Democratising Knowledge

The Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) was founded in 2007 by Dr. Noorjehan Safia Niaz and Ms. Zakia Soman with the aim of securing the citizenship rights of the Muslim community in India. What makes this movement distinct and what it has successfully done over the years is have Muslim women, a minority within a minority lead and become change-makers. Here’s the interview with Ms. Zakia and Dr. Noorjehan, pioneers of a movement that is an exemplar of a democratic struggle towards change.

What were some of the defining experiences of your life that culminated in the founding of BMMA?
There was no one experience but many years of experience of working with Muslim women. We realised that Muslim women are a minority within a minority with no space within the community and within the larger society to raise her issues. The state including all political parties thrived on Muslim vote but never worked for their overall development. The leadership of the community also was not progressive enough to talk the language of development. In short BMMA was formed to create that space where Muslim women could not just talk about her issues but also take effective steps to ameliorate her conditions. Our slogan is ‘Jiski ladaai uski agwai’, my struggle my leadership. If Muslim women do not take up their issues nobody else will. We also saw that the larger women’s movement also did not take up certain issues of Muslim women.

What is the significance of being an ‘Andolan’ for BMMA?
BMMA is not a registered trust or a society. It was a conscious decision not to register as that would have confined it to a few women in a decision making position. We were sure we wanted it to be an unregistered movement so that more and more women can join it. We also did not want it to be a network of organisations, as organisations have their own decision making process which delays the processes in the movement. Each individual woman must have a stake in the process.

BMMA works within the framework of the Quran and can be understood as an attempt to
reclaim their religion, spearheaded by Muslim women. Could you speak about this alternate stance of reclaiming religion as opposed to viewing the very structure of religion as oppressive?
We believe that religion or any institution do not play themselves out on their own. These institutions are managed by human beings, by people. If people make it oppressive and use it as a means for oppression then the institution will appear oppressive and conversely if the same institution is used for betterment of humanity then the institution will appear humane. Family as an institution, state as an institution are in many ways oppressive. We can see that everyday all around us. So does it mean that we do away with these institutions? Do we do away with state, family, religion, etc just because it is in the hands of a few who are using it as a tool to oppress? As activists assuming that by ignoring an institution you are doing away with the oppression is a fallacy. It is an ostrich like approach. You ignore the situation in the hope that it will wither away. And we know that it does not. So the alternative is to take it head on and reclaim it from the oppressors and turn the same institution as a means of liberation from oppression.
Also Muslim women or for that matter any women, including all of us have a religious/cultural identity. How can we work with women and expect them to give up their religious identity? All other identities are intact- her identity as a woman, as an Indian, as a wife, mother, sister, as a professional, as a home maker, but we expect her to give up her religious identity. Why be apologetic about your religious identity? How you play out your religion in your private and public life makes all the difference- whether you use it for oppression or you use it for liberation. The Left in our country has made that mistake which in many ways is responsible for the emergence of extreme Right.

BMMA’s objectives are a brilliant example of how our multiple identities intersect. What is the relationship that BMMA shares with several women’s movements and organisations? Has the acknowledgement of ‘difference’ made it increasingly different to be allies as a part of an overarching women’s movement?
The question is what is the women’s movement? Wouldn’t you call BMMA, a women’s movement too? There is nothing called the women’s movement; there are several women’s movements active world over; the white women’s movement in the western world and the African origin women’s movement are all equally valid. We consider ourselves part of the subaltern women’s movement and identify and sympathise particularly with the historical Black women’s movement; the way they took up the struggle with their unique issues although they may be marginalised by the larger dominant white women’s movement. We are part of Musawah, a global women’s movement for gender justice in Islam and we draw huge inspiration and support from our sister Islamic feminists spread across the world. This movement is struggling to interpret the religious text in an order that women get justice which has been systematically denied for several centuries.
In India a subaltern women’s movement has now begun to come about, the fishworker women’s groups, the dalit women’s groups, the different North-Eastern women's groups are all part of this development, as is BMMA. There are issues facing the women’s movement that need serious reflection, issues of domination, diversity and right-wing ideology – all need a close examination. In the past the women’s movement has been upper caste and upper class led. There are issues of patriarchal behaviour by some in the women’s movement. It is a great advance that newer women are standing up to raise their voices. This is a welcome development but some feminists are insecure about this. A particular legal background feminist has repeatedly criticised BMMA in writing. Some people feel threatened by newer movements coming up; this is not feminist behaviour. And nobody is the last word on women’s rights or legal rights of women, for such thinking would be extremely patriarchal and not feminist. There is also the problem of right-wing women’s groups such as Durga Vahini and other such which needs to be looked into. It needs to be kept in mind that our Constitution guarantees the Right to religious freedom. But some dominant sections of women’s movement in India seem to deny women their religious identities. This invariably leads to greater vulnerability of minority women as the majority religion becomes the dominant religion by default in spite of democratic safeguards and institutions. This happens in practice as the ground realities in our country are such. But that is changing with the subaltern women’s’ movement becoming stronger.  For us secularism does not mean atheism. For us to be secular is to be treating all religions with equal respect and treating the religious diversity as an asset and not to be ashamed of it. Who are we to deny an ordinary woman her religion? It would certainly not be secular to decide for her! Nor would this be feminist! For us secularism means the state cannot have a religion of its own and cannot favour any religion or discriminate against any religion. State must run on the Constitutional principles of secularism, rule of law, equality, justice, freedom and fraternity, democracy. Because there has been this ideological difference we have not had a very fruitful relationship with some in the larger women’s movement. Whereas we have a strong relationship with some others who are like-minded and are open to newer ideas and groups.
Also the women’s movement has not been able to successfully address the problem of Muslim women’s legal discrimination. The insistence on a uniform civil code now makes some of them stand close to the Hindu right. Also, some don’t agree with our demand for a reformed codified Muslim family law. Some of them don’t really understand the situation of Muslim women too well. What can we do, should we continue to leave the Muslim women to the mercy of the patriarchal male clergy or should we try and appropriate these spaces for gender justice is the question they need to appreciate. They forget that the right to religious freedom is a fundamental right for every Indian including the Muslim woman. We need to understand that she wants justice within the Quranic framework and that this is her Constitutional right. But, overall we are happy with the way the women’s’ movement has welcomed us into the fold in the last ten years. We are overwhelmed at the way thousands of women, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have joined our membership which is now over 70,000.

