Being Muslim, being a Muslim woman

A moving personal essay by the prominent activist and educationist Syeda Hameed.

Published : Feb 23, 2023 10:50 IST

At the historic Jama Masjid in Delhi, after Eid prayers, children run out to celebrate.

At the historic Jama Masjid in Delhi, after Eid prayers, children run out to celebrate. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

As I brace myself to write this piece for Frontline, Mirza Ghalib’s lines flash in my mind:

Dil mein zauq o vasl o yaad e yaar tak baqi nahin

Aag iss ghar mein lagi aisi ke jo ttha jal gaya

Mein hoon aur afsurdgi ki aarzu Ghalib ke dil

Dekh kar tarz e tapaak e ahl e duniya jal gaya

(No desire for union no memory of beloved

An all-consuming fire took it all from my house

O Ghalib!

How I yearn for melancholy

For my heart Ghalib is smouldering

With fake warmth of the world

Despondency descends. I cannot summon any optimism.)

How do I feel as a Muslim woman when I look back at the past eight years when the country was swept by a massive wave of a right-wing regime? In this piece I will reflect on the following formulation: Syeda Hameed in the vortex of the years from 2014 to 2023.

Aligarh rises on my mindscape.

Aligarh. Alma mater of three generations of my ancestors, where one each from all three found a place in the university’s Roll of Honour. Khawaja Sajjad Husain, Khwaja Ghulamus Saqlain, and my father Khwaja Ghulamus Saiyidain. In 1925, my father, as a 21-year-old newly appointed lecturer, spoke at a debate on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, the precursor of Aligarh Muslim University. The cream of the Muslim intelligentsia was present on that occasion. Father, fresh from academic achievements from Leeds University in the UK, was given the honour to open the Grand Jubilee Debate. The topic he chose 98 years ago remains relevant today for all Indians. He moved that Indian Muslims should not organise themselves on communal lines but must work together with the nationalists of other communities for the freedom and progress of the nation as a whole. After his short and passionate speech, there was a vigorous attack from the top brass of Muslim politicians who were seated on the stage. Luminaries like M.A. Jinnah, Agha Khan, and Sir Ali Imam took on Saiyidain and patronisingly dismissed the arguments of the youthful mover of the motion as “irresponsible idealism”.

April 2018. Almost a century after that historical moment, Aligarh convulsed under a storm unleashed by the right-wing ruling dispensation. The issue was the portrait of one man who sat on the stage in 1925. M.A. Jinnah was among the dignitaries whose portraits were hanging in the university gallery. All of these men had been given life membership of the Student Union. This piece of history was used as the trigger to stoke communal fires ahead of the byelection in Uttar Pradesh. The local MLA, like Rip Van Winkle, awoke from a 90-year sleep, collected a lumpen brigade to gherao the university for the anti-national act of hanging Jinnah’s portrait. The protest was calibrated to coincide with the visit of the former Vice President of India for a public oration on the occasion of conferment of the same lifetime membership on him.

Events that followed are a matter of public record. My personal record is the experience narrated by my friend who was caught in the midst of a menacing crowd at the university gate Bab e Syed. Hordes of marauders of the Hindu Jagran Manch were heading where the former Vice President was camping. Purpose? To ignite the communal spark and start a Hindu-Muslim fasaad (riot). My friend saw indifferent Aligarh policemen standing by. It was the sight of the crowd that chilled her. “It was their eyes which made my body freeze. There was palpable murder emanating from their orbs.”

The peaceful but agitated students were lathi-charged by the police. None of the instigators and perpetrators was detained.

Everywhere the story is the same.

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Progressive Muslims in India of today face a growing wave of Islamophobia, which has unleashed hate crimes and discrimination against the community. Spaces are fast shrinking where they used to openly express opinions and participate in mainstream discourse. Thus marginalised and excluded, they remain on the sidelines. They are often stereotyped and misrepresented by the political class and the media (as daadi-topi waley [the ones with beards and caps]) who portray them as being against the values of the Indian nation or being sympathetic to terrorism. Economic marginalisation and poverty is rampant; if they manage to rise economically, they are beaten to subjugation by riots and writs. With the rise of Hindu nationalism and concurrent anti-Muslim sentiments, they are touted as being aligned to Pakistan and therefore against the interests of India aka the majority community. Muslims are victims of a state which, after ruling for eight years, has hammered them to second-class status. Impunity has been the hallmark of all incidents such as killings, lynchings, rapes, and murders of Muslims; more barefaced in the past four years.

