Islam: What’s Their Problem with Women?

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More and more Muslim women in Kerala are standing up to the gender tyranny of their orthodox community leadership
“Women are fit only to deliver babies.” Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musaliyar, a Sunni Muslim leader in Kerala with a vast following, is said to have uttered these words on 28 November during a speech at a meeting of the Sunni Students’ Federation in Kozhikode. The media, however, got it wrong. The video of the speech is available on YouTube, and it shows that what he actually said was: “Only women can give birth to children.” A slight misinterpretation led to angry headlines and protests, even becoming a national talking point. He later complained of being misquoted, but the blame for it falls on the man’s record of prejudice. He is, to put it mildly, a serial belittler of women, having publicly said numerous times that women are not as intelligent as men, are only meant to rear children, and shouldn’t go for jobs or contest elections. In 2013, when he said that girls could be married off at the age of 16, it saw a petition filed against him in the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Thiruvananthapuram. It didn’t make any difference to his pronouncements on the subject. Even that day in Kozhikode, the rest of his speech had plenty of his usual anti-women statements that were quite clear. He had said, “Women do not have the mental capacity as that of men. Can you show me women doctors who do complicated surgeries? Is there any woman in history who led wars? The very idea of gender equality is not only unIslamic, but against humanity itself.”

What is disturbing about Kerala is that Kanthapuram is not the only or the most extreme voice when it comes to Muslim religious leaders and their attitude to women. VP Suhara, 65, who in 1997 formed the NISA, an organisation fighting for the rights of Muslim women, says that Muslim scholars of various factions who otherwise agree on nothing always unite when it comes to gender justice. Kanthapuram’s views are echoed by his rival group, the Samasta Kerala Sunni (also known as EK Sunnis), as well as the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen, a Salafi Muslim organisation. Suhara says, “In one way or the other, all Muslin organisations express their discontent at the increasing visibility of women in the public domain.” Then there is the Jamaat-e-Islami, which claims to speak for women’s empowerment but when it comes to action, does quite the opposite. Recently, O Abdurahman, group editor of Madhyamam newspaper, the mouth piece of this group, wrote against the 50 per cent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions.

Suhara has a record of battling for gender justice that goes back to the 1980s. She was then an activist of Bodhana, an organisation formed by former Naxalite- turned-activist K Ajitha. She believed in secular causes and platforms, but soon realised the need for an organisation to voice the concerns of Muslim women in Kerala. The trigger for it was an incident related to a protest they had organised after a Muslim woman, a mother of seven, had been divorced by unilateral triple talaq. The then Women’s Commission Chairperson, Sugathakumari, was in attendance. During the programme a group of Muslim men barged into the hall. “They shouted at me, broke the microphone, created a ruckus. They wanted to communalise the issue. They contended that Sugathakumari, being a Hindu, had no right to interfere in matters related to the community,” she recounts. “That led to the formation of NISA.”

VP Rajeena, a journalist who came under attack for her disclosure about witnessing the sexual abuse of her friends in a madrassa, also says that men of various rival factions in Islam come together against gender justice, but that such discrimination has nothing to do with the Qur’an. “The predominant narratives of Islam are the creation of men. I challenge them to show me a single shred of evidence that the Qur’an discourages women from appearing in public. Even the practice of women wearing hijab originated from a misinterpretation of [the text]. It is not meant for women,” says Rajeena, voicing a feminist interpretation of Islam’s holy book put forth by women scholars like Fatima Mernissi and Saba Mahmood. “There are seven references on the hijab in the Qur’an. Nowhere is it mentioned that it is a veil to be used by women. Instead, there is a reference [that has led] to the interpretation that hijab was a curtain used between the prophet and one of his disciples to give him the message that followers of Islam are supposed to respect one’s privacy.” Rajeena says even the headscarf is not mandatory in Islam. “Most of the prevailing Hadiths [the reported quotations believed to be Prophet Muhammad’s own words] are fake. I must say 90 per cent of them are twisted, distorted and misinterpreted. The men in Islam made interpretations favourable to them.”

