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DAWN - Features; December 19, 2005

December 19, 2005

Women must seek empowerment

Dr Zahra Shojaie, professor of political science, law, sociology, the history of Islam and the ‘foundations of the Islamic revolution’ at the Alzahra University, Tehran, is a strong but soft-spoken advocate of women empowerment. She is not satisfied with the condition of women in the Muslim world, though in her own country, she says, considerable progress has been made with regard to removing gender disparities.

Dr Shojaie, who was an adviser to former president Syed Mohammad Khatami on women’s affairs, is also a strong advocate of choosing the best from western and Islamic civilizations. She was in Karachi to attend the recent two-day international conference on ‘Different Facets of the Islamic Ummah in a Globalized World’ which was organized by Karachi University’s Area Study Centre for Europe.

Dr Shojaie believes in a balanced and rational approach — without absolute rejection or wholesale acceptance of any one civilization. She also emphasizes that empowerment must be within the framework of a civilization. She says that since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has introduced a new role model for participation and progress of women which can be described as the “third role model” in which the woman “does not evade the social and political responsibilities. She safeguards her national-religious identity and at the same time is equipped with the latest technologies and know-how”.

Before the revolution political participation in Iran was only restricted to the elite group; today there are about 12 women in the Iranian parliament and budgetary allocation for women has also increased many times, which has helped in pushing up the rate of literacy, health and medical care etc. Dr Zahra also referred to the growing number and role of the NGOs and said there were about 43 articles in the Iranian constitution dealing with the rights of women; including sports, health, NGOs, elimination of discrimination and violence against women.

Women, according to her, were in the forefront of the revolution and played a significant role in demonstrations, street struggle, voting and in the eight year war.

“Unfortunately”, she says, “women in most of the Islamic countries are entangled with the problems stemming from poverty and unemployment, absence of educational and hygienic facilities, family violence and other kinds of violence caused by war and armed conflicts, lack of access to modern technologies, lack of effective presence in the processes of decision-making. These leave their effect on their social, political life.”

She is of the view that globalization in effect aims to disintegrate the institution of family in its traditional and religious forms and suggested that women of the Islamic world should carry out their activities through the formation of a comprehensive network of women NGOs.

“Most regretfully, we must accept that the Muslim women are the victims of double jeopardy of underdevelopment. In some Islamic societies women are even deprived of their most fundamental rights.

“Isn’t it agonizing that in the third millennium, a Muslim woman, whose religion considers education an obligatory duty, does not know even how to read or write? Isn’t it shameful that in the beginning of the third millennium the Muslim woman is deprived of the right to political participation, right to vote, and right to work? Or even the right to drive! Hence, it would not be an exaggeration if we claim that the Muslim women are victims of double underdevelopment in the beginning of the third millennium”.

According to Dr Shojaie, there is a big gap in the status of women in some of the Islamic countries, as envisaged by Islam. She says the prevailing status of women in these societies is based on incorrect readings of the Shariat and in many cases these definitions are based on local norms.

Human civilization and its achievements, the academic forcefully underlines, belong to the entire mankind. All human beings have contributed to the evolution of human civilization. Unfortunately, at a certain stage of history when the western civilization was marching ahead, the Islamic world was either trapped in the internal wars or was sleeping in ignorance. As a result, the Islamic world that was once the standard-bearer of human civilization, lagged behind.

“It is only after self-knowledge and redefinition of women’s status from the Islamic viewpoint that we will be able to know and utilize various positive aspects and opportunities of globalization.”

“Today’s era is that of IT. Hence, let us provide an opportunity for the women of the Islamic world to empower themselves to utilize this technology and its advantages”.


The boy from Chak 46 J.B

FIVE Punjabi centuries: Polity, economy, society and culture, c, 1500 - 1990 is a book containing a series of articles written by prominent scholars to honour Professor Jagtar Singh Garewal, described “as the greatest historian of the Sikhs.” The book under reference contains a piece on Prof Garewal himself. It has been contributed by Indu Banga who has edited the volume. Ms Banga is a historian herself. The last I knew, she was teaching history at the Punjab University, Chandigarh.

She begins her article on Prof Garewal thus:

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Professor Garewal’s grandfather migrated from village Dhandra in Ludiana district of the British Punjab to Lyallpur district in the lower Chenab Canal Colony. He worked hard to become a ‘sufedposh’ and to leave fifty acres of land for his son. Since the new village was inhabited largely by his collaterals, it was also called Dhandra; in the colony records it was known as Chak No. 46 J.B. (Jhang Branch). The other landowners in the village were from different villages of Ludhiana district and one from Ambala. The chak No. 46 had a rather unique situation in terms of its surrounding villages which were inhabited not only by Sikhs but also by Muslims.

