Taking the Sharia to court: 2 Muslim women you should know aboutITU CHAUDHURI DESIGN/CATCH NEWS


Taking the Sharia to court: 2 Muslim women you should know about

The story

  • Two Muslim women, Noorjehan and Zakia, are seeding a silent social revolution.
  • Their goal? Strike at the heart of Muslim patriarchy. Make space for women.
  • Their tools? The Quran and the Constitution. A powerful combination.

The revolution

  • The first all-women Sharia courts in India.
  • A new Muslim Personal Law drafted by women. Drawn from the Quran. With a woman’s perspective.
  • A pushback on polygamy, child marriage, instant divorce, triple-talaq, halala.
  • A course to create India’s first women Qazis. So far: an all male domain.

The change agents

  • Noorjehan and Zakia, two women changed by the 1992 and 2002 riots.
  • The BMMA – Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. A 35,000 strong women’s group across 11 states. Founded by Noorjehan and Zakia.

The nuances

  • Noorjehan and Zakia consciously chose to keep the words ‘Bharatiya’ and ‘Muslim’ in the BMMA.
  • They wanted to assert a composite identity: secular and Muslim.
  • They use freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution to push-back on male take-over of the Quran.

The good fight

  • June 2012: women are banned from entering the iconic Haji Ali Dargah.
  • November 2014: BMMA challenges the ban. Takes Haji Ali Trust to court.
  • Sharia law they say cannot prevail over the Constitution.
  • The ban violates women’s right to freedom of religion. Article 25 of the Constitution.

For years, the famous shrine of Haji Ali, off the coast of Mumbai, was what such places are meant to be: a spiritual lighthouse bringing in the faithful – men, women, children, no matter what their belief or class.

Then, in June 2012, the Haji Ali Dargah Trust, which runs the shrine, dimmed the light: it banned women from entering the inner sanctum.

To justify the ban, the Trust claimed Islam forbade women from such places of worship, that they didn’t come dressed appropriately; even that the ban was for their own safety.

But the clerics faced an unexpected pushback. A Muslim woman’s group refused to comply and filed a PIL in the Mumbai High Court in November 2014.

Their faith, they countered, was theirs to interpret and practice, not the Trust’s or any cleric’s. They called the ban completely sexist and discriminatory. This unusual pushback was led by two spirited women Noorjehan Safia Niaz, 43, and Zakia Soman, 50.

The issue is still being fought out in court. “I’ve been entering the sanctum since I was a child and this move is not just denying me my right to practice my way of worshipping, it is also denying generations of women their personal experiences and memory of the dargah,” says Noorjehan.

“The responsibility of the Trust is to manage the dargah premises, not decide who will enter it.”

Their stand against the Haji Ali Trust is just one of many path-breaking battles Noorjehan and Zakia have picked to reclaim their faith from its self-appointed male guardians, and place Muslim women squarely in the dialogue for change.

Their life is the stuff of cinema. Inspirational. Dramatic. Transformative.

Faith and reason

Noorjehan and Zakia co-founded the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) in 2007. This brought together a number of Muslim women’s groups from across the country. Today it has 35,000 members in 11 states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

In the eight years since it was established, the BMMA has become a powerful voice, challenging deep-rooted notions of social and religious patriarchy in India.

In the process, they have unleashed a range of Muslim women voices that would otherwise have remained unheard.

The BMMA are using a powerful combination to drive change: the Quran and the Constitution

The aim, Noorjehan says, is to “bring Muslim women out from ‘victimhood mode’ and make them active partakers in their own progress”.

The boldest – and most landscape-altering – move the BMMA has made so far is to strike at the very bastion of Muslim patriarchy: the Muslim Personal Law and Sharia courts.

A giant leap for mankind

BMMA Muslim women 1

BMMA’s fight is against the misplaced appropriation of the Quran by Muslim men. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

From the beginning, a core part of the BMMA’s struggle has been to reclaim Islam for women. This is an exciting departure from many feminist Muslim women in the West – like writer Irshad Manjhi – who have seceded from the faith altogether.

