Dispelling myths

Published : Jan 17, 2003 00:00 IST

A recent survey among Muslim women, with its focus on socio-economic status and gender roles, comes up with significant findings and could well become a benchmark for future sociological explorations.

in New Delhi

"THE Muslim woman, per se, has received virtually no critical scrutiny," claims Zoya Hasan, Professor of Political Science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Doubly disadvantaged by circumstances, Muslim women are perceived "as a monolithic category and the focus is entirely on religion or fixated on the trappings of personal law".

To shift the terms of the debate towards the realities of Muslim women's lives, Zoya Hasan, along with Ritu Menon of the feminist publishing house Kali for Women, decided to explore the diversity of life experiences that they represent. The result is the Muslim Women's Survey (MWS), a comprehensive assessment of their socio-economic status and gender roles, which could conceivably become a benchmark for future sociological explorations.

Commissioned by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, MWS is a baseline survey that takes a different tack. Instead of focussing on the minority identity, the investigators chose to focus on the structures of disadvantage, which arise in turn more from configurations of class and region rather than religion. "Muslim women are disadvantaged not because of religious conservatism but because they are poor, are women, and Muslim, which together aggravate the particular disadvantages of any one of these identities," says Zoya Hasan. Instead of the reductive reading of Muslim women, which sees them exclusively within the context of the personal law, the MWS takes its focus closer. This process of ferreting out the truths about their situation undercut several assumptions about the repressive role of Islam. Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon point out that the "easy stereotyping of pardah-polygamy-talaq as the unholy trinity" restraining the "social advancement" of Muslim women "is dismantled when their situation is located in a regional and socio-economic context".

The MWS sampled data from 40 districts spanning 12 States. These States were grouped into zones north, south, east and west and then classified according to the proportion of Muslim population. The socio-economic status of Muslim households was compared with a picture of the Hindu population broken down by caste, using a relative development index. The investigators devised a questionnaire combining quantitative and qualitative concerns to assess the diverse areas of education, work and employment, access to welfare, political participation and so on. The questionnaire also sought to probe into aspects of daily life such as decision-making authority, mobility and domestic violence.

The results were a revelation. The survey found dramatic differences in the socio-economic status of the two communities. Fifty years after Independence, Muslims on the whole have an average standard of living lower than even that of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and well below that of upper-caste Hindus, with 60 per cent of them concentrated in the segment that has been characterised as "lower-lower-middle". On the whole, Muslims are just slightly better off than the Scheduled Castes, a section of the Hindu community that has remained very poor even half a century after Independence. This picture is not significantly different across the zones. Predictably, the status of women in the south and east zones of the country outstrips that of women in the north and west zones. While Zoya Hasan admits that it could be a problem to club together methodologically States such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which have different stories to tell, she points out that the survey was not designed to promote a State-wise understanding but to provide the "big picture" with some glimpses into regional variations.

While education and work show up significant disparities between Hindu and Muslim women, gender politics seems to operate in much the same way in both communities. Generally, the very low level of schooling is one of the most depressing findings of the survey. In fact, nearly 60 per cent of the total Muslim respondents never attended school. There seems to be a negative correlation between education and employment among Muslims and the "proportion of Muslims in formal employment or wealth-creating occupations is small".

The experience of exclusion from the job market leads the Muslim community to place a low value on education. Consequently, the dropout rate is high even among Muslim boys. Significantly, less than 2 per cent of the Muslims surveyed attended madarassas or religious institutions. Also, for both Hindus and Muslims, financial constraints outweigh parental opposition as the chief obstacle to school enrolment and attendance.

The proportion of Muslim women who are illiterate is substantially higher for rural north India than for the entire country more than 85 per cent reported themselves to be illiterate. Fewer than 17 per cent of Muslim women ever enrolled completed eight years of schooling and fewer than 10 per cent completed higher secondary education, which is below the national average. The survey also discovered that as one moves up the "education ladder", there is a significant drop in the presence of Muslim women 3.56 per cent of Muslim women actually made it to the higher education tier, which is even lower than the figure for the Scheduled Castes. Oddly enough, owing to the low level of male education, 26 per cent of Muslim women who had attended school were married to husbands classified as "illiterate". Education is clearly prized as a value in itself for girls.

