`Seclusion inflicted by insecurity'

Published : Dec 15, 2006 00:00 IST

Interview with Subhashini Ali, president, All India Democratic Women's Association.


THE All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) had sent a representation to the Sachar Commitee highlighting the organisation's experience of working among Muslim women and the issues that emerged thereafter. AIDWA had held a series of State-level conventions to debate and understand the specific problems faced by Muslim women. The conventions revealed that though the problems were similar to those faced by poor women from other communities they were accentuated in the case of Muslim women and children. In this interview to Frontline, Subhashini Ali, president of AIDWA, spoke extensively about the myriad issues confronting the Muslim community, women in particular, and cautioned against offering simplistic solutions to their problems. Excerpts:

A slew of reports, including the one by the Sachar Committee, have exploded the myth of Muslim appeasement. There is now a strong call from some sections for affirmative action in favour of Muslims. Given this situation, what kind of a role do you expect from policy-makers in the government?

The answer to this question has to be divided into several parts. When we are discussing affirmative action, those Muslims who are listed in the OBC list in the Mandal Commission report, are, theoretically, entitled to reservation under the OBC quota. But a problem arises in the context of discrimination on religious grounds; this affects them badly as even if they are entitled to reservations as OBCs and compete with Hindu OBCs, they suffer a disadvantage because of their religion. This question has to be addressed. The government and various organisations will have to be questioned on how many Muslims have got jobs under the OBC quota. This is a very important question and the details have to be unearthed. If they are not accessing jobs at all under the OBC quota, then something has to be done. If, as some Muslim organisations argue, Muslims constitute 8 per cent of the OBCs, then they should also be given 8 to 10 per cent of the jobs reserved for the OBCs.

There are also Dalit Muslim communities who are very far behind. They also belong to the same professions as the Hindu Dalits. They are sweepers, leather workers, barbers, laundry persons and also performers like Nats. They have not had the advantage of reservation at all. There is a very strong case for giving the benefits of reservation to the Scheduled Caste Muslims as in the case of the neo-Buddhists in Maharashtra and Christian Dalits. In fact, there is a bigger rationale for giving them these benefits because they have been deprived for 50 years. For instance, there was a case in a government hospital in Kanpur where a Muslim sweeper died but his son did not get the job on compassionate grounds as he was not a Dalit. The employees went on strike and finally the boy was given the job but under a special dispensation.

Certain sections argue that the entire Muslim community be given reservations but that is not advisable and not permissible under the Constitution. It may create more problems and you may find that the Ashraf Muslims, who are the upper-caste Muslims, will garner most of the benefits. But at the same time it is necessary that the government make allocations - sectional allocations and monitor them as well.

The other thing is that that women in any category are found at the bottom of the heap. So whenever there is talk of positive discrimination, women have to be factored in at the very start. There is no point thinking about it ten years later. The government has to make a special component for Muslim women as they should for Dalit women.

There is a theory that Muslims' social backwardness may be one of the root causes of their exclusion from the mainstream. Is the community's backwardness a result of its economic backwardness or is it the other way round?

A community becomes backward for several reasons and one of the primary reasons is government neglect. This is certainly the case here in India where successive governments have made noises about doing things for the minorities, creating an erroneous sense of appeasement. For the vast numbers of the community, nothing has been done. In fact, Muslims are a community who has been discriminated against at every level, facing violent and passive forms of discrimination. The Muslims as a community not only suffer prejudice but do not have much of a voice anyway. That becomes a reason for their social backwardness but there are other historical reasons also. For instance, the battle for modern education for Muslims and the resistance by the clergy is well documented. But it is not as if because Muslims are Muslims, they are socially backward. Their backwardness is not independent of their state of being citizens of India. I will give you an example. I know of Muslim businessmen who do not employ Muslims. They discriminate against their own community but there is a reason, which has to do with prejudice. They say that it is easier to employ Hindus to deal with banks and government departments.

Whenever there is a discussion on social backwardness and Muslim women, there is a clamour for a uniform civil code. Do you think having a uniform civil code will address the deeper issue of patriarchy in the Muslim community and other communities.

