In bastis and mohollas, at rallies and seminars, Muslim women in Mumbai are speaking out aloud.
‘The blue curtain, come inside the blue curtain,’ I have been instructed by Noorjehan Safia Niaz over the phone. I am standing in the midst of Sarvodaya Colony in Bandra (east), where the city office of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) is located. It is the kind of place where a stranger will immediately stand out. And here I am the stranger, as is obvious from the glances people throw at me from their balconies. I am still on the phone, looking for the blue curtain. I move towards the tiny temple when I see a young girl beckoning me. I follow her towards a tiny door. Taking off my slippers, as others have done before me, I enter through the blue curtain.
A few months later, I am lost in a similar neighbourhood in Kurla walking on a similar looking street in Kurla. It has just stopped raining, so the streets are congested and muddy. The road does not seem to end. I finally find Yasmin Sheikh, one of the founder members of Awaaz-e-Niswaan (AeN), gesturing from a window across the street.
In small crowded offices in far-flung suburbs, working in bastis and mohallas, Awaaz-e-Niswaan and Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan are two important Muslim women’s organisations in Mumbai speaking up for the rights of Muslim women. In that they are challenging the powers-that-be including Muslim clerics, personal law boards, local police and communities that fail to protect Muslim women and look out for their welfare.
At the BMMA office in Bandra, there are no desks and chairs. No indicator of anything discouragingly official. Women sit, some with papers and some with laptops, with their backs against the wall. All are immersed in different tasks, animatedly discussing cases that have come to them. For some inexplicable reason, it’s a heart-warming sight. It is here that a women-led revolution has been brewing for a long time. The BMMA was founded by Noorjehan Safia Niaz and Zakia Soman in 2007. “But the seeds of this revolution were sown much earlier,” says Niaz. A graduate of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 1992, she said her moment of epiphany came on 6th December, 1992 when Hindu fundamentalists destroyed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh and began a vicious circle of communal violence that refuses to end even today. “It is on 6th December, 1992 that I realized the magnitude of a religious identity and it is on that day I became a Muslim,” she says.
The drive for AeN had begun earlier in 1984, when some women from Dongri came together after one of their sisters faced domestic violence. The initial aim of the collective was to fight the rising cases of one-sided triple talaaq (divorce) that were increasingly becoming common in the Muslim community. Soon, there were conversations about multiple marriages and oral divorces too. But now it doesn’t seem to matter where the origins of the fire were. What matters is their strength and determination to continue this fight against the patriarchal nature of our social fabric.
The Sachar Committee’s findings are important in this context. Appointed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh under the aegis of Justice Rajinder Sachar to report on the social, economic and educational status of Muslims in India, the Sachar Committee Report came out in 2005 with disquieting statistics. Not only were Muslims the most neglected group in India after six-decades of independence, but also in the fields of education and work, they were amongst the most backward. The literacy levels among Muslims (59.15%) were below the national average of 65.1% (from the 2001 census). “In the premier colleges of the country, only one out of the 25 Under-Graduate students (4%) and one out of 50 Post-Graduate student (2%) was a Muslim,” states the report. Even more alarming are the statistics describing the conditions of Muslim women. The report states that only 25% of rural Muslim women and more shockingly, only 18% of urban Muslim women work and hence have access to some sort of economic activity.
Demographic studies also show that Muslim women, whether rural or urban, are one of the most oppressed groups in India. With everyone – from politicians to religious leaders to intellectuals – claiming to speak for them, Muslim women have been systematically silenced. The National Commission for Women (NCW), the government body that plays an advisory role regarding issues concerning women, has not taken any significant steps to improve the lives of Muslim women. Ironically, even the Sachar Committee was devoid of any representation by women.
Members of the AeN and BMMA believe that the Indian state and society have hindered the progress of Muslims in general, and more particularly Muslim women. Niaz goes deeper to articulate the binaries created for Muslims as ‘religionists’ or ‘nationalists’. This is an issue that comes up repeatedly in the event of a blast or a hanging or even a cricket match. She says that their movement has been built on the principle of secularism, where they do not associate themselves with any political party. They look to the Holy Quran to guide them in conduct and accept Shariah laws only if they are compliant with the tenets of the book.
AeN, which echoes the same concerns, works differently. They do not have particular ideals that they follow. Saira at AeN laughs and says that they are guided by one and only principle: the woman should be the ultimate beneficiary in the transaction. They believe that apart from the state and its machinery, that make it harder for Muslim women to use the law, Muslim men are responsible for the oppression of Muslim women. Kausar Asrani, one of the founder members of Rehnuma Library, which is the unit run by AeN in Mumbra, says, “Young Muslim women are not allowed to study for a variety of reasons. They will be the first ones to be sacrificed if there are financial constraints. Men believe that letter likhna aa gaya toh bas ho gaya (as long as you know how to write a letter, it is enough)”.
