Islam’s feminine voice

Updated - November 01, 2016 10:18 pm IST

Published - October 01, 2016 04:25 pm IST

Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Aandolan turns 10. Feisty co-founder Zakia Soman describes the journey

“On triple talaq too we will win... because 50 to 60 per cent of the community supports us,” says Zakia Soman. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

“On triple talaq too we will win... because 50 to 60 per cent of the community supports us,” says Zakia Soman. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

It’s peaceful in the compound of Ahmedabad’s Sarkhez Roza in the shade of a huge ashoka tree. The azaan sounds. Two mynahs drink water from a mud basin. I would call it idyllic but the pretty and plump Sadia’s large eyes are welling over. Married for five months and four months pregnant, the 22-year-old Sadia’s husband suddenly wants a divorce. He wants her to abort the baby first because the Shariat doesn’t let him divorce a pregnant wife. Shabana, also 22, has a pretty elfin face under thick glasses. Her husband says she is blind and has thrown her out with their 10-month-old son.

Noorjehan and Hazra appa listen, offer solutions, get angry. They are volunteers with Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), and counselling is a major part of what they do. I am here with Zakia Soman, founder-chairperson of BMMA, which celebrates 10 years and one lakh members this year.

Earlier that day, sitting in a cool, magenta-curtained room of her 10th-floor apartment, I had asked Soman what BMMA’s most significant achievement in these 10 years was. “For the first time since Independence, a progressive Muslim feminine voice has emerged,” she said. “For far too long, the Muslim community has relegated the right to speak to a limited, conservative, patriarchal set who don’t understand the times we are passing through; the challenges of liberalisation and technology.”

For women to wrest the Muslim pulpit is radical indeed. But Soman and BMMA have managed to do just that. Their latest victory came when the Supreme Court allowed women to enter the sanctum of Mumbai’s famous Haji Ali shrine. “Believe me,” says Soman, voice low and eyes shining, “on triple talaq too we will win. We will win not only because of the courts but because 50 to 60 per cent of the Muslim community supports us.”

She speaks with the confidence of a leader and an idea whose time has come. A confidence bolstered by the countless men who now support BMMA. Her tone filled with pride, she says, “They call us, mail us, tell us ‘we are with you’. They send us quotes from the Koran to support our views. I am inundated with mail.”

The Sachar Committee Report (2005) found that only an abysmal four of every 100 Muslims become graduates. Illiteracy appears to be the community’s biggest hurdle, and Soman tries to explain why this is a particularly hard time. “An already poor community is getting increasingly pauperised in the new economy.” The average Muslim has traditionally worked in urban and semi-urban, multi-generational small businesses — shops, looms, garages, handicrafts, etc. “The emphasis on education, the need for it has always been low. Couple this with the present climate. There’s a psyche of insecurity and fear.”

Soman should know. Her parents were academics, but just a generation ago, her grandfather was a mill worker. The lower middle-class joint family lived in a large home of four floors, many rooms and no locks. In a small, dark room upstairs, her grandmother and great aunts kept many cloth bundles, potlas . “Much later, as an adult, I realised that these potlas contained all the family valuables. They were always packed, ready to be carried. As soon as there was a phone call, “ shehar mein hullar hain (there’s uproar in the city),” the women would pick up a potla each and start walking to the nearest safe area.”

A community that had to be always ready to flee…

“In Ahmedabad,” says Soman, “there are many borders… not with another country but where a Hindu locality ends and the Muslim begins.” I stare in disbelief. She laughs. “We will go later to Jumhapura,” she says, “a large Muslim ghetto. And to give you directions, they will say, “come down this road and just before the border, turn left…””

“Now I easily use words like Hindu, Muslim, border… words I have never used. This is our reality now. In that sense, we have lost a part of ourselves. But perhaps it will again be repaired because that too is part of our society; we are known for our resilience.”

Soman has many stories, each one haunting. “Many stories, many angles, all inter-connected. Then they dismiss it, saying we are all Indian, we are all one…” With a flash of anger, she says, “We too want it to be true. But it’s not.”

During the 1969 communal riots of Ahmedabad, Soman was four. “My grandmother and aunts all came to Jamalpur, where we lived. One image has stayed with me. When the curfew was lifted each morning, the women would go out to buy food. My mother took my brother and me to see our grandmother’s house in Kallupur, on the border. And we saw my grandma’s home completely ransacked — the single fan’s blades had been twisted upside down. Cupboards, glasses, windows broken, lights torn down. We stood for a while, then walked back quickly. I remember my aunts and grandmother crying...

Soman’s absence of bitterness is striking. “None of this entered my psyche. We were still mainstream. We studied in good schools, stayed with friends, friends stayed with us, we got good jobs… Of course, it is also a class thing, but when I look back, I don’t agree with this demonisation of Gujarat. A kind of politics has been experimented with in Gujarat that has succeeded to an extent, but that does not mean all of Gujarat is or was like that; it’s a mixed bag.”

