The image of the Muslim woman as a victim, oppressed by both her religion and the men in her life who claim to follow that religion, is one of the most pervasive images that Western society has managed to perpetuate in recent years through the narratives at its disposal. With alarming levels of Islamophobia all over the globe, dialogues, seminars and theories related to art and culture abound which paint the Islamic female as one who has no opinions, can take no actions and who exists solely as a battleground between domineering Muslim men and her European saviours.

A reckoning of this portrayal and an honest endeavour to better explain Muslim women’s perspective within the borders of India is vigorously undertaken in Ghazala Jamil’s Muslim Women Speak: Of Dreams and Shackles. Working in collaboration with the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a women’s movement formed because of dissatisfaction with the mainstream women’s movements’ tendency to exclude minority communities, Jamil ventures into an area where authoritative texts are rare, if not completely absent. How Muslim women in India know and understand their world, and what agency they command, remains overall an ignored area of study — quite a miraculous feat given the global interest in Islam post-9/11 and the recent rise of feminist dialogue in the past decade. But while research into Muslims might be common, much of it is either gendered or represents Muslims in a certain light, often very monochromatic, sometimes quite sinister. While Muslims are often portrayed as villains in films or one-dimensional characters in books, plays and other art forms, the Muslim female finds herself even more limited by stereotypes.

A qualitative study into Muslim women in India allows its subjects to form their own narratives

Jamil’s study, similar to its area of concern itself, is a bit unorthodox in its approach. Eschewing the usual attempt to represent a minority in terms of statistics, she builds a qualitative study that approaches its ‘subjects’ on the basis of narratives. The usual studies on minorities are based on the need for numbers which can provide substantial backing when implementing policies for health, education and housing, etc. Jamil, however, refrains from simply jotting down how Muslim women feel about certain aspects of their living. Instead, she engages them in conversation. This is not to say that Jamil denies the work done by pioneers such as Ritu Menon before her; rather, she stresses on the importance of facilitating the articulation of, the listening to, and the recording of the autobiographical narratives of Muslim women. Recalling how she initially faced resistance to this idea, she explains how civil society organisations in India prefer to stay within the comfort zone of quantitative research which, for them, can lead to visible change. Faced with such reluctance, she advocated a method of research that encouraged India’s Muslim women to use their voice to form their own narratives, which culminated in this book.

This expression of their narratives emerges in different, compelling ways. In one chapter Jamil explains how her status as a Muslim Indian woman affected how the conversations were conducted. Someone such as Jamil, who travelled on her own and held a steady job, was revelatory to many of the girls she met. Constrained by their parents’ wishes and society’s patriarchal interpretations of religious texts, a repeated refrain from the girls was their lack of independence, their desire to study further and their frustration at the limits placed on them by society. Engaging in these conversations with Jamil made them likely to talk in detail about how they were expected to cook and clean at home, to give up their studies before their brothers and to get married once they reached childbearing age. Open platforms of discussions, such as those initiated by this research, were one of the few venues where these girls got to speak about their issues; some had never voiced them before.

In one particularly memorable moment, Jamil explains how recollecting communal violence left the girls quiet and teary, unable to give voice to their feelings. In such cases, silence became an element of the research itself. Unvoiced feelings — and the frustration behind them — thus became a tool to study the Muslim woman’s fear within the society she was living in, and her ways of coping.

A women’s rights protestor in Ahmedabad, India: mainstream Indian women’s movements’ tendency to exclude minorities means Muslim women have to fight harder to be heard | Reuters
A women’s rights protestor in Ahmedabad, India: mainstream Indian women’s movements’ tendency to exclude minorities means Muslim women have to fight harder to be heard | Reuters

Instances such as the 2002 riots in Gujarat were particular points of history that re-occurred in conversations about mass violence that left Muslim communities permanently changed. Said to be aided by the police and the government under then Rajasthan chief minister Narendra Modi, the killings of Muslims, the raping, looting and plunder of a whole community has been documented multiple times before. Collective memories created from such ethnic cleansing form their own basis of discussion in this research; women who didn’t experience the violence themselves took on the burden of these memories from their men. The lack of job opportunities, the loss of housing and security, the ensuing poverty and the loss of a community’s voice had its repercussions not only on Muslim men, but it echoed back to households, primarily considered feminine domains in areas where this research was conducted.

Using 23 urban and semi-urban centres located in 12 states of India as points of data collection, the research ensured that a wide variety of female voices were heard. Jamil also provided comparisons to feminist movements in the West, which have been criticised along the same lines as movements in India: of being too exclusionary and of totalising the experience of some women as being that of all women everywhere. Just as white liberal feminists were accused of remaining oblivious to the complications of race until black feminists pointed it out, feminists in India are also criticised for focusing their attention on women who are already privileged, both in terms of class and/or of being of the majority religion. In such cases, Jamil explains how being Hindu is the standard in feminist circles while Muslim feminists are expected to revoke their religious identity in order to justify their demands, along the same lines as how the needs of poorer or lower caste women are also ignored or accused of creating rifts within the feminist movement.

Quoting certain instances in history, Jamil draws a detailed account of the discussion around female rights — the 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape case and the 1985 court ruling in favour of Shah Bano who demanded maintenance from her ex-husband are two focal points which generated discussion — and also quotes the direct narrative of multiple Muslim women in India in order to provide a clear, comprehensive picture of where India stands in its treatment of its Muslim female citizens.

Meanwhile, conversations about women’s rights continue to happen all over the world, with Pakistan also embroiled in debates that bring out both the best and worst sides of its citizens. Facing its very own scandals in the form of artists such as Meesha Shafi levelling sexual harassment allegations against Ali Zafar, or organisations such as Edhi or Chhippa reporting high levels of murders of female babies, it is imperative that Pakistan also begin to have its own conversations about the agency of women living within this country. Not just Muslim women in Pakistan, who are in the majority, but our Christian and Hindu minorities need to be engaged in narratives such as those encouraged by Jamil. It is necessary that such researches are not just read in our own country, but also implemented at our end too. Only then will change become visible.

The reviewer is an editor of children’s fiction and reviews Pakistani literature on her blog

Muslim Women Speak: Of Dreams and Shackles
By Ghazala Jamil
Sage, India
ISBN: 978-9352805006216pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 20th, 2018

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