Another significant finding of the survey, which flies in the face of popular prejudices, is the widespread acceptance of schooling in co-educational institutions.

One of the most striking insights into the situation of Muslim women comes from their dismal work participation rate estimated at 11.4 per cent for urban Muslim women (against 16 per cent for Hindus) and 20 per cent for rural Muslim women (against 37 per cent for Hindus). This low figure would seem especially striking in the light of the obvious deprivation of most of these women. However, despite a series of probing questions designed to overcome women's known reticence about appropriately valuing their productive work, the MWS found that few women admitted to working.

Significantly, only a minuscule 0.14 per cent of Muslim women respondents cited pardah as the reason for not working. The answers, clearly, lie elsewhere. In a research paper that probes the reasons for the relatively small number of Muslim women in the workforce, Maitreyi Bordia Das explodes the myth that they are excluded by the Islamic culture of seclusion. Instead, she identifies deeper structures of discrimination within the labour market that conspire to keep them out of regular salaried jobs in urban areas. In rural areas, she attributes their low work participation rates to their limited engagement in agriculture, thanks to "differential land ownership patterns by religion", or more plainly, discrimination in obtaining title to land.

Equally instructive is Maitreyi Bordia Das' comparison of the variations among regions. The fact that the employment of Muslim and Hindu women in the south is vastly different from the central States though differences within each region between different groups generally remain the same points to different structures of opportunity for Muslims and Hindus in the labour market. In fact, Maitreyi Bordia Das observes that the pardah system operates in an insidious way within certain Hindu communities as well. Although there is ample scope for understanding how gender discrimination operates across communities and prevalent social attitudes ensure that Muslim women are doubly disadvantaged, pardah has by sheer force of custom and prejudice come to be accepted as a convenient explanation for Muslim women's low work participation rates.

One of the most heartening findings of the MSW is the fact that politically, Muslim women are a force to reckon with. Despite the fact that few women participate in election campaigns or political meetings, the aggregate female voter turnout of 85 per cent is high by any standards. In fact, the figure for Muslim women is even larger. Low levels of education do not discourage them from looking for an active role in the political process as indicated by nearly a quarter of respondents who indicated their desire to contest elections. Out of these, 89 per cent would prefer to contest at the local level, with the proportion dropping progressively at the State and Central levels, as the goal becomes increasingly distant. However, if the personal is the political, the question remains how much autonomy do Muslim women have to lead their lives on their own terms? Precious little, according to the MWS. However, this situation is not peculiar to Muslim women and has nothing to do with restrictions specific to their religion. The survey debunks several fictions, such as the rampant prevalence of polygamy and divorce among Muslims, with divorce rates being almost uniform across communities, at 0.4 per cent. "Hindu and Muslim women are both equally enabled or disabled by patriarchal controls," says Ritu Menon. She notes that the "north/south divides, as well as religious differences, seem to collapse when you enter the private domain. The mean age at marriage is 15.9, which is one of the most disempowering conditions".

Elaborating on the lack of decision-making about mobility, Ritu Menon points out that the survey shows that Hindu women suffer from the same restrictions as Muslim women. The real differences, instead, are a function of economic status and class.

Too often, the reality of Muslim women has been subsumed by the overarching discourse of identity politics. The MSW attempts a more informed understanding of their condition and the results have certainly punctured some easy assumptions. The double disadvantage of Muslim women is accepted except in Hindutva circles where their supposed social plight is little else than a cheap slogan to draw political advantage. But the MWS concludes that the disadvantage is threefold in dimension: "Muslim women in India are disadvantaged thrice over: as members of a minority community, as women, and as poor women." These categories reinforce one another, but neither one sums up the entire story.

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