Why Can’t Muslim Women Also Lead the Whole Community? Interview with Zakia Nizami Soman, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan

Based in New Delhi, Zakia Nizami Soman is one of the founder members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan(BMMA), a movement of Muslim women across India struggling for their citizenship rights.  In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, she talks about the BMMA’s work and reflects on the daunting challenges facing Muslim women in India today.

Q: How did the BMMA start?  What made you and your colleagues feel the need for a separate Muslim women’s movement?

A: The BMMA was formally inaugurated in Delhi in January 2007, but before that we — numerous Muslim women — were working in our individual capacities on issues related to Muslims, particularly Muslim women, in different parts of India.  I was working in Gujarat, my home state, before that, with Action Aid, in the wake of the state-sponsored genocidal attacks on Muslims in 2002.  In a sense, it was the Gujarat genocide that brought us Muslim women, scattered across India, together.  We met at numerous conventions, rallies and public hearings that were held in different parts of the country in the wake of the genocide.  We were all Muslim women who were deeply concerned with the plight of the Muslims, including and especially Muslim women, and the enormous danger of Hindutva fascism, and who were trying, in our own ways, to intervene.  That was when we decided to form a loose collective of our own.  We felt that the issues of Muslim women were somehow being sidelined in a climate of heightened Muslim insecurity.  We urgently felt the need for Muslim women to speak out, not just against patriarchy within the community and unjust personal laws, but also against growing anti-Muslim discrimination, against Muslims being treated as second-class citizens in this country and against neglect, indeed, discrimination by the state and other forces.  We felt the desperate need for a Muslim women’s voice at the national level.

We began our work in 2005 by organizing meetings in various cities of India of like-minded Muslim women — in Delhi, Bombay, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow and so on.  In the beginning, we did not have any clear agenda.  These meetings served as a means for us to get to know each other and to clarify our thinking on issues related to Muslim women, the Indian Muslims as a whole, as well as the larger society and the struggles of other marginalized groups for justice and equality.  After considerable discussion and deliberation about our ideology and form of our collective, finally we announced the formation of the BMMA at our first national convention in Delhi in January 2007.  Some 500 women attended the convention.  Thereafter, our numbers rapidly grew, and now we have almost 20,000 members, with chapters in fifteen states across India.  Most of them are volunteers, who take up Muslim community, particularly Muslim women’s, issues at the local level.

Our name expresses our mission.  We are ‘Bharatiya’, or Indian.  We refuse to let the advocates of Hindutva monopolise the term.  We are Muslim and not at all apologetic about it.  We are ‘Mahilas’, or women.  And, finally, we are an ‘Andolan’ or movement, not an institutionalized NGO, that seeks to mobilize and work with not just Muslim women alone, but also the whole secular and democratic movement in India, for the problems we all face are so deep-rooted that large scale people’s mobilization is the only way out.  The BMMA is based on the values of the Indian Constitution as well as the Quran, both of which have given Muslim women equal rights.  Our basic mandate is to work on issues related to education, livelihood, health and security and personal laws of Muslims in general, and Muslim women in particular.  This also includes the struggle against communalism, against the stereotyping of Muslims and Islam and the tendency to link them with terrorism.

Q: You speak of the Quran as gender-just, but what would you say about the very obviously patriarchal, and, in several aspects, patently anti-women, stances of the conservative ulema?

A: Islam speaks of a God who is just.  The Quran has given women equal rights and equal dignity.  We are as much God’s followers as men are.  The problem arises not from the Quran but from distorted, patriarchal interpretations of the Quran and other texts by some sections of the ulema.  This is something that we have to fight against.  Islam is a religion of justice.  So, how, if it is interpreted properly, can it discriminate against women?  For us, religion is something between the individual and God, a belief grounded in the faith that God cannot be unjust towards women.  So, even if a thousand maulvis stand up and demand that women are inferior and that we should remain shut in their homes we will refuse to listen to them.

Q: Why did you feel the need for a separate Muslim women’s voice?

