impromptu home for girls whose mothers have been abandoned by their marital families, or who are from single parent homes (the parent in question being a woman).

In much of its work, the Committee is directed as much by its understanding of specific Quranic injunctions, as by the details of the case at hand. Its members are convinced that the giving and taking of dowry is un-Islamic, that the word ‘talaq’ cannot be uttered lightly, and that women and men both have equal rights to a happy and companionable conjugality. But while all members look to the Quran for guidance, they do not always concur in their understanding of it. Of the many positions that are likely emerge on any matter of common concern, two might be considered pertinent.

The talaq against women cannot be pronounced lightly – it is a sacred word and cannot be used without finding out about what has gone wrong. A man cannot simply say that a woman a bad woman without submitting himself to inquiry as well. …Allah has made it clear that he disapproves of and dislikes talaq – he wants man and woman to live together, in love and peace. This is what marriage is all about, and not about putting women in a prison – or about throwing them out.
When can talaq be pronounced at all then? Only after due enquiry and it must be said only after a month and then there is provision for waiting, for finding out if the man and woman indeed want to part. All of us who find ourselves in relationships that are problematic, are likely to be angry initially, and we start out feeling resentful. But later, we might feel differently – and those who were initially with us, especially our parents, brothers might now start feeling us a burden, so it is important to give ourselves this month – Allah knew this well which is why he made this provision. He has also offered a second month – and only later, is the word talaq to be pronounced to mean parting of ways –
Also, Allah knows how women are, how they are tender, gentle, which is why he does not counsel harshness, which is why he says, women are filled with life, even as all of us are, they have their own sense of what is right and wrong – and have rights of their own. Allah also insists that those who counsel talaq should first find out about this from both man and woman, not just from men, as is the case today – men of course wish talaq to be said easily, because it gives them a chance to marry again, to demand dowry, money, gold – but the jamaats which hear men must be careful and just – today this is not the case, they might, for a cup of tea and a wad of notes, agree to the saying of talaq – Those who say this do not think of women, their future, their hearts. They only think of what this affords to men – and also say, ‘that woman! She cannot live with one man, how will she live with another?’
So how should the jamaat pronounce talaq – they must ascertain that the pronouncer of talaq prays five times a day, observes the norms of haram and halal, - in fact the Quran is very clear about this: if wrongful – haram – acts are committed, then the agent of these acts does not stand as one of the faithful in Allah’s eyes and our men, they commit all sorts of haram acts. They accept interest on debts, are corrupt – and taking dowry is like taking interest. All these are haram acts. In fact the jamaat members must themselves observe the laws of haram and halal – the Quran is clear about this, that they must know their Quran, know what it pronounces to be wrong and right, and must observe these laws …
You don’t have to go to the courts, find out from elsewhere what you need to do – the Quran tells you how to behave, live – and the Quran is Allah’s book, and cannot be overlooked or destroyed –those who live by it, and are bound by the grace of Allah and his Prophet, know what is good and bad – and they must create a just society for men and women to live together equally… Mehrunissa, 28 yrs.

The one assumes that the Quran is a transparent text, whose meanings are clear and coherent – to this group, the Prophet is unequivocally on the side of women, in fact, favours their cause, for had he not, himself, chosen to take an older woman as his wife and respected her counsel throughout his life? “Our Prophet did not marry for lust. He wanted a companion, a woman who could help him in his work. You might ask, then why did he marry so many times – each time he did this, he set out to prove a moral. And did he not say that he wanted both men and women to observe the faith? He did not think women should not read scripture. He has given us an open book that we might benefit from it. We women should not remain ignorant…”

There are several variations on this theme, and the burden of these readings appears to be: the Prophet enjoined men to be just towards women, he entreated women to know their rights granted them by their faith. The Quran does not anywhere forbid women from learning – “He wanted us to know the faith, as well know what is required to live in today’s world” – nor does it ask them to desist from going to work, or from making marriages of their choice. Further, both men and women are called upon to lead a sexually fulfilling life, and desire is licit for both. Marriage is an active social contract and men and women must strive to fulfil its terms by being companionable, supportive and respectful of each other.

