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Time to revert to gendered, genial face of Islam

Apr 07, 2010

Muslim women should not allow themselves to be used as an excuse to stymie the Women's Bill, argues Dr Syeda Hameed. The Bill has once again brought the glare of politics and media on Muslim women and the need to return to the original face of Islam, she adds.

New Delhi: I pick up my pen to write on a subject that has, once again, brought the glare of politics and media on Muslim women. Two beams have been focused on them ever since the Women's Reservation Bill was introduced on March 8, 2010 in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House).

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The first has been thrown by pro-reservationists consisting of venerable leaders of RJD, SP and part of JDU. They have again begun the old refrain of quota within quota for their Muslim and OBC 'sisters'.

The second has been thrown by some Maulvis (not all Maulvis) who have made public statements that Muslim women should restrict themselves to the home and children and not aspire for politics.

The first group, led by politicians, has been projecting this line for 17 years. I recall going to them in the mid-nineties as part of the women's movement then agitating for 33% reservations in Parliament and State Assemblies. At that time these leaders had conceded our point that commitment to empowering Muslim and OBC women could also be attained by giving them tickets. Their demand would, therefore, be met through the party route. Women of all castes, class and communities waited for two elections: Nothing happened.

The second group is led by some Maulanas, quoted in the Urdu press (Rashtriya Sahara, 14.03.2010), who have declared that Islam does not permit women to make public appearances and they would serve a better purpose if they produce leaders instead of becoming leaders.

For Muslim women both propositions are highly problematical, indeed unacceptable.

The first is clearly a ploy to send the Bill into cold storage and keep women away from decision-making; it should be clearly understood as such. When the women's movement was agitating for Women Reservation Bill under the leadership of Geeta Mukherjee, Member Rajya Sabha and Chair Joint Parliamentary Committee, which studied the first version of the Bill in 1996, this was the exact argument used by the same actors. They had 14 years to translate their argument into action.

"This is an old strategy to keep women out. Muslim women should themselves be made aware of this ploy"

Today, when we take stock, we find that we have a total of two Muslim women in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) and three in Rajya Sabha. Since Independence, we have had only 18 Muslim women in Parliament. If we were to go by strict proportion to percentage, 50% of Indians are women; therefore out of a total of 543 seats, 271 seats should go to them. But the die seems to have been cast for 33% and in this compromise figure there is no scope for dilution or diversion.

Analysts and psephologists have told us that across parties, women have always been given tickets from the weakest constituencies; places where the party knew it had little chances of winning. At the same time, there are studies on the 'winnability' of women candidates if they were given a level playing field, instead of being 'sacrificed' in no-win situations. This is an old strategy to keep women out. Muslim women should themselves be made aware of this ploy. They should not allow themselves to be used as an excuse to stymie the Bill, which is exactly what will happen if it is tampered with.

"The Prophet's life, his word (Hadith) his practice (Sunnah) projects a gentle, gendered, genial face of Islam"

The second 'warning' from some Maulanas contravenes every tenet of Islam. Fatima Mernissi, the Moroccan Islamic scholar, whose book 'Women and Islam: A Historical and Theological Enquiry' is a definitive text on the subject, writes that Islam was meant to break the traditional mindsets about women and accord them a status equal and in some matters higher than that accorded to men. Islam, she writes, was revealed to lift people from animal existence to higher goals.

'It came to sustain the people of desert lands, to encourage them to achieve higher spiritual goals and equality for all'. The dawn of Islam was a heady epoch and, for women, it was empowerment in one stroke.

It is this face of Islam that the Maulanas must uphold and not allow to be imposed on it the face of the cruel oppressor of women. The Prophet's life, his word (Hadith) his practice (Sunnah) projects a gentle, gendered, genial face of Islam. During his time, women were free to come into the mosques and engage with him about what were the Islamic injunctions about women.

The women of his family were leaders; I refer to his daughter Hazrat Fatima who is called Syeda tu Nisa e Alameen (Leader of all Women). It is recorded that when she entered the room he got up to show respect and spread his kamli (blanket) for her to sit on. His granddaughters, Zainab and Kulsum, led the caravan of Muslims from Karbala to Syria and stopped everywhere to speak to the populace about the Right Path of Islam; creating a movement that turned the tide in favour of the Prophet's Islam.

Time has come for the Maulanas to try to revert to this original face of Islam. On the front page of an Urdu paper, recently, I saw an advertisement for a special supplement on Muslim Women's Empowerment. It had snapshots of a woman performing a Nikah, an event which happened in 2008 in Lucknow and which, at the time, was bitterly criticized by some Maulanas in India and elsewhere.

The fact that today it is flashed as a positive sign offers hope that there is a change on the horizon and a closing of the gap between real Islam and the Islam propagated by a few self-serving ignorant men. It is the scholars of Islam, men and women, including enlightened Maulanas like the late Maulana Ali Mian of Nadwatul Ulema, or the great Islamic scholars like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Maulana Altaf Huusain Hali, and women like Fatima Mernissi, whose writings should guide the thinking of all who profess to love the faith.

(The writer is Member, Planning Commission. Her new book 'Gard aur Gardish - Dust and Movement' is nearing completion.)

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