A: The experience of the Muslims of Gujarat in the wake of the 2002 genocide taught us one valuable lesson: that Muslims have to stand up on their own for justice for themselves.  Thousands of Muslim men, women and children were slaughtered in cold blood.  Three hundred Muslim women were brutally raped and then burnt alive, some in front of their children.  With the exception of a few, the so-called secular Indian feminists did not dare to speak out against the Gujarat carnage.  It is a shame that Gujarat is home to some of the largest women’s organisations and yet they chose to remain mute.  Either they were too scared or else it was a case of them showing their hidden anti-Muslim prejudice.  They maintained a deafening silence.  They had shown their deep-rooted, often unacknowledged, pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim bias on several occasions before, as during the dastardly massacre of Muslims in Bombay in 1992.

This made us realize that we could not depend on the women’s movement to take up our cause, to speak for us.  We needed to speak for ourselves.  Also, our multiple exclusion, just like that of Dalit women, has failed to find any real representation in the discourse of the so-called ‘mainstream’.  To reflect this, we coined the slogan Jiski ladai, uski aguvai (‘She shall lead whose struggle it is’).  Most self-styled Indian feminists are so-called ‘upper’ caste Hindus.  Of course, there are individuals who are different, by and large, as far as Muslims are concerned, there is no difference, generally speaking, between a Brahmin woman and a Brahmin man.  They are both part of the same patriarchal, hegemonic system.  That is also how, for instance, Dalits or Adivasis, similarly oppressed communities, would view them.

That said, we were, and still are, open to alliances with democratic, secular-minded women and men from other communities.  Our membership is not restricted to Muslim women alone.  Our membership is open to all, except those who are not secular and those who lack financial integrity.  In fact, some 15% of our members are non-Muslims.  We also have some male members.  We also seek to build alliances with other groups and communities fighting for justice, because we see our struggle not just as Muslim women’s, or even a Muslim one, but, rather, as part of a broader movement for all secular-minded and democratic Indians.  We often attend meetings organized by Dalits, women’s groups, and trade unions, and they, too, come to our meetings to express their solidarity.

The second reason why we felt the need for an independent national-level voice for Muslim women was our objection to the fact that when it comes to discussing Muslims, only people with a certain sort of identity — and all males, incidentally, particularly conservative ulema or rabble-rousers — are projected as the representatives of the community.  The fact is that the male Muslim religious and political leadership has completely failed not just Muslim women, but Muslims as a whole.  Typically, they remain silent on the pressing issues of Muslim women — not just on issues related to outdated and patriarchal understandings of family law, but also on matters such as Muslim women’s educational and economic empowerment.  Many of them even adopt patently anti-women stances, and, moreover, have done precious little, if at all, even for Muslim men.  Muslims in India are victims of discrimination, including by the state, but a major cause of our plight is also the existing Muslim elite.  We cannot accept them as our leaders.  When the Sachar Committee Report talks of the all-round social and economic exclusion of Muslims, it is not a situation that has developed overnight.  It is a tale of pervasive discrimination as well as the failure of the supposed Muslim leadership to enable the Muslims to participate in Indian democracy.

It was not that we want to speak for Muslim women alone.  Rather, we speak for, and highlight the concerns of, Muslims as a whole, men as well as women.  Till now, those who have claimed to be the leaders of the Muslims have all been men.  Why can’t it change?  Why can’t Muslim women also lead the whole community — not just Muslim women?

Q: Some women’s groups project the major concerns of Muslim women to be issues related to personal law — triple talaq in one sitting, polygamy, and so on.  How do you look at this?

A: These are definitely crucial issues that need to be addressed, and certainly I believe that the existing Muslim Personal Law in India needs to be reformed on gender-just lines and within the broad framework of the shariah, and then codified.  But, I do not believe that they are the major issues facing the vast majority of Indian Muslim women.  Their foremost concerns relate to endemic poverty and illiteracy that characterizes the Muslim community as a whole, including Muslim men, and anti-Muslim discrimination by the state and other forces.  We do not see Muslim women’s issues in isolation from the issues faced by the wider Muslim community.  Unless these issues are simultaneously addressed, you cannot expect Muslim women’s conditions to be ameliorated.  The tendency to locate the sources of Muslim women’s marginalization solely within the community itself — blaming just Muslim men or the ulema and their patriarchal understandings of religion — is patently unfair.  How can you expect Muslim women to be empowered and able to resist male domination if they are not educationally and economically empowered?  A major responsibility in this regard is that of the state, which continues to marginalize and neglect Muslims, including Muslim women.  How can you expect divorced Muslim women to be paid a decent sum as maintenance if the vast majority of Muslim men continue to wallow in poverty?