The Sikhs has come from Amritsar and Ambala districts as well as Ludhiana. The Muslim settlers came from Amritsar and Hosiarpur. All the settlers were jats. But the Sikh settlers looked upon themselves as ‘jats’ and thought of the Muslim Jats as ‘Musalmans’. There were also a village of indigenous ‘janglis’ on one side of Dhandra. They were Muslim by religious affiliation. The small world of the boy Jagtar Singh, the youngest child of his parents, was socially an interesting world: it reflected not only economic differentiation but also religious, cultural and sub-regional variations.

For his early education, Jagtar Singh went to the Anglo-Vernacular Middle school at a distance of one Kos in a Muslim village called Ram Diwali, Chak No, 2 J.B. In the school records his date of birth was entered as 4 October 1927 which may not be correct. Besides Urdu, which was also the medium of instruction, he studied Arithmetic, Geometry, History-Geography and Persian as compulsory subjects, and opted for English in lieu of Agriculture. Only a small number of boys used to take up English. He recalls that he went to school on foot, took his tiffin along and generally finished his homework in the school itself, leaving the school bag in the village with the mother of a Muslim classfellow. He read all the books in the small school library-mostly Urdu fiction and poetry.

A particular book which every student was asked to read was entitled Jang-i-Azadi. It justified support for the British in the war which had started in 1939. Jagtar Singh was considered a bright boy in his village but only because he had never failed. It is a different matter that he stood first in school in the final examination and was on merit list for the district.

Most of the boys in the school were from the Muslim villages because of its location. Rarely a boy from the ‘Jangli’ villages would join the school. Most of the sikh boys were from Dhandra. All the boys were from Jat families, with the exception of the son of a Hindu Patwari. The teachers were also Muslim, but only a few of them belonged to the neighbourhood. The school had separate cabins for drinking water for Muslim and Sikh boys before the handpump came into use. The Muslim and the Sikh boys used to sit separately for eating their tiffin during the recess called tafrih, literally relaxation. By and large, they had friendly relations, sharing jokes, and occasionally, sweets purchased from a local shop. There could also be arguments especially about the superiority of one’s religious faith. This was a reflection of what the boys imbibed at home.....

In this environment informal education was as important as formal education. A few of the boys, and girls, learnt Gurmukhi in the village Gurdwara to be able to read the Sikh scriptures. Much more attractive, however, was folklore and music. Among the various modes of popular entertainment there could occasionally be performance of ras-lila, consisting of dance and drama. Jagtar Singh was attracted to all such activities. His father was devoutly religious and disapproved of secular entertainment of all kinds. He wanted his son to take religion seriously and attain to moksha. He remembered Guru Granth Sahib by heart and used to expound it in vedantic terms. Professor Grewal recalls that his father spent several summers on the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Yogvashishta, asking his son to read and himself expounding the texts to a small audience which would assemble in the mango-grove belonging to the family.

For matriculation, Jagtar Singh had to go to Lyallpur. He chose to join the Dhanpat mal Anglo-Sanskrit High School, which was considered to be good. It showed good results. There was a lot more competition. In addition to Mathematics, History, Geography, English and Persian he studied Science in school, opting out of Urdu as literature but not as the medium. He enjoyed Geography and Persian, but for History he had a photographic memory. He passed matriculation with a high first division, but with a lower percentage than at the middle school level. Residing in a hostel was a new experience, with many distractions, including football. They daily havan and dharm-shiksha taught by an Arya Samaji ‘Pandit’ was also something new.

There was no career guidance for Jagtar Singh. All that his father wanted to ensure was that his son should never think of joining the police which, in his view, was oppressive, or join the profession of law which, in his eyes, obliged one sometimes to argue against the known truth. Jagtar Singh was guided largely by what his peers were doing. He got admission to B.Sc. Agriculture, because the degree was believed to open good avenues for employment. But the bright ones among his classfellows were taking up Medicine or Engineering. Instead of joining the college of Agriculture, he joined Government College Lyallpur, for ‘F.Sc. non-Medical’ to study Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. English was a compulsory subject and he took up Urdu as optional. The college environment was quite different from the school. In the Government College hostel there were boys from all over the South-Western Punjab. Many of them belonged to rich zamindar families-spendthrift, and well-dressed, fond of sports, and indifferent to studies. Jagtar Singh also cultivated these interests, doing better in football than in studies. He missed first division and could not compete for Engineering. Perhaps, he was working against his essential inclination for social sciences, languages and literature. During the summer vacation he read the Heer of Waris Shah and also learnt to recite it.

