Four years ago, I was invited to an inter-faith dialogue programme in Bangalore
organised by a Christian human rights group. Speakers from different religious
communities were on the panel and they were to talk about the concept of social
justice in their own religious traditions.
After my brief talk on the notion of justice in Islam, I was handed a long list
of questions, some of which, predictably, read like this: Why cannot a Muslim
have four husbands? Why aren’t Muslim men required to wear veils? Doesn’t a
Muslim woman feel suppressed in a burkha? How can a man declare triple talaq in
one sitting? And, curiously enough, why did Jemima Khan marry Imran Khan?
Think of a Muslim woman and the things that immediately flash across in the
minds of many Muslims and non-Muslims alike are triple talaq, polygamy and the
veil. Is that all a Muslim woman is known for? Does not a Muslim woman have her
own identity, her own individuality? Why cannot society look upon a Muslim woman
as just another human being, like everybody else, and not a marked out,
exoticised or specially branded creature?
In the Indian context, when one talks of the status of Muslim women, the focus
invariably falls on triple talaq in one sitting, polygamy and hijab. I choose to
call this the “dangerous triangle”.
Last month, the Mumbai-based Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS)
and the Institute of Islamic Studies organised a training programme on “The
Rights of Muslim Women in the Quran—Theory and Practice”. Over 50
participants from various states across India came together to share their
experiences, views and thoughts. While the majority were women activists
(Muslims as well as others), there were a sprinkling of male activists too. Most
of the activists at the training programme worked at the grassroots level, in
slums and villages.
The key presenter at the workshop was the noted writer, Islamic scholar and
social activist Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, who is also the chairperson of the
CSSS. His discussion focused on the position of women before Islam, references
to women in the Quran and evolution of Islamic jurisprudence. He stressed that
women should read the Quran from what he called a ‘feminist’ point of view.
“The Quran has innumerable verses in favour of women. But men sometimes
misinterpret verses related to polygamy and hijab to suit their whims and
fancies,” he said.
Maulana Mohammad Shoaib Koti, a well-known Islamic scholar based in Mumbai,
talked about the freedom of expression for women in Islam. He recalled how
Muslim women during the days of the Prophet asked questions directly to him
without any male intervention. He also referred to the high status enjoyed by
women scholars of Hadith and Quran during those days.
Qutub Jehan Kidwai, convenor of the Institute of Islamic Studies, shared her
observations of Muslim personal law reforms in Muslim countries. Mehmood Hasan,
a film maker from Bangladesh, presented an engaging (and disturbing) documentary
film on the practice of arbitrary triple talaq. The story, woven around a
Bangladeshi family, ends on a positive note, proclaiming that triple talaq has
no sanction in Islam. A noted advocate from Mumbai, Nilofer Akhtar elaborated on
Supreme Court judgments in favour of Muslim women. She lamented the fact that
many Muslims were not sufficiently aware of numerous laws relating to
maintenance after divorce. Mufti Inamullah Khan, a scholar and activist,
supported the call for codification of Muslim Personal Law in India.
In her presentation, Naish Hasan, founder of the Lucknow-based Bharatiya Muslim
Mahila Andolan, spoke about her experiences of working with Muslim women in
different parts of the country. Women in rural areas were most victimized
through violation of their rights and also domestic violence. “With no access
to education, most rural Muslim women have no idea about the courts and the laws
and even what the Quran says about women’s rights. The need of the hour is to
take up these cases and help women get their due rights. They become easy
victims, and run from pillar to post when men desert them, dump triple talaq on
them and irresponsibly use polygamy as their birthright,” she said.
I posed a question to a mufti on the panel in the programme as to why there is
a huge communication gap between the madrasa-educated ulema and Muslim women.
Why do women still hesitate to speak to the ulema? Surely, I felt, they needed
to if they were to convey to each other their concerns, about issues that are so
central to ongoing, and seemingly endless, debates about Islam and women.
Surely, something had to be done to help bridge the enormous gap between women,
including activists working for Muslim women’s rights, and the ulema of the
madrasas. Efforts had to be made to create spaces and possibilities for dialogue
and interaction between them.
The mufti’s answer was simple: The ulema, too, are not comfortable talking to
women. When set against the historical reality that Muslim women spoke to the
Prophet directly, the answer did not fully satisfy me. I set upon the task of
exploring this issue on my own. I got this opportunity the same day.
That afternoon, I had an appointment to meet the editor of an ulema-run English
magazine in Mumbai that focuses mainly on Muslim social issues. I had
butterflies in my stomach to begin with, and was apprehensive about how I would
be received them. I felt my Deccani Urdu was no match for their chaste
language. Yet, I mustered sufficient up courage and walked alone through the
rain-washed lanes of Mumbai to keep the appointment.
My initial fears were soon put to rest as I engaged in a meaningful dialogue
with the ulema team of the magazine. Their courtesy and hospitality overwhelmed
me. The fact that they sat on the same dastarkhan and had lunch with me was by
itself a path-breaking event. I offered the early afternoon prayers in their
office, after which they showed me around, exchanging ideas about Muslim media
and about their own magazine, which is unique in some respects, being the only
English magazine in the entire country staffed by madrasa-educated ulema.
Sitting in that office, listening to the maulanas and sharing with them my own
views, I realized the need for conscious efforts to be made to bridge the gap
between the ulema and Muslim women. There is a desperate need for forums whereby
Muslim women and the ulema can interact, exchange views and learn from each
other’s experiences in a spirit of genuine sharing. From that dialogue, who
knows, might emerge possibilities of helping bring Muslim women out of that
‘dangerous triangle’ that invisiblised and silenced all their issues and
concerns by framing discourse about them simply in terms of arbitrary divorce,
polygamy and the veil. Sadly, the need for that dialogue is too easily brushed
aside by many of those involved in debates about Muslim women who refuse to
listen to other points of view—and these include many women’s activists and
traditional ulema alike.
Nigar Ataulla is the Associate Editor of the Bangalore-based magazine
‘Islamic Voice’. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org