The other position, which also draws its discursive energy from the Quran, asserts that women ought to realise the immense responsibility vested in them by their faith and live up to it. That is, they ought not to be slaves to petty desires, not covet jewellery or finery. Instead, they ought to realise that this mortal body is always already in a state of decay and not strive to satisfy its appetites. Rather they should set their minds on being independent, dignified and look to lead a socially useful life. For this is what the Quran demands of the faithful, that they remain committed to the ummah, or the community of the faithful. In this reading of the Holy book, justice is understood to be an ideal that inheres in a disciplined inner life, in practising the tenets of the faith, and in cultivating a life of labour and service.

These points of view are not advanced as abstract arguments, rather they are articulated in the course of specific arguments or campaigns. In the face of routine observations made by male clerics and community leaders that Muslim women enjoy superior rights, the Committee has felt the need to claim these rights. Their attempts to confront and challenge entrenched male clerical authority are often met with disapproval and scorn and earned them the anger of men who discredit their interpretative exercises as being ‘un-Islamic’. It is in trying to answer charges about ‘being un-Islamic’ that the Committee has felt it important to define its version of Islam and its sense of the Prophet – not only for itself but for all Muslim women.

It is significant that for many in the Committee the Quran is both a text that invites women to an equal civic existence along with men, and as scripture that demands of women a spiritually exacting life. And the women of southern India are not alone in wanting to do this. Women across

Between Allah and you, there need be no intermediary. You can directly speak to, appeal to Allah – you don’t need another person to reach Allah. Allah is close to you, as close as your cheekbone, he is part of what you are and you can read his words – and understand them – as much as you can, and you don’t need to listen to what other people have to say about the Quran – There are two things I wish to stress: that in the eyes of Allah there is no difference between man and woman; you should approach the Quran on your own, use your mind and read it. You have the right to do so. Secondly, in the matter of women’s rights there are many organisations here in India – the Muslim Personal Law Board, the Wakf Board, and many others – which tell us that the Quran says this and the Quran says that. Often they interpret the Quran to advance their own interests. Now that we can read the Quran, we will know the truth …nowhere in the Quran does it say that women should not have their own mosque – and in the event of women wanting a mosque, there have been instances of them having their own – where they can speak and pray without fear – Syeda Hameed, 55 years

the Islamic world, in different social and political contexts, are today re-reading the Quran and the traditions of Islamic jurisprudence to claim what they believe is due to them, as citizens and as individual seekers. Some amongst them are actively engaged in returning to the Quran its universality, its catholicity – this, in the face of obstinate and narrow assertions of Islamism which seek to ground their claims in a series of petty practices and rituals directed at women with the aim of keeping them socially and sexually subordinate. Others are battling with local authority that attempts to rein in democratic re-readings of scripture – including those by women and the lower classes. Yet others are trying to work through the ambiguities of meaning and the demands of faith – as they embark on their own distinctive spiritual journeys. For all of them, as for the women in southern India, there is much at stake, both in an existential and political sense – they wish to lead dignified, self-respecting lives, and their sense of the good and the just is defined by the Quran, which frames and marks their social horizons.

Between Faith and Politics

The demand for a women’s mosque and the constitution of the Tamil Nadu Women’s Jamaat Committee have elicited a series of responses both in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. Women’s groups and feminist thinkers are both excited and bewildered by these developments. The Tamil Nadu Women’s Coordination Committee, for instance, has confessed itself mistaken in its earlier caution with respect to the mosque and its members now admit that Sharifa and STEPS have attempted and succeeded in creating a fierce constituency of women whose entry into public life could prove catalytic – not only for Muslim women but for the women’s movement as a whole.

