Sheeba Aslam Fehmi On Islamic Feminism
By Yoginder Sikand
11 April, 2011
Sheeba Aslam Fehmi is one of India’s only Islamic feminist writers and one of the few Indian Muslim women scholars who writes on Islam (among other issues). She has written extensively on gender-just understandings of Islam, articulating equality for Muslim women using Quranic arguments. Since February 2009, she has a regular column, tellingly titled ‘Gender Jihad’, in the monthly Hans, one of India’s most respectable Hindi literary magazines.
Fehmi did her M.Phil. from the Centre for Political Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where she submitted her dissertation on ‘Human Rights And Multiculturalism: A Study of Legal Cases Involving Muslim Women’. She is presently a doctoral candidate at the same centre, working on a project on the absence of a visible Muslim women’s movement in post-1947 India.
In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, she talks about her activism and scholarship.
Q: You are one of India’s only Islamic feminist scholars. How did you get interested in the subject? But, before that, how would you describe yourself? As an Islamic feminist? As a Muslim feminist? I am not sure if you are comfortable with the feminist label, though, irrespective of the qualifier.
A: I am quite comfortable being called an Islamic feminist, a Muslim woman committed to a certain feminist project that draws its inspiration from my reading of Islam.
Now, as to how I got involved in scholarship on Islamic feminism, I guess this has, in large measure, to do with my family background. My parents were both political activists. They were communists, supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Even as a child, when I had no understanding of politics, I was taken by my parents to party meetings. At that age, when other children were crazy about Bollywood movies, I watched inspiring documentaries about heroes like Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Vietnam War!
Then, a major turn came in my life when my parents divorced. It was a pretty messy affair. My mother was highly educated, with a double MA. However, because she was not aware of all the many rights that the Muslim women have in the Quran, but which the mullahs have largely subverted in the name of Islam, she had a rough deal. Her lack of knowledge about women’s rights in Islam, as properly understood, disadvantaged her immensely. Had she been aware of her rights, she could have asserted her demands and might not had to resort to divorce. As a communist, she saw things within the modern, secular framework of rights. But, as I see it now, had she articulated her rights vis-à-vis my father using Quranic arguments, the family could have been saved from lot of trauma and emotional setbacks. As a Muslim woman, she could well have asserted her Quranic rights—to have her own career, to earn for her, not to be burdened by the task of bringing up the children and so on. Despite being a communist, she was unable to assert her rights because even our communists are not free from patriarchy. Similarly, my educated father was unaware of the rights a woman has in Islam, if understood correctly.
Once I started reading the Quran for myself, I realized that my mother could have had a much better deal if she had asserted these Quranic rights. And that is part of the reason for my interest in Islamic feminism, in developing discourses of gender equality using Quranic arguments. Islamic feminism serves Muslim women of all the classes and social location without any jeopardy to their family life, as their spouses have to engage with it instead of simply refusing it or brandishing it as too ‘Western’ to be adopted by a Muslim family.
Here I must add that although I have learned much from secular feminists, I differ from the standard secularist discourses, so typical of secular feminism, that criminalize religion and brand all forms of religion as, by definition as it were, anti-women. Based on my reading of the Quran, I can confidently state that this does not apply to the Quran, as I read it. I think secular feminists err in denouncing all forms of religion as wholly anti-women and, hence, ignore the possibilities for articulating women’s rights and their quest for equalities within or using religious frameworks and arguments.
But, to get back to what I was saying. When I read the Quran—of course in translation—for myself, I was shocked to discover how different it is from what the mullahs write and preach in the name of Islam. The Quran teaches, I discovered, the equality and dignity of women, while the mullahs teach precisely the opposite and pass that off as ‘Islam’. The mullahs claim, despite there being nothing of the sort in the Quran, that ‘a woman must slave for her husband, no matter if he is a tyrant and that if she willingly submits to him she can enter heaven through any door she chooses’! Who are the mullahs to announce who can enter into heaven or not? How do they know who will go to heaven and who to hell? After all, only God knows this, and for a mere human being to claim that he knows these divine secrets is what is called shirk in the Quran!
These and other such questions began swirling in my mind after I read the Quran myself, realizing how terribly the mullahs had distorted the true message of the Quran with the help of Hadith and fiqh texts.