Despite his parents’ experience, Soman’s father decided to buy a flat in what was largely a ‘Hindu’ locality, Azad Society. “Their friends said “we will protect you”. I realise now what a liberal man he was. This thing about Muslims not joining the mainstream — what more can a man do? We lived there for many years…” Their friends did do their best but could not prevent their flat being burnt down in 1990 in the pre-Ayodhya riots. “Everything was taken into the street and burnt. This broke my father. He finally moved to Paldi, a Muslim area.”

Soman entered social work after 2002, when her husband and she were called to help families camping in a kabristan in Gomtipur. Married then to an abusive and violent man, Soman threw herself into helping the women she met in Gomtipur. It was to prove life changing.

“I started talking to the women, helping them. But it was I who was being influenced by them. They were young. They were not educated like me. Afsana wanted to file a case, wanted compensation… Zubeida said: “I will search for my husband as long as I am alive. Help me. Get me a curfew pass.”

They all said, “ Humko insaaf mil jaye to humko madad nahi chahiye . (We want justice, not help.)”

That was April 2002. Soman’s marriage ended in April 2003. “When I saw Afsana and Zubeida, I realised what it means to be alive. I was alive, I had everything. Why was I taking nonsense from this man? If these women, Class V dropouts, can fight, so can I.”

Soman’s husband divorced her using triple talaq , without a single rupee of mehr . “The work I do with women now… I have been through all that. The Koran grants me fair maintenance, allows me to initiate divorce. But I didn’t know this then. The imams keep all this under wraps.”

Soon, Soman had met Noorjehan, her co-founder in BMMA, and many others. “By 2006, we had arrived at a clarity. Muslim women were being shortchanged in personal life and as citizens. A few rabid, patriarchal men were speaking on the community’s behalf. And they were talking rubbish. We felt the need to raise a voice.”

This clarity helped BMMA hone the ambition of its role. The founders saw themselves as citizens, women, Muslims, with no contradiction in these identities. They sought a larger sphere of influence, and soon realised their potential as community leaders.

As Soman says, “We had by then given 60 years to the male leadership. It was time to build our own. BMMA would lead not only Muslim women, but the entire community.”

The first major change they initiated was to work within both the Islamic and the Constitutional frameworks. “The Muslim woman needs education, healthcare and jobs as citizen rights, but also gender justice within Islam.” The second seminal move was to seek universality. So, they speak up not just for Muslim women, but for all marginalised communities. I tell Soman this is a significant stance. She agrees. “It’s a declaration that we are mainstream.”

BMMA’s bid to break the stranglehold of patriarchal leadership began strongly when it drafted its own legally-binding marriage contract ( nikkah namah ). Based entirely on the Koran, it makes the man declare any previous marriage. It lays down amounts for maintenance and mehr (a minimum that’s equal to the husband’s annual income). It eschews triple talaq . Soman gives me a copy and tells me that BMMA has conducted several marriages using this contract.

It’s a much-needed move. Mehr , widely quoted to project Islamic personal law as ‘progressive’, is in reality a cruel joke. Most women are pressurised to declare mehr maaf , waiving of mehr . Or they are granted ridiculous amounts. Later that afternoon, Shabana told me her mehr was Rs. 2,500, a paltry sum her husband has refused to pay.

The key is to understand and interpret the Koran. So the organisation has started Qazi training for women, and has so far produced about 30 qazis . It has also started Auraton ki Shariat Adalat, or women’s Shariat courts, which dispenses with divorce cases according to this gender-just reading of the Koran. There are four such courts and since 2014, it has handled 267 cases, of which all but 18 were successfully adjudicated. Do men have to be dragged screaming and kicking to these courts? “Well, we do need to exert some pressure,” Soman admits. Volunteers call, counsel, persuade, threaten and cajole; but often when the men realise it is Koranic, they are quite happy to accept the pronouncements.

And that has been the magic formula. By sticking closely to the Koran, BMMA has managed to pull the rug out from under the conservative elements. Soman laughs: “The Muslim personal law board is stumped. We are not going away from the Koran. We are delving deeper into it.”

In 2014, BMMA prepared the draft for a codified Muslim personal law, based both on Koranic and Constitutional values. Is this their response to the demand for a Uniform Civil Code? “We prefer instead that the Muslim personal law first be codified to protect gender justice,” she replies. In parallel, they also want the Special Marriage Act expanded to include divorce, maintenance and custody. “Let this secular alternative be available to every citizen,” Soman says. “But let it not stop the reform of Muslim personal law.”

Codifying Muslim law, or taking away the power of patriarchal interpretations, is the long-term aim for Soman and BMMA. For now, they are fighting it one piece at a time, starting with the abolition of triple talaq , talaq halala and polygamy.

When you see the trust and hope in the eyes of women like Sadia and Shabana, it is obvious this is a movement that will not look back or be stopped.

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

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