This state of affairs is exacerbated by the deliberate exclusion of women’s contributions to Islamic studies. Dr Shamshad Hussain, an assistant professor at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, who has authored a book on gender justice in Islam, says books on Islam by women authors have never been accepted by male scholars and conservative community leaders. “They ignore interpretations of the Qur’an by women scholars like Fatima Mernissi. The theological education is limited to texts and interpretations by men.” She cites the example of Halima Beevi, the editor of a periodical Muslim Mahila in the 1930s. “She had written lot of articles about the life of women in general and Muslim women in particular. When we talk about a Muslim renaissance in Kerala, she is rarely referred. Islam has totally been made a man’s affair,” she says.

Then are those who believe that the problem is not just the gender-unjust framework created by men, but the texts themselves which allow this. Thasni Banu, for example, does not believe in looking for solutions within holy texts. Thasni, hailing from Manjeri in Malappuram district, hit headlines in 1998 for making her dissent loud and clear. Studying in a women’s college under the management of a Muslim trust, she would often question the imposition of an ‘Islamic’ way of living. Once, when she raised questions during a seminar on ‘Qur’an as a literary text’, the principal warned her against tarnishing the religion. Thasni was the editor of her college magazine for the 1997-98 academic year. For the inauguration of an arts festival, she and her fellow student union members had invited U Kalanathan, a well-known atheist, and Njeralathu Harigovindan, an artiste of Sopana Sangeetham, a classical music form developed in temples. The college authorities okayed the invitations but had them withdrawn after they realised who the guests were. The students responded by resigning from the union on the day of the festival. Thasni says, “My parents were summoned. My father gave me the option either to wear a hijab or stop studies and get married off. I took the first option as I wanted to continue my education.”

Once, while talking to an old classmate in Manjeri town, she was assaulted by workers of the NDF, a fundamentalist Muslim outfit that later merged with the Popular Front of India. They accused her of ‘immorality’ and what followed was virtual house arrest. “The house was surrounded by NDF cadres. I tried to escape several times but failed. After a few days, my friends came to meet me and they were attacked. One of them was badly injured,” she says. Finally, it took a habeas corpus petition in the High Court moved by a friend, Abdul Nasar, for her to escape. At the court, she was asked who she wanted to go with. “I and Nasar were not lovers. We were just friends and did not have any serious plan to get married. I told the court that I want to live a life of my own, neither with Nasar nor with my parents. But that was not approved. I was put in a rescue home. Finally, we decided to get married because there was no option left.”

It was after Thasni was brought to court again that she expressed a willingness to get married. The court ordered that a nikaah be performed, but Thasni wouldn’t agree to have one. “I demanded that I get married only under the Special Marriage Act and not through any religious ritual. There were two judges. One of them agreed, but the other person was totally against it. He was annoyed and asked me to [accept a nikaah].” Thasni refused and was again put in a rescue home until the marriage could be formalised. “The court ordered that no one meets me, neither friends nor the media. It was another phase of house arrest, this time imposed by the state.” All this happened when she was just 19 years old. After a few years of marriage, Thasni and Nasar went in for a mutual divorce.

Now 36, Thasni is a senior document specialist with an infotech firm and does not really care for religious leaders like Kanthapuram Musaliyar. “It is very evident that Muslims in Kerala, both men and women, have achieved tremendous levels of upward mobility. It would not have happened if they had been real followers of these conservative community leaders,” she says.

When there was backlash against VP Rajeena over her Facebook post about sexual abuse in madrassas, her account was closed down twice as a result of mass objections. There were innumerable comments abusing and threatening her, but all these virulent reactions were from men. Notably, no woman accused her of lying. “What she disclosed was only a fact that everyone knows, but the champions of religion are trying to cover it up,” says Hasna Shahida, a 22-year-old law student who was also an active participant in the Kiss of Love movement. She rejects the idea of religion being led by a handful of orthodox men. “I do not have any direct experience of molestation in madrassas, but I do remember the obviously obscene language used by the usthads (teachers) while teaching the religious rules pertaining to menstruation, sex, etcetera. They took a perverse pleasure in explaining things in that way and seeing the kids get embarrassed and annoyed.”

Despite Kanthapuram Musaliyar’s repeated denigration of women, Hasna believes that the Sunni tradition is actually better than other factions like Jamaat- e-Islami or Mujahid. “I am lucky that I grew up in the Sunni tradition. I think it is far more flexible. We have the space to be non-religious and to live a life hiding it. Purdah and even hijab is not necessary. We can manage covering our hair with a dupatta. If I were born to a family following the Jamaat-e-Islami, I am sure that I would have been more suffocated. I would have been forced to display my Muslim identity by being in purdah. Here, there is no everyday auditing of faith.”

