What does it mean to be a progressive Muslim in present times? This question has acquired significance for many Indians. For me, this question arose in 2002, at the time of communal violence in Gujarat. I was born in a Muslim family and lived in Ahmedabad for most of my life. My family directly bore the brunt of communal riots with my grandmother’s home getting vandalised and burnt down repeatedly during my childhood. And yet, my parents chose to leave the confines of the Muslim ghetto and moved to cosmopolitan western Ahmedabad in 1980. After 2002, it is hard to imagine a Muslim family moving out of the ghettoes.
It is never easy in our highly religious society for anyone to swim against the community tide and live on their own terms. Over the decades since 1947, many followers of Hinduism have successfully challenged and rejected conservatism, superstition and narrow-minded thinking. It is particularly difficult for those from minority faith backgrounds to do this. It was always difficult for a liberal Muslim to be accepted within the community. The rise of Hindutva politics has further restricted the space for articulation of progressive views. A liberal Muslim must guard not just her personal freedoms but also actively resist the communal onslaught through democratic means. She must condemn every action of Muslim fanatics and Hindutva loonies. She must consistently demand accountability from institutions of the state. And while doing all of this, she must be prepared to be labelled fitna or even kafir for the personal choices she made in her own life! This is too much to ask from an ordinary citizen.
India today is a deeply polarised society. There is division and mistrust between communities. Hatemongering against Muslims and Christians has become commonplace. Genocide calls are issued from public platforms in broad daylight. It is a particularly tough time for all liberals; it is tougher for a liberal Muslim. As a woman and as an activist invested in a just and peaceful society, I live with irresolvable dilemmas.
My sisters and I grew up in an atmosphere of freedom wherever we happened to reside, be it in a Muslim mohalla or a cosmopolitan neighbourhood. We enjoyed liberties such as in dresses and hairstyles of our choice as we moved freely on our bicycles and two-wheelers meeting friends across the city. These privileges were not available to other girls in the neighbourhood. My parents would not brook any interference in their lives from any quarter. I did not get personally impeded by orthodoxy and patriarchy in my childhood and youth. However, I came face to face with institutionalised orthodoxy and misogyny as I began working with the women survivors of the Gujarat riots. As I began activism for Muslim women’s rights, I realised that this collision would last all my life.
The organisation Aman Samudaya was engaged in relief, rehabilitation and communal harmony for the riot survivors. The victims were dependent on voluntary and religious groups for help in the face of state apathy. While allocating houses, we prepared a list of women-headed households that should be given priority. Resources were scarce, and we were partnering with a prominent religious organisation. To my horror, its representatives refused to allocate homes in women’s names. They insisted that allocation could happen only in the name of a male relative. They insisted that Islam required widows to be remarried, and the question of allotting homes to them did not therefore arise. They were also unhappy with the bicycles we had distributed to girls in the rehab colony. They alleged that I was responsible for distracting them from the righteous path. Even as we were struggling with the aftermath of the communal violence, the refusal of religious leaders to recognise us as equal merely because we were women was shocking. The gruesome killings of innocent Muslim women, men and children had suddenly made me conscious of my Muslim identity. These encounters with misogynist men of religion belonging to one of the most prominent religious organisations in the subcontinent made me conscious of my identity as a Muslim woman. Either way, I was second class.
The confrontation with orthodox clergy came to a head in the women-led movement against triple talaq. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) argued in court against the petitions filed by Shayara Bano and some other women. The AIMPLB argued in the Supreme Court that courts could not intervene in the Shariat, which was divine. The women petitioners successfully proved that there is no Quranic sanction for instant oral talaq. The court ruled in their favour, declaring triple talaq as void.
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But the hypocrisy and double standards of sections of the clergy and some prominent Muslims were shocking. They were blind to triple talaq being unjust and unfair to women. Some people in the academia and the legal fraternity dismissed the issue of triple talaq as a conspiracy by the Modi government against Muslims. Yet, Muslim women were speaking out against triple talaq, polygamy, nikah halala and calling for reform in Muslim personal law much before Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014. But they noticed it only when the Modi government came out in support of abolition of triple talaq. Until then they had not bothered to address the systematic violation of Muslim women’s rights in marriage and family. Women speaking out against triple talaq were vilified and threatened. I was accused of being an RSS stooge.
Muslim women and CAA
The movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was led by Muslim women. This movement received support from all including conservative clergy, and rightly so. A discriminatory law must be opposed. But it must be mentioned that the clergy found it easy to support this campaign as its leadership was not being challenged here. The women fighting the CAA and the NRC were not seeking any fundamental changes in the unequal gender relations within family and community, unlike in the campaign against triple talaq. The clergy did not feel threatened by women agitating against the CAA, and therefore it was safe to support their demands. In this agitation constitutional values of justice, equality, democracy and nondiscrimination were invoked. But when Muslim women demand justice within the family, the Shariat takes precedence and constitutional values are conveniently forgotten. These double standards result in further alienating ordinary Indians, some of whom turn into Hindutva supporters.
