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Tentative steps forward for Muslim women’s rights

Muslim women in Bangalore

Muslim women walking in Lalbagh Garden, Bangalore. Ryan under a Creative Commons Licence

Good news, says a section of the Times of India. Good news indeed. A 1,000-year-old Kerala mosque has made headlines everywhere by allowing Muslim women to enter its hallowed precincts for the first time in history. The 1,000-year-old Juma Masjid at Kerala’s Thazhathangady is considered a unique heritage site because of its beautiful architecture and famous wooden carving.

Thousands of Muslim women from Kerala flocked there to view the inside of the building. Fathima, one of the first entrants, said: ‘Standing before many historical mosques, I had always wanted to enter and offer worship. But I was afraid of even expressing that desire. I am happy that such an opportunity has come now.’

An even bigger first: a historic gender justice step forward is the Supreme Court’s admission of the Shayara Bano petition pleading that polygamy and oral ‘triple talaq’ (saying talaq thrice in succession for a Muslim man to obtain an instant divorce) violate fundamental human rights and are thus unconstitutional. Indian politicians have traditionally sabotaged gender justice for Muslim women, to get the Muslin clerics’ support. But thankfully our Supreme Court can be objective. It does not have to woo Muslim vote-banks.

The mullahs, predictably, are livid. All India Muslim Personal Law Board’s Kamal Farooqi objects: ‘This means direct government interference in religious affairs, as sharia religious law is based on the Qur’an and Hadith, and its jurisprudence is strong as far as Islam is concerned. It will be against the constitutional right to religious freedom.’

Goa is the only Indian state that disallows personal laws of all religions. It has a uniform civil code – with a few exceptions not relevant to Muslims – based on Portuguese colonial laws. Goa’s mullahs attempted to extend Muslim personal law to Goa after Independence, but were foiled by the Goa Muslim Women’s Associations and Muslim youth activists. Muslims, a prosperous Goan community, account for 8.3 per cent of Goa’s population.

The appointment of two Jaipur women as qazis (judges who review civil, judicial and religious matters) is a tiny yet crucial step towards countering the unfair, unIslamic, patriarchical interpretation of sharia in family matters in favour of men. Jahan Ara and Afroz Begum face stiff opposition already from the usual suspects. Among the first livid objectors is Rajasthan’s chief qazi Khalid Usmani, who says, ‘as per the Qur’an, a woman can never be a man’s hakim [ruler/judge] and hence a woman can never be a qazi’. He continues: ‘in Islamic history, there is no evidence whatsoever to say that a woman can be a qazi.’ Qazi Usmani is factually wrong. The Qur’an never uses the word ‘hakim’ in the context of the relationship between men and women. It sees men as ‘qawaam’ (managers) regarding family affairs and household chores, not necessarily as experts in Islamic jurisprudence.

Ground-breaking, in my view, is the news that a Kerala-based Muslim group has launched an intensive campaign to wean its youth away from the influence of terror groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

Kerala Muslims were appalled at the deportation of two young Kerala Muslims by the United Arab Emirates for allegedly supporting IS ideology on social media. Kerala Nadvathul Muhjahideen, a progressive Muslim movement, embarked on an ambitious anti-terror and anti-communal drive through meetings and awareness programmes. Welcome news indeed.

I was struck by a comment from a Kerala Muslim academic. He asked a pertinent question. Indian Muslims in general and Kerala Muslims in particular had a unique Indian identity. Why is everyone from the Muslim world suddenly trying to be pseudo-Arab? Why do we need to look to the Saudis for religious or social guidance? Not to mention garb.
Another pertinent question that needs asking is why Arab men are allowed to come to India, marry teenage Muslim girls for a short while (and a smaller fee) then, when sexual satisfaction wanes, triple talaq them and move on in search of younger virgins? It sickens me to the core.  

Can progressive Muslims take this up too? It would go to the top of the good news section.

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