The liberal Muslim
Mehrunnisa Dalwai

Wife of noted activist Hamid Dalwai, Mehrunisa too strongly advocated social reforms in the Muslim community.

Mehrunnisa Dalwai (87) wife of radical social reformer Hamid Dalwai who successfully took up the mantle of her late husband’s work, passed away in Pune on Thursday morning.

Born in a conservative Muslim family on May 25, 1930, in Pune, Mehrunnisa Khan completed her matriculation, after which she started working at the Khadi and Village Industries Commission in Mumbai. A rarity in those days.

While she was there, she was introduced to her husband Hamid Dalwai by a mutual acquaintance. It was not a classic case of love at first sight for the two, but their acquaintance turned into friendship and the friendship eventually blossomed into romance.

However, Mehrunnisa Khan’s family was vehemently against their marriage as Dalwai, at the time did not have a proper job, and also at the time, Hamid was known for his radical views on triple talaq, alimony, polygamy and other issues which plagued the Muslim community.

Finally in 1956, Hamid and Mehrunnisa got married first through traditional Muslim rituals and later through the Special Marriage Act 1954, after a month. It was perhaps the first ever Muslim wedding in the country to be registered under the Special Marriage Act.

Mehrunnisa who came from an Urdu-speaking Muslim family, quickly learned Marathi from Hamid Dalwai, who hailed from the Konkan region of Maharashtra.

After marriage, while Hamid devoted his time completely to social work, Mehrunnisa took the responsibility of running the household. The Dalwai couple set up base in Majaswadi area of Jogeshwari in a small 10×10 sqft room, where they were later joined by Hamid’s younger siblings including Congress Rajya Sabha MP Hussain Dalwai, who completed his education in Mumbai.

Hussain Dalwai says, “Hamid bhai could do all the social work because Mehrunnisa bhabhi stood behind him like a rock. She happily took over the responsibilities of a family. From whatever she could save from her meagre salary, she would send to us and it was that money that helped us survive difficult times.”Even though Mehrunnisa was completely engrossed in her household responsibilities, she played a major role in organising a protest march in April 1972, for victims of triple talaq.

Hamid Dalwai died in 1977, at the age of 43, after which she took over her husband’s organisation Muslim Satyashodhak Samaj.

She first served as executive president and then as president of the organisation.

Shamsuddin Tamboli, president of Muslim Satyshodhak Samaj said, ‘Mehrunnisa played a pivotal role in the movement which opposed the then Rajiv Gandhi government’s decision to overturn Supreme Court’s ruling in the Shahbano case. Even though our movement did not succeed, she never lost her spirit.”

In the Shahbano case, the Supreme Court had ordered her husband to pay alimony, however the Rajiv Gandhi government under pressure from Ulemas and Maulavis using its brute majority, negated the apex court’s verdict by carrying out a constitutional amendment.

In 1986, she led a protest march of talaq-affected women from Kolhapur to Nagpur to put pressure on politicians to amend the Muslim Pesonal Law and end the practice of Triple Talaq.

Mehrunnisa also founded the Hamid Dalwai Islamic Research Institute to promote studies of Islam and modern world.

Mehrunnisa’s sister-in-law Fatema Khadas says she was stubborn and stood by her principles like a rock. “Mehrunnisa was known to be outspoken. Because of which, many of her colleagues preferred to maintain distance from her. But she never compromised on her principles.”

Fatema says after Hamid’s death, Mehrunnisa took up his causes and made them her own. She used her entire life savings to build a library as a memorial to Hamid in his ancestral village Mirjoli in Ratnagiri district.

Her memoir on her married life with Hamid called ‘Mi Bharoon Pavale Ahe’ which can be loosely translated as ‘Fulfilled life’ which received critical as well as popular acclaim.

Tamboli recollected, “Mehrunnisa was worried about growing radicalisation among Indian Muslim youth and the increasing influence of Wahabi Islam. She had organised many seminars, lectures, workshops for youths in the mid-2000s through the Hamid Dalwai Islamic Research Institute.”

Mehrunnisa though active till she breathed her last, was suffering from heart-related ailments and preferred to spend more time with her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Both her daughters Ilea and Rubina had inter-religious marriages, said Tamboli.

Taking her late husband’s progressive views forward, Mehrunnisa has donated her body for medical research.

Taking her late husband’s progressive views forward, Mehrunnisa has donated her body for medical research.