Print edition : February 09, 2007
Muslim women try to break free of mullahs and their fatwas and chart a new course in the fight for rights.

A GARBAGE-STREWN, pig-infested bylane leads to Imrana's house at Kokrajhar village in Muzaffarnagar Uttar Pradesh. She was the victim of a fatwa last year proclaiming her "haraam" (prohibited) for her husband after she complained that her father-in-law, Mehboob Ali, had raped her. Religious leaders who made up the panchayat of her husband's village, Charthawal, declared that she could no longer live with her husband because she had become his "mother" following the rape and that she would have to divorce him.

The panchayat took no notice of her complaint against her father-in-law, who had forced himself on her in the dead of night when her husband was out on work. There was no punishment for him. They said Allah would punish him. They ordered Imrana to leave the village with her five children - three girls and two boys, one of whom is deaf and mute. Luckily for her, her husband Noor Ilahi stood by her, refusing to accept the fatwa to divorce his wife; he accompanied her to her village.

The case provoked widespread condemnation. The police registered a case against Mehboob Ali following a complaint by Imrana and arrested him. In court, he was sentenced to 10 years' rigorous imprisonment and fined Rs.8,000, which was to be paid to Imrana.

But Imrana cannot hope to go back to Charthawal and has been deprived of all her rights in her conjugal home. Noor Ilahi ekes out a meagre living as a daily-wage labourer at a brick kiln, or by plying a rickshaw. Her children do not go to school. They initially stayed with her four brothers' families, but now live in a rented hut that is bare except for the roof over their heads. Imrana has not yet received the Rs.8,000 compensation awarded to her, and except for the Rs.50,000 that the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) sent her, she has not got any other financial help.

After the almost year-long fight for justice in the face of stiff opposition from fundamentalist elements within the community, Imrana is desperately trying to get her life back on rails. With the Rs.50,000 she has bought a plot and is about to begin construction of her own hut with help from the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a new organisation for Muslim women, which is collecting money for the effort.

For fatwa victims like Imrana, the Andolan, an initiative by Muslim women themselves, has come as a breath of fresh air. Its aim is to fight on issues that concern the human/citizenship rights of Muslim women and help them break free of fatwas and the control of mullahs and maulvis. Frustrated by the fact that the real issues concerning them were not being talked about by anybody, a group of women got together - this was before the Sachar Committee presented its report on the condition of Muslims in India - and demanded "justice", as is provided to them under the Constitution and beyond the diktats of the Muslim Personal Law Board.

Thus was born the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. The movement was formally launched at its first national convention held in New Delhi on January 10-11 and attended by more than 200 participants representing various NGOs from 12 States: West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and Punjab.

While the mood at the convention was upbeat, with the participants ready to defy the age-old chains of patriarchal hierarchy and personal laws, speakers reiterated the need for Muslim women to take the initiative for improving their lot. Speaking about Muslim women in Jammu and Kashmir, Hameeda Nayeem of Kashmir University said it was high time women in Kashmir were heard because they were the worst hit by the increase in terrorism. She said only the reform of Islamic laws can improve the state of Muslim women.

Asghar Ali Engineer, noted Islamic scholar from the Institute of Islamic Studies, said Shariat laws being forced on women were, to a large extent, unfair and unjust and contrary to the true spirit of the Koran, which emphasised justice for women. "It was time women rejected the unjust Shariat laws," he said.

Zakia Jowher, who heads Aman Samudaya, an NGO in Ahmedabad, and is a founder-member of the Andolan, said women working across the country had realised that issues such as illiteracy, low income, irregular employment patterns and increased marginalisation of Muslims, especially women, were not being raised by anyone at the national level. The Andolan would take up these issues, she said.

The resolution adopted at the convention gave a fair idea of what its plan of action would be. Among other things, it said the Andolan would seek to "provide an enabling socio-economic and political environment to achieve full human potential, to ensure participation of [the] Muslim community in mainstream education, [bring an] immediate halt to the persecution of Muslim community in the name of curbing terrorism, bring about reforms and humanistic approach in personal laws, and better economic policies to account for loss of livelihood due to the impact of neo-liberalisation, globalisation, privatisation and capitalism... ".

The participants were unanimous that while issues relating to personal laws were important for Muslim women, equally important were issues like education, employment and security and legal reforms, which were not being given their due importance.

"We seek to create an alternative voice of Muslim women with the belief that Muslim women themselves can lead the movement towards equality and social justice," said Razia Patel, chairperson of the Andolan. "The response has been overwhelming. Muslim women across the country have begun to realise that nobody talks about issues of real concern to them," she said.

Razia, who heads the Rachna Vikas Trust in Pune, said religious and political leaders "only exploited emotive issues concerning women for their own vested interests; nobody has actually ever raised our real issues. We have been left to the mercy of the politics of fatwas, which is not acceptable to us anymore."

The Andolan aims to give voice to "this uneasy realisation that has been simmering among Muslim women all over the country for some time", Razia Patel said. "Ours will be a voice for our political, social, religious rights. We want a positive interpretation of religion, which does justice to women, not goes against them."

The Andolan has decided to lend support to political parties that raised "real" issues relating to the welfare of the Muslim community in their manifestos. "As a marginalised minority group, Muslim women have faith in democratic institutions and would try and exert pressure on these institutions to demand justice," said Razia.

Zakia Jowher said concern for security and their children's future were uppermost in the minds of Muslim women in Gujarat today, over and above issues such as nikaah or talaaq, and Muslim women wanted a system that could prevent the communalisation of the administrative machinery and misuse of laws such as TADA/POTA against the community.

"The idea of this Andolan was born out of the necessity for Muslim women to speak for themselves and demand social, economic, political, civil, legal and religious rights for the realisation of equal citizenship. This platform also aims to propagate a positive and liberal interpretation of religion which buttresses the value of justice, equality and human rights as enshrined in the Constitution," she said.

For having come out in the open to demand their due, some of these women have had to pay a heavy price. They have been threatened, ridiculed and even declared offenders of Islam by their community, but they have followed their course with dogged determination. Rehana Adib, who heads Astitva, an NGO in Muzaffarnagar that was in the forefront of efforts to secure justice for Imrana, was deserted by her husband, who decried her for going out without a veil and for fighting other people's wars.

Even Imrana, though illiterate and ignorant of the intricacies of laws, religion and even human rights, is determined to fight. "I am not scared, God gives me strength, and until my last breath I will fight to ensure that this man gets the punishment he deserves," she says about her father-in-law.

This fighting spirit is beginning to assert itself now in many Muslim women. "In Maharashtra, I have come across women who are willing to be beaten up by their husbands for sending their daughters to school," said Razia.

It is this spirit the Andolan hopes to keep alive. A small initiative this may be, but a giant leap it could prove for Muslim women.

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