We, the so-called progressive Indian Muslim women, face a double whammy compounded by our gender and our religious identity. Frowned upon for various reasons by our “own” as well as by “others”, we live precarious lives. We often face resistance and opposition from more conservative members of our own community which views us as being against traditional cultural and religious values.

Muslim women and new India

During the Independence movement (hearsay) and soon after (eyewitness), Muslim women were part of the struggle. To mark that participation, my organisation, Muslim Women’s Forum, recently held an exhibition titled “Pathbreakers: 20th Century Muslim Women of India”. It was a celebration of Muslim women who broke barriers and became partners in the project to build a new India. It was shown in many parts of the country. In the post-Independence decades, the struggle for women’s reservation and representation (Women’s Reservation Bill) witnessed Muslim women standing along with women of all communities. The political classes, however, often used Muslim women as a tool to scuttle the WRB. “Reservation within reservation” was the slogan. After 2014, Muslim women and men were systematically excluded by the ruling party and used as tokens by several regional formations.

I make it a point to read one Urdu paper every day. Mainstream print media, with a few exceptions, cover very little news about Muslims. Photographs of various “Islamic” events display rows of men; very few women, one or two, stand amidst the scores of men. Meanwhile, the media has a set narrative—Muslim women suppressed, oppressed, forced to adhere to conservative cultural norms, a narrative that is not fully reflective of our reality. This stereotype forces the idea of Muslim women as passive creatures, unable to think or act for themselves.

As for violence, women across caste, class, and religion are vulnerable to gender-based violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault. A patriarchal and conservative societal structure prevails across all divides.

To half-quote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, “We live in the worst of times.”

Today my identity is etched on my forehead: I am both Muslim and Muslim woman. Here I have to say that I was brought up in a totally different mahaul, where I learnt to live happily with many parallel identities. Muslim, Indian, woman, and yes, denizen of the global village. These multiple identities I imbibed from my elders; they were my pride, my celebration.

After Independence, 90 per cent of my family migrated to Pakistan. Not willingly. They were herded into trucks and transported across the border. My grandmother locked her front door and left a small “chit” on the gate that said: “We are not going anywhere, only to my son in Bombay. We will return in a few weeks.”

Practising  football on artificial turf in Srinagar.  “My fight was against those who distorted Islamic teachings with the result that Islam got the label of the world’s most anti-women religion.” 

Practising football on artificial turf in Srinagar. “My fight was against those who distorted Islamic teachings with the result that Islam got the label of the world’s most anti-women religion.”  | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

1947 also marked the removal of the burqa by women of my family. I imagine it was done with mixed feelings. I am sure they would have felt self-conscious about “exposing” themselves but at the same time they did not want identity markers. That consideration has come full circle now, with this generation of Muslim women unrelenting about hijab, veil, abaya, and chador, adamant precisely for this reason. The other reason why my elders shed the veil was because of their promise to leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, and Azad that they would step out of their homes to help heal a fractured, devastated nation.

My love for my country engrained in my mind by my family remained intact despite listening to night-nostalgia of mothers and aunts tearfully whispering about their loved ones on the other side of the border. A little later I read Partition stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, Saliha Abid Husain, and Ismat Chughtai; accounts of communal riots that meant sleepless nights. The word Hindutva did not exist in our vocabulary.

ALSO READ: The dilemma of the Muslim liberal

Three blows were dealt to my generation; not only to Muslims but to all fellow Indians who believe in the idea of India. The first blow was the shahadat of Babri Masjid. Its blow-by-blow demolition was watched by the State and Centre—both entities had taken an oath to protect the monument. Narasimha Rao watched it on TV from 7 Race Course Road and Kalyan Singh, closer to the masjid, from his Chief Minister’s bungalow in Lucknow.

The second blow was dealt by Gujarat 2002. Here the presiding officer was the then Gujarat Chief Minister, who is widely believed to have watched over the massacre of Muslims from his imperious perch. Having lost their lives and livelihoods, the surviving Muslims lived in relief camps and ghettos through the years following 2002. They were always on the edge. Globally, Islam became identified with terror, and Muslim boys were labelled as terrorists and anti-nationals. Kashmir began to burn, a slow constant burn. The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 were followed by the giant wave of a BJP victory in 2014.