Large numbers of Sunni clerics, however, are against allowing women into mosques, and Hasna sees this as an advantage. “I am only happy about it. Otherwise I would have been forced to go to the mosque,” she says.

Hasna’s activism during the Kiss of Love agitation had made her a target of conservatives. “I was indirectly mentioned in the khutbah (sermon given during Friday prayers) in the neighbourhood mosque. It was mentioned that a girl of the locality who wears jeans and lives an unIslamic life was at the forefront of Kiss of Love,” she says.

Another Kiss of Love campaigner, Hairunneesa P, a TV journalist with Asianet News and a poet, has a similar story. “A group of Muslim scholars came home to bring me back to the ‘right path’. They were trying to convince me that the Qur’an is scientific, that all modern scientific inventions have already been mentioned in it. I told them that I was not worried about science, I don’t care what the Qur’an has to offer on science. I am bothered about the sociological aspects of religion. Not only Islam, all religions are fundamentally against the idea of gender justice.”

A recent article by Hairunneesa on purdah for an online portal became a wide point of discussion on social media. ‘Purdah is not attire at all,’ she wrote, ‘It is a tool which is used to manacle women and to hinder their social mobility.’ Hairunneesa’s point of departure from religion was her childhood experiences of gender discrimination. “The women in my family, who used to cook food, had to often remain hungry, allowed to eat only after the men had filled their stomachs,” she says.

Hairunneesa had friends who gave up their madrassa education because of sexual abuse. “I stopped attending the madrassa soon after puberty. I could not go to classes during my menstruation period because we’re not supposed to touch the holy book on those days. [The male teachers] knew the reason why girls took a week-long leave. The ugly staring by the usthad when we resumed classes was highly abusive. I stopped going,” she says, vouching for Rajeena’s Facebook post.

“If there are not sufficient numbers of women doctors, then the self-styled champions of religion like Kanthapuram Aboobacker Musaliyar are responsible for it,” says Dr Khadija Mumtaz, who was a professor of gynaecology at Calicut Medical College. She is also the author of Barza, a novel about a Muslim woman in Saudi Arabia who reinvents her life by rejecting the dominant narratives of the Qur’an. “The struggle is harder for women who do not relinquish religion, compared to those who have abandoned the faith. Once you free yourself from the clutches of orthodox practices, then the horizon becomes wider,” she says

Jaseela Cheriya Valappil, a social activist and researcher, argues that secular civil society also needs to take responsibility for the status of Muslim women. “Where do these women go if they come out breaking the web of patriarchy in the community? The Islamophobia that demonises the community makes life tougher for women. When the whole community is put in the dock, the women have no choice but to join hands with their men as they are dependent on them. The economic mobility of Muslim men due to the Gulf boom has strengthened their authority over women. Muslim women who hold faith have no place to go if they break the barriers of family and community. The secular platforms are reluctant to welcome hijab wearing women,” she says.

The account of Safeera Madathilakathu, a journalist working with Media One TV, illustrates these observations. Safeera is a practicing Muslim who wears the hijab. “On one side, I feel the heat of rejection by secular spaces. On the other, I receive equally hostile responses from the men who control the community,” she says. In 2013, Safeera went to cover a meeting held by Kanthapuram Musaliyar, but his men denied her entry. “They angrily told me that the usthad did not want to meet women. I tried to convince them that I was doing my duty as a media person. My crew, who were all men, got scared and forced me to turn back. Before getting into my car, I told Kanthapuram’s men that they should learn how to behave with a woman. They started verbally abusing me and said that women like me who wander around day and night carrying a camera and microphone with male colleagues are responsible for defaming Islam.”

A CPM leader once asked Safeera why she wore the hijab despite being a journalist. On another occasion, a former judge and head of a state government committee on education, praised her for raising intelligent questions and added this was unlike what was expected of the usual “hijab wearing girls of poor IQ”.

For women like Safeera and others, the never-ending feuds between various religious factions in the community are irrelevant. They know that when it comes to women’s rights, all these men will come together to deny them their due.