The Muslim woman refuses to be defined as a separate entity. She shares all
her definitions with women from every community provided they also share her
class. Her religion has given her the best but her Muslim Samaaj has not given
her due. Let us begin with contextualising gender in Islam by using the most
quoted lines of the Quran from Surat Al Ahzab:

  •  For Muslim men and women
  •  For believing men and women
  •  For obedient men and women
  •  For true men and women
  •  For patient men and women
  •  For humble men and women
  •  For charitable men and women
  •  For chaste men and women
  •  For men and women who engage much in zikr of Allah
  •  For them Allah has great forgiveness and reward.

This is the universal Quranic injunction for Muslim women which place them on
par with men in the community. The question then arises where is the equality,
the dignity and status which the Quran and Prophet visualised for women? Why are
Muslim women across the globe even today struggling to break from the culture of
oppression that denies them identity? Why do they continue to be marked,
oppressed and violated? Their status of the subaltern sex of an already weakened
community is widely watched and labeled. In short, why are Muslim women still
such a distance away from the path of development?

Islam was born in a context. It was meant to address the ills of a degenerate
pre Islamic society in which women were treated worse than animals. At that
point the teachings of the Prophet created a revolution in that society. They
lifted women from the well of despair in which society had sunk them and for the
first time gave them rights; right to property among others. The Quran, thus,
showed us a way to women’s empowerment. Instead of treating it as a roadmap, the
patriarchal mindset of Muslims treated it as the destination. The doors of
Ijtihad (Innovation, Interpretation) were closed by vested interests.

We Muslims didn’t change; we didn’t progress, we just took a few strides and
then stood still. We stopped reading the Prophet’s Hadith (spoken word) and his
Sunnah (practice). We stopped understanding his message and began to rely on
interpretations. And instead of adopting healthy practices, we borrowed from
other religions and cultures only their patriarchal values. For example, dowry
became our practice, which is totally prohibited in Islam.

There is no concept whatsoever of caste in Islam. Islam negates caste
hierarchy. Yet, according to NSSO figures, 41 per cent Muslims consider
themselves as OBCs in 2004-05. Caste system, when it permeated into Muslim
ethos, became yet another excuse for “honour crimes” against women. Its most
stark example is my very first case in 1997 when as Member, National Commission
of Women I tried unsuccessfully to stop the honour killing of 19 year old Maimun
of Sudaka in Mewat district of Haryana.

As Member of NCW (1997-2000) I decided to survey the status of Muslim women
across the country, listen to them, and project their voices before the country.
Public hearings with Muslim women were held in North, South, East, West and
North-East; cities like Ahmedabad, Indore, Jabalpur, Mumbai, Kolhapur,
Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Calicut, Thiruvananthpuram, Calcutta and Tezpur.
At every Hearing hundreds of women came to depose. Everywhere, the big cross
cutting issue was poverty closely followed by the stranglehold of Muslim
Personal Law.

Triple Talaq and abandonment without Mehr or maintenance. Zardozi workers,
Beedi rollers, domestic helps, farm labourers all spoke of their triple
disadvantage. This exercise led to a landmark report Voice of the Voiceless:
Status of Muslim Women in India 2000, which contextualised these matters.

Its recommendations were presented to government, religious bodies and civil
society for policy formulation. The study carefully took on board views of the
religious leaders, since it was evident that they had a wider and deeper reach
inside the community, thereby the women. At the time, Muslim Personal Law Board,
an influential national level body of clerics from all schools of theology, was
headed by a distinguished scholar Maulana Ali Miyan, a man open to discussion
about gender in Islam and sensitive to the misuse of Islam in a profligate
manner in which Muslim personal law was used to entrench male hegemony and
stranglehold over women. The AIMPLB began including women members, albeit very
few and quite compliant. The next president of AIMPLB was Maulana Mujahidul
Islam Qasmi who continued the liberal tradition of his predecessor.

There was need to take this work forward and take stock of the efficacy of
our recommendations. In 2001 I co-founded with Dr Sughra Mehdi, the Muslim Women
Forum; its founding Chair was Begum Saeeda Khurshid daughter of President Dr
Zakir Husain.

The findings of this Report did not reveal any progress or improvement. It
was evident that NCW’s intervention had not led to any betterment for Muslim
women, perhaps it was too soon for results. That was 2003.

One year after My Voice Will Be Heard, the new government decided to
constitute a High Level Committee under Justice Rajinder Sachar to study the
status of SRC (Socio Economic Communities) primarily Muslims. Its landmark
report was released in 2007. The findings revealed the dismal state of the
Muslim community which since the last 67 years had fallen behind the
traditionally backward Dalits and Tribals in many respects. Data drawn from
Census 2001 was presented in table after table of comparative analysis which
proved the point.

Since 2000, there has been a growth in the number of Muslim women
organisations publicly calling for reform of Muslim Personal Law (MPL),
justifying their demands for gender equality by referring to the foundational
text of Islam- the Quran. These women and their activities have been seen as
continuation of a trend observed all over the Muslim world in which a new breed
of Muslim women scholars was seriously and critically studying the Quran from a
female perspective.

