Zuhara is a fighter. She heads an organisation that gives voice to Muslim women silenced by age-old practices like polygamy and indiscriminate talaq.

The small rented room on the ground floor of a building located close to the Civil Station in Kozhikode in Kerala is where she runs Nisa Enterprises offering customer services from DTP works to online booking of railway or air tickets and it is also the office of the Nisa Progressive Muslim Women's Forum, a voluntary group popularly known as “Nisa”. She founded Nisa to serve as a platform for fighting gender-unjust practices prevalent in the Muslim community in the region, including polygamy and triple talaq and for demanding equal property and guardianship rights for Muslim women.

The bespectacled face of V.P. Zuhara framed by the long end of the pallu of her sari she covers her head with is a familiar one in Kerala as she is in the forefront of activism for the cause of equal rights of Muslim women.

Victimised

As president of Nisa, which in Arabic means women, she has been charting a distinct course for highlighting issues exclusively being faced by Muslim women in Kerala ever since the group was founded, though she plunged into the activities of the nascent feminist movement in the State in the mid-1970s. A victim of retrograde practices in the community herself, she took to battling them and helping the victims.

The idea of a collective of progressive-minded Muslim women was conceived following a seminar organised in 1997 in Kozhikode by the newly constituted Kerala Women's Commission chaired by poet and social activist Sugathakumari.

“Many Muslim organisations and leaders unleashed a vilification campaign against Sugathakumari when she passionately spoke at the seminar on the plight of a divorced Muslim woman,” says Zuhara recalling the formation of the group. The forum was a response to heated reactions of the community organisations and leaders that people from other faiths had no right to intervene in the affairs of the Muslim community, she reminisced.

By no means a Muslim refusenik, Zuhara believes that Islam has acknowledged and granted to women property rights, the rights to re-marry and to divorce. Influenced by the Moroccan feminist and author of Beyond the Veil, Fatema Mernissi, she fought for those rights saying that the holy texts of Islam have been misinterpreted by men, especially the clergy, to serve their own interests. She as well as her group faced stiff resistance from the orthodox and fundamentalist segments of the community in Kerala when she highlighted that the Muslim Personal Law in the country denies to the Muslim women the very basic rights including rights to justice, freedom and equality enshrined in the Constitution. The campaign Nisa spearheaded demanding codification of the Muslim Personal Law for solving the problems being faced by the Muslim women in the legal spheres including marriage, divorce, property rights, adoption, custody and guardianship may not have yielded the desired results, she admits, but it has at least created an awareness in the community that certain issues such as polygamy and triple talaq need to be addressed.

“Her interventions and campaigns have secured media attention to the Muslim women's issues she has raised,” says Hameed Chennamangaloor, a prominent social critic and author, who wrote extensively on the rise of Islamic fundamentalist groups in Kerala. The works of Muslim women activists like her have to be expanded to mobilise greater public support for their campaigns highlighting such issues, says Chennamangaloor, whose latest book in Malayalam Deivathinte Rashtriyam (politics of God) was released recently.

The activities of Nisa included public campaigns and protests against indiscriminate talaq and polygamy, among others. Zuhara knows from her own personal experience what it is to be a victim of such practices. She was married off at 14 and divorced at 18, not before she gave birth to two children. “I was too young to know why I was divorced and at that time I thought that I was under curse from women divorced by elders in my own family,” she says. It took a while for her to change that mindset before she decided to fight for the cause of women's rights. She refused to play the role of a submissive woman expected of a divorced woman in her family and community.

Zuhara joined the activities of the Mahila Samajam, a local women's group in 1975, the year designated as International Women's Year by the United Nations. But her evolution into a full-fledged feminist-activist followed the death of her second husband in 1986 when she was actively involved in the activities of “Bodhana”, a voluntary organisation started by former Naxalite and activist K. Ajitha, which took up the issues of sexual and other exploitation of women workers in Kozhikode.

“My experience during my Bodhana days drew me close to problems faced by a large number of Muslim women in the region,” she admits. She herself had a taste of them when she was treated as an outcast in her own extended family belonging to the orthodox Thangal clan once her activism went beyond the norms set for women in her community. She was forced to leave her family with her son in the second marriage, leaving her two children by her first marriage with her mother.

“It was also the time when I faced smear campaign and the charge of being anti-religious from various Muslim fundamentalist organisations,” recalls 60-year-old Zuhara.

Her activism appeared to have ended when she left Kozhikode to do different jobs including one as a nurse in Riyadh. The break gave her a breathing space before she emerged as a visible figure following the founding of Nisa and started speaking for the hapless victims of polygamy, divorce and unequal rights in her community, holding discussions on such issues and even staging protests to muster public support against the undesirable, including the practice of what is known in local parlance in the region as Arabi kalyanam (a system of wedlock involving a local Muslim girl and an Arab national that lasted for a few weeks or months). “As a result of our campaign which even led to the arrest of an Arab national from a hotel in Kozhikode, the practice of Arabi kalyanam came to an end,” says Zuhara. Nisa also filed a case which is pending in the High Court seeking equal rights for Muslim women.

Zuhara says she and her group will continue to question attempts within her community to keep women from the mainstream. No less important, according to her, is the collective work to disturb the conscience of leaders of the community through campaigns and public interventions.

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