Ready For World's
First Women's-Only Mosque
By S. Anand
02 September, 2004
Around 50 women
have gathered for the fifth meeting of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women's
Jamaat Committee (MWJC). The first women's jamaat in the world may well
lead to the first women's mosque in history. The meeting begins with
Rajab Nisha reciting prayers in Arabic to echoes of 'amin'. Slowly the
register shifts to intelligible Tamil as Nisha prays: "May Rahman
strengthen the women's jamaat! May Rahman weaken the male jamaats that
ruin women's lives!" More amins.
Daud Sharifa Khanam,
who heads the Pudukkottai-based STEPS Women's Development Organisation,
introduces a frail woman from Mukkanamalaipatti village called Sajida
Banu, 22. "Sajida is smiling now. Do you recall how she came to
our last meeting?" The women shout in unison: "She came crying."
you know why she is smiling now? She has sent her man to jail."
Sajida was a victim of dowry harassmentan un-Islamic practiceand
the local jamaat refused to sympathise with her.
After the MWJC intervened,
an fir was filed and her husband was jailed.
Tamil Nadu has a
unique system where jamaats, affiliated to the local mosque, sit in
judgement on the domestic affairs of the community. A jamaat is essentially
a citizen's council, but in TN it functions as a powerful dispute-settlement
authority. The jamaat committees have no women on board; nor do they
allow women to represent their own cases. When a battered, harassed
woman approaches the local police for help, she is turned away.
who sought the help of the MWJC recently, "Even the all-women police
station asked me to obey the local jamaat: 'Your law is like that, what
can we do?' they said." Rahmatunissa's husband, Varusai Muhammad,
had two 'stepneys'meaning mistresses. Life in purdah left Rahmatunissa
unaware of her partner's ways for 10 years. After five years of separation,
she realised her husband had sent a 'talaq letter' to the Al Jamiul
Munavvar Masjid Jamaat Committee, Kattuthalaivasal, Karaikudi district,
three years ago. The symbolic settlement offered to the jamaat was the
customary Rs 1.25. Varusai has since remarried, while the wmjc is fighting
for a decent settlement for Rahmatunissa.
As the nation debates
triple talaq, Tamil Muslim men have been issuing talaq through e-mail,
letters and telegrams, which are upheld by the jamaats. The steady stream
of victims of dowry harassment, arbitrary talaqs, domestic violence,
child abuse, sexual harassment and cheatingeach with a common
enemy in the form of the local jamaatcoming to STEPs, which has
been working on women's issues since 1989, forced Sharifa to consider
tackling male-dominated jamaats. As she explains, "The male jamaats
are unlawful kangaroo courts that play with the lives of women. A mosque-jamaat
axis is a power centre that controls the community. When women are refused
representation here, we have no choice but to have our own jamaat. And
since a jamaat is attached to a mosque, we have to build our own mosque."
A benevolent jamaat
in Parambur village granted land for the women's mosque in November
2003. Following media reports, there was pressure from several quarters,
including Delhi's Jama Masjid, on the Parambur jamaat to rescind. The
resolute steps team established the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women's Jamaat
Committee on February 18, 2004.
Today, with 35 members
from the state's 10 southern districts, the jamaat has ensured justice
for several women. Still, the steps team is finding it difficult to
raise money to get 10 acres for the mosque. They have managed to raise
Rs 1 lakha fraction of the Rs 25 lakh required for the land and
Rs 50 lakh for a mosque with a trained woman priest. Says Sharifa, "Our
needs go beyond prayers. The mosque will function as a space where women
can meet, relax and share their problems.It will also serve as a home
for destitute women and children."
Adds Rasheeda Begum,
a researcher with steps, "In male-dominated mosques all they want
to ensure is that the women who are begging are clad in burqa. Their
uplift is not the mullah's concern. For us, the mosque is about gaining
self-respect and dignity."
Tamil Nadu's male-controlled
jamaats seem unimpressed. Says M.H. Jawahirullah, president, Tamil Nadu
Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, "Women should have the right to offer
prayers in mosques. In at least five per cent of TN's mosques there
are separate enclosures for women. But a women's mosque is unacceptable.
Besides, not all jamaats are anti-woman." Also, women cannot be
represented in jamaats, he adds.
Mahmood, a Delhi University law professor, welcomes the initiative,
saying, "The teachings of Islam allow for Muslims to manage their
own affairs through the jamaat, but jamaat-led dispute settlement is
not universal. In UP, Delhi and several states, jamaats do not determine
a community's affairs. But I've heard the stranglehold of jamaats in
TN is severe. Such usurpation of legal powers by the jamaats must end."
Syeda Hamid, an
ncw member who attended a steps meeting this year, sees the stirrings
of hope. "Winds of change are blowing from Pudukkottai. Women are
asserting themselves within the ambit of Sharia. They are
no longer victims."
Rajab Nisha, a key member of the MWJC, hopes those winds reach Delhi
soon: "Mosque apart, we have a long list of demands. Rajiv Gandhi
bowed to the demands of Muslim men, but we hope Sonia Gandhi will lend
us her ears." The mosque is but a necessary symbol. The real struggle
is for Muslim women's self-respect "within the framework of Islam".