Muslim women: Pushing uniformity to deny equality

The dilemma caused by a mix of Islamophobic politics and the feminist politics of our times has let down Muslim women

Ghazala Jamil Delhi 

So much has been written about Indian Muslim women that one would think all that is worth saying has already been said.

Innumerable studies and articles on the socio-economic status and backwardness of Indian Muslim women exist today, but the research and journalistic gaze is unwaveringly on issues like purdah, talaq and polygamy, as part of the ‘uniform civil code debate’.

Most of these same writings are also fixated upon Muslim women as victims of Islam and of Muslim men. This imagery is frequently presented to breed prejudice against all Muslims. Never mind that in a survey on a national scale conducted in 2006, Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon emphasised the intersectionality of various issues such as widespread poverty, patriarchy, and so on which Indian Muslim women just as they impact other Indian women from the same class backgrounds.

Seema Kazi has tried to point out that Indian Muslim women, just like women from other communities, are at the receiving end of a complex and fairly broad landscape of gender discrimination in India. It has also been asserted that Islam is no more oppressive to women than the workings of the modern secular state. But assertions such as these have probably got lost in the academic publications that only a few ‘experts’ read.

There is now a very strong set of actors in India who believe that minorities have no right to exist with dignity. Their aim is elimination or assimilation. Their push for a uniform civil code is an expression of their distaste for diversity, their prejudice against difference and their intolerance of freedom of religion of the minorities. This article makes no effort to counter the assertions of this set of actors.

There is another set of actors pushing for a uniform civil code who believe that its passage would ‘free’ Muslim women from the ‘bindings’ of their religion. They truly wish to save Muslim women from being treated unequally. This article is a plea to them to revisit this noble wish.  

India is not unlike most countries in its unequal treatment of women. Literally, women from all sections, castes and classes are experiencing extreme forms of generalised and sexualised violence in our country. In addition, a widespread hostility towards a monolithic caricature of Islam has long existed in India.

This phenomenon is now globally called Islamophobia. In an increasingly Islamophobic environment, gender disparities and the violence experience in the private sphere of Indian Muslim women is quite ‘naturally’ attributed to Islam. But can the prejudice, discrimination and violence faced by Indian Muslim men and women in public spaces and various other social spheres for their Muslimness also be attributed to Islam? No one stops to ask this question.

Various mechanisms and processes have by now removed all restraints from the spreading of communal prejudice by the Sangh Parivar and the enactment of overt violence in the form of massacres and pogroms. This kind of violence targets women, specifically as symbols of the ‘honour’ of the victim community.

This is true for all patriarchal communities in which the honour of the group (or men of the group) is drawn from and placed in the ‘chaste’ bodies of women. So when Muslims are targetted in communal violence and pogroms, Muslim women find themselves being especially brutally and sexually targetted. With each such episode the patriarchy in the targetted minority community gains strength.

Communalism in India, apart from its violent avatar, can also be discerned as an indigenised, local version of the Orientalism that Edward Said critiqued. Efforts to argue for social justice and equality for Muslims that may be well intentioned also fall into discursive traps like ‘Good Muslim/Bad Muslim’, ‘deprivation is making them terrorists’, et cetera. The debate on a uniform civil code also often tumbles in and out of a similar discursive trap.

A uniform civil code is a double bind for Indian Muslim women, whose political positioning is precarious. They have to negotiate with the anti-Islam posturing of Hindutva as well as with the rigid patriarchal stances and structures within the community— both of which may present themselves, on many occasions, as intertwined.

The dilemma caused by a mix of Islamophobic politics and the feminist politics of our times has let down Muslim women. It demands solidarity from them, expecting them to give up their particularity, and does not let them identify any gains they might want specifically for themselves. This has not only denied the fact that Muslim women might know what is good for them, but has also battered the defence of Muslims against communal prejudice and violence.

The demand for a uniform civil code in India was a longstanding one with secular feminists. But the capture of the demand by the Hindutva actors has also seen feminists increasingly use qualifiers while talking about it. At this point the ‘uniformalisation’ project as a strategy for ensuring equal rights for all women from all communities is a debatable issue.

Flavia Agnes’ critique of such demands posing as a women’s rights issue may serve as a point of reference. While the Shah Bano case was a point of split in the secular overarching women’s movement in India, it is this and the adoption of the Muslim Women’s Bill that represent the emergence of a Muslim women’s rights movement in India.

In an ethnographic study of Muslim women’s organisations in India, Sylvia Vatuk says that organisations like Awaz-e-Niswan operated in a manner which was not differentiable from other feminist/women’s organisations, but the later activities of Muslim women’s groups and the emergence of groups like the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) showed a recognition of the aspirations of Muslim women for reform within Muslim Personal Law.