And this is precisely the reason why organisations such as these that give voice to and seek to resolve issues that are particular to Muslim women, especially of the lower classes, are so important in the city. “Our aim is to bring Muslim women out from the ‘victimhood’ mode to a realization of citizenship and hence become active recipients of the State’s benefits and partakers in its progress,” says Niaz of the BMMA.
The issues that they have to deal with are mostly related to men’s interpretation (and appropriation) of the Quran. Triple talaaq that is often used by men to avoid responsibility and is a cause of another problem, polygamy. Saira of AeN says that after the police, they have to struggle with the Jamaat because they pass one-sided divorces in favour of men. “The Holy Quran encourages men to financially support widows and orphans but this has been grossly misused by Muslim men to marry and exploit, according to their whims and fancies. The BMMA recommends that they should make polygamy as restrictive as possible,” says Niaz. On the contentious issue of ‘triple talaaq’, they seek to eliminate oral divorce altogether and are working to create a model ‘nikaahnama’ (marriage document/contract) to eliminate the possibility of an oral divorce and second marriage. It also aims to increase the Mehr (money given to the bride at the time of the wedding by the bridegroom) amount to 100 per cent of the groom’s annual income.
What is interesting is that the AeN leaves no stone unturned to obtain a divorce if the woman makes the decision to walk-out of a marriage. Asrani says a woman has to think a lot before finally making the decision to seek a divorce, especially a poor Muslim woman because of the stigma attached to a divorced woman and the lack of employment opportunities. And hence, if she makes the decision, they must respect it and get her the due. She remembers the time when her two best friends decided to leave their husbands even though they had absolutely no means to survive without them. She says, “What I found inspiring was that they chose their happiness and dignity over society’s approval. And now they are living in difficult circumstances but with their heads held high.” Saira chuckles and says, “We chase the man until he signs the papers. Woh hil jaate hain (they get quite shocked)!”
Another issue that both BMMA and AeN work with is that of the burqa or the hijab (the veil) which has been a popular topic of discussion, especially after Muslims all over the world are being hounded for their identity. The assumption that the woman under the headscarf is necessarily oppressed is something that women’s organisations are fighting over the world. Saira from AeN says that more than the diktats of the clerics, suspicions and associations with terrorism are their bigger worries regarding the garment. Niaz quotes the Holy Quran to explain an interpretation favourable to women. Both the AeN and BMMA believe that a hijab/burqa should be left to women’s discretion. “Neither the state nor the clerics should interfere in this matter. No one seems to see that the burqa is also a tool to hide poverty,” laments Niaz.
An over-arching problem is the presumption that Muslim women are voiceless and not active participants of society life. There are attempts by others then, to speak on their behalf and offer solutions to problems they think they can understand. Thus a lot of the energies of AeN and BMMA are directed towards making Muslim women heard. AeN works to promote education among young girls, encouraging their families to continue their education in whatever way possible. They recently conducted a survey in Mumbra, Dongri and Govandi to determine the current state of Muslim women in Mumbai and its results are being collated and analysed.. Ansari says, “One of the biggest issues that girls face everywhere is harassment. These girls do not talk to their families about it because if they do, their mobility will be restricted and they will not be able to study.” Apart from Rehnuma Library, which is a resource centre for girls in Mumbra, they hold ‘Personality Development’ classes in their office in Kurla which includes taking women to the police station and teaching them how to file a First Information Report (FIR) and knowing about the various laws related to women’s rights. They also run computer and English-speaking classes to offer skills that can help in employment.
The BMMA too finds it important to introduce women to the police station and its various procedures because they look at it as the first step to law and policy making. They choose to empower young girls with vocational training like sewing, mehndi courses, jewellery making and also provide subsidised computer training.
“Some people can use poverty as an excuse to hinder their daughter’s mobility. We want to make sure that the girls at least get a chance to study or be economically independent, and hence we go and speak to their parents and guardians personally and make sure we follow-up on those girls’ progress,” says Khatoon Sheikh, Maharashtra convenor of BMMA.
The BMMA also guides women to open bank accounts and acquire loans for self-employment in areas like Cheetah Camp, Navpada, Behrampada and Dawri Nagar. In addition, it works in these areas to monitor ration shops and put pressure on the Ration Office to provide speedy ration cards to the needy. Both the AeN and BMMA organise seminars to provide diet counselling, all-round check-up and relay information relating to contraception and women’s health.
One cannot imagine the kind of difficulties the women in these organisations face when they go out to do their work every day. They not only have to fight their own battles but also the State, the Police, clerics and other opposing forces such as domestic violence and prejudice from outside. As Asrani says, “The life of a Muslim woman is very difficult because on the one hand, one section of the society believes that your community is involved in terrorist activities. And on the other hand, your community itself tries to oppress you. Living under the baggage of society’s stereotypical construction and then creating a separate identity of your own is a big problem.”
Niaz adds, “Women are always told, ‘The time is not right to talk about your issues’. Who decides when we should be speaking? No city will give you the space to struggle. You have to create it by yourself.”
Photos: Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan
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