The triple talaq issue is always a favourite during elections with various parties promising to do away with it inviting the usual reaction from the Muslim patriarchy about how it is best to leave matters of faith and tradition alone. It is a script we have seen played out all too often. However, while in the past, the voices of Muslim women were not heard too often, over the last decade or so, Muslim women have become increasingly vocal. The Muslim Women’s Rights Network (MWRN) and the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) have given a voice to Muslim women in whose name the detractors and champions of rights fight pitched battles, often in television studios. Though far too few, Muslim women are challenging organisations like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) which has cast itself as the spokesman for the Muslim community, not taking into account the very different concerns and perspectives of women.
The problem that Muslim women faced and still do is the lack of organised networks though the MWRN qualifies to some extent. Unlike the more insular male networks, the women’s organisation is secular and welcomes opinions from all individuals working the field of Muslim women’s rights.
The BMMA too works with Muslim women and has sought to go beyond just religious rights and look at the larger issues of deprivation that Muslim women face. Of the 33 per cent Muslims (of the total Muslim population as per Census figures) in the workforce, women’s share is a mere 15 per cent. These too are largely in low paying jobs. The focus of all political parties has been on issues like triple talaq ignoring largely the need for Muslim women to improve their educational standards and join the skilled workforce.
The debate involving Muslim women ought to get out of the confines of issues like purdah and include the insecurities and the disadvantages they face in relation to education and work.
The BMMA is of the opinion that the problems that Muslim women face is not rooted in religion but in patriarchy as is the case with women in other religions. The message being conveyed is that women’s rights and religion can coexist and that it is regressive interpretations of religious texts that are holding women back. In other Islamic countries, movements like this have advanced considerably drawing in women and men who are champions for Muslim women’s rights.
The difference in thinking among Muslim women’s groups unlike among many of their male counterparts is the realism with which they approach their struggle. They are not keen to restrict the movements on the lines of religion and want to create synergies with other women’s movements. The MWRN especially feels that it benefits from creating a space for itself within the mainstream women’s movement.
Unfortunately, these developments within the Muslim women community do not get much attention on any media platform. Instead, we have the recurrent theme of how Muslims live in fear in a BJP-led India with the women hidden away from sight. There is definitely reason for concern for Muslims but the narrative has to move from ghettoisation and marginalisation. And the impetus has to come from the Muslim community and within it especially women, to refuse to let themselves remain voiceless and marginalised.
The major issues that Muslim women’s organisations must tackle now is to make sure the movement permeates down to the Muslim women in the lower socio-economic strata because the movements so far are still restricted to the educated elite and confined to urban areas.
The other effort that has to be made is to involve Muslim men rather than consider them adversaries. It is not as though there are no women’s rights champions among Muslim men, in fact many of them have weighed in on the side of women whenever a contentious issue has arisen. If the current Muslim women’s groups inspire similar ones across states, we could see an emergence of a vibrant movement across India which could change the status of women in the community.