We must recognise that our demand for justice and equality would be feeble without genuine belief and adherence to these principles in our own lives. Any fight for justice cannot be fought in convenient compartments. The violation of women’s rights in the name of the Shariat has been an evil that has been overlooked not just by the clergy but by the whole community. Even educated and well-placed Muslims have hesitated to speak out against it. The right to religious freedom granted by the Constitution is a cherished right which cannot be trivialised and used to justify patriarchal practices such as triple talaq, polygamy and child marriages under the guise of upholding the Shariat. The usual response of “Islam gave rights to women 1,400 years ago” is not sufficient until these rights get translated into reality.
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Similarly, the standard response of “there is no caste in Islam” serves no purpose when casteism, even untouchability, is practised amongst Muslims. Referring to fellow Indians as “kafir” is not going to help overcome the communal divide either. We must unequivocally recognise the equal rights of all in a multi-faith society. We must respect the gods and goddesses of those belonging to other religions.
Poverty and marginalisation of Muslims predates the Modi government. The secular state has failed to deliver on the Constitutional promise of social justice. Since 2014, there has been a direct onslaught on Muslims. Hindutva followers hold ordinary Muslims responsible for historic or imaginary wrongs committed by the Mughals and the Sultans. The BJP openly pursues exclusionary and divisive politics. Most other political parties, except perhaps in the southern States, are keeping a safe distance from Muslims. Hindutva ideology is translating into state policy, as seen in the CAA and so-called love jehad laws. There is ostracisation and systematic exclusion, leading to potential disenfranchisement of the largest minority. What can Muslims do to address this situation? Majoritarianism and hate must be fought politically and legally. Initiatives in collaboration with the entire civil society can help.
The need to make amends
As a first step, there has to be an unequivocal recognition of where the community has consistently failed and of the need to make amends. In this essay I focus more on this dimension as generally nobody wants to talk about this.
The community lacks progressive social leadership and democratisation within. We have been led by orthodox clergymen for the longest time, apart from opportunistic politicians. Unlike in the case of Dalits, there has not been any tradition of building critical consciousness within the community. The so-called leaders have remained obsessed with religious identity issues. The leaders kept demanding special privileges in the name of secularism but never paid attention to building a peaceful society through mutual dialogue in a multi-faith secular democracy.
“For those of us who think we are liberal and progressive, mutual understanding can be the only way forward.”
I make a distinction between the masses and the so-called leaders. Ordinary Muslims are hardworking and law-abiding. They are patriotic, like all other Indians. There are no progressive voices to hand-hold or guide the community. The clergy are obsessed with the afterlife and lack competence to deal with issues of common interest such as education, jobs, housing or democratic participation. In the absence of any alternative progressive leadership ordinary persons do not get the opportunity to equip themselves to think independently. Most are perpetually in a state of dilemma, owing to the way religion is (mis)understood and practised in the subcontinent. How much importance should be given to Islam vis-à-vis temporal matters? The conservative men of religion propound that a Muslim’s time and energies should be devoted to religion alone and nothing else should matter.
I have faced the horrors of political religions, both Hindutva and the Islamist variety. I can’t help but notice the similarities between the two. They are both inhuman, illiberal, orthodox and misogynist. They vehemently guard their domination and power over the community and do not hesitate to use violence. They do the greatest damage to our plural fabric by pitting us against each other in the name of religion. They force us into constructing rigid identities as Hindus and Muslims. They do not allow us to live peacefully with our multiple identities as humans. I can’t talk about one without considering the other. Hinduism is open, tolerant and eclectic, but Hindutva seeks to forcibly homogenise people. Justice, kindness, compassion, wisdom are the normative values of the Quran, but Islamists don’t practise these.
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Liberals are wondering how to fight the menace of political religions. Travelling across the country, I meet many young Muslim women and men in the course of my activism. They all agree on the need to build greater understanding and bridges across communities. These activists are seeking positive change through dialogue between people of diverse faiths. Some young Muslims on social media are angry and unforgiving. Javed Akhtar suggested that the 20-year-old boy behind the Sulli Deals app be forgiven with a stern warning. Lot of Muslims pounced upon him in disapproval. This does not help as it only leads to further polarisation. How can liberals behave like rightists? Those behind Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals have no stakes in the future of plural India. Besides, violence is their preferred approach. For those of us who think we are liberal and progressive, mutual understanding can be the only way forward. An eye for an eye would leave all of us blind and bruised.
Sometimes, waging battles on multiple fronts, I get dejected and depressed. But I see hope in ordinary Indians who are religious themselves and yet do not hate those belonging to other faiths. Hindutva may have scored electorally in our first-past-the-post system, but 60 per cent of Indians still do not vote for divisive ideologies. They are the silent majority who give me hope.
Zakia Soman, activist and columnist, is co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan and the founder of Centre for Peace Studies. She is on the India Core Committee of the South Asian Alliance for Poverty Eradication and has authored two books.
- Liberal Muslims, especially Muslim women, are forced to fight on two fronts: against the forces of Muslim-hating Hindutva and against the regressive orthodoxies in their own community.
- Political religions such as Hindutva and political Islam are mirror images of each other in their regressive values and their willingness to use violence to dominatetheir communities.
- The way forward is through dialogue and critical interrogation of the social practices that pulls the community backwards.