Mobilising for Muslim women’s rights in India

The emerging Muslim women-led networks in India are challenging the authority of the religious elite to represent the ‘Muslim community’ while re-framing the category ‘Muslim women’ in order to assert political agency

Nida Kirmani
14 January 2011

'Muslim women' have been used as symbolic pawns in the global war on terror as well as in national disputes between groups vying for political power. In India this was demonstrated most starkly during the 1980s in the Shah Bano case, which has since come to exemplify the potential conflict between religion, culture and women’s rights. This case, which centred around a 73-year old woman’s rights to maintenance after divorce under Muslim personal laws, first brought the ‘plight of the Indian Muslim woman’ onto the national stage in an episode where conservative Muslim groups as well as Hindu nationalists pitted religious identity against women’s rights. The case highlighted the dilemmas of competing identity-based claims in a political environment that was becoming increasingly polarised along religious lines. Since then, several similar cases have been brought to national attention including the 2004 case of Gudiya and the 2005 Imrana case where again, the national media highlighted Muslim women’s oppression, and the conservative ulema yet again took it upon itself to represent ‘the Muslim community’. Throughout these debates the voices of Muslim women speaking for themselves were rarely heard in public debates.

However, since the 1990s, several individuals and groups have emerged across India and are working to change this situation by claiming their right to represent themselves. Two networks that are diversifying the political field are the Muslim Women's Rights Network (MWRN) the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) Both networks emerged in the last twelve years and are challenging the notion that Muslim women are voiceless victims by asserting their political agency. In so doing, they question the authority of conservative Muslim male-dominated forums such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) to speak for the Muslim community, as well as changing the face of the women’s movement, which has had a troubled relationship with religion in the past.

The Muslim Women’s Rights Network was created by a group of Mumbai-based activists in 1999 in order to connect individuals and organisations around the country who were working on the issue of Muslim women’s rights. It is a loosely organised and largely informal network which meets on an annual basis in different cities. The MRWN is open to women of all religious communities, although it is focused on connecting individuals and groups working on issues affecting Muslim women in particular, regardless of the religious identity of the activists themselves.

The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan was formed more recently in 2005, it is composed of organisations working with Muslim women across the country and has more than 20,000 individual members. Although the BMMA advocacy deals with the issue of matrimonial rights and the reform of Muslim Personal Laws, it also tackles broader issues facing the community including socio-economic and political deprivation.

Both networks move beyond looking at Muslim women’s issues as consisting only of parda (veiling and segregation) polygamy and triple talaq, which have been the main tropes through which ‘Muslim women’ have been constructed and understood as a category in the Indian context. The BMMA does this by placing the exclusion of Muslim women in the wider context of the exclusion faced by Muslims in India in general. Similarly, the MWRN expands the scope of the issues associated with Muslim women by drawing attention to problems related to violence against the community as a whole, and women in particular, as well as addressing issues related to the targeting of Muslims by the state apparatus. This does not mean that the issue of personal laws is forgotten, but rather, that both networks are attempting to contextualize the multiple disadvantages and insecurities faced by Muslim women in a broader pattern of economic, social political exclusion. Similar concerns were raised by the Sachar Committee Report in 2006 and have sparked a wider debate in India on the issue of religion-based discrimination.

In contrast to the MWRN, which does not explicitly use religion as a campaigning tool and is committed to a secular approach, the BMMA is experimenting with Islamic feminist approaches, asserting that it is not Islam per se that has oppressed Muslim women, but centuries of male interpretation of Islamic texts. Members of the BMMA argue that standing up for women’s rights does not have to mean abandoning one’s religious identity, and are involved in projects that encourage women to engage with Islamic texts in order to be able to claim their rights, including those related to inheritance, marriage, and political empowerment. Such efforts follow in the footsteps of Muslim feminist groups such as the Malaysian Sisters in Islam and are pioneering steps in the Indian context where little attempt has previously been made to reconcile religion and feminism.

In a context in which Muslims feel increasingly under attack, such a reformist approach may prove to be an effective strategy. However, as many members of the MWRN point out, it may also limit the terms of the debate to the confines of religious discourse, leaving little or no space to those who are not believers themselves or who feel that religion should remain a private matter. This approach may also have limited appeal in a context where many within the Muslim community feel that their religious identities are being threatened and are hence less receptive to reformist ideas.

While these groups may differ in their strategies for women’s rights advocacy, they are in agreement about the need to challenge the prerogative of male-dominated institutions such as the AIMPLB to speak for the Muslim community. Although members of both networks have attempted to lobby the AIMPLB in the past on the need to reform Muslim Personal Laws, they have largely abandoned this strategy after repeated disappointments. The challenge to the Board’s authority presented by Muslim women’s rights activists has been compounded by the appearance of several alternative personal law boards in recent years including the Shia Personal Law Board, the All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board, and the Barelvi Personal Law Board. This marks a challenge to the authority that the AIMPLB enjoyed during the 80s and 90s.

The MWRN and the BMMA also represent important developments in the context of the women’s movement in India and can be seen as a sign of the movement’s fragmentation and diversification. While the MWRN feels that it is an important part of the movement, the BMMA sees itself as separate from the mainstream women’s movement. Hasina Khan, who is a leader within the MWRN and works with the Mumbai-based group Awaaz-e-Niswan, feels that it is important to work within the wider women’s movement: " Muslim women do need to make a space for themselves, but this does not mean that Muslim women make their own space and also carry out their struggle alone. If we say this, then we might become divided…. then we will not be able to call ourselves a women’s movement. There will be a Muslim women’s movement, a Hindu women’s movement, a Christian women’s movement".

Members of the MWRN argue that the women’s movement has created space for Muslim women. However, they also admit that there is a need for more support from within the movement, and they are actively working to engage with women across communal boundaries in order to fight against the ghettoization of Muslim women’s issues. On the other hand, members of the BMMA are critical of the women’s movement’s historical upper caste bias as well as its aversion to religion. BMMA members argue that the leaders of the women’s movement have not gone far enough in cultivating new leadership, especially amongst women from marginalized communities. It is for this reason that members of the BMMA feel that it is crucial for Muslim women to build their own movement. Hence, although membership to the BMMA is open to women and men from all religious backgrounds, they have included a rule that 70% of their membership will be comprised of Muslim women who will also be in leadership roles at all levels.

Although no further legal reforms have taken place with regards to Muslim women’s rights since the Shah Bano affair, the presence of Muslim women-led networks alone marks a significant shift in the Indian political landscape. The appearance of the MWRN and the BMMA demonstrates the diversification of the women’s movement, and of the political sphere in general as women from marginalized communities find new ways to engage with and challenge structures of power and authority at multiple levels. Their efforts are creating a space for Muslim women to actively engage in redefining their identities and reformulating relations of power within an increasingly constrained and polarised political context, one in which feminists have little room to manoeuvre outside of the confines of religious boundaries.











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