Islamic Feminism: Its evolution, discontents and counterparts in Assam

Dr. Sabreen Ahmed

Sometimes in the loud bugle of the euphoric majoritarian narratives of culture, tradition and political dominance minority narratives become perfunctory or even might be blacked out from an otherwise sovereign democratic republic, as in the case of the narratives of Muslim women. As such it is necessary to address the religious power dynamics of gender in the light of Islamic feminism to debate the monolithic notion being formed about a particular community in the Indian society and the currently communalized state of Assam at large. The term Islamic feminism began to be visible in the 1990s in various global locations.  Iranian scholars Afsaneh Najmabadeh and Ziba Mir-Hosseini explained the rise and use of the term Islamic feminism in Iran by women writing in the Teheran women’s journal Zanan that Shahla Sherkat founded in 1992. Saudi Arabian scholar Mai Yamani used the term in her 1996 book Feminism and Islam. Turkish scholars Yesim Arat and Feride Acar in their articles, and Nilufer Gole in her book The Forbidden Modern (published in Turkish in 1991 and in English in 1996) used the term Islamic feminism in their writings in the 1990s to describe a new feminist paradigm they detected emerging in Turkey. South African activist Shamima Shaikh employed the term Islamic feminism in her speeches and articles in the 1990s as did her sister and brother co-activists. Already by the mid-1990s, there was growing evidence of Islamic feminism as a term created and circulated by Muslims in far- flung corners of the global umma.

Islamic scholar  Magrot Badran, says that feminist hermeneutics in Islamism renders compelling confirmation of gender equality in the Qur’an that was lost sight of as male interpreters constructed a corpus of tafsir promoting a doctrine of male superiority reflecting the mind-set of the prevailing patriarchal cultures. They also try to point out that the idea of seclusion is not intrinsic to Islam. Feminist scholar Leila Ahmed tries to point out that the idea of segregation of sexes is pre-Islamic and holds that in introducing seclusion, the Prophet was borrowing from practices like the gyneceum and the harem, prevalent in the more ancient cultures of Byzantium and Persia. There are indeed many ayaat (verses) of the Qur’an that seem to declare the conditions serving male/female equality. One of them is Al- Hujurat:

O humankind! We have created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into tribes and nations that you may know each other [not that you may despise one another]. The most honoured of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you [the one practicing the most taqwa].” (The Holy Quran 4: 34)

But the perpetrators of religious fundamentalism inverses these  gender equations laid by the Holy Quran to create irredeemable codes of subjugation for the Muslim women against which the Islamic feminists have confidently raised their voices within the codes of Islam. Islam has two sources for guidance and rulings: first, the Quran, and secondly, the Hadith or the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. The Islamic feminists show how classical male interpretations have turned the specific and contingent Islamic laws into fundamental and universals. The Islamic feminists also draw attention to certain ayaats affirming mutuality of responsibilities among the sexes as in sura nine, verse 71 of the Qur’an which says that “The believers, male and female, are protectors of one another.” Among the other most cited ayaats are the following which lays down rules about modesty in terms of dressing but doesn’t refer in any case to segregation.  A Muslim women rights activist may not be an Islamic feminist. Islamic feminists fight within the codes of quranic norms to make women visible in the public sphere both religious and social as in the days of Prophet Mohammad 400 years ago and protest the misogynist interpretation of quran and hadith by the majoritarian male dominated Muslim clergy.

 Islamic feminism contests the patriarchal machinery that runs the hegemonic fundamentalist autocracy of the fanatical or the politicized Orthodox Islam by reframing the gendered dictates of feminine modesty, agency and public performance as a humanistic inquiry within the purview of legal anthropology. In Assam neither the term Islamic feminism nor Muslim women activism has found any relevance till date beyond the reference to the subjugation of Muslim women centring round the issues of triple talaq and halala and the pointed remarks on the religious obsession of the Muslims in Assam or elsewhere as a whole. There are proliferations of women’s moktabs and hafizia madrassas in Muslim dominated districts like Nagaon, Dhubri, Barpeta etc but there is no full-fledged women’s mosque where a woman Qazi can lead the prayers in the model of the iconic Islamic figure, Hazrat Bibi Hafsa, one of the wives of prophet Muhammed who acted as an imam and led women in offering public namaz. Women’s activism and organising around the Gudiya 2004 and Imrana 2005 cases contributed to the growth in Indian Muslim women’s activism since the 1990s.  Sidrat, a member of Bazme Khawateen made news in national headlines by leading prayers in a zenana park in Lucknow in 1994 by creating a feminist consciousness of the public space and the fact that women too can engage in religious activities outside the domestic sphere. The Tablighi Zamat meetings in small town Muslim households around Assam also come within the sphere of Islamic feminist consciousness but without any larger social objectives.  Few organisations following such agenda in India are Lucknow based Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan or BMMA(2007) and the All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board. The religious authorities issue fatwas or legal opinion that strongly advise against women becoming a qazi(judge), a mufti(law expert), or an alima( scholar) and discourage them from praying in public mosques. In Jaipur there is an all women Shariah Court that deal with the above mentioned issues. In a historic verdict on March 26 2018 by a five judge Constitution bench instant triple talaq by Sunni Muslims was banned. However, the lack of legal awareness and activism in rural areas among not sufficiently educated Muslim women has not made much change to their mind-set to counter religiously motivated patriarchal dominance. It has to be mentioned that many Muslim women mainly middle class in Assam are hitting the courts for their legal rights, but if legal awareness is conjoined with the madrassa system the results may be enlightening for the rural lot. Awareness should begin at these congregations of religious knowledge that women are not simply birth giving machines with muffled voices and should come out to stand against oppression and evils of the society. Currently Zikra appealing to the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of polygamy and nikah halala was in news. The petitioner said “Nikah halala, Nikah mutah, nikah misyar and polygamy definitely run counter to public order morality and health”. Zikra a 21year old woman from U.P, twice divorced mother of two demanded that trple talaq be declared cruelty under Section 498 A and “Nikah halala, Nikah mutah, nikah misyar” as rape under section 375 of the Indian Penal Code however the verdict will only be known in days to come. Gender quality in Islamic set ups can only be possible if a uniform legal code is followed and the Muslim women clerics in India in general and Assam in particular are organized in view of asserting their rights against bigotry and crime within the community.

Dr. Sabreen Ahmed has received her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in Feb 2013. Her Thesis is entitled “Muffled Voices: The Zenana in the Fiction of Muslim Women Writers from South Asia”under the guidance of Prof Makarand Paranjape. She has done her post- graduation from the University of Delhi (2005) and graduation from Cotton College, Guwahati (2003). Her area of interest is Gender studies, South Asian English Writing and Contemporary Theory. She has published a academic papers in international and national journals and has an anthology of poems entitled Soliloquies to her credit. She also edited a seminar proceeding in book form captioned Indian Fiction in English and the Northeast. Currently she teaches in the Department of English, Nowgong College, Nagaon, (Assam) as Assistant Professor.