In recent years, we have seen the emergence of a new Muslim woman. She is bold and articulate. She is not willing to be confined to the four walls of her home and wants to participate in the democratic discourse taking place in the country. Importantly, she does not trust the orthodox clergy to represent her. She is aware of her rights as a citizen and as a Muslim within her religion. She does not tolerate violation of her rights by anyone.
Ordinary women led the democratic movement against triple talaq, and they are now protesting against a discriminatory and unjust law that makes religion the basis of citizenship. Muslim women are proudly saying that we are Indians and we are Muslims. Several petitioners against triple talaq invoked gender equality provisions based on the Constitution. Women are yet again seeking to uphold the Constitution by protesting the religion-based Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which is seen in conjunction with a possible National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Women are challenging the long-established tradition of all-male clergy claiming leadership of the Indian Muslim community. Women are also challenging the rightist politics of religious polarisation. They are building a new narrative invoking democratic values of justice, equality and secularism enshrined in the Constitution. This is refreshingly different from the calls to protect the Shariat and Islam commonly attributed to the Muslim leadership.
Census and other official data suggest that Muslims have consistently slid into backwardness and poverty since Independence.They have been treated as vote banks by seemingly secular political parties. There has been not much done towards genuine welfare and participation in democratic spaces. Muslims live in ghettoes with low education levels, without formal jobs, without access to government facilities on credit and health care provisions. Only four in 100 Muslims are graduates, and merely 13% hold salaried jobs. People have been paying the price for the communal politics practised by different political parties in collaboration with the conservative ulema. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accuses the Congress of politics of appeasement, but thrives on religious polarisation to build its own vote bank.
The image of a conservative religious male as spokesperson of the country’s largest minority has been hugely problematic not just for Muslims but for India’s democracy. It has helped build a perception that Muslims are different from the rest of Indians. It has furthered the stereotype of a community given to religious fundamentalism and a separate identity. This perception has brought about a distance between Muslims and those from other faiths. Communal riots have been a persistent feature in our polity. It has helped the right-wing politics of hate and division as witnessed in the brutal incidents of mob lynching in the name of gau raksha (cow protection). It has divided our plural society.
It has been difficult for ordinary Muslims to cast-off the stranglehold of the clergy, which has consistently enjoyed political patronage. The absence of a democratic leadership within the community has contributed further to the problem. Rightist politics has hugely benefitted from this phenomenon. But women’s democratic leadership can possibly change things.
Muslim women have always been caught between political considerations and personal marginalisation. They have suffered in matters as such triple talaq and polygamy, owing to patriarchal misinterpretations of religion. The Shah Bano episode is just one example of Muslim women being denied their rights under the family law. It is shocking that this was done in the name of secularism. Between 1986 and now, things have changed for the better. A new voice has been taking shape, particularly in the present decade. It has been a voice seeking mutual respect, harmony and justice for all. But the political parties and the clergy have been unmindful, even dismissive, of this voice. The Congress does not want to anger the ulema and the BJP benefits from demonising the Muslim. It is an ode to our democracy that fellow citizens are welcoming this voice.
Women’s voice has been gaining strength and finding support within the community as well. The movement against triple talaq received huge support from the wider public. The nightly debates on TV channels saw women bravely taking on the ulema who were all arguing for perpetuating the patriarchal status quo. They have always stonewalled any effort to reform Muslim personal law. The women openly questioned their understanding of religion, and spoke eloquently about the Koran and the gender justice principles contained in it.
The Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid declared that there was no threat to Muslims when the CAA was passed. Many among the ulema said that there was no cause for concern. But ordinary women sensed the threat to their citizenship from the combination of the CAA and NRC.
They asserted their Indianness by joining the protests led by students in different parts of the country. Muslim women protesting alongside fellow compatriots waving the national flag is a wonderful and patriotic image. It is a celebration of India’s diversity and pluralism. The political class will have to rethink its politics if this collaboration of citizens from diverse backgrounds continues. This can have lasting consequences for our multi-faith, multicultural democracy.
Zakia Soman is a founding member of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan
The views expressed are personal
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