Mobilising for Muslim women’s rights in India

Published on openIndia, by Nida Kirmani, 14 January 2011.

The emerging Muslim women-led networks in India are challenging the authority of the religious elite to represent the ‘Muslim community’ while re-framing the category ‘Muslim women’ in order to assert political agency.

‘Muslim women’ have been used as symbolic pawns in the global war on terror as well as in national disputes between groups vying for political power.  In India this was demonstrated most starkly during the 1980s in the Shah Bano case, which has since come to exemplify the potential conflict between religion, culture and women’s rights. This case, which centred around a 73-year old woman’s rights to maintenance after divorce under Muslim personal laws, first brought the ‘plight of the Indian Muslim woman’ onto the national stage in an episode where conservative Muslim groups as well as Hindu nationalists pitted religious identity against women’s rights. The case highlighted the dilemmas of competing identity-based claims  in a political environment that was becoming increasingly polarised along religious lines. Since then, several similar cases have been brought to national attention including the 2004 case of Gudiya and the 2005 Imrana case where again, the national media highlighted Muslim women’s oppression, and the conservative ulema  yet again took it upon itself  to represent ‘the Muslim community’. Throughout these debates the voices of Muslim women speaking for themselves were rarely heard in public debates … // 

… The MWRN and the BMMA also represent important developments in the context of the women’s movement in India and can be seen as a sign of the movement’s fragmentation and diversification.  While the MWRN feels that it is an important part of the movement, the BMMA sees itself as separate from the mainstream women’s movement. Hasina Khan, who is a leader within the MWRN and works with the Mumbai-based group Awaaz-e-Niswan, feels that it is important to work within the wider women’s movement: ” Muslim women do need to make a space for themselves, but this does not mean that Muslim women make their own space and also carry out their struggle alone.  If we say this, then we might become divided. then we will not be able to call ourselves a women’s movement. There will be a Muslim women’s movement, a Hindu women’s movement, a Christian women’s movement”.

Members of the MWRN argue that the women’s movement has created space for Muslim women.  However, they also admit that there is a need for more support from within the movement, and they are actively working to engage with women across communal boundaries in order to fight against the ghettoization of Muslim women’s issues. On the other hand, members of the BMMA are critical of the women’s movement’s historical upper caste bias as well as its aversion to religion.  BMMA members argue that the leaders of the women’s movement have not gone far enough in cultivating new leadership, especially amongst women from marginalized communities.  It is for this reason that members of the BMMA feel that it is crucial for Muslim women to build their own movement.  Hence, although membership to the BMMA is open to women and men from all religious backgrounds, they have included a rule that 70% of their membership will be comprised of Muslim women who will also be in leadership roles at all levels.

Although no further legal reforms have taken place with regards to Muslim women’s rights since the Shah Bano affair, the presence of Muslim women-led networks alone marks a significant shift in the Indian political landscape. The appearance of the MWRN and the BMMA demonstrates the diversification of the women’s movement, and of the political sphere in general as women from marginalized communities find new ways to engage with and challenge structures of power and authority at multiple levels. Their efforts are creating a space for Muslim women to actively engage in redefining their identities and reformulating relations of power within an increasingly constrained and polarised political context, one in which feminists have little room to manoeuvre outside of the confines of religious boundaries. (full text).

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