Nida Kirmani, who has studied the BMMA, says that it takes a clear position that the women’s movement has failed to address the needs of women from marginalised communities because of its historical domination by upper-caste Hindu women, and that there is a need for a leadership made up of Muslim women.

BMMA’s own literature (unpublished document dated September 2008, titled “Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan: Journey So Far”) tracing its history, articulates the aspiration of Muslim women to lead a movement for the rights not only of Muslim women but of Indian Muslims and all marginalised and oppressed Indian communities.

‘...our experience, particularly in Gujarat and many other situations of communal violence, shows that secularism is the key foundation for working on women’s issues and it should be upheld at all costs. We were shocked at the conspiracy of silence in Gujarat in which even women’s groups participated even as Muslim women were brutally mass assaulted and burnt alive in broad daylight. 

Besides, the Muslim women’s exclusion cannot be fought in isolation without simultaneously addressing the exclusion of the Muslim community. We need a proactive participation of the entire Muslim community, the secular groups and civil society in order to address Muslim women’s rights. We feel that we need to take up the leadership of our issues ourselves even as we work closely with the mainstream women’s movement and other excluded people’s movements such as the Dalit movement, the trade union movement, the Adivasi people’s movement etc. We believe in a healthy constructive solidarity and collaboration with secular community even as Muslim women lead the struggle for their rights. Jiski ladai uski agwayi is our motto.’

Indian Muslim women’s criticism of the wider women’s movement in India may not have registered a significant presence, but on the global front Muslim women have come out in clear criticism of Western liberal feminism for reducing Muslim women to the position of ‘inessential Others’.

Muslim feminists place an emphasis on their commitment to their faith and religio-cultural community, along with the belief that these can change. However, they also believe that these changes will best be brought about by people from within the community and not from without. They believe that equality between the sexes is an idea to which Islam is not hostile, rather that it is enshrined in the Quran and
the Hadith.

Islamic feminists have asserted that Islam celebrates rather than suppresses diversity, and that Islamic law is meant to be flexible, regarding time and place. They have also argued that ijtihad (the interpretation of the religious texts) is available to both men and women. 

To liberal feminists this may seem like a contradiction, but Muslim feminists in India, as elsewhere on the globe, are convinced that their way is a practicable approach that can contribute to the struggle for equality of
Muslim women.

The call for a uniform civil code is in line with the current statist tendency within the mainstream feminist movement in India, which has ignored Muslim women’s voices struggling for change within the Muslim community and has thus ruled out the possibility of change being initiated from within
the community. 

In my opinion, the feminist movement in India ignores questions such as the communal targetting of Muslim women when it patronisingly folds them into a broad ‘sisterhood’ or ‘womanhood’ and then stands apart while it accuses Islam and Muslim men of being the oppressors
of Muslim women. 

True solidarity can be built on recognising that it is possible for Muslim women to offer resistance to patriarchal norms and practices as an extension of their faith, just as it is possible for Hindu or Christian or Parsi women to do it. It has to be recognised that Muslim feminists can look to Islamic theology for inspiration. They may also choose to infuse their faith-based understanding with other
critical perspectives.

Moghadam, an Iranian feminist, says, ‘…if feminism has always been contested, if feminists should be defined by their praxis rather than by a strict ideology, and if a feminist politics is shaped by its specific historical, political, and cultural contexts, then it should be possible to identify Islamic feminism as one feminism among many’.

While posturing against the State and especially its law enforcement agencies for their ineffectual response to the Nirbhaya and Uber rape cases, the women’s rights movement was able to metaphorically bring the ‘Indian people’ to align with their demands and objectives. This incredible development has infused the movement with
great confidence.

But this is a time for caution and reflection for the feminist movement in India. In post-Nirbhaya India, while the mainstream feminists assert that all Indian women can be represented by any Indian woman, the truth is that ‘The Indian Feminist Standpoint’ comes across as that of the upper-class, upper-caste Hindu woman.

Too often in the past, on legal issues like amendments in the Juvenile Justice Act, on capital punishment and — as Manisha Sethi and Anusha Rizwi have argued—even on the sexual offences laws, the movement has left itself vulnerable to majoritarian, conservative and carceral tendencies.

This is both an importune and opportune moment to reflect on the positioning of Muslim Indian women, who are burdened with the false universalism of the mainstream women’s rights movement of India and, by extension, the global feminist movement.

The main problem with mainstream representations of Indian Muslim women is not that they are entirely incorrect, but that they do not examine the historical processes that produced the present situation.

It cannot be overstated that the question of targetted violence against minorities cannot be separated from the question of the equal treatment of all women in India. A uniform civil code must not be allowed to be used as a pawn in furthering the stereotype of ‘unreasonable’ and ‘cunning’ minorities and to be wielded for denying them equality.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2015