Establishment of Muslim Women’s Forum was followed by other civil society
formations which raised various issues of Muslim women. Bharatiya Muslim Mahila
Andolan was formed in 2006 and served as an important advocacy group. All India
Muslim Women Personal Law Board began to articulate women’s issues within the
ambit of Muslim Personal Law. Another important trend which gathered force at
this time was judgments by courts favoring Muslim women. In the 2009 case of a
divorce petition of Shabana Bano and Imran Khan of Gwalior, the Supreme Court
ruled that the woman under Section 125 CrPc would be entitled to claim
maintenance after Iddat so long as she does not remarry. This being a beneficial
legislation, the benefit would accrue to the Muslim woman.

But what made headlines was sensational voyeurism, such as news about Gudiyas
and Imranas, Muslim women who were victimized by their personal laws. Such
stories are prominently featured but many other positive ones remain buried in
Muslim villages and ghettoes in urban areas. There is always the good with the
bad, but media is mostly interested in sensational exposure of Muslim women
particularly if it indicts the Sharia.

This penchant led to a huge interest in my performing a Nikah on August 12,
2008; I was probably the first Indian woman who had solemnized an Islamic
marriage. I don’t think I had created a world record; although some sections
claimed it was a global first. I performed the Nikah of Naish Hasan and Imran
Ali in Lucknow. A woman Qazi and women witnesses hit the big time and became
breaking news. What was never projected was the fact that Islam is the only
religion which has no injunction against women performing this function. The
fact that there are no women Qazis among Muslims is purely customary practice.
The other fact that this revolutionary event in Lucknow did not invoke a
condemnatory fatwa was hardly noticed in any media.

Pre General Studies Study Material

The role of Muslim women activists in India is crucial for improving the
legal lot of Muslim women. Clearly, we need to take concrete steps towards
remedying the consistent failure of the religious authorities to implement those
provisions of Islamic law were originally designed to emancipate women but which
are widely ignored in practice today. The Supreme Court landmark judgment on
triple talas seeks to obtain the rights provided women in the Qur’an. It was
Justi Kurien Joseph, who along with Justice RF Nariman and Justice Uday Umesh
Lalit who caught the contradiction in the minority judgement opposing the
prohibition of triple talaq and made this statement, “After the introduction of
the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, no practice against the
tenets of Quran is permissible. Hence, there cannot be any constitutional
protection to such a practice (triple talaq) and, thus, my disagreement with the
learned Chief Justice for the constitutional protection given to triple talaq.”

The question of Uniform Civil Code (UCC) has been in the public domain since
the last 70 years. Among Muslims there is apprehension that a UCC or any new
legislation within Muslim Personal Law (MPL) will be enacted in India in the
near future. MPL Board’s argument in the SC against abolishing triple talaq
hinged on the fear that it would pave the way for UCC. The Supreme Court did not
hear the UCC issue along with the triple talaq case, saying that the two are
separate issues. But fear remains of the Centre’s exploiting the judgement for
its political gain. The matter now is in the the Rajya Sabha where the
opposition has asked for more discussion given the extreme sensitivity of the
issue. The most recent development is the Law Commission’s Report submitted on
the eve of completion of its term.

Since polygamy, nikahhalala, adultery law are in the Supreme Court, the Law
Commission has discussed reforms but not made recommendations. “Although
polygamy is permitted within Islam, it is a rare practice among Indian Muslims,
on the other hand it is frequently misused by persons of other religions who
convert as Muslims solely for the purpose of solemnising another marriage rather
than Muslims themselves,” it notes. It suggests that a standard Nikahnama should
make it clear that “polygamy is a criminal oflence, a position that is not based
on a moral stance on monogamy but on the fact that it has been used as an
exclusive privilege of men.”

It has made an important pronouncement on the UCC stating that the time for
enacting is not now. Its stand is in favour of equality ‘within communities’
between men and women (personal law reform), rather than ‘equality between’
communities (UCC). The Commission goes on to emphasise that celebration of the
diversity of Indian culture must not dis-privilege specific groups and “women
must be guaranteed their freedom of faith without any compromise on their right
to equality” as it would be unfair to make women choose between one or the

The Law Commission has also recommended a ‘Muslim Code of Inheritance and
Succession’ applicable to both Sunnis and the Shias, so that succession and
inheritance be based on ‘proximity to the deceased rather than preference given
to male agnates heirs.

To showcase the efforts of twentieth century Muslim women who broke the
stereotype image of the oppressed Muslim woman, Muslim Women’s Forum recently
held an exhibition and a colloquium titled ‘Path breakers: The Twentieth Century
Muslim Women of India’ These women became nation builders along with the tallest
leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad. They were
Constituent Assembly Members, MPs, MLAs in the first three elections. Sharifa
Hamid Ali, born in Surat, sat in the Constituent Assembly and represented India
at the UN Commission on Status of Women and prepared a model nikahnama. Mofida
Ahmed was an MLA from Jorhat in Assam, Aziz Imam, Anis Kidwai and Qudsia Aizaz
Rasool were members of Parliament, Qudsia Zaidi started the first professional
theatre in post Independence India.

Surayya Tyabji designed the Indian flag. Some of the participants were
writers, poets and chroniclers of their time. The list of their achievements is
long. All the current hype about Islam being anti- women and a patriarchal
religion is negated by the courage of these pathbreakers, their friends and
Muslim Women’s groups in showing what is real and meaningful about women in

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