Tugged Left and Right: The Muslim Woman is cynically claimed by all

Ifra Jan
Ifra JanJul 19, 2018 | 18:31

Tugged Left and Right: The Muslim Woman is cynically claimed by all

The Left rejoices in our silence, the Right wants our bodies as selfie props.

Many many years ago, when the debate over Sati in colonial India was intensifying, some called for immediate abolition, others for a reconsideration, some for continuation. But going back to those debates, what strikes even an amateur reader is how the “women’s position” was central to the political discourse of civilisations, where each claimed a moral authority over the other based on how their respective societies treated “their” women.


Years later, Lata Mani, in her remarkable book, Contentious Traditions, was to tell us how the intriguing debates were not only to protect the beings and the bodies of women, but were rather held over them.

Today, we, the Muslim women, find ourselves at a similar trajectory in the history of ourselves, which we seldom got to read, let alone write.

The price of speaking out: Taslima Nasreen, who does not have a home, Qandeel Baloch, who does not have a life, and Asma Jahangir, who did not have a country.
The price of speaking out: Qandeel Baloch, Asma Jahangir, Taslima Nasreen, all Muslim women who challenged the status quo. (Photo: Reuters/PTI)

As I switch on the TV, a long-bearded Mullah is contentiously putting forth a case for “Sharia courts”. These are nothing but “arbitration bodies”, he claims, as the anchor shouts him down to say, “What about our secularism?”

Muslim women’s rights today are the heart of the Left-Right whirlpool our country is swirling in. But where are the women?

They form 0.3 per cent of our Parliament and around 8 per cent of our population. So, Muslim women, whose “rights” take up most of our TRP wars on our TV screens, hardy feature in Parliamentary discussions themselves, where laws are made and formulated to protect and “save” them.

We are used as props by political parties across the spectrum to showcase their desire to “save” us. Often, many of the groups that speak the loudest for the rights of Muslim women have candid confessions to make. “If Hindu men had to give up their authority over their women, why not Muslim men?” It is not us, ladies and gentlemen, but it is men fighting among themselves.


Where are the Muslim women's voices?

Silenced. Shunned by their own for speaking up. Driven out of family functions. Boycotted for being “feminists”, hated by their own families. Muslim societies often encourage men to speak on the issues that directly affect women, but they also brutally censor women who speak for themselves.

Think of Taslima Nasreen, who does not have a home. Qandeel Baloch, who does not have a life. Asma Jahangir, who struggled all of her life for those her country had let down.

Political parties often bypass such women for the fear of losing community support. Their silence is then entrenched by society and stamped by people in power. It is a “democratic” arrangement, where the subaltern of the subaltern cannot speak, is deliberately silenced. It is this cosy set-up that the informal “arbitration councils”, or Sharia courts, will cement.

How many women will have a choice to pen down appeals to take their fights to the formal judiciary? How many will continue the fight where secondary victimisation is a hallmark of both the formal and the informal justice system in India? Who do these “arbitration centres” primarily benefit? Informal courts —Panchayats, all-male mohalla committees — are a reality of India that urban upbringing can shield one from.


Instead of a serious consideration of how to make the liberal promises of Indian Constitution trickle down to every Muslim woman, the question is, should we formalise the cultural religious codes?

The answer is no.

Yet, it took the word “Sharia” for our country to acknowledge that a parallel system of judiciary has existed in India. Not the plight of the Muslim women, but a perceived “Islamisation of the country” woke them up. And the contest over our bodies began.

It was never about us.

No one is talking about the reform Indian lower courts have to be subjected to if justice for women is indeed a priority. A theft case in India can take years, a divorce case even longer. How many women in the middle or lower-middle class, in urban and rural India, have the time and financial resources to go through years of judicial and legal arbitration over a maintenance case?

Our divorce laws are equally regressive. Judges have to be convinced that a case for divorce exists, as one partner holds the other hostage and the emotional and/or physical violence continues. Women often choose suicide. And some may well choose the new “arbitration centres”. At least, whatever it delivers, it delivers quick.

Sharia courts or not, Muslim women will not get justice unless the lower judiciary is sensitised to their plight. Currently, helping Muslim women organise and speak for themselves, and not hijack their struggles to incorporate these in your political agendas, would be a good start.

Muslim liberals are probably the loneliest people on this planet today.

Azra Muzzafar's case in Delhi highlighted this helplessness and desperation to belong. A fight that started over her feeding stray dogs ended in a complaint where she was referred to as a “jihadi, Islamist, engaging in shady activities”.

The depriotisation of our rights by the champions of Liberalism has left us far lonelier and abandoned.
Sidelined by all sides: The depriotisation of their rights by the champions of Liberalism has left Muslim women far lonelier and abandoned. (Photo: PTI/file)

Meanwhile, the comments from home, Kashmir, from her fellow brethren, were full of disgust and contempt as well, at the clothes she was wearing. Most outrightly welcomed her getting beaten up on the road. “This is not who a Muslim woman is supposed to be”, screamed both sides.

Those of us who choose sides, outright, are also left speechless on the “conflicting” identities of us as “Women” and us as “Muslims”. Shehla Rashid, for instance, can be very vocal when a lynching happens, she can take many selfies with Najeeb’s mother, and Shazia Ilmi on the “Sharia courts”, and she can host dinners for Shah Bano.

But speaking outright for the rights of Muslim women gets you pushed to the Right. It is seen to be helping to strengthen the rising Right in the world. “Our rights can wait, but the Right has to be halted, if not defeated,” whispers the Left. 

Thus begins another battle over our bodies and our voices.

The depriotisation of our rights by the champions of liberalism has left us far lonelier, if not abandoned.

Recently, the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Centre called British activist and politician Maajid Nawaz an “anti-Muslim Extremist”. He most likely faces a family boycott, a social boycott. It did not matter that he was pushing for the rights of minorities within minorities. All that mattered was that his activism was not helping the Left.

Lawyers associated with the Left in India today argue for the continuation of female genital mutilation among the Bohra community. A three-year-old girl’s body belongs to no subaltern, neither does her voice resonate anywhere in our contemporary feminist readings.

The Right that is now politically championing our cause does not give much of a consideration to our suggestions, voices and demands either.

How many ground-level Muslim women organisations were consulted before pushing for the Triple Talaq bill? When was the last time the Right genuinely held a conference, a public consultation to know and understand what we were facing, rather than telling us where our emancipation lay? When was it that we were truly heard by the Right?

The Left rejoices in our silence, the Right wants our bodies as selfie props.

In this entrenched dichotomy of Left vs Right, most of us stay quiet — and unheard.

But organising, and supporting Muslim women to speak for ourselves, begins with you. And so does giving our voices an audience. When Gayatri Spivak in her most thought-provoking piece asks, “Can the Subaltern speak?”, I scream, Yes, we can! Yes, we will!

Last updated: July 22, 2018 | 23:21
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