Greater Equality for India’s Muslims Can Mean Greater Equality for Muslim Women

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Greater Equality for India’s Muslims Can Mean Greater Equality for Muslim Women

Aziza Ahmed

Muslim women in India are caught between the strictures of family and personal law and persistent discrimination against them as women from both the Indian government and society writ large.

Last month Muslim women from around India
met at the third
annual convention
at the Bharatiya
Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA)
– the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement.  Led by their founders, Zakia Soman, Naish Hasan, and Noorjahan Niaz —
the 1500 women met to bring their issues to the fore of discussion and debate
on women’s rights in India. The BMMA exemplifies the reality that women’s
rights movements face in addressing the numerous issues and challenges of both
the struggle of women and the upliftment of entire communities
to which
women belong.

For women who actively occupy some other
minority status choosing between these two or more identities is ongoing —
whether it is defending these multiple identities or understanding oppression
within them.  Muslim women in India
occupy this space.  As a religious
minority Muslims are given particular deference with regard to family and
personal law.  For Muslim women
this means dealing with the reality of ill treatment being both justified by
religion (often manifesting through informal court mechanisms) and supported by
the state who does little to ensure that the Muslim community, and especially
Muslim women, are able to access the basic services they desperately need and
further marginalize the Muslim community. 
On the other hand, being Muslim and marginalized mean that women are
constantly defending their faith and their freedom to practice.

The women of the BMMA gathered under the
meeting theme: “When Will We Become Full Citizens?” harkening to the exclusion
of Muslim women from both secular and religious spheres of power and decision
making. The women of the BMMA called for an ongoing examination of the Sachar Committee
, a study commissioned by the Prime Ministers Office, highlighting
the problems of the Muslim community in India including  access to education (less than 4% of
Muslims graduate from school and literacy rates are far below the national
average for Muslims), health, and sanitation.  Alongside these issues of basic needs the report
acknowledges the ongoing political targeting of Muslims– the high presence of
police in Muslim localities, the disappearance and questioning of Muslim boys
and men, and the isolation of Muslim communities connected to political
marginalization.  The active
mistreatment of Muslims in India came to fore in the horrific genocide in Gujarat
in 2002
, in which amongst other gruesome acts of violence women were
specifically targeted
as the bearers of Muslim culture, community, and

Recognizing that women’s rights, especially
for Muslim women, are often dependent on the upliftment the Muslim community,
and that women’s issues cannot be addressed in isolation the BMMA made a series
of requests to the government of India. These demands of the BMMA were drafted
and compiled through consultation with the broader membership of the
network.  These requests include
increased access to education, increased access to basic infrastructure, an end
to communal violence, and end to the targeting of Muslims as terrorists
including constant surveillance, and reformation of personal law.

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The broad approach that the BMMA takes to
women’s rights is illustrative of an underlying questions within women’s rights
activism – is focusing on only women’s rights enough? Do we need to have a
broader focus on social and economic inequality in order to really transform
society (for everyone including women)? How do we do this given resource
constraints? In the case of the Indian Muslim women’s movement, the BMMA has
made clear that the rights of women are nestled within and will only be
realized when both the basic needs of the Muslim community are met and Muslims
are no longer seen as suspect citizens.

Topics and Tags:

India, Women's rights