Over four years ago, I was invited to an inter-faith dialogue programme in Bangalore organised by a Christian human rights group. Speakers from different religious communities were on the panel and they were to talk about the concept of social justice in their own religious traditions.
After my brief talk on the notion of justice in Islam, I was handed a long list of questions, some of which, predictably, read like this: Why cannot a Muslim have four husbands? Why aren't Muslim men required to wear veils? Doesn't a Muslim woman feel suppressed in a burkha? How can a man declare triple talaq in one sitting? And, curiously enough, why did Jemima Khan marry Imran Khan?
Think of a Muslim woman and the things that immediately flash across in the minds of many Muslims and non-Muslims alike are triple talaq, polygamy and the veil. Is that all a Muslim woman is known for? Does not a Muslim woman have her own identity, her own individuality? Why cannot society look upon a Muslim woman as just another human being, like everybody else, and not a marked out, exoticised or specially branded creature?
In the Indian context, when one talks of the status of Muslim women, the focus invariably falls on triple talaq in one sitting, polygamy and hijab. I choose to call this the "dangerous triangle".
Last month, the Mumbai-based Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) and the Institute of Islamic Studies organised a training programme on "The Rights of Muslim Women in the Quran—Theory and Practice". Over 50 participants from various states across India came together to share their experiences, views and thoughts. While the majority were women activists (Muslims as well as others), there were a sprinkling of male activists too. Most of the activists at the training programme worked at the grassroots level, in slums and villages.
The key presenter at the workshop was the noted writer, Islamic scholar and social activist Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, who is also the chairperson of the CSSS. His discussion focused on the position of women before Islam, references to women in the Quran and evolution of Islamic jurisprudence. He stressed that women should read the Quran from what he called a 'feminist' point of view. "The Quran has innumerable verses in favour of women. But men sometimes misinterpret verses related to polygamy and hijab to suit their whims and fancies," he said.
Maulana Mohammad Shoaib Koti, a well-known Islamic scholar based in Mumbai, talked about the freedom of expression for women in Islam. He recalled how Muslim women during the days of the Prophet asked questions directly to him without any male intervention. He also referred to the high status enjoyed by women scholars of Hadith and Quran during those days.
Qutub Jehan Kidwai, convenor of the Institute of Islamic Studies, shared her observations of Muslim personal law reforms in Muslim countries. Mehmood Hasan, a film maker from Bangladesh, presented an engaging (and disturbing) documentary film on the practice of arbitrary triple talaq. The story, woven around a Bangladeshi family, ends on a positive note, proclaiming that triple talaq has no sanction in Islam. A noted advocate from Mumbai, Nilofer Akhtar elaborated on Supreme Court judgments in favour of Muslim women. She lamented the fact that many Muslims were not sufficiently aware of numerous laws relating to maintenance after divorce. Mufti Inamullah Khan, a scholar and activist, supported the call for codification of Muslim Personal Law in India.
In her presentation, Naish Hasan, founder of the Lucknow-based Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, spoke about her experiences of working with Muslim women in different parts of the country. Women in rural areas were most victimized through violation of their rights and also domestic violence. "With no access to education, most rural Muslim women have no idea about the courts and the laws and even what the Quran says about women's rights. The need of the hour is to take up these cases and help women get their due rights. They become easy victims, and run from pillar to post when men desert them, dump triple talaq on them and irresponsibly use polygamy as their birthright," she said.
While activism against these violations is gaining momentum, there is still a long way to go. Educational and economic empowerment of Muslim women is an important factor to be taken into consideration while talking about women's rights. A woman who is economically independent acquires tremendous self-confidence. Islam bestows the duty on the man to take care of his wife, mother, daughters and unmarried sisters. But this does not mean that a woman should become totally dependent on the man economically. A married woman who is educated has to pay attention to the needs of her home, husband and children first. But why cannot she use her knowledge towards a purpose that is not only positive, but also will make her economically self-reliant as well as socially productive?
When discussing women's rights, there is sometimes the underlying agenda of "bashing men and snatching our rights". I somehow find this sometimes unnerving, making me somewhat uncomfortable in the circle of firebrand Muslim feminists. My question is: Why should a woman beg for her rights? When God has bestowed rights on women, why cannot men give those rights gracefully to women?
I posed a question to a mufti on the panel in the programme as to why there is a huge communication gap between the madrasa-educated ulema and Muslim women. Why do women still hesitate to speak to the ulema? Surely, I felt, they needed to if they were to convey to each other their concerns, about issues that are so central to ongoing, and seemingly endless, debates about Islam and women. Surely, something had to be done to help bridge the enormous gap between women, including activists working for Muslim women's rights, and the ulema of the madrasas. Efforts had to be made to create spaces and possibilities for dialogue and interaction between them.
The mufti's answer was simple: The ulema, too, are not comfortable talking to women. When set against the historical reality that Muslim women spoke to the Prophet directly, the answer did not fully satisfy me. I set upon the task of exploring this issue on my own. I got this opportunity the same day.
That afternoon, I had an appointment to meet the editor of an ulema-run English magazine in Mumbai that focuses mainly on Muslim social issues. I had butterflies in my stomach to begin with, and was apprehensive about how I would be received them. I felt my Deccani Urdu was no match for their chaste language. Yet, I mustered sufficient up courage and walked alone through the rain-washed lanes of Mumbai to keep the appointment.
My initial fears were soon put to rest as I engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the ulema team of the magazine. Their courtesy and hospitality overwhelmed me. The fact that they sat on the same dastarkhan and had lunch with me was by itself a path-breaking event. I offered the early afternoon prayers in their office, after which they showed me around, exchanging ideas about Muslim media and about their own magazine, which is unique in some respects, being the only English magazine in the entire country staffed by madrasa-educated ulema.
Sitting in that office, listening to the maulanas and sharing with them my own views, I realized the need for conscious efforts to be made to bridge the gap between the ulema and Muslim women. There is a desperate need for forums whereby Muslim women and the ulema can interact, exchange views and learn from each other's experiences in a spirit of genuine sharing. From that dialogue, who knows, might emerge possibilities of helping bring Muslim women out of that 'dangerous triangle' that invisiblised and silenced all their issues and concerns by framing discourse about them simply in terms of arbitrary divorce, polygamy and the veil. Sadly, the need for that dialogue is too easily brushed aside by many of those involved in debates about Muslim women who refuse to listen to other points of view—and these include many women's activists and traditional ulema alike.