Unlike them, BMMA activists believe Islam to be an inherently compassionate and just religion, which gives Muslim women rights and duties on par with men. Their fight, therefore, is against the misinterpretations of men – and their misplaced appropriation of the Quran.

The BBMA’s name itself is a fascinating assertion of identity. They have consciously fused ‘Bharatiya’ and ‘Muslim’ to signify that their struggle has two powerful and simultaneous allies: the Quran and the secular Constitution of the nation.

The BMMA has come up with a new Muslim Personal Law drafted by women

The responsibility of preventing abuse of their rights and freedoms, therefore, rests with both.

The movement, says Zakia, is built strongly upon the principles of secularism while the Quran guides their conduct. They have been deploying both tools to great effect to reform Muslim Personal Law.

For instance, the BMMA has tried to criminalise the institution of polygamy and make 18 the minimum age of marriage for girls. Under current personal law, Muslim girls can marry when they reach puberty.

“The Quran encourages men to financially support widows and orphans but this has been grossly misused by Muslim men to marry and exploit according to their whims and fancies,” says Noorjehan. “We are trying to restrict this as much as possible.”

The BMMA also strongly advocates abolishing the practice of triple-talaaq, which allows Muslim men to divorce a woman by merely saying the world talaaq thrice.

Instead, it seeks the use of the ‘talaq-e-ahsan’ method, where at least four attempts at reconciliation are made before a divorce is granted.

In April 2014, consolidating these battles, the BMMA did something utterly game changing and radical: they drafted their own Muslim Personal Law.

Drawn from the Quran; but from a woman’s perspective.

Where justice is not blind

Amongst many other recommendations, the draft Muslim Personal Law lays out the parameters for a model Nikah Nama, or marriage contract, drawn from the Quran, in ways that serve ideas of equality and dignity. It demands a compulsory registration of marriage and suggests increasing the mehr, the money given to a bride at the time of a wedding, to 100% of the groom’s annual income.

It also declares halala illegal. Halala is a custom wherein a divorced wife must consummate her marriage with a second husband before being able to re-marry the first.

In true democratic spirit, this draft is now being reviewed by other women’s groups, after which the BMMA will seek to get it enforced through a constitutional amendment.

In the meantime, the BMMA has opened up another radical space: the first Sharia courts run by women in India.

So far: an exclusively male domain.

These modest, one-room courts – one each in Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur – are held in BMMA offices on weekdays.

Women come to these courts with their grievances and scholars, who are a part of the BMMA, dispense justice in accordance with the Sharia Law. “We are fulfilling an important need for women who do not have access to the Constitutional courts or who see the courts run by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board as being biased against women,” says Noorjehan.

The Quran does not mandate that men alone can interpret and carry out Quranic law, but women Qazis, or judges, have been rare.

To correct this, starting April 2015, the BMMA has begun a course to help women study to become a Qazi.

The BMMA has 35,000 members across 11 states. It is carving a new space for Muslim women

Twenty girls from across India have been selected for this. They will be trained by professionals and awarded a recognised degree at the end of the course. “An intervention like this is exciting,” says Noorjehan, “Muslim women will have the opportunity to feel closer to and reclaim their religion in their own way.”

Apart from drawing strength from the women they meet during their work, Zakia says she and Noorjehan are inspired by the work of Islamic feminists like Amina Wadud from America, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a British-Iranian, Riffat Hassan, a Paksitani-American, and many others.

“There is no monolith definition of being a Muslim or a woman,” says Zakia. “Similarly, there is definitely no monolith definition of being a feminist. In that sense, yes, in our beliefs, we are feminist.”

Turning points: Noorjehan’s story

These are not easy positions for Noorjehan and Zakia – or any of the other BMMA activists – to hold.