Q: Islamic feminists like yourself generally invoke the Quran, as distinct from secondary textual sources, like the Hadith and fiqh works, for developing arguments for gender equality. In contrast, the conservative, patriarchal clerics would argue that the Quran does not exhaust Islam, and that it must be supplemented by the Hadith, and even the works of fiqh. How do you see this argument?
A: As a believing Muslim, I think the Quran alone suffices. A lot of extra-Quranic material, be it in the corpus of Hadith or fiqh, is not in accordance with and even contradicts the Quran, and that is why I stick just to the Quran. There are numerous hadith reports, and even more numerous fiqh prescriptions and proscriptions, that clearly violate the radical gender equality of the Quran, and so I cannot take these to represent Islamic truth. Because the mullahs rely heavily on such hadith reports and the writings of medieval fiqh scholars, their readings of Islam are inevitably heavily biased against women. Since these very clearly violate the gender justice and equality that I find in the Quran, I question their claims to represent Islamic authenticity. One does not need the Hadith to understand the Quran. Of course, the mullahs will vehemently disagree, and one reason for this is that it is from the corpus of Hadith, including from what they themselves recognize as weak and even concocted hadith narratives, that they draw their inspiration for all sorts of patriarchal rules which they wish to impose on women. I challenge not just the mullahs but also the texts from which they draw their patriarchal and dehumanizing ideas and which they use to legitimise their authority—be they concocted hadith reports or their commentaries on the Quran or fiqh compendia. And I am not doing something new, as the various sects within Islam keep challenging and critiquing each other’s interpretation and understanding of Islam, and I am doing precisely the same from the gender justice perspective. I think this is as much my right as it is of male believers.
Q: Your writings, particularly in your regular column ‘Gender Jihad’ in Hans, you do sometimes refer to certain hadith reports that support your case for gender equality in Islam. You just said, however, that you think one does not need the support of Hadith to interpret the Quran, and so how do you explain this contradiction? On what basis do you pick and choose hadith reports, accepting some that support your agenda and rejecting others? Or is this choice purely arbitrary?
A: My reading of the Quran leads me to believe that Islam stands for justice, that God, as described in the Quran, is Perfect Justice. I can find no verse in the Quran that is anti-women. From this it necessarily follows that Islam cannot be anti-women. Hence, any report in the corpus of Hadith that is anti-women is, I believe, weak or fabricated and could not have been uttered by the Prophet or could be a misinterpretation of what he might have said. There are other possibilities as well, but the point is that any hadith that violates the principles of justice and equality that pervade the Quran cannot, so I believe, be genuine. Furthermore, the Quran has been preserved from change and distortion, but this is not the case of the Hadith, which is a human product, written down by human beings years after the death of the Prophet. Since the narrators and recorders of Hadith were fallible humans, they could well have made errors, even inadvertently.
While on the subject of Hadith, it is amusing—and, of course, shocking, too—to see how the mullahs of different maslaks constantly fight among themselves, each using different hadith reports to claim that their own particular maslak represents the sole, authentic ‘Islamic’ sect, but when it comes to the issue of suppressing women, they all unite, transcending maslaki divisions, in claiming that women’s subordination is mandated in the Hadith. I want to ask them: If God wanted women to have a subordinate and secondary position in society, surely this would have been clearly specified in the Quran itself! Why would the Almighty have ignored that and instead arranged for it to be prescribed in the Hadith?
Q: When faced with alternate, progressive ‘Islamic’ discourses such as yours that clearly contradict their readings of Islam, conservative clerics typically respond by arguing that people such as you, who lack expertise in Arabic and in a host of other disciplines taught in traditionalist madrasas, have no authority to interpret the Quran on your own. They would condemn such exegesis as tafsir bil rai or personal interpretation which, they argue, is unacceptable. How would you respond to such a charge?
A: I admit that I am not an Arabic scholar, but to insist that only those who know Arabic can understand the Quran is, to put it mildly, erroneous. If Islam is projected as so centered on a specific language, it undermines its claims to universality. After all, surely, God understands all languages. Today, fairly good translations of the Quran exist in many languages, and I think they suffice quite well to understand the text.
For me, the guiding light is the Quran, not what males or mullahs have interpreted it to be, because these interpretations are human constructs, and so are definitely fallible. Today, if a woman tries to interpret the Quran herself, by-passing male mullah authority, the mullahs create a ruckus! But if you look at early Islamic history, you will find that the first person to accept the message of the Prophet was a woman—his wife Khadjiah. She, being one of the richest people in her clan, was also the first financer of the Prophet’s project. The first martyr in the cause of Islam was also a woman. But today the mullahs claim that they alone—their small all-male club—can pontificate about Islam.
There is nothing in my reading of the Quran that justifies the mullah’s argument that only a madrasa-trained cleric, who knows, or claims to know, Arabic and a host of subjects taught in the madrasas, can interpret the Quran. This argument, as I see it, is simply a ploy to legitimize the claims of the mullahs to monopolize Islamic discourse, to shore up their own worldly interests, and to impose their misguided and heavily patriarchal and authoritarian versions of what they call Islam on everybody else. Moreover, this insistence on expertise in Arabic is a thinly-veiled guise for Arabic cultural imperialism, which negates the universalism and universal appeal of Islam, which transcends all linguistic barriers. Some clerics and their blind followers go really over-board in their misplaced glorification of all things Arabic—insisting on Arabic dress or hailing the supposed special merits of Arabian dates! I think Arabic cultural imperialism is a bad idea. I don’t think highly of Arab culture per se, which is violent and tribal. To conflate Islam with Arab culture is a mistake that many Muslims are guilty of, and is a violation of the teachings of the Quran. If God is the God of the whole world, and if the Quran is meant for people of all cultures, then this glorification of a particular ethnic group, its language and culture, has no warrant in Islam at all. Surely, if the Quran is for all of humankind, its message should resonate with all cultures and all linguistic groups. Sadly, their literalist approach to Islam leads the mullahs and their followers to a blind adulation of and an obsession with Arabic culture, thus practically negating the universalism of the message of the Quran.
And I have another argument to rebut the claim that ordinary folk like me do not have the right to interpret the Quran in any manner that deviates from that of the mullahs, who claim (often wrongly!) to be experts in Arabic. Many such mullahs, who never tire of claiming to be masters of Arabic, write utter nonsense and pass their writings off as pearls of ‘Islamic’ literature—books that openly, sadistically and viciously demean women, like Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s Bahishti Zewar (‘Heavely Ornaments’), which claims that Islam allows simultaneous four wives to take care of the super-charged male libido, or other books such as ‘Chhe Gunehgar Auraten’ (‘Six Sinful Women’). If you ask me, these books should either be sold off to rubbish-collectors. And these books are penned by mullahs who claim to be masters of the Arabic language and to have spent years or even decades in madrasas learning subjects which they insist one must know in order to be qualified by them to interpret the Quran! I very consciously say that such people have done immense, criminal dis-service to the cause of Islam.
Q: Some Muslim feminists who use Islamic, mainly Quranic, arguments to critique the patriarchal readings of the clerics and to press the claim for full equality of Muslim women might do so not out of conviction but simply as a convenient strategy, given that they operate in Muslim contexts. Others engage in Islamic discourses out of a firm conviction in (their readings of) Islam, and not simply because it is more acceptable to the people they seek to address than secular, human rights arguments for gender equality and justice. How do you locate yourself between these two camps?
A: For me, the Quranic teachings of equality and justice are an element of faith, and I describe myself as a believing Muslim woman. At the same time, I also realize the importance of using Quranic arguments for the project of gender equality and justice in Muslim contexts, which I believe to be Quranically-mandated. But I must also stress that I do not regard the Quranic mandate in a narrow, rigid and exclusivist manner. Rather, I see strong parallels between the Quranic call for justice and equality and secular, human rights arguments and values enshrined in the Indian Constitution. This opens up the possibility of synergies between Quranic and secular human rights and Constitutional discourses. I do not see them as mutually exclusive or fundamentally opposed to each other, as doctrinaire Islamists and patriarchal clerics, on the one hand, and hardened Islamophobes or ‘secular fundamentalists’, on the other, do.
For me, using Quranic discourses for gender equality and justice, and engaging in the struggle over and between multiple and competing discourses is also a vital task for the overall democratization of Muslim society. We need to enter into this battle, this charged power discourse, because the proponents of authoritarianism, patriarchy and hierarchy, who read misogyny and caste supremacism and clerical hegemony into Islam, are still overwhelmingly powerful, and constitute a major block to the internal democratization of Muslim society, locking people’s minds up and enforcing rigid conformity to their rigid control. Their mis-readings of Islam are calculated to turn women into meek, submissive and frightened beings, dull and fearful, drained of all joy, and living in constant fear of men. This goes fundamentally against the values of love, compassion, freedom and equality that I discern in the Quran. The same mullahs, who belong largely to the so-called ‘upper’ caste or ashraf, uphold another form of un-Islamic hierarchy: that of caste, which they seek to defend through appeals to Hadith and fiqh. So, we need to understand that there is no innocent fiqh or Hadith interpretation. The dominant interpretations are geared to serve the immediate cause of the ruling patriarchal elite.
Q: Why is it that despite the fact that there are over 80 million Muslim women in India, there are hardly any who write on Islamic issues or who could be considered Islamic scholars in their own right? Further, why is it that while literally hundreds of books have been penned on the ‘ideal Muslim women’, mostly representing the views of conservative clerics, almost none of these are authored by women? Why have not more Indian Muslim women like you taken to writing on Islamic issues, including on issues related to women?
A: Part of the reason for this is that extreme backwardness—economic, educational, cultural and social—of large sections of the Indian Muslims, and particularly Muslim women. But even among the educated classes there are very few women who write on Islamic issues, particularly from a progressive perspective. Maybe this has something to do with Muslims being a minority in India. A pervasive sense of Muslims being beleaguered forces many Muslim women to priorities their community loyalties over gender justice, in this way turning their backs to the Constitutional values and imperatives of full equality, human rights and gender justice. Accordingly, they are forced to abandon the possibilities of full and equal citizenship and the realization of the rights that the Constitution of India gives them as citizens. They have been taught—by their fathers, by their husbands, by the mullahs, by all Muslim men—only the discourse and language of duties, not of rights, and that is why they do not have knowledge of and even respect for their Constitutional rights. While the Constitution does not discriminate against them, and provides them the possibility of enjoying equal rights, it is the Muslim community—by which I mean Muslim men, swayed by the mullahs—that hampers their realization of these rights through recourse to appeals to cultural and ‘religious’ norms. I strongly believe that it is Muslim men, particularly Muslim husbands, and not the state, who are the major cause for the ‘backwardness’ of Muslim women. There can be no denying the fact that extreme patriarchy, which is deeply-rooted particularly among the Arab, Central Asian and South Asian Muslims, is the principal cause of Muslim women’s plight. I think till the larger issues related to the Indian Muslims’ minority-ness and insecurity are not addressed, this situation cannot substantially change.
Another reason for why we have so few women writers articulating progressive Islamic discourses is the spread of conservative ‘Islamic’ discourses in Indian Muslim society, which is related to global developments and is, in a sense, also a reaction to the sense of siege as a result of the rapid expansion of Hindutva within India. Such discourses swallow up many available spaces for articulating progressive Islamic discourses. A good example of this is the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, which now projects itself as the sole authoritative voice of the Indian Muslims. The mullahs who dominate this Board claim to be the qualified spokesmen of Islam, and this claim are amplified by the Indian state, the media and Muslim organizations. How many women can be so bold as to question them, to deny their claims and to publicly declare that much of what they spout in the name of Islam are actually heavily-patriarchal mis-readings?
Today, number of girls’ madrasas are being set up across the country. One might think that this could, in theory, lead to the emergence of women scholars of Islam, women who will be able to interpret Islam in a way distinct from that of the patriarchal clerics. But this is not happening, because these madrasas are all sponsored and carefully-controlled by patriarchal clerics and their outfits. Their students are taught to believe that the patriarchal readings of Islam of these clerics are normative and that they must buy them lock, stock and barrel. As far as I know, these madrasas are just factories for creating good colonies for the mullahs.
Besides setting up these girls’ madrasas, some Muslim organisations are now talking of promoting education among Muslim girls, because the literacy rate of Muslim girls is pathetically low. But even these efforts are not geared to promoting Muslim women’s autonomy and enabling them to articulate gender-just understandings of Islam. At most, they are aimed at providing girls with basic literacy so that they become ‘good’ mothers and obedient wives or pursue some gendered career.
It is not that there are no Indian Muslim women who have a good enough knowledge of Islam and can, therefore, write on issues related to Islam and women. There certainly are several such women, but the fact is that most of them subscribe, to varying degrees, to the same patriarchal readings of Islam as the mullahs, and so can easily get co-opted by the patriarchal mullah-dominated establishment, thereby lending it further legitimacy. They are certainly not the sort who would dare differ from the clerics or start mouthing Islamic feminist discourse. You see some of them in the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, for example, where their role is simply to create the misleading image that the Board is not the bunch of patriarchal mullahs that the media accuses it of being. They hardly ever speak at the Board’s meetings, and, if they dare do so, they generally assent to whatever the mullahs might say. They will certainly not go to the extent of critiquing the mullahs’ patriarchal prescriptions. If they do, they will be dismissed from their posts at once!
There is yet another reason I can think of why we have so few progressive Muslim women writers engaged in articulating alternate, gender-just readings of Islam. I think many skilled Muslim women (and male) writers who were committed to gender and other forms of justice and equality and had got totally fed up of the reactionary mullahs and obscurantist Islamists and their dehumanizing readings of Islam simply chose an easy way out—they abandoned religion altogether and turned communist. In this way, they freed themselves of the burdensome shackles of the mullahs. They turned their backs completely on religion, rather than trying to save it from the mullahs and articulate alternate, humanistic, compassionate and progressive understandings of it. And so, the Muslim secular discourse that they developed went parallel with that of the mullahs, never meeting it at any point. It suited both the mullahs and the Muslim communists alike, for they tacitly agreed not to hurt each other or to threaten each other, leaving each other in their own domains. And this is precisely why progressive, including feminist, Islamic discourses are seen by the mullahs as infinitely more threatening to their hegemony than that of the Muslim leftists, because those articulating such discourses compete with the mullahs on the same terrain and for the same constituency, in contrast to the leftists, who have abandoned religion altogether and so don’t pose the same sort of threat to the mullahs.
Q: Some years ago, in protest against the insensitivity of the All-Indian Muslim Personal Law Board to Muslim women’s issues, some Muslim women set up their parallel All-India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board. How do you see this initiative and the work that this new Board has been engaged in?
A: I did have high hopes in the Women’s Board when it was set up, but, as far as I know, it has not been able to do much. I think the only substantial thing it has done has been to bring out what it calls a ‘model’ nikahnamah or marriage contract which has certain provisions that protect certain Quranic rights of wives which generally-used nikahnamahs and the one popularized by the All-India Muslim Personal law Board do not. I am not belittling that effort, but it was just a response to an immediate, though pressing, problem. It certainly cannot suffice, and is not a substitute for transforming the psyche of Muslim women that is shaped by patriarchal and demeaning mis-readings of Islam. And unless that psyche is changed, for which you need alternate Islamic discourses, a mere ‘model’ nikahnamah can bring about little change other than simply producing ‘good’ wives.
Q: If the clerics, as you say, are wedded to patriarchal mis-readings of Islam, do you see signs of hope elsewhere—say in the Muslim ‘modern’ educated middle-class—for facilitating the progressive, socially-engaged and gender-just articulations of Islam that you yourself are engaged in articulating?
A: It is true that the liberal or progressive elements in the middle-class could be a harbinger of such change, of alternate Islamic discourses, but this does not seem to be the case in India. Certainly, one sees little enthusiasm among the Indian Muslim middle-class for the sort of rich debates about Islam, democracy and gender justice as one witness, for instance, among the middle-class in countries like Iran and Malaysia. In part, as I explained earlier, this has to do with the fact that the Indian Muslims are a minority and one that feels beleaguered. Hence, the Muslims’ preoccupation, and this applies to the Muslim middle-class as well, is mainly about the minority-ness and the overall marginalization of Muslims vis-à-vis other communities, and much less about internal minorities, be they Muslim women or ‘low’ caste Muslims, who, together, form the vast majority of the Indian Muslim population. So, there is a definite tendency among the Muslim elites, the ‘leaders’, who belong to the so-called ‘high’ or ashraf castes, to ignore the issues of these internal minorities or minorities within minorities among Muslims and instead to focus primarily on the overall minority-ness and marginalization of the Muslims as a whole vis-à-vis the state and the dominant Hindus. And there is a reason for this: focusing on the issues of Muslim women and of the ‘low’ caste Muslims would threaten the hegemony of the ‘upper’ caste or ashraf males who claim to represent ‘true’ Islam and to lead all the Muslims of India.
If one expects the middle-class to voice progressive articulations of Islam, including on issues related to Muslim women, I think it is simple wishful thinking. The fact is that Muslim ‘leaders’, not just the mullahs but also the Muslim political class—professional politicians—take little or no interest in the concerns of Muslim women and ‘low’ caste Muslims, and do not let their voices determine wider community agendas. The state, too, accepts these mullahs and politicians as the ‘authoritative’ leaders of the Muslims for they act as political agents of various political parties to garner Muslim votes. No Muslim in government service or in a political party, no matter how senior, scan survive for too long if he or she dares to criticise the mullahs, because the state and the parties know well that they dare not ruffle the feathers of the mullahs for fear of losing Muslim votes.
And so, the state and various political parties, including those that style themselves as ‘secular—even ‘communist’ parties—are complicit in imposing an unrepresentative ‘leadership’ on the Muslims that has a vested interest in the continued domination of regressive, hierarchical, utterly authoritarian and heavily patriarchal discourses of and about Islam. And then, when our political parties are themselves so patriarchal, it is absurd to expect them to champion gender consciousness, whether among Muslims or others.
Q: You seem to argue that the clerics are wholly patriarchal. Surely, there must be some who are not, or who may be less patriarchal than others. You seem to rule out the possibility of, and need for, Muslim women, like yourself, who are seeking to articulate gender-just readings of the Quran, to dialogue with the clerics completely.
A: Yes, that is what I insist. We have no need to dialogue with the mullahs at all, for that will only give them added legitimacy and then they will start dictating terms to us. We need to de-legitimise them instead of promoting them. I think we can and should bypass them completely. We need to reclaim Islam from the mullahs, instead of appeasing them by dialoguing with them. In fact, we have to reclaim the constituency that the mullahs hold in their grips, rather than sharing it with them. I, for one, have no need to appeal to the mullahs to give me a certificate to ‘prove’ that I am right, that I am a ‘good’ Muslim. They simply do not matter to me.
The fact is that the influence of the mullahs on the Muslims, on the day-to-day lives of the run-of-the-mill Muslim on the street, has been greatly exaggerated—by the mullahs themselves and by the media. They really do not enjoy the importance that they fondly imagine they do. Often, their only purpose is to conduct certain rituals. So, by bypassing them I am not advocating anything really novel, because that is what most Muslims do in practice, without necessarily announcing it or even admitting it to themselves.
I really have no time for the mullahs. I consider them an opportunist bunch. When France announced a ban on the burqa, the mullahs and their supporters cried out saying it was a violation of women’s right to choose how to dress, a gross violation of a basic human right. But when countries like Saudi Arabia compel women to cover up completely, which is not something that the Quran prescribes, why don’t they protest? After all, the same principle, of denying women the freedom to dress as they want, is at work here. This shows that they simply do not have the moral authority to talk of freedom. It is sheer double standards. Freedom of choice entails allowing others to freely lead their lives. You have the moral right to talk of freedom of choice only if you are also willing to allow others the same right. The same double-standards apply in the case of democracy and secularism. In countries like India, where Muslims are a minority, the mullahs and Islamists never tire of championing democracy and secularism, but where Muslims are a majority they declare these to be un-Islamic and insist on establishing what they call an ‘Islamic state’. Is it not sheer hypocrisy that when the rights of Muslims are violated in India, they raise such a hue and cry, as indeed every sensible person should, but when minorities are being targeted in Muslim-majority countries, often in the name of Islam, they maintain complete silence, and, in their hearts and sometimes openly, even support such oppression?
So, the point is that those who seek to engage in articulating what I regard as a genuine Quranic vision, of universalism, justice and equality, can have no truck at all with these hypocritical mullahs and their supporters. There is thus absolutely no reason why we should dialogue with them.
Q: Why is it that you chose Hans, a Hindi paper, edited by a leading non-Muslim literary figure, to air your views on Islam and women? Few Muslims, I would imagine, read Hans. Why did you not choose a Muslim magazine that has a large Muslim readership instead?
A: The fact is that it was Rajendra Yadav, editor of Hans, who chose me to write for his magazine, rather than the other way round! He had seen some writings of mine, and asked me if I could do a regular column for him. I agreed, because Hans is a widely-read progressive, left-leaning journal. And I have been writing my Gender Jihad column in Hans continuously since February 2009, having missed just one issue.
As you rightly say, few Muslims read Hans—because it is in Hindi and because few Muslims read anything other than literature produced by the mullahs or books that claim to be specifically ‘Islamic