As a fatherless girl, Sharifa Khanam often likened herself to Cinderella, while she sat cooking by the fire. One of ten children born in a Muslim family, the dreamy-eyed maiden from Pudukkottai yearned for her own space and believed a fairy godmother would answer her prayers someday.
Fast forward three decades or so, and Sharifa Khanam finds herself at the helm of a silent social movement rewriting the destinies of thousands of Muslim women in Tamil Nadu seeking freedom from polygamy, domestic violence, dowry harassment and molestation. Like many modern Cinderellas, Sharifa discovered she could wait forever for her fairy godmother, or she could rescue herself. Though she dumped her illusions, it is clear she kept her dreams, for STEPS, the organization Sharifa founded, was essentially born of a feverish imagination.
“As a little girl, I believed I could conjure something out of the space between my fingers; I hoped I could create something out of nothing,” she says. Her biggest dream, ten years in the making, is to build the world's first women's mosque.
As we mount the narrow flight of stairs to a humble office bursting with petitions, it sinks in that STEPS is a stairway to emancipation for many women.
“Each petition is the story of an embattled woman,” says Sharifa, who established the organisation in 1991, inspired by testimonies at the all-India women's conference in Patna that she attended as a translator.
Though STEPS now works chiefly for the uplift of Muslim women, the organisation has in the past addressed landlessness of Dalits, protested eviction of cucumber vendors, provided asylum for women victims in the Premananda case and conducted gender sensitisation sessions for police. Sharifa believes that Muslim women face double discrimination. “Islam accords great respect to women but men who interpret the tenets use religion to make women subservient. For instance there is no practice of dowry in Islam, but dowry harassment is rampant in the community.”
The quest for a space of their own culminated in the formation of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women's Jammat. A jammat is a committee attached to a mosque comprising elders who arbitrate on community disputes including divorce, dowry and domestic issues. Conventional jammats had no women representatives.
“How can a jammat be fair when the voices and rights of half the community are denied by excluding women? What do fathers and brothers speaking for a woman know of her opinions and feelings?” demands Sharifa. Police generally comply with the jammat's verdict, and politicians do not intervene for fear of losing the vote of Muslim men.
Though the women's jammat today has 25,000 members with 10,000 registered members in Southern and Central Tamil Nadu, Sharifa is keen on expanding the reach of STEPS. An award of Rs.10 lakh by Edel Give Social Innovation Honours instiuted by Edelweiss was invested in a minivan that would be used to respond to requests for help from women anywhere in the state. The women's jammat has set a precedent by issuing ‘talaq', albeit on substantial grounds, she adds.
“We always hear both sides, or how will we be different from other jammats?” retorts Sharifa, noting that women who attend jammat meetings are a less inhibited lot. She takes pride that the organisation she founded has grown ahead of her.
Citing an instance when members did not budge from Cuddalore until a favourable settlement was worked out for an aggrieved woman who was cheated out of her wealth by her in-laws, Sharifa says women no longer need her to spur them to take up the cudgels.
The first ever recipient of the Dr. Durgabhai Deshmukh national award instituted by the Central Social Welfare Board, New Delhi, Sharifa has always believed the road to empowerment is paved with economic independence. The jammat banks have produced around 1,000 women entrepreneurs by linking them with private financiers to set up tea shops, masala powder units or sari sales. “Poverty is the biggest concern and must be addressed before any gender-specific issue,” notes Sharifa.
Sharifa's wish list includes women's representation in the Waqf board, implementation of recommendations of Justice Sachar committee and constitution of a Muslim Women's Board for Empowerment without religious intervention.
Her personal goal is to launch a centre where women activists would be accommodated with all comforts when they are old or incapacitated. “The centre would be in recognition of their work, so that they feel they have not toiled in vain,” she says.
Sharifa's long-harboured dream is the completion of a separate women's mosque. She conceived the idea in 2003, as a jammat which is traditionally attached to a mosque. The idea then attracted publicity, but did not translate into resources. For want of funds, her white dream has nothing but a foundation.
“Today the project would require around 50 lakhs for completion. With all the pledges and promises, the mosque should have been completed. Resources have not increased, but my responsibilities have accrued."
Sharifa visualises the mosque as a community centre for women where women would pray, think, learn, bond and laugh.
"Give a woman her own space, and you'll witness a change,” she asserts. Our chat winds up in her own space, an airy red brick room on the roof built to filter moonbeams. “Somehow,” she vows, “I will complete the mosque in my lifetime.”