To understand the true arc of their journey, one has to recall the entrenched discrimination Muslims face as a community.

The 2005 Justice Rajendra Sachar Report, tasked by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to examine the socio-economic condition of Muslims, had showed that Muslims are among the most marginalised communities in India.

The percentage of literate Muslims is 59.15%, far below the national average of 65.1%. The condition of Muslim women is even more alarming: no more than a fourth of them in rural areas and just 18% in urban areas get work.

Noorjehan understands such disadvantage. It has shaped her understanding of the condition of fellow women as well as the ways in which her religion is interpreted and practised. Noorjehan was born in Mumbai and studied at Wilson College, a liberal school. Her religious education was received at home.

Growing up, she experienced Islam as an ‘accommodating, enabling’ force. The idea that her identity as a Muslim woman could be used to target and oppress her was incomprehensible.

Time served a reality check. Noorjehan had just graduated from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and started working for YUVA, a non-governmental organisation, when Sangh Parivar mobs tore down the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, and threw India into a cauldron of communal violence.

The riots reached Noorjehan’s doorstep as well. It was a period of ‘extreme despair’. Noorjehan’s family was forced to flee their home and wander about for four months. The experience changed her.

After the riots ended, she volunteered to do relief work in Jogeshwari, a grievously affected Muslim suburb in Mumbai.

It was here that she saw the full impact of the riots for the first time. Men killed in large numbers; women left to fend for their families, without the tools necessary.

“That was a turning point,” says Noorjehan.

It was in Jogeshwari that Noorjehan also became acutely aware of the relationship between her community and the State. The 1992-93 riots turned Mumbai from a heterogeneous metropolis into a city where Muslims were being forced to live in poor, ghettoised communities – Mumbra, Bhendi Bazaar, Bharat Nagar, Navpada, Kurla.

This segregation bred insecurity among Hindus and Muslims alike, and the state responded with callous withdrawal. “When you are in a ghetto, the state forgets you,” says Noorjehan. “All government machinery vanishes.”

The biggest impact of this insecurity, she says, was the way it manifested itself in the lives of women.

That’s when the need to empower Muslim women hit home most forcefully.

Personal triggers: Zakia’s story

In the neighbouring state of Gujarat, Zakia Soman had her own rite of passage. In a similar inferno.

During the riots of 2002, she and her then 13-year-old son had to flee their home in Ahmedabad and relocate to a Muslim ghetto in the outskirts.

As stories of burnings, lootings and destruction hung heavily in the air, the scale of volatility shook Zakia.

The media reported widely on how the local police was complicit in the carnage. “Why were the police chasing us and not the mischief makers?” she asks. It was a harsh lesson in citizenship.

Noorjehan and Zakia’s life is the stuff of cinema. Inspirational. Dramatic. Transformative

Once the riots subsided, Zakia began to visit camps to help with the rehabilitation programme.

The scale of suffering there was a shock.

“Afsana, a young mother of two, lost her husband because he opted to stay home and look after their property when the riots started,” Zakia says. “She was left alive and stranded.” Another survivor, Zubeida, fled her home only to learn later that her husband had been killed by a mob. She refused to believe this for months as she never got to see or bury his body.

Despite her trauma, Afsana wanted justice. “She wanted to use official means to get the guilty punished. Everyone knew who the guilty were,” Zakia recalls.

Zubeida, on the other hand, had a long ordeal making rounds at police stations looking for information about her husband.

Zakia was struck by how these women, and many others, continued their fight, despite living in dismal, overcrowded camps that lacked any facilities or privacy.

“Many of these women came from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and did not know how the State machinery works. Their persistence was inspirational,” Zakia says.

In retrospect, she feels, these incidents went to the root of her consciousness and reshaped her. Inspired by the tenacity of these women, she left her abusive husband and started a new life with her son.

