Zakia Soman still remembers Afsana, the young woman she met more than a decade ago at one of the several relief camps that were set up after the 2002 Gujarat riots. Afsana’s husband had been killed in the riots.
She was a mother of two, though she “barely looked old enough to be a wife.” Afsana told Zakia that she wanted “justice, and not aid”. “She told me that if need be, she was willing to go to the Supreme Court to get justice.”
Zakia, then a professor of Business Communication in English at the Gujarat university, was battling an abusive marriage, and the young woman’s fortitude left a deep impression on her. A year later, when the Ahmedabad-based Zakia managed to walk out of her 16-year-old marriage, it occurred to her that among others, it was Afsana’s resolve to get justice for herself that had inspired Zakia to change her situation too.
The personal setback led Zakia to several meetings with friends, one of whom was the Mumbai-based social worker Noorjehan Safia Niaz. As the two began discussing their personal struggles, they gradually started to connect with women in other states and realised that there was a need to raise awareness about Muslim women’s rights.
Soon, the personal became political: if educated women such as Zakia weren’t aware of their rights within a marriage and couldn’t assert themselves in an oppressive relationship, what chance did the poor, uneducated Muslim woman have? “All we had were the self-styled spokespersons of Islam such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), who were interpreting the Quran for us. We needed an alternative, a reading of the Quran from a women’s perspective ,” says Zakia. If the Quran advocates “reconciliation and mediation” instead of oral divorce, why were Muslim women still being subjected to the practice, Zakia wondered.
Together, Zakia and Noorjehan started the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), now in its tenth year, and boasting a membership of over a lakh. The agenda for the BMMA was equal citizenship rights for women, and gender justice within the framework of Islam.
Noorjehan, who has a doctorate in Sociology, says that the BMMA shares its ideological moorings with the work of Islamic feminists such as American scholar-activist Amina Wadud. A revered scholar, Wadud courted controversy in 2005, when she led mixed gender prayers in the US. She was opposed by conservative sections of the clergy who said this was against Islamic laws.
In India, the BMMA has also faced opposition from the conservatives, particularly the AIMPLB. But the founders say they are unfazed by the criticism. Instead, they are counting the recent Haji Ali verdict – the court order allowing women to enter the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai — as a personal victory. “Many of us have grown up visiting the dargah, but were stopped from doing so since 2012. This, just because we are women!” says Noorjehan.
Besides the Haji Ali petition, the BMMA has challenged triple talaq, polygamy and nikah halala (after oral divorce, a woman can’t go back to her divorced husband if she wants, unless she marries someone else, consummates the marriage and is divorced again). Even though in progressive judgments such as the one in the Shamim Ara case of 2002, the apex court dismissed arbitary talaq and laid down the procedure for divorce, BMMA founders argue that those judgments have little impact on the ground. “Triple talaq is still a reality. By proposing a ban, we want to make sure that women don’t have to go to the court or hire a lawyer to seek redress. Many women can’t even afford a lawyer,” says Zakia.
The organisation also provides education and livelihood training for poor Muslim women and holds Shariah courts that challenge a patriarchal interpretation of the Quran. The Sharia courts appeal to BMMA’s core membership of poor women who are unable to negotiate for their rights. “We get one case every day where a woman has been given oral divorce. However, at times, the men call us too, to find ways to save their sisters from this injustice,” says Noorjehan, who has been working in the ghettos of Mumbai since 1992.
A nationwide survey by the BMMA revealed that more than 90 per cent women wanted oral divorce to be banned. A signature campaign to end the practice also got them 50,000 votes.
Even as the BMMA invokes the constitutional invalidity of gender discriminatory practices, one of their main demands is to codify Muslim family laws. “If every community has its own codified law [for example, the Hindus have the Hindu Marriage Act, Parsis have the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act] then why not the same for Muslims?” says Noorjehan. The demand for a codification of Muslim personal law – laws to fix age of marriage, matters of property, and guardianship of children – is in opposition to the ruling party’s clamour for a Uniform Civil Code. BMMA founders argue that the need for a Uniform Civil Code doesn’t arise because the country already has an optional civil code in the form of the Special Marriages Act, 1954. Under this law, couples from the same religious background too can have a civil, as opposed to a religious marriage. “But instead of raising awareness about it, the BJP is harping on a Uniform Civil Code. It’s just another stick to beat the Muslims with,” says Noorjehan.
Thirty one years after the Shah Bano controversy, BMMA founders claim that much has changed, and the organisation’s demands reflect Muslim women’s aspirations. “I often joke that we still don’t have a fatwa issued against us. That in itself means that we have the community’s support for changing the laws,” she says.