The clamour for a uniform civil code is like many other simplistic solutions that are offered. It doesn't have much of a meaning. Unfortunately, the Sangh Parivar has used the issue as a stick to beat the Muslims with. After the Shah Bano controversy, we went into this question very seriously. In the early 1990s, we organised a convention in Delhi on "Equal rights, Equal laws". The first thing we demanded was equality between all sexes and not between members of different religions. All personal laws are discriminatory against women. There is a need for reform of all personal laws regarding inheritance, property rights, matrimonial rights, divorce and custody over children. There should be gender-equal laws governing all communities. We have pushed for strengthening secular laws that help women in their fight against injustice and violence. On both these fronts, there has been some movement forward. Some personal laws have been amended.

The Supreme Court of late has pronounced several judgments in favour of the rights of Muslim women, which have not been contested by anybody. The law against domestic violence that applies to all communities was passed without much of an opposition. The Protection Against Sexual Harassment of Women Bill, 2005, is also under discussion. We are also preparing a Bill on sexual assault. There is a parallel process. We have also tried to further the cause of reform within society as well as that of laws affecting Muslim women. We held a series of Muslim women's conventions in almost all the major States of India. These are platforms where women from all classes participated. Women talked about the complete lack of civic amenities, lack of employment and access to education.

They also talked about conservative elements in their society who disapproved of them going out to work. They also expressed a great desire to improve the quality of their lives. They also talked about discriminatory laws that allowed polygamy and the triple talaq. These laws may not be exercised but are used as a threat against them. We have had dialogues with organisations like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. Our discussions helped Muslim women become aware of many of their rights they enjoyed under their own religion like the delegated right to divorce and right to Mehr and property. The AIMPLB came up with their model Nikahnaama.

Their draft fell short of expectations. But what happened as a consequence was that there was a sense that there was no unanimity among people who were interpreting Islam and therefore there was space for questions. This was an important development. A Shia Muslim Personal Law Board and a Muslim Women Personal Law Board emerged. The Shia Muslim Personal Law Board has come up with its own Nikahnaama - we have only read about it in the papers - but many of its reported features are an improvement over the AMIPLB's Nikahnaama. For instance, the woman is also given the right to initiate divorce proceedings and it can be on several grounds. The man has to reveal his economic status at the time of marriage and if any of it is proved to be false, she can initiate divorce. If a man divorces his wife, she is entitled to maintenance until she becomes economically independent. This is quite a big step forward from Shah Bano. We have also drafted our own Nikahnaama, which is not in conflict with Islamic tenets but has many more rights for women. We have started a signature campaign among Muslim women and men that calls for the abolition of triple talaq, polygamy and equal custodial rights of children for women. We have got a good response from both men and women and that is much more important and effective than mouthing empty slogans like UCC. What does it mean?

Given your organisation's experience of working amongst all communities, what would you say are the reasons for the ghettoisation of Muslims. Has it something to do with the increasing insecurity faced by the community in recent times?

The biggest problem that Muslims face today - which upper middle class Muslims did not face earlier - is a feeling of deep-seated fear and insecurity. All this talk of mainstreaming is really nonsense. After Gujarat and Babri Masjid, a strong feeling emerged that justice was not done. Today the bomb blasts are making headlines and people ought to be punished, but nobody remembers that the blasts came after the Bombay riots. Nothing has been done about the Srikrishna Commission and its recommendations. The same thing happened in the case of the Madan Commission (Bhiwandi riots) and the Mathur Commission (Kanpur riots, after Babri Masjid demolition). No action has been taken by any government, whether it was run by the Samajwadi Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress. This is totally unacceptable and casts a painful blot on us as a country. All this basically means that it is okay to kill Muslims. This creates a great sense of injustice and it also creates an atmosphere where other things get justified.

Ghettoisation is a direct result of communal riots. People scamper to the areas where they feel physically safe. This means that many people who had got into mixed housing and sent children to mixed schools have withdrawn. Now not only have they got isolated from other communities but other communities have also got isolated from them. We have a situation now where people do not have any social interaction with Muslims except coming in touch with the odd mechanic perhaps.