The Tamil Nadu Women’s Jamaat Committee, whose members bring with them a voluntarist zeal and energy, appears an unusual vanguard of activists. For one, they are deeply embedded in and committed to local life and concerns – their sense of what is owed to them as self-respecting women is not dictated by an anguished alienation from the world of the family and community. Rather it proceeds from an indignant and expressive anger at the manner in which familial and communal structures and institutions exclude and marginalize women, even where there is enough scriptural sanction for them to be considered equal. The jamaat women see themselves therefore as transforming in practical and everyday terms the civic lives of the communities they are a part of, in a manner that allows us to see the limits of feminist political practice in India over the last two decades and more.

The ‘second wave’ of the Indian women’s movements (see above) defined its politics in and through an opposition to the hold of family, caste and community, which were deemed patriarchal. Its ideologues searched out the hand of patriarchal power and authority in all aspects of a woman’s life – from the cradle to the grave, as a popular feminist song had it – and attempted to challenge it. Intimacy, desire, personal and social relationships – all of these were understood in terms of violence and control deployed by patriarchal agents who were determined to keep women down and submissive. This rhetoric of violence offered women from diverse social backgrounds a rich political register of complaint and anger (as I have noted above), but it also prevented them from engaging actively with local civic cultures, whether of the village panchayat (the village commonwealth, so to speak) or jamaat or caste tribunal. These latter appeared regressive institutions when measured by the lofty ideals of abstract democracy and appeared captive to a pre-republican civic ethos, where locally dominant interests determined the meanings of rights and justice. It did not appear possible then to re-work these latter to address feminist demands. Besides, the possibility of challenging masculine authority through a robust invocation of female victimhood was taken up eagerly and with passion – this too precluded many of us in the women’s movements from seeing how we, as victims, actually negotiated the worlds around us. We became captive to our own discourses and looked to legislative and rhetorical strategies and struggles to address problems of violence and justice.

The jamaat women, by contrast, are discovering and extending the limits of a discourse they have only known as given and mandated faith. Their reclaiming of the Quran has opened up the holy book both literally and symbolically. They have also sought to bring their actual experiences of arguing and fighting – with families, clerics - to bear on their political practice, as is clear from the manner in which the women’s jamaat receives and disposes of petitions. There is an openness to their practice, perhaps because it is dictated less by ideology and more by a sort of Gramscian ‘good sense’, a homespun logic of right and wrong, which, in the last instance, looks to the Quran for endorsement.

However, Sharifa is not entirely comfortable with this looking to the Quran. She often poses provocative questions such as the following: ‘Would you not support a measure that is not ratified by the Quran? What if we find a Quranic stricture unreasonable?’ She also attempts to embed the jamaat women’s moral sense within a more universal feminist logic – through an invocation of sisterhood, of a greater common good. For instance, when calling upon a fellow feminist to speak at a Muslim women’s conference, she noted: “you refer to me all the time, but really, when I set out to work amongst women, it was not my faith that propelled me, but the example of women like this, women whose caste, religious or class status was not important but who felt it important for women to step out, claim their rights. It is women like these who have granted me the courage to speak out. I’ll never forget what my friend Lucy said a decade ago: ‘As soon as a woman realizes what her family, her caste, religion and state have done to her, there is nothing that can stop her from speaking out, from stepping out.’”

Likewise, she situates Quranic arguments for divorce and female autonomy within larger democratic contexts. She does this in a number of ways – by translating the jamaat women’s demands into the terms of a more catholic political register; or she invites non-Muslim women as observers to hear what the jamaat women have to say and then solicits their opinion on what they have heard. Yet, for her, the political moment of which she is a part, and which she and STEPS have ushered into existence continues to be a tensely delicate moment – demanding from her vastly inventive responses.

After word

The politics and practice that I have attempted to define in these pages are of our time – that is, they are part of the moving present and as such mock all attempts to map them onto a coherent theory. However the processes at play are so amazingly original that they challenge what we have held to be valid and true – whether this has to do with the history of feminist protests, or the manner in which these have been transacted. To that extent, the justice that Muslim women demand in God’s name stands to be defined on its own terms – not only as an instance of liberation theology, or feminist strategising, but as an ideal that offers tantalising possibilities – for our understanding of our feminist pasts, as well prospects for newer, feminist futures.

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