Muslim women and an emerging new politics


Those Indians who are known to be secular, liberal intellectuals usually support everything to do with their Muslim minorities – their religion and customs, madrassas and mosques, Eid-Muharram, hijab-burqa, even their misogynous Sharia laws. Whether it is Muslims expressing a desire for more mosques, or if they insist on blocking thoroughfares for their Friday prayers regardless of the inconvenience caused to common people – left liberals back them up always and even fight for them. Such liberal intellectuals have done a lot for the equal rights of Hindu women but they have never been too concerned about similar rights for Muslim women as well. They believe Muslims ought to be granted whatever they demand. Obviously, here Muslim means just the Muslim men. These men want to establish laws based on religion and it is believed that they should be allowed to do so. Muslim men do not wish to give any independence to Muslim women, so it is assumed that is how it is in Islam. This is exactly how the left-wing liberal intelligentsia of India has committed serious human rights violations since time immemorial, all in the name of solidarity with the minority. And then they claim that they are human rights and women’s rights activists, that they are progressive in their outlook. The ban imposed on triple talaq in India has elated the right-wing fundamentalists of the nation while it has made the liberal class unhappy. While Hindutva activists clamour for a Uniform Civil Code on the basis of equal rights of men and women, liberals are not heard making similar demands. However, it should have been the liberals who should have been in the forefront of this rights discourse.
Muslim women in India whose rights and independence have thus far always been denied have suddenly woken up to din of equal rights. A couple of educated Muslim men have put forth a demand that Muslim women be allowed to enter mosques and offer their prayers just like men. The Supreme Court of India has asked the government for clarification on the matter and this is now front page news. Just like how the Supreme Court struck down the discriminatory rules that barred Hindu women from entering the Sabarimala temple there ought to be a similar law for Muslim places of worship as well. Muslim women deserve the right to enter mosques just like Hindu and Christian women have the right to enter their respective places of worship.
The ban on triple talaq resulted in a declaration of victory across India, as if Muslim women had finally earned their equal rights. That is how little people actually know about the discrimination between the sexes inherent in Islamic jurisprudence. Muslim women have not achieved anything remotely close to equal rights yet. I feel compelled to ask, what good will it do if women earn the right to enter mosques and offer their prayers? They will be able to offer their supplications in front of Allah, occupy the same row as the men while performing Ruku and Sajda – things they had not been allowed to do previously. Not that they will be allowed to read the actual namaz along with the rest of the men – instead they will be made to stand behind a wall or a purdah, in a small back room or the veranda perhaps. The same prayers they used to offer at home they will now be able to offer in the mosque if they wish to. The Prophet had said that it was best if women prayed at home. I fail to comprehend how devout women are expected to flout the Prophet’s wish in order to be able to enter a mosque and pray. Many have claimed that allowing Muslim women to enter mosques will mean the realisation of equal rights. The women will not be allowed to stand beside the men or in front of them, they will be relegated to the back behind the men. How is this equal rights? It will just further demarcate and put people in their respective places, that too in a mosque – men in the front and women behind them. Women becoming imams, offering prayers kneeling beside men or in front of them, such things are considered haram in Islam. Equal rights cannot be earned from within the ambit of religion, it requires one to move out of the structure of organised religion. Will devout women be able to fight for equal rights in marriage, divorce or inheritance? If one believes in Islam one has to also condone the structural discrimination between the sexes that is there in Islamic law!
How many Muslim women manage to finish schools or attend universities? How many Muslim women join jobs or start businesses like other modern women? How many are allowed to take own life’s decisions? How many Muslim women have the right to not wear burqas or hijabs? How many are independent or self-reliant? The numbers must be very low. When this number increases only then can one say that Muslim women are earning equal rights. No one has forbidden women from offering the namaz. Since many women remain occupied with housework it is more convenient for them to pray at home. Since men spend most of the time outside it is more convenient for them to visit mosques. Most women actually spend more time in religious activities and rituals than men, so it is causing women no great harm if they cannot go to the mosque. What is definitely causing them harm is lack of education, absence of proper healthcare and lack of independence. What is causing Muslim women true harm is the erasure of all their rights under religious laws, child marriage, being forced to marry one’s rapist or even being forced to a marry one’s rapist father-in-law, and a host of associated misogynous laws and regulations including being prohibited from using a mobile phone. Among the Bohra Muslims of India female genital mutilation is still prevalent, to ensure women find no pleasure in sexual intercourse. They firmly believe sexual pleasure is solely for men. Have Indian liberals had anything to say ever about female genital mutilation or have they simply accepted this as part of Muslim culture too? Those who truly want the betterment of the minorities must surely wish for the latter to receive proper education and become self-reliant, that they turn towards a scientific outlook and extricate themselves from the mires of superstitions and religious fundamentalism.
I did not write in favour of revoking the ban on women entering the Sabarimala. What business do women have going to places where it is customary to consider them polluted? Is it not time yet for women to start maintaining a safe distance from God? No person of sound conscience should bow down before a misogynous power, especially women should not do it at all.
Then there are the ones who call themselves liberal, who are labelled as progressive despite being so reactionary. There are very few who are truly progressive in this subcontinent. The ones who are Islamophobic, those who believe that all Muslims should be driven out of the country, are one sort of reactionary. While the ones who believe Muslims should remain immersed in their religion if they want to, adhere to Sharia law if they so desire, be allowed to mutilate the genitals of young girls and call it culture – such people are another kind of reactionary. A truly progressive person can only be someone who wishes to combat all kinds of religious extremism – be it Muslim or Hindu. Not just the laws and misogyny of one particular religion, it is necessary to fight such problematic features in all religious beliefs. Regarding the misogynous, patriarchal and brutal customs of a minority community through a lens of kindness and compassion will only add to the further detriment of said community.
That is not to say I am calling for everyone to tolerate the barbarism of the majority either. Half the world’s problems can perhaps be solved only if we stopped tolerating brutality irrespective of religion, gender, race and ethnic or linguistic communities. The rest can be solved by using the good to push aside the bad, the beautiful to overcome the ugly.
The problem with those who believe in free thought in India is that although they never fail to express their pride of vanguards like Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar who took the first steps to counter Hindu fundamentalism, they simultaneously never wish for such forerunners to be found among the Muslims of India. Unless Muslims can be trained to inculcate truly secular values, free thought and a modern, progressive and science-minded outlook they will continue to wallow in the depths.
More than being allowed into mosques it is essential for Muslim women to be allowed to attend schools, colleges and universities, to become self-reliant, to learn to hold their head high, become their own persons and declare a war against patriarchy and the clout of the mullahs. To live having to hide one’s face, dependant on someone else, terrified like a witless worm – that is not how one lives. When I speak in favour of the independence and rights of Muslim women, when I call for Muslim men to become more progressive and rise above fundamentalist dogma, the so-called liberal intellectuals who consider themselves well-wishers of Indian Muslims abuse me and label me ‘anti-Muslim’. Does that not make it clear what they want? They want for Muslims to remain consigned in the darkness, just like how Islamophobes want Muslims to remain. Such people keep trying to stop me from showing my fellow Muslims the way towards the light; they want Hindus to find this illumination but when it comes to the Muslims they say it is not time yet. When sati was being abolished in this country many educated as well as uneducated members of society had been similarly disposed towards claiming that the time for it had not come yet. We must remember that the right time never comes on its own, it has to be ushered in.

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