The portrayal of Muslims as terrorists in the international media has created a very unfortunate situation of alienation and discrimination. It has given a handle to fundamentalist orthodox elements who become more important in the community. Important issues like reforms, rights of women get pushed to the back burner and this gets justified in the name of insecurity. It is a terrible situation for everybody. The state has a responsibility to change it. Justice is very important and no government has the right to exist if it does not guarantee that. At the same time, we have to allow people to have access to equal laws and equal opportunities. In the last West Bengal elections, the Election Commission struck off from the voters' list the names of several Muslims, including the wife of one of our Members of Parliament. I don't think these things happen to other communities. Then in Mumbai, after the train blasts, the Police Commissioner issued an order that all Muslims returning from abroad had to report to their local thanas. This was shocking.

Data show that in some indicators like work participation, usage of amenities like the Public Distribution System, water supply, Muslims are worse off than Dalits. Is this a consequence of their deliberate exclusion by state policy. It has been pointed out that the representation of Muslims in government posts in West Bengal and Kerala is not very satisfactory.

In West Bengal and Kerala, there are two things to be considered. Everyone recognises that security of Muslims is an assured fact. Nobody denies that. Secondly, in both the States, Muslims have been the beneficiaries of land reforms in a very big way. In Kerala, they have been the beneficiaries of an excellent system of universal education. Having said that, it is also true that if governments do not take steps to positively discriminate in favour of minorities, what happens is that the general level of prejudice gets reflected in low recruitment at all levels. In Tripura, I found the Left Front government had taken special steps for the development of minority-dominated villages. Children from minority communities were encouraged to join school and scholarships were given for books and uniforms. I attended a Muslim women's convention in Sonamura. There were many women who had won the local elections. They could hardly contain their shock when they were told about what had happened in Gujarat. While the majority suffered from poverty, they did not have to face insecurity as compared to their sisters elsewhere. I found that quality of schools in a backward district like Dhalai was also astounding. Apparently almost all government schools had pucca buildings and the student-teacher ratio was 1:30. The Infant Mortality Rate and Maternal Mortality Rate were also lower than the national averages.

Are the needs and priorities of Muslim women any different from those of other women. In your experience, how easy or difficult has it been to mobilise them on common livelihood issues.

The status of Muslim women is not very different from that of Hindu women. But obviously, if there is a situation of insecurity, it is Muslim women who get affected more. It is not only seclusion by the burqa that should be highlighted; it is a seclusion inflicted by insecurity and that lack of basic amenities like safe public transport. After the Metro started in Delhi, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many burqa-clad women from Chawri Bazaar having a nice time in Connaught Place. It is only a five-minute ride. It is not that Muslim parents don't want to educate their children. But obviously they won't send their girls to schools that are far off. There are no schools in their areas.

A curriculum that demonises Muslims and teachers who discriminate against these children discourage parents from sending their children to so-called mainstream schools. There are so many examples of teachers who speak irresponsibly and encourage other children to speak disparagingly to Muslim children.

Madrassa reform is also important and West Bengal has shown the way. There are a lot of non-Muslim children studying in these schools as well. The results have also been rather good. As for mobilising Muslim women, one has to first win their trust with a complete understanding of their problems. In Gujarat, though organisationally we are weak, we, amid great hostility, were able to mobilise Muslim women on issues of ration cards and kerosene. We have to get them to take positions of responsibility as leaders.

It is a strange paradox. One of the indicators of a healthy society is its sex ratio. Skewed sex ratios have been reported from the more prosperous States and the well-off sections. The sex ratios show that there is less discrimination against the girl child within the Muslim community as compared to other religious denominations. At the same time, there have been increasing cases of dowry being reported from within the community, a trend unheard of in the past. What does this reflect?

The sex ratio among Muslims is also going down. As a general trend, poorer people have a better sex ratio than better off people. This applies to Muslims even when they are the poorest. But the other aspect is that of access to sex determination technology. As this technology is becoming more and more accessible, the sex ratio is deteriorating even amongst those communities that had a good sex ratio. The Muslim community is no exception. Dowry demands are rampant in all communities in India and as expenses of marriage increase in an exponential fashion, sex ratios are bound to worsen. The sex ratio amongst Muslims is deteriorating now.

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