The change that India needs is a new mindset for men about everything which concerns gender. No matter what class, caste or community, this one obduracy refuses to abate. No matter what safeguards and laws are enacted by the State, which it does under unrelenting pressure from women’s groups, there is no banishing the ‘benign’ contention that boys will be boys, men will be men! This adage holds true not just for India but for the entire globe, steeped as it is in a patriarchal mould.
My limited brief for this piece is Muslim women and the current storm over the issues of triple talaq, polygamy, propelling the move towards a Uniform Civil Code. So much has been spoken and written that I can imagine the reader not wanting to hear or read another word. So let me make my point by telling a story, my story.
Twenty years ago, I challenged myself to examine the condition of Muslim women in India. This impulse was born of a sense of guilt. I saw myself as one who, ‘despite’ being Muslim, was never denied anything that really mattered in life. When I say mattered, I mean what mattered to my family, namely education, and that too the very best we could afford. Wealth was never on our ‘mattered’ list. When I looked around, I saw my co-religionists, Muslim women, as the most wretched lot. At the time my interest in the matter was mostly academic.
I had just completed my work at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library on Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. In my eyes Maulana’s stature had become huge. I found him one among three tallest leaders, not only of Muslims but of all Indians. I had also completed my translation of works of Maulana Altaf Husain Hali, who was India’s first and most profound feminist poet. He was the first poet who used his writings to lambast Muslims for their state of inertia and inability to lift themselves from the depths into which they have sunk. Despite these rehnumas, what made Muslims men and women lag so far behind, I asked.
To understand this, I decided to hold public hearings all over the country to which I invited Muslim women to speak out what was in their hearts. I selected 18 cities from states with large Muslim population. Another criteria was places where I could find partners who would understand my objective. For one year I roamed the country collecting facts, while continuing my other work as a member of the National Commission for Women.
At the end of the year I presented a report, Voice of the Voiceless Status of Muslim Women in India. I recorded that women had come out in hundreds at each of the 18 locations which were mapped in the report. They had spoken foremost about their abject poverty, then about the danger of being given arbitrary talaq and thrown out of their homes. Some spoke of polygamy and its squeeze on already meagre resources. Beedi rollers, zardozi wokers, domestic workers, labourers, women came in droves. All staggering under triple burdens.
The report was shared with the central and state governments, Muslim leaders and voluntary organisations. A special reference was made to the Muslim Personal Law Board (MPLB) who we met in the process of our documentation. We were assured by its venerable chair Maulana Ali Hasan Nadwi that our findings will find space in their deliberations.
So how is my story relevant to the subject of this piece?
Mine was one small struggle among thousands of struggles of women to get gender justice, whether in personal or public spheres. In each instance, it was the fiercely persistent women who got enlightened judgments on common issues such as violence, rape, sexual harassment and dowry. Although the same cohort, even after 30 years we are unable to get the Women’s Reservation Bill passed. At central and state levels, men ensured that the bill died a thousand deaths.
Similarly, Muslim women’s struggles have led to reversing of the intent in Muslim Women’s (Right to Protection) Act 1986. The SC’s liberal interpretation gave them right to ‘maintenance for life’ during their period of ‘iddat’. Whatever gains women have been made are also due to feminist men who walk along with the women.
History will always remember Danial Latifi whose arguments led to the SC judgment. But the largest majority of men have no gender lens. In my own experience, the gains I made in my negotiation with MPLB under Maulana Ali Miyan have been negated by the current dispensation. Not only are they pursuing a ‘lost’ agenda in their submission to SC but by refusing to see the imperative of internal reform they are exposing the most vulnerable Muslims to the rigours of a state which is avowedly against this second largest population of Muslims in the world.
The change that India needs is a massive crash course in dismantling the patriarchal order and looking at the world through a gendered lens. As regards Muslims, had those who call themselves Alims used their ilm to understand what thousands of women petitioners were saying to us, they would have themselves applied the corrective. And banned the obnoxious practice of triple talaq, called talaq-e-bidat (meaning forbidden), anti-Quran and anti-Islam. They would have banned polygamy instead of using the argument that the practice ensures that women are ‘protected’ instead of being killed or burnt by disgruntled husbands.
This change starts with the child, both male and female. It is seeded at birth and nurtured at home and school. The process is long but its results are enduring.
The writer is an educationist, women’s rights activist, and a former member of the Planning Commission of India