The third blow was the massive return of the party in 2019. It swept the polls with promises to make India a theocratic Hindu state and relegating the minority to the lowest rung in polity.

In 2014, my identity as a Muslim Woman was sealed. For 17 years I had worked on various national bodies, including apex bodies like the National Commission for Women (NCW) and the Planning Commission. My work was for all Indians regardless of caste, class, religion, or ethnicity. My book Beautiful Country Stories from Another India is a record of my work which spanned the country. Dalits of Dharmapuri, Kathodis of Udaipur, Muslims of Mewat, Gonds of Bilaspur—all of them were equally deserving of my concern and commitment. In covering the country, I never wore an abaya, a hijab, or even a shalwar kameez. It was always a sari for me, inexpensive cotton saris sourced from Kota, Maheshwar, Dhenkanal, Sambalpur. It was my “natural” look, there was no message, no subtext.

Anchored in gender

My work was/is anchored in gender, cutting across all disciplines. Muslim women had never been a subject of serious study in the Government of India; I therefore decided to concentrate on them. My cross-country public hearings culminated in what became the Government of India’s first Report on Muslim Women. “Voice of the Voiceless” was published in 2000. By foregrounding the abysmal condition of Muslim women, my mission was twofold. First, to expose their economic deprivation, and second, to project the rights of women in Islam and how they were being violated by Muslims themselves. My fight was against those who distorted Islamic teachings with the result that Islam got the label of the world’s most anti-women religion.

My dream was to bring to the world an understanding of what Islam stood for. I began with engaging scholars and Ulema on the issue of gender in Islam. By virtue of my official designation as Member of the NCW, I engaged with the president of the Muslim Personal Law Board in 1999. I thought I had found a listening ear in Maulana Ali Miyan. But it stopped there. Today, I feel that after spending a lifetime my mission is at a standstill.

Unexpected turns

In fact, matters pertaining to Muslim women have taken the most unexpected turns. The present government has decided to play saviour to them by first banning and then criminalising triple talaq. What for? The Shamim Ara judgment of 2002 had already banned triple talaq. Besides, the very concept of a single-sitting triple talaq makes a mockery of the Quranic injunction about talaq. The entire exercise is therefore infructuous. How can the law ban something today which the law had banned 20 years ago? One has to read between the lines to see the purpose for raking it up now. It gives legitimacy to a government perceived as anti-Muslim and presided over by the man who many believe was responsible for the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. Given the shortness of public memory, this government now wants Hindus, Muslims, men, and women to see it as the saviour of Muslim women.

The ghosts of Gujarat refuse to go away, they have a long memory. The Prime Minister speaks of rescuing his Muslim sisters from the scourge of triple talaq to which Islam has condemned them. This ostensibly pro-Muslim women stance rests on the plinth of a few women’s groups, including Muslim women, who have aligned themselves with the government. In the excitement of being champions for women’s rights, the women’s movement has become sadly fragmented. As for the government, after “resolving” triple talaq, the next step is polygamy, halala, and finally a Uniform Civil Code.

ALSO READ: Rise of Hindutva politics and the progressive Muslim

As a Muslim woman I often feel isolated; some women’s groups reject me because I converse with Maulanas. Most Maulanas reject me because I am a non-hijab wearing woman who practises her religion according to her own light. My mission for whatever life is left to me is to bring the teachings of Islam, especially as they pertain to women, before all of India, indeed before the world. To fulfil this dream, I have created 14 brief episodes called “Understanding lslam” to cover all aspects of Islam, especially about women, whose rights are explicated in the second longest Surah of the Quran Al Nisa (The Women).

At present it is Allama Iqbal, on whose kalaam I grew up, whose verse best expresses my state of mind.

Apne bhi khafa mujh se hain beganey bhi na khush

Mein zehr e halahal ko kabhi key na saki qand

(My friends are annoyed, the strangers are vexed

I could never call poison a lump of sugar.)

Regardless, I will continue to follow my light, my course, my way.

Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, feminist, writer, lecturer, was member of the Planning Commission of India and of the National Commission for Women. She is the author of several books, translations, and reports. Her last book was Sone Chandi ke Buth(Penguin 2022).

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