The Indian Muslim Woman’s tryst with Herself: the Genesis and Need of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan

– Dr. Noorjehan Safia Niaz*

March 17, 2017 | 04:20 P.M.

Since the inception of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan [BMMA] in January 2007 in New Delhi, many have asked why Muslim women need to organize themselves. Kya zaroorat hai Musalman aurton ko apni tehreek tayar karne ki? After 10 years of BMMA, it is amply clear why it was so important that Muslim women take the lead. The reasons are many. To start with, no community can develop if its women remain behind and conversely the women of the community cannot progress unless the larger community also takes the onus to lend her a helping hand in playing her role in public life.

BMMA has not only created an alternative liberal voice in the Indian Muslim community, but it has also brought Muslim women to the forefront by raising the sensitive issue of law reform towards which the larger community had adopted an ostrich-like approach. Creating a membership base of more than a lakh women, creating a draft Muslim family law, creating Darul Uloom-e-Niswan: a centre for Islamic teaching, winning a PIL in the Supreme Court against the Haji Ali Dargah Trust, filing a PIL in Supreme Court against the practice of triple talaak and halala, running vocational training centres in 7 cities for the socio-economic development of Muslim girls and boys, running Aurton Ki Shariah Adalats in 4 cities – in short creating a secular, liberal space within the community and reclaiming Islam from misogynists and conservatives to secure the human rights of Muslim women. With Muslim women taking lead, especially on matters of personal law reform and issues of women’s access to sacred spaces, we have also seen the Muslim male secular liberal voice rising to support women.

Origins of the BMMA:

While we see a rise in conservative forces within the community, we also see the world not doing anything better. With conservative political parties rising in the Europe and USA and within our own country, Islam and Muslims continue to remain the villain, notwithstanding the fact that the highest number of victims of Islamic terror continues to be fellow Muslims. Closer home, rise of cultural and political hindutva groups has ensured that Muslims remain under siege. This socio-political environment has a direct bearing on women and youth. Lack of educational and livelihood opportunities, ghettoized living conditions and an atmosphere of being hated, feared and despised have all pushed the community to the wall.

The arrival of the forces of globalization and privatization in India since early 1990s has also led to the poor – dalits, adivasis, women and minorities being driven further to the margins with a direct onslaught on their lands and livelihoods. Civil society organizations have been protesting about the widespread exclusion of India’s large masses due to the very questionable notions of development which are increasingly finding deep roots into the successive governments and their policies. A malfunctioning PDS and nonfunctional primary schools both aggravate the social exclusion faced by the minorities as by the dalits and adivasis. Today the impact of state withdrawal from welfarism and inclusive development is for all to see. It is important to see BMMA’s work in the backdrop of these conditions.

Indian history is replete with instances of struggle for social change and justice. Women and especially Muslim women have also initiated and actively participated in many historical movements for justice. These struggles are still on with the increasing strength of women. Yet women’s participation and the articulation of her perspective of social justice and development have always been ignored traditionally. This alternative voice of women which is concerned with just, fair and humane society never got due recognition. And this fuelled in some Muslim women a strong need to create a collective that will not only address the concerns of the Muslim community and particularly of the Muslim women but also take concrete steps to ameliorate this situation. They felt that a mass organization is required where the most oppressed and marginalized sections get a voice and are able to mobilize themselves to create conditions in society which will ensure social, economic and political justice, the upholding of human rights, equality and peace. This urge led to the formation of the BMMA. Over the last 10 years it has established itself as an alliance of like-minded individuals that take upon themselves the onus of taking up the issues of the Muslim women and Muslim community head on. In such grim and testing times, Muslim women have led the community restoring faith in the secular, liberal values on the Indian Constitution and reclaiming a humanist Islam.

Work done by the BMMA:

The BMMA works towards all the rights and duties emanating from the Constitution. In its 10th year, its membership has crossed one lakh members across 15 states. It raises issues of education, jobs, security, law and health. It being a national entity seeks to carry out its activities through a formal national democratic structure with a system of accountability. It addresses the issues of education, employment, security and legal reforms and takes proactive and concrete steps towards these. It not only works at the grassroots on these issues but also does political advocacy to raise issues at the appropriate fora. In short it seeks to create an alternative voice of Muslim women and works for its leadership development.

The vision of the Andolan is to create conditions within the Indian society where the Muslim community and especially Muslim women are able to eradicate their own poverty and marginalization and live a life of equality, justice and with respect for human rights. It believes in the values of democracy, secularism, equality, non-violence, human rights and justice as enshrined in the Constitution of India. These are the guiding principles in their struggle. It believes in the inherent capacity of women to lead and ameliorate the social, economic, political, legal and educational backwardness. It also seeks to carry out positive, liberal, humanist and feminist interpretations of religion for ensuring justice and equality to Muslim women. And to achieve its vision of an equal society it seeks collaboration and alliance with other movements and networks that are fighting for social equality and human rights and are opposing forces of fascism, capitalism, communalism and imperialism in all its forms.