Then, I must add, there is this marked tendency, even among so-called feminists, to stereotype Muslim women as hapless, helpless creatures, heavily oppressed by their men and religious leaders, as if Muslim women are unique in this regard.  This is not the case at all.  This stereotypical image of Muslim women can be very misleading.  For instance, surveys have proved that a lower proportion of Muslim couples are polygamous than other communities in India, including Hindus, although, by Indian law, polygamy is possible only for Muslims.  Likewise, there is such media hype about the burkha that feeds negative images of Islam and Muslims.  In the BMMA we have several members who wear the burkha or hijab, some of who work outside their homes.  It does not restrict their mobility.  Some of these sisters are among our most vocal and outspoken activists.  That said, to wear or not to wear the burkha is a woman’s personal choice, and nobody should force her against her will.

Q: What has been the reaction of the ulema to the BMMA?  Have you encountered any opposition or hostility from them?

A: Contrary to what some of us had initially feared, we have faced no problems at all from the ulema.  In fact, some of them have even addressed our meetings.  The latest one to do so was Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, the Vice-President of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, who is a great champion of women’s rights and education.  That said, I must also mention that we deliberately do not seek to court those ulema and their organizations that are communal and are known for their misogynist views.  The BMMA is a non-sectarian group, and we have members from different Muslim sects — Shias, Sunnis, so-called ‘lower’ castes and so on, and so we do not work with any sectarian Muslim ulema groups.  At the same time, I must also stress that we are not anti-religion at all.  Personally, I see no contradiction between the Quran and equality and justice for women.  I think that by providing positive models of Muslim women as social activists we are serving the cause of Islam at a time when its image is being sullied, being presented both by its foes as well as conservative and radical Muslims as anti-women.

Q: What practical activities has the BMMA undertaken so far?

A: We have formulated and published a model nikah namah or marriage contract, which, in contrast to the ones generally used in India, safeguards the rights of both spouses, and is fully in accordance with the Quran.  It was framed by a team of Muslim women scholars, with the help of the well-known Islamic scholar Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer.  Till now, almost three hundred marriages have been conducted, mainly in Maharashtra and Gujarat, using this nikah namah.

Two years ago, we launched a national campaign to press for the implementation of the recommendations of the Sachar Committee Report on Muslims.  The Congress-led Government, which had appointed the Committee, is doing nothing about it — true to form, it is simply hoodwinking Muslims with false promises — but still we need to keep up the pressure.  Our members have been going around in their areas, asking local MLAs, MPs, bank managers and so on what they have, if at all, done for Muslims, and we plan to compile these findings and publish them as a report soon.

Q: Personally speaking, what was the source of inspiration that led you to join this movement?

A: My source of courage were the Muslim women of Gujarat, where I come from, whom I worked with in the course of the state-sponsored genocide in 2002.  In the face of the barbaric criminality, not just of Hindutva mobs but also of the state itself, many Muslims felt it was best to remain silent, to accept things as they were, to remain low and subdued.  But it was these women, whose husbands and children had been slaughtered in front of their very eyes, whose houses had been burned down, who refused to keep silent.  They wanted to fight back, to denounce the criminals behind the carnage and those who backed them.  They came in their hundreds to rallies and demonstrations, even before the Parliament House in Delhi.  Many of them were burkha-clad, but that did not stop them from coming out in droves.  They were not begging for relief or hand-outs.  What they demanded was justice.  These women lit a fire in my heart.  If they could be so brave, so committed, why could I not be like them? I thought.

Zakia Nizami Soman can be contacted on <zakiasoman@yahoo.com>.  Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore.  This interview was conducted for TwoCircles.net.

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