Daud Sharifa Khanam – a village woman from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu – appears unpretentious. But her intentions are audacious, revolutionary and disarmingly simple. She wants to create a mosque for women in Pudukkottai District, complete with a woman priest. She’s got 3,000 women behind her – and a lot of Muslim religious patriarchs against her.
‘I have received death threats. I have been accused of wanting to build a mosque for the purpose of prostitution. They say that we are being backed by Hindu religious leaders. A women’s mosque is a slur against Islam, we are told.’
The idea of a women’s mosque was born out of mounting frustrations with the rulings of the jamat – the group of Islamic male elders who decide on family issues such as marriage, dowry, divorce, domestic violence, custody and child abuse.
If women go to the police for help with such cases, most often the matter is referred to the jamat. But there is one big problem with this: the jamat sit in the mosque – a place where women are not allowed to enter. In India, Muslim women mostly pray in adjoining buildings.
So women cannot give their side of the story or hear judgements in cases that intimately involve them. As Daud Sharifa puts it: ‘They are dealing with my case without me. They are talking about me without me. And they are also passing judgement without me.’
Women do have rights in Islam, she maintains, but these are currently being denied. While dowry is prohibited, it is nevertheless common for the groom’s family to demand 50,000 rupees ($1,300) from the bride’s family. In the reverse case, where the man’s family is expected to give to the woman’s family, the sum is limited to 500 rupees ($13).
Not that this problem seems to faze Daud Sharifa. Born the tenth child of a poor rural family 39 years ago, she grew up without a father. When asked if she married, she laughs: ‘How could I? That would be impossible!’
For the past 15 years she has been working with STEPS, a grassroots women’s organization based in Pudukkottai. Her particular focus has been on marginalized women. And there are many of those, she says. If you take five families, you will find one widow, one divorcee, one physically disabled woman, one with mental problems, and one who is destitute.
She believes that male religious leaders ignore such women. ‘They see them begging outside the big mosques, but they never take them into account. We want to live our lives. We need a space in which to pray, to talk, to share.’
Male response to the women’s mosque project has not been entirely negative. Initially even the jamat representatives in Parambur vilage were prepared to provide a plot on which the mosque could be constructed. But when the story broke in the press, they were threatened by ulemas (Islamic religious experts) from all over India, and help melted away.
Undaunted, the women at STEPS resolved to raise money to buy land themselves. They have now identified a suitable plot in Pudukkottai district that will cost them 1,200,000 rupees ($30,000); constructing the mosque will cost an additional 2,500,000 rupees ($62,5000). Fundraising has started in earnest. ‘Each woman who is supporting the project is trying to raise 1,000 rupees. We will take anything that people can give us to help. If they are willing to give bricks, that’s good. If they are willing to mix the cement, that’s good. But we need international solidarity too, in the form of both manual and financial donations.’
‘I have received death threats. A women’s mosque is a slur against Islam, we are told.’
The mosque the women are hoping to create will be ‘a proper one’, she insists. ‘With pillars and all the infrastructure of a mosque.’ And a priest? ‘Of course there will be a priest. We will appoint a woman who is qualified to teach about Islam.’
A woman priest? Is that possible within Islam? ‘I am not going to consider whether it is possible or not. They tell me I know nothing of Islam but I do know that Islam gives a lot of rights to women and now those rights are being negated. The imams oppose us because they do not want to lose their power.’
And what about those death threats? Daud Sharifa is equally sanguine. ‘This is not new for me. I will have to die some time. If I die tomorrow, so be it. Today I want to make my contribution to the next generation. This is the time to do something.’
Daud Sharifa Khanam talked with Vanessa Baird
For more information email: [email protected]
Foreign donations to help build a mosque for women can be made to STEPS account at:
Indian Bank (Foreign Contribution), Indian Bank,
Rajagopalapuram, Pudukottai, 622 001, Tamil Nadu, India.
Account Number: 8261 / 34
Local (Indian) donations can be made to STEPS account at:
Union Bank of India (Local Contribution) Keelarajaveedi,
Main Road, Pudukottai, 622 001, Tamil Nadu, India.
Account Number: 4140