To achieve this vision and objectives the Andolan through its well laid out administrative structure reaches out to Muslim women in villages, towns and cities and organizes them into pressure groups under the leadership of a committed woman leader. The emergent leadership of Muslim women at the national, state, district, block and village level carries out programmes and activities related to education, livelihood, law reform and health services. Amongst its many achievements the Andolan in all the states where it is active, has mobilized Muslim women and exerted pressure on local government machinery to issue important documents like voter I-cards, ration cards, widow pension cards etc. Perspective building and inputs and information-giving workshops are organized on various issues on a regular basis.

BMMA, Islam and the Indian Muslim Community: 

These initiatives of Muslim women need to be further supported and complimented by other Muslims so that the community as a whole is able to lead a life of dignity and safety. It cannot be that the community demands security and democracy for itself from the state but does not allow the same for the women. Democracy within is the crying need of the time.

BMMA has also compelled the community to understand Islam and Quranic teachings from a feminist perspective. It has uncovered Islam from a labyrinth of patriarchy, misogyny and conservatism and reasserted its ideals of equality, justice, wisdom and compassion. Within the Islamic framework there is a strong need to appreciate and distinguish between the normative and contextual writings in the Quran. There are many verses of the Quran which have a normative, immutable and prescriptive appeal. They point towards universal values of justice, equality, wisdom and compassion which must permeate life of each and every human being for all times of come. On the other hand are the contextual and descriptive verses which were relevant for those times and for that particular society. As a principle new age Muslim women through BMMA have rooted for the universal principles and based their laws and their way of life on those. In other words a humanistic understanding of the Quran has resurfaced which will ensure that as Muslims we are able to live in peace with other communities and also ensure justice within.

Allah is a universal power which as per the Tawhidic understanding permeates all beings, living and non-living. This universal power is rahman and rahim, merciful and beneficent and is embedded in the Islamic notion of Taqwa or moral/ethical notions.[1] It is very heartening and encouraging to note that across the Muslim societies Muslim women are embracing this very Islamic and universal ideas of Tawhid and Taqwa which encourages us to love all as creations of one God and live and let live everyone in peace and tranquility. Emboldened by the conceptualization of God as merciful and just, Muslim women are now seeking justice and equality within the families and are reclaiming their right to read the Quran and arrive at their meanings based on their own lived realities. In the last couple of decades we have had Islamic feminist scholars like Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, Riffat Hassan, Ziba Mir Hosseini and many others who have taken up the challenge of rereading, retranslating and reinterpreting the Quran from a feminist perspective. And what has emerged is a vast amount of literature which debunks many misgivings and misunderstandings about Islam and women’s rights. What has been liberating and empowering is the assurance that the Quran wants justice for all humans so that life can be led peacefully and in tranquility and in complete harmony with everything around us. So ‘…. problem is not with the text but with the context and the ways in which text is used to sustain patriarchal and authoritarian structures’.[2]

With the emergence of Muslim women’s religious leadership, we get to hear a completely humanistic and enabling version of Islam. Women are no longer just recipients of knowledge and objects to be studied but are now agents of knowledge creation including religious knowledge. Islamic laws and understanding of Islam itself has been the domain of men for many centuries now. Extremely patriarchal interpretations and even translations have created a hierarchy in women-men relationships. Superiority of men over women is God-ordained and hence cannot be challenged at all. This understanding closes all doors of negotiations within the familial relationships. Contemporary Muslim women, including Indian Muslim women through BMMA have inadvertently opened the doors of ijtihaad by creating knowledge from their own perspectives and their own lived realities which are largely experiences of injustice and inequality. In other words there is a move towards ‘democratization of the production of religious knowledge’.[3] Women are no longer dependent on men to know what God wants from them. They no longer have to accept what men have been telling them. They no longer have to believe that God has created them as inferior to men. They now read, translate, interpret and explain to the world that their God is just, loving and merciful and has created them on par with men.

As Muslim women gain strength and voice there is hope for the community as well, for women’s voices will be voices of peace, harmony, justice and equality. The BMMA which is growing from strength to strength with each passing year has given a platform for Muslim women to emerge as leaders and take their community out of its stagnation. Muslim women are taking tremendous interest in the affairs of the community as well as the country. This churning amongst the Muslim women has a historical significance as they have never been organized on a national scale ever before. Their dreams and aspirations of a prosperous, just, plural and democratic Indian society and Muslim community are matched equally well by their administrative and organizational skills. This development only confirms that that the deliverance of the community lies in the hands of its women.

* Dr. Noorjehan Safia Niaz is the co-founder of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan.

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[1] Dr. Noorjehan Safia Niaz and Zakia Soman, Seeking Justice Within Family – A National Study on Muslim Women’s Views on Reforms in Muslim Personal Law, 68 Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (2015).

[2] Men in Charge?: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition (Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mulki Al-Sharmani, Jana Rumminger ed(s)., 2015).

[3] Id.