As the biases of the police and government began to emerge in the aftermath of the riots, Zakia says she truly understood for the first time what it was to be “a Muslim woman, and part of a minority”.

As with Noorjehan, the idea of helping Muslim women find agency was reinforced for Zakia by the riots.

Together we stand: BMMA impacts

BMMA Muslim women

Women read the Quran at Jama Masjid in Delhi. BMMA has begun a course to help women study to become Qazis. Photo: Godong/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Until 2007, Noorjehan and Zakia had been working separately for similar goals.

Chance brought them together at a public meeting in Mumbai. Several meetings later, the BMMA was born.

“When we were working separately, it was a big struggle, but we could see how we were changing things,” says Zakia. “Though we are from different backgrounds, we decided to come together on the ground that we are all secular, Muslim women. That’s how we thought of forging a national voice.”

The impact has been electric. Fareen Muzammil Sheikh, a BMMA block leader in the Naupada area of Mumbai, holds vocational training workshops for young girls.

‘I told the Shiv Sena, where were they when my husband was beating me?’ says Bharti Shetty, a BMMA activist

Through her, ration cards have been given to women in the area; a medical camp has been set up.

“Watching me, my husband too has formed a group to encourage dialogue about Islam, says Fareen excitedly. “My association with the BMMA has had a very positive impact on him.”

Bharti Shetty is another telling story:

Watch an extended conversation with the women here.

Membership to the BMMA is not barred for Hindus. Bharti, a programme coordinator from Bandra East, works closely with women and police stations to help them interface better.

Inevitably, this drew the attention of the local Shiv Sena unit, who threatened her husband.

“I told my husband to tell the Shiv Sena pracharaks to speak to me directly,” says Bharti spiritedly. “I refused to withdraw from the BMMA. I told them, so what if I am a Hindu and they are Muslims? Where was the Shiv Sena when my husband was beating me and my kids had nothing to eat?

“It’s these women who helped me find my feet and I’m going to stick by them.”

The Shiv Sena has not bothered her since.

One of the 20 chosen for the course to become a woman Qazis, Neha Sheikh, 19, is another testimony to the power of the BMMA. She sits watching a woman sharia court adjudicate on a hot April day. “This will quench my curiosity about why girls have not been in such positions so far. I hope I become a Qazi one day. I will be able to conduct weddings and make my parents proud,” she says.

The matrix effect

The BMMA network has four core areas of work: law, security, employment and education.

Vocational training is a particularly key initiative. Apart from creating leadership skills, they have also enabled micro-credit programmes.

For example, through the Began Rokeya Gas Oven Micro-Credit scheme in West Bengal, 200 zari artisans were given ovens so they could spend more time working, thus uplifting themselves economically.

The BMMA has set up a course to create India’s first women Qazis: so far an all male domain

In Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, women are being taught how to use a computer, cook, repair home appliances and sew. Others are taught about contraception and how to open bank accounts.

Slowly, surely, a positive revolution is being seeded.

“Some people use poverty as an excuse to hinder their daughter’s mobility. We want to make sure girls at least get a chance to study and be economically independent. We speak to parents and guardians personally and make sure we follow-up on the progress they have made”, says Khatoon Sheikh, the BMMA’s Maharashtra state convener.

Walking strong on two legs: the Quran and the Constitution

In the PIL before the Mumbai High Court, the BMMA has argued that excluding women from the Haji Ali Dargah amounts to gender discrimination and that Sharia law cannot prevail over the Indian Constitution.

The restriction, their petition also says, ’emanates from a very conservative and extremist Salafi ideology’. This is a misinterpretation of the Quran. Further, they argue, women’s right to offer prayers in the sanctum is protected under Article 25 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of religion.

The legal verdict on the Haji Ali case may not be in yet, but the combined moral weight of the BMMA’s argument is hard to ignore.

They have hit upon a winning combination: the Quran and the Constitution.

That’s bound to redefine a significant cultural landscape.