While challenges form a part of the work that BMMA does, what are the challenges that you all face from within the community? Are their certain issues that face a stronger resistance as opposed to others?
As long as Muslim women talk of education, livelihood, health issues we are welcome. As long as we oppose Hindu communal forces we are welcome. But the moment we talk of legal/religious rights, family law reform, reinterpretation of Quran, changing discriminatory Shariah provisions, we are not welcome. The religious groups obviously are not happy. Here too as in the women’s movement their hegemony is being challenged when Muslim women talk of Shariah rights or rights within the Quranic perspective. The ordinary Muslim men are too much in awe of clerics and are scared to raise their voices although in private they tend to agree with us. So by and large the resistance is from the clerics.

The women working with BMMA often work in localities that they live in. How challenging is it to be a change-maker when it involves disrupting practically every aspect of your life, beginning from your neighbourhood itself which is constituted by your friends and family?
The communities we work in are the poor localities and thankfully the resistance to what women do is not too strong here. After the initial resistance the men in the family support their women. In fact we have their daughters and sons also joining in the activities and the programmes. Women also learn to negotiate within the family and being in a higher age bracket they are successfully able to counter resistance from within the family.

One of the major thrusts of BMMA’s work is the codification of the Muslim Family Law. With a diversity of stances such as the Uniform Civil Code to Gender Just laws, will it be a challenge for a codified Muslim Family Law to garner support?
What challenge really? We would like to ask the votaries of UCC – where is the draft of this UCC? What has been the process of drafting it? What aspect of Hindu, Muslim, Christian, tribal, Parsi, Sikh, Jain laws have been incorporated? Has there been any consultation with other religious minority communities? Are they ready to give up their personal laws? If there is a draft why is it not being floated around for consensus? How are they addressing the article 25 which allows for religion based family laws? How are they reconciling the DPSP vis-à-vis the fundamental rights? If at all there is a challenge it is to them. They need to answer these questions.
We are only asking what others have got already. The Hindus got it in 1955 and the others also got it long time back. There have been regular amendments to these religion based laws from time to time. All we are saying is give us a codified Muslim family law which others have already got it. Not just in India, other Islamic countries have also codified their laws.
The Hindu right wing has to get its stand clear. While BJP has UCC on its manifesto, the Sangh Parivar opposes it. In fact they opposed the codification of Hindu law in 1955.
Women’s movement has to make its stand clear and tell us who are they standing with? If they want a UCC then where is the draft? And what do they mean by gender just laws? How is that different from UCC? And what do they want to do with the existing family laws, especially the good provisions of the personal laws? Are they still assuming the homogeneity of women’s experience? Are they leaving any scope for diversity in the lived realities of women? Really they have a challenge not us.

Do you feel there has been an increase in religious fundamentalism and state surveillance that overshadows all of us in current times? How pronounced is it in the case of being a Muslim women run organisation?
We have not seen any increased surveillance although we do have people from Ministry of Home Affairs visiting the Bombay centre too often. Some states have also reported visits by government officials. But there has not been any harassment.
With increasing fundamentalism of all religious groups and the increasing targeting of Muslim community, our work meets with so much more resistance. We are told the time is not right to raise your issues. Right has never been right and looks like it won’t be for a long time. That does not mean that Muslim women will take a retreat. We will have to continue to talk about the issues, however much the community is resistant to listen.

Through the process of drafting the codified Muslim Family Law, there has been an attempt at democratising knowledge by placing women at the very centre of the whole process by BMMA. Shariah Adalats along with all the other work that BMMA does are examples of this. Could you share some narratives of women finding their voices through their engagement with BMMA?
Women feel confident to talk about their rights when we talk of women’s right to religion and their right to interpret religion. The misinterpretation and deliberate sidestepping of Quranic verses is so blatant that when other interpretations and other ignored verses of Quran are shared with the women through trainings, they have a sense of enlightenment, a joy and confidence that they can fight for their rights without having to forego their religion. The preparation of draft law, the Women’s Shariah Courts and now the Qazi training has given lots of confidence to women where they are in the forefront, they don’t have to consult an Alim or a Qazi to know their rights. That they can also successfully handle legal cases and ensure rights to women. Through our work we have been able to bring the religious discourse within the ambit of women’s experience where she is not just a recipient of religious knowledge but also its creator.


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