The stay at Government College, Lyallpur, induced Jagtar Singh to go to Lahore for graduation. He convinced himself, and his father, that he should do B.Sc, which was possible only in Lahore. He applied for admission to the Foreman Christian College which was one of the premier colleges of Lahore. There were about 2000 applicants for 200 seats, including a few reserved for sports. His powerful shots at the ‘trials’ won him the determined support of G.C. Sony, one of the senior persons looking after sports. He argued with the college authorities and got ‘Physics and Mathematics - A Course’ for Jagtar Singh. He worked hard at football, practising for over two hours everyday except Sundays. Like most sportsmen he was a backbencher. But he did surprisingly well in Physics. He found Professor Frank Thakur Das’s ‘Bible Class’ interesting, attended it regularly and bought his own copy of the Bible.

The cosmopolitan environment of the college was a rich experience. The city had its own attractions. Many students were from elitist background, spending over five hundred rupees a month. He spent much less than many, on the average a hundred and fifty, but even this was more than a college lecturer’s salary in those days. This was a measure of his father’s keenness to give good education to his son. He could have purchased at least ten acres of land with the savings. Of his days at Lahore Professor Garewal recalls that he continued his interest in Urdu literature and remembered the Diwan-i-Ghalib by heart. He also continued his interest in Persian, reading with a friend the books prescribed for B.A. He developed a great liking for the Punjabi periodical Preetlari. His enlightened ideas and humanist sympathies had great appeal for him. Once he lectured in his village on Guru Gobind Singh’s conception of social equality. This made him a hero among the low-castes, but incurred the odium of the village elders. Like many young men of the 1940’s, he felt inspired by patriotism. Although apolitical in his general stance, he worked for the Congress during the elections of 1946.

After the March 1947 riots at Lahore, the colleges were closed and the students went home. Jagtar Singh returned to Chak No.46 J.B. Tension was gradually building up between Hindu-Sikhs and Muslims in the city of Lyallpur, also affecting the district. He felt concerned about ‘defence’ against possible attacks, and raised willing volunteers for the purpose. Once he had a narrow escape from a Muslim mob, and was actually saved by a friend who was among them. Finally, after 15 August, he was prevailed upon by his father to leave for India and he managed to buy a seat in a privately run airline for one thousand rupees. He recalls that his feeling at that time was one of sorrow, rather than anger or resentment.

Back in the ancestral village near Ludhiana, Jagtar Singh had the option to do ‘social service’ among the refugees to get the B.A. degree. As he was going to get himself enlisted, he met a classfellow from the F.C. College who remarked that only the good-for-nothing sort, of students were doing ‘ social service’. Jagtar Singh returned home to prepare for the examination without much reading material.

He worked hard, reading an oil lamp and sleeping on the floor. He passed the examination in second division and began to look for a job. His father, who joined the family by then, was no longer in a position to support his education. Jagtar Singh was shortlisted for a commission in the army but not selected. This he feels was largely due to his inability to articulate well in English.

Though vaguely, Jagtar Singh was intellectually ambitious. With little financial support, he could join only the college at Ludhiana. Fortunately for him, M.A. classes in English, Geography and Mathematics had been opened when many teachers from Government College, Lahore started teaching at Government College, Ludhiana. Jagtar Singh joined M.A. in English he had studies up to B.A. level. All that he needed was the tuition fee and a cycle to cover the eight miles from his village. Against all hopes and expectations, he failed to get even a second division. Paradoxically, even now he attributes this to his wide reading.

Indian cricket’s caste act

WHEN Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a disgruntled Brahmin on a cold January morning in 1948, there were some tense moments before Sardar Patel, India’s first home minister, was able to announce the killer’s identity on the national radio. Rumours had already started to fly that the assassin was probably a Muslim.

Those days the Communist Party of India had a robust unit in Bombay in which many Muslim intellectuals were actively involved. Since access to the radio was also a rarity in the 1940s, the party dispatched volunteers to scribble Sardar Patel’s message with white chalk on the streets.

As an added precaution, the party also ordered their Muslim leading lights Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Sajjad Zaheer, S. M. Mehdi and Asrarul Haq Majaz to take refuge in a certain dharamshala or a Hindu sarai in a safe locality of Bombay.

They were assigned Brahminical names to mask their identities and since they all came from the Avadh region of Uttar Pradesh acquiring the demeanour of high caste Saryupari Brahmins was not difficult for them. The story goes that Majaz, the wittiest member of the group befriended the mahant, the chief priest at the dharamshala.

And this was almost their undoing. When Majaz introduced himself as Janaki Prasad Upadhyay and began conversing in the Avadhi dialect, the mahant became a little too friendly. “It is good that you are all Saryupari Brahmins,” the mahant told Majaz. “So you are all most welcome to partake of our hospitality. But, tell me friend, what is your gotra?”

