Muslim women advance in Indian society

Irfana Tasneem and Saquia Tahseen both come from more libreral Indian Muslim families and are allowed to attend college at the University of Hyderabad.

Allison Rosewicz

Irfana Tasneem and Saquia Tahseen both come from more libreral Indian Muslim families and are allowed to attend college at the University of Hyderabad.

Throughout the years of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, one group within these two communities has faced oppression like no other.

Without the privilege of choice, Muslim women have been forced to live under the restraint of patriarchal ideals. But in today’s Indian society, all women, including Muslims, are making progress. With years of oppressive history behind them, but many obstacles ahead, India’s Muslim women are finally attempting to advance up the social ladder.

Muslim women often suffer during communal conflict between Hindus and Muslims. During the riots of 1990-1991 in Hyderabad, for example, Muslim women were victims to some of the worst communal brutality.

Oppression does not only occur through cross-cultural violence. Muslim women also face patriarchal limitations in their way of life, including in how they are expected to dress.

In public and everywhere else but the home, the majority of Muslim women wear the burqua. Many women must have all parts of their body, except the eyes, covered. None of their hair should be visible.

Two different viewpoints usually arise in regard to this type of dress: Muslim conservatives say it prevents the women from being sex objects. Others see it as just a way for men to oppress women.

Saquia Tahseen and Irfana Tasneem, Muslim women and students at the University of Hyderabad, both see wearing the burqua as a form of security.

Both grew up in families where it was compulsory for women to wear the burqua. Although they stress that the Qur’an does not specifically state women have to do so, they feel it makes them safer because they will not receive unwanted attention.

“If you see one girl with the burqua and one without, the girl without will have more attention from men,” Tasneem said.

Modern society is pushing for Muslim women to receive more rights, but this is difficult because of the Muslim Personal Law.

The MPL, which governs marriage, divorce, maintenance, inheritance, guardianship, custody and adoption for the Muslim community in India, was once varied throughout the country. With the introduction of the Shariat Application Act in 1937, however, the MPL became unified. This dissolved non-Islamic influence in the Muslim community, and women’s rights were generally ignored.

After independence, the government made no attempt to reform the MPL. As a Hindu and leader of a secular government, Nehru did not want to impose on the Muslim community or interfere with religion.

Governments after Nehru’s also saw interference as a political risk. A window of opportunity for reform did not appear until 1986 with the Shah Bano case. The Supreme Court ruled that Bano should be given monthly payments by her ex-husband.

Under the MPL, Muslim men must give their bride a certain amount of money at marriage but is required to give nothing else later. Orthodox Muslims saw the court’s decision as a violation of the MPL, and there was a community outcry.

Parliament, in turn, overturned the decision with the enactment of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill. This basically said the Muslim community, not the government, should make decisions such as these.

But this case created precedence. It proved that the MPL took away the democratic, and therefore Indian, ideal of individual choice and discriminated against women.

While this precedence was established, it is still difficult to reform the MPL because the decision for change must come from within the Muslim community itself. Most of the suggested reforms regard women, but many Muslims, even the women, say the MPL should not be changed.

But outside forces are trying to help Muslim women. Since the early 1990s, women’s organizations have been promoting women’s rights and gender justice, although

Instead, the women’s groups look to more attainable goals. The All India Democratic Women’s Association, for example, advocates gradual reforms regarding changing laws within individual communities and new laws for property and custody issues.

Additionally, some court decisions have aided Muslim women. The Supreme Court recently decided that a widow and daughter of a deceased coparcener should receive equal rights to property he left behind.

Tahseen and Tasneem, however, believe the MPL should never be amended, because to do so would mean changing the religion since the MPL is based on Islam. They disagree with the organizations pushing for reform.

“I hope Allah might give them the vision to see the religion in a good way,” Tahseen said.

Both women also said most Muslim women, especially in poor communities where females are unable to mobilize, submit to their husbands under any circumstance because they are afraid to leave the family.

“A woman will cooperate with the husband no matter what because of the kids,” Tasneem said. “She’s not secure outside the family.”

But both women said because they are educated and have more opportunities, they would not stay with husbands who continued to mistreat them.

Muslim women themselves are also making advancements. In Hyderabad, many women can be seen in public wearing burquas. Experts say this is because more Muslim women are coming out of their homes to study and work.

Many Muslims, including women, are gaining ground in education. In 2000, 13 Muslim minority engineering colleges admitted 3,650 students. Through April 2003, 33 of these colleges offered 8,525 positions.

Not only are Muslim women moving up within their community, they are also helping across cultural lines. When the violence in Gujarat threatened the peace in Hyderabad, hundreds of Muslim women joined hands around the Charminar in the Old City, relieving tensions between the police and angry Muslim men. If the women had not done so, communal violence could easily have broken out.

Before the modern movement of Muslim women, they were only allowed to learn about the Qur’an. Tahseen and Tasneem said women have better educational opportunities now because of a shift in attitudes of both the government and families.

“The family which is illiterate and doesn’t know the reality of Islam will go that way – no opportunities for education and employment for girls,” Tahseen said.

The women think Muslim families are finally beginning to see the value of education.

“If the girl is educated, it leads to development of the whole family and its development in society,” Tasneem said.

Tahseen said if a girl was educated, she would be a better educator herself, both morally and scholastically, for generations after her.

“It is a chain. One generation after another will get better,” she said.

Tahseen and Tasneem both come from families where all the children have been educated.

“There are no restrictions on education and employment in my family,” Tahseen said.

She has four sisters who all have their master’s degrees, and two brothers who are engineers. Tasneem has seven sisters who are all college graduates. She also has five brothers, two of whom are engineers, and the other three are starting their college educations.

Although Muslim women have a huge history of oppression behind them, some are beginning to see the opportunity to advance. Outside forces, like women’s rights groups, are helping this advancement. The Muslim community itself, however, will have to decide if bigger reforms are to take place.