Woes of women behind the veil
The psyche of patriarchy within the Muslim community is not unlike what prevails in other communities, but it is given the additional weight of authority because it is seen to have religious sanction. Nobody tries to understand what the Koran stands for or what the Prophet stood for, and believes that what ever is pronounced by anyone who claims to be an interpreter of the Koran is the actual word of Allah.
Muslim women suffer from a double oppression. The first, of course, is the experience of facing innumerable discriminations that Indian women face. The second has to do with the way in which their status has been undermined by Muslim Personal Law, which, to me, as a person who knows Islam and who has read the Koran, is not in accordance with what the religion enjoins. So having to negotiate these two difficult realities, Muslim women today find themselves caught in a hostile environment.
Multiple marriages and triple talaq, both specific to the Muslim community in India, arise from a misinterpretation of the Koran. One of the major traumas that emerge is the propensity of men to pronounce triple talaq and throw their wives out of the home. Or the man may remarry and completely abandon his earlier wife and often the children too.
These women suffer because they have no independent means of survival. The poorest of the poor are then reduced to an almost sub-human existence, eking out a living as domestic workers, rag pickers, beedi rollers, zardosi workers – all women who laboured with their hands as piece rate workers.
Today, divorce by triple talaq is pronounced by word, sent in a letter, and now more recently as an SMS message or email. This, incidentally, is specific to India. There is an injunction against such a practice in Pakistan, where a fair degree of reform has taken place after the Family Reform Code Bill was introduced in the Sixties. In Bangladesh, too, there is an injunction against the practice.
India, unfortunately, has not been able to address the concern despite many efforts having been made. Every time the issue is broached, the so-called representatives of the community let out a howl of protest and the matter is dropped. The tragedy is that their views are based on a wrong interpretation of religion. Triple talaq is really a contravention of the religion.
Veil and values
It was the Sufis who brought Islam to the mohallas of this country. The Sufis encouraged the people to remain true to their own customs and ways of life, which is what made Islam so palatable to the local population. Some of the Sufis wore dhotis. So this diktat about how women should dress is only a recent phenomenon. My religion advices me to dress modestly but modesty, according to the Koran, means that you protect your private parts. Covering one’s head has never been laid down. This ethos of dress is dictated by patriarchal values and is creating a lot of polarisation.
Hijab and hindrance
Dress is definitely an impediment to the progress of Muslim women. Of course, many women I have known and loved, who have adopted the burqa, say they feel a sense of safety when they wear this garment. This argument seems to suggest that, somewhere, these women have a perception of insecurity that makes them want some kind of a protective shield. The fact is that the hijab or burqa is a marker and the minute you wear one, you are regarded as someone who needs to be treated differently.
I remember in my mother’s generation, 50 years ago, women actually gave up the burqa after independence. It was a big step that was accepted by the men of the family. Immediately they became like everyone else and could participate in public life.
Then there is the issue of education. Remember, educational reform in the Muslim community for women started over a hundred years ago. Unfortunately that legacy is all but forgotten, and most Muslim families today maintain that there’s really no need to educate the girl child; that all she needs is some household training since she doesn’t have to work outside the home and only look after a family and home.
Patriarchy and religion
For a more equal future for Muslim women, patriarchy has to go. Women are speaking out across the world, but the stranglehold of patriarchy on Islam continues. Today, the Muslim community has been stigmatized as anti-gender, anti-development, anti-progress.
But any change introduced from the outside only invites a backlash from within the community. Therefore the change can only come from within the community. Muslim women need to push the boundaries – lead the namaaz, for instance, do khullah openly, or speak up against triple talaq.
This way, they can help create a new destiny, both for themselves and their community.