Majaz and his comrades were taken aback by this query on the finer intricacies of the caste system. He almost abandoned the charade as he muttered in chaste Urdu: “Ma’az Allah, isme gotra bhi hota hai?” (O God, now what is this gotra business?)

Gotra is the fine stratification of each of the regular castes in the Brahminical hierarchy and one of its complexities is that a man and a woman of the same gotra cannot marry. But the intricate skein of the Indian caste system has sucked in other religions, too. Christians in India follow the same hierarchies and so do the supposedly more egalitarian Muslim communities. Barbers, tailors, butchers and weavers are thus divided further in a verifiable caste arrangement.

But a caste revolution appears to be under way in north India. Urdu newspapers are reporting that lower caste Muslims are questioning the bona fides of upper caste maulvis who issue fatwas, or religious decrees, that are often loaded against the poorer members of the community. There is a clamour among the lower caste Sunni Muslims to supplant the priestly class with members of their own communities.

But where does this caste-based complexity leave the wider Hindu-Muslim equation? Fazal Mahmood, the legendary cricketer from Pakistan, appeared on PTV a few weeks before his death in the last week of May this year. He recalled a conversation with the English skipper Len Hutton who had been at the receiving end of Fazal’s lethal leg-cutters at the Oval in the 1954 series.

The English team was stunned by the cricketing prowess of a South Asian squad whose members were all Muslim, and Hutton had queried Fazal on this aspect. Fazal’s response was rooted in a sociology that is often used to explain the partition of the subcontinent. “In undivided India, there used to be a quota for three or four Muslims in the national side, while the rest were Hindus. Now we don’t have that restriction.”

Although Fazal’s comment would appear to negate the late Omer Kureishi’s lofty assertion that cricket was South Asia’s ‘secular religion’, it does appear that Muslim players have a quota in cricket — as elsewhere. But the more critical issue is: did not the Muslim players in Fazal’s squad come from the elite? Hasn’t Pakistan’s cricket team undergone a sociological overhauling since Fazal’s days to make it the formidable squad it has now become? Some Muslims may object to the word caste being applied in their context. Fine, so let’s call it class. Isn’t the class mix more even today than in Fazal’s days?

Something similar is happening in Indian cricket today. Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Ajit Agarkar, VVS Laxman are Brahmins. So, too, the commentators — Harsha Bhogle, Charu Sharma, Sunil Gavaskar, Kris Srikanth, Javagal Srinath, Mohinder Amarnath. The uproar over the sacking of Saurav Ganguly from the team could be illustrative of the social change that is creeping in. The arrival of the talented Virendra Sehwag of the Jat community, considered to be a backward caste, is another such indicator.

Ganguly is a Kanyakubj Brahmin, the same caste as former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and current Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee. The decision to drop Ganguly from the Indian team despite a commendable come-back performance in the Delhi test match against Sri Lanka, followed the removal of Yashpal Sharma and Gopal Sharma, both Brahmins, as selectors. The third selector removed was Ambar Roy, a Kulin Brahmin.

The man who has taken over as the head of the BCCI, India’s supreme cricket body, is Sharad Pawar, a middle caste Maratha leader not known to be a fan of the Brahmins who had denied him admission in a prestigious college when he was a student. The chief selector, former wicket-keeper Kiran More, too, is a Maratha.

With the Bombay batsman Wasim Jaffer’s inclusion in the team, we would be getting back to the quota of Muslims that Fazal Mahmood referred to. But as he would himself admit looking at the social turmoil, the Indian social web is a little more complex than the Hindu-Muslim equation, as Majaz discovered to his consternation.

* * * *

POPULAR movie actor Amitabh Bachchan returned home on Saturday after three weeks in hospital where he underwent surgery for an old wound in his intestines. It was ironical that as he was leaving the hospital in Mumbai news came in that Dharmendra, Amitabh’s co-star in the 1970s blockbuster Sholay was rushed to a hospital near Chandigarh with chest pains. Then visiting Amitabh Bachchan on the last leg of his stay at Bombay’s Leelavati Hospital was the ageing thespian Dilip Kumar who himself had a heart surgery there a couple of years ago.

And guess who was heading for Amitabh’s ward as Dilip Kumar was leaving? It was Hindi cinema’s melody queen Lata Mangeshkar. She was late to see the ailing actor. Why? Because she too was unwell. Add to this the two Sri Lankan cricketers Chaminda Vaas and Dilahara Fernando and India’s skipper Rahul Dravid who have dropped out of the Ahmedabad test because of illnesses, there is a virtual sick bay of celebrities in the making.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2005