Indian, Muslim and female

Published August 26, 2015
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Amid all the hubbub over talks between India and Pakistan, news emerged last week about a survey done by the Indian Muslim women’s rights organisation Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA). The results of the survey, which polled several thousand Muslim women, revealed that over 90pc of Indian Muslim women surveyed want a ban on polygamy, oral talaq (divorce) and child marriage.

The results of the survey have since spurred a debate regarding the need for the reform of personal status laws that currently govern marriage and divorce for Indian Muslim women.

Like so much else that ails the contemporary subcontinent, the personal status laws originated in the British era, when the colonist’s zeal for codification resulted in the consolidation of the varying Islamic law positions on divorce into one statutory structure. This supposedly modern and magnanimous innovation gifted by the British annihilated the plurality that existed within law referring to Muslims in India.


The stress of state scrutiny further exacerbates instances of abuse within minority communities.


More helpfully for the British, it enabled the entrapment of India’s major religious groups into separate boxes. Under the veneer of their attempts at equal treatment, the British ensured that Hindus and Muslims, now governed by the laws that they had codified, would, in the years to come, begin to believe that religious difference was something crucial, never to be transcended.

The Indian Muslim woman living in the now, however, cannot sate herself with the colonial origins of inhabiting the uncomfortable position of being a minority within a minority. Add to this the generally Islamophobic timbre of the Modi administration and you have a situation where all calls for reform made by Indian Muslim women are greedily snatched up by a closely listening Hindu right and repackaged as evidence of the problematic nature of Islam as a religion and Muslims as a whole.

As in Bush’s America, in Modi’s India the loyalties of Muslim women, their willingness to criticise Muslim men, whose demonisation is so central to the discourse of the dominant political narrative of the day, is hence weighted with an inflated political significance.

None of it, of course, has anything to do with the actual well-being of Indian Muslim women themselves, or the very real problems caused by practices such as oral talaq or polygamy. These gender-borne burdens that leave women at the mercy of the whims and temperaments of their men, hence combine with the already dire situation faced by Indian Muslims.

According to a report published by The New York Times in the wake of Modi’s election: “Discrimination against Muslims in India is so rampant that many barely muster outrage when telling of the withdrawn apartment offers, rejected job applications and turned-down loans that are part of living in the country for them. As a group, Muslims have fallen badly behind Hindus in recent decades in education, employment and economic status, with persistent discrimination.”

In addition, “Muslims are more likely to live in villages without schools or medical facilities and less likely to qualify for bank loans”, making it difficult for them to partake of the economic mobility that other urbanising Indians have enjoyed in the past few decades. If they do make it to the city, the report details, they are often relegated to large urban ghettos where only Muslims live, hence creating islands of isolation in what was once a mixed society.

Within these ghettoes of disenfranchisement are Muslim women, subject to all the ignominies the Indian state accords to its Muslim minority plus the dominance of Muslim men, whose power to take and discard wives adds further misery to already miserable lives.

Surveys like the one produced by BMMA reveal the depth of the conundrum they face and the eagerness of the Indian state to further vilify faith or already suspect Muslim men as the source of the problem. It can even be argued that the stress of state scrutiny further exacerbates instances of abuse within minority communities, the emasculation of Indian (or British or American or Canadian) Muslim men by the all-powerful state narrative pushing them into further acts of dominance in the private realms of the family.

The depth or complexity of the situation should not, however, deter Indian Muslim women from either action or advocacy. As Muslim feminists in other political contexts have discovered, it is entirely possible and necessary to advocate both against the larger state narrative that paints all Muslim men as terrorists and simultaneously advocate for reform within the Muslim communities. In this case, Indian Muslims have the opportunity to lead change from within, championing the empowerment of their own women without state intervention.

In the case of both polygamy and oral talaq, precedent exists to consider a cessation of the practices. Earlier this year, even Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology that consists of largely conservative scholars, recommended the criminalisation of oral talaq pronounced at one go by men. It was pointed out by a senior cleric that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself was known to have a dislike for the practice.

The point is simple: if Indian Muslims — like British Muslims or American Muslims — dislike state intervention in matters of religious law, they must create and enact processes that promote the empowerment of Muslim women within their communities.

This would be a knowing and intentional rebellion against the instinctual bent of beleaguered minority communities to turn inward and further entrench practices that need reform just because they are opposed by a state that discriminates against them. Going against this inclination requires recognition that the women among them, who are Indian, Muslim and female, are assets rather than liabilities, and that support for their issues must come first from within rather than without.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2015

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