Last week I was chased out of a graveyard in Mumbai. On a visit home, I decided to pray Fathia over my father’s grave. But upon the realisation that there was a ‘woman’ in the graveyard, the imam from the nearby mosque broke into a panic interrupting my prayer and sending me out from the final resting place. The subject of women visiting graveyards is a contentious one in the Sunni practice of Islam. One hadeeth (prophetic narration) indicates that the Prophet forbade women from visiting graves. A second narration holds that the prohibition was recanted and all believers were asked to visit graveyards — to remind themselves of their return to the Divine.
Beyond my own experience, this conflict played out years ago when the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai banned women from entering the shrine’s inner sanctum. This ban was upturned by the judiciary but remains a bone of contention amongst shrine leadership and management.
More about a discomfort
My contestation here is that this debate has less to do with religious stipulations and far more to do with the deep discomfort that emerges from seeing Muslim women occupying public spaces in India. Unfortunately, most voices that claim to politically or societally represent Muslims in India have been male. Even in the electoral sphere, this remains a historically underrepresented group. Despite making up 6.9% of the Indian population, a 2019 report showed that Muslim women have only a 0.6% representation in the Lok Sabha.
On the matter of Personal Law, after the volatility of the Shah Bano judgment and the passing of the dilutive Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, the country’s Islamic leadership had the opportunity to treat the misuse of legal provisions as an internal matter. The Muslim community has the rare, inbuilt grassroots communication system of Friday prayers and the khutba (sermon) that precedes it. This platform to address, assuage and compel the community remains underutilised. Of course this is not helped by the fact that the majority of mosque doors remain closed to women.
Aiding a narrative
As critic Ziya Us Salam argues, the exclusion of women from spaces of prayer and community is a deep injustice and a consequence of jahiliyat (malicious ignorance). The largest mosques in the nation claim that they have no room to spare for women. In this state the spiritual and social needs of women play second fiddle to masculine comfort. Beyond the woman question, these conditions are damaging to the social fabric of Indian Islam as a whole. The systematic exclusion of women from their rightful seat at the table creates the perfect feeding frenzy towards the narrative that ‘Muslim women need saving’.
This narrative was propagated by the far right, helping curate the image of the barbaric, cruel Muslim man. It also provides legitimacy to the calls for the Uniform Civil Code as an act of rescue. As mediaperson Sonali Verma puts it, the declaration of triple talaq, while posturing as a pro-women move, remains mired in communal politics. The invisibilisation of the Muslim women means that there is an artificial lacuna in which multiple bodies (with multiple motives) claim to speak for them.
As a target
This conundrum is made more complicated when Muslim women do in fact occupy public and political space. With the Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, and particularly the Shaheen Bagh sit-in, the visual of the veiled Muslim woman stopped being synonymous with passivity. With these protests itself there was a recognition of the double bind of Muslim women. The lack of kagazat (documentation) has disproportionate impacts over gender lines, and the calls for aazadi (freedom) are multifold. The visual metaphor of visible Muslim women protesting in the name of the Constitution and democratic principles subverts many mainstream imaginations.
The consequence of this has been brutal. Protesters at the sit-in were termed bikau (for sale) and described in humiliating terms. From potent invisibilisation and portrayals as objects needing rescue, the Right has turned to a hypersexualisation of Muslim women. Online campaigns have seen videos and songs encouraging the abuse of and violence against Muslim women. Prominent figures are often faced with barrages of abuse and hate messaging. This took a particularly crude turn with Sulli Deals (in 2021) and its successor, Bulli Bai (in 2022) where images of influential Muslim women were ‘auctioned’ online.
Affecting a right
Most recently, we can see this through the Karnataka hijab row, where young Muslim girls have not been allowed to access their campus when veiling. A segment has argued that this is to prevent ‘regressive/religious practices’ from seeping into secular spaces. The conflation of regression with Islamic practices aside, this is a direct violation of the girls’ fundamental right to education. Barring Muslim women from secular spaces unless they literally strip off markers of their faith and identity is vitriolic. It serves no purpose but to propagate a malicious narrative that on the one hand pretends to save Muslim women and on the other denies them the tools to craft their own narrative.
In this way the internal fear that the occupation of Muslim women occupying public spaces leading to shame has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are left outside the insular, safety net of the community and in turn face vilification by the growing Right. The lack of a middle path here means that Muslim women are forced to occupy spaces on two ends of the spectrum — one that requires a compromise of political agency and the second that requires accepting an exclusion from one’s own community.
This sorry state of affairs bodes poorly for Indian democracy and its political axis as a whole. In a country with as many intersecting identities as ours, no issues or circumstances exist in silos. To be included is an obligation erga omnes (an obligation to all), and damage to it is erosive to a secular democracy. A non-representative leadership is a breeding ground for polarisation, spillovers of which affect us beyond gendered and religious lines.
My submission here remains pained yet hopeful; the campaign of Muslim women to occupy public spaces and protect democracy is a lonely one. However, in the current political climate, it remains necessary to fight this fight — and protect an equal, democratic India.
Azania Imtiaz Khatri-Patel is a Rhodes Scholar in Residence at the University of Oxford. She is currently pursuing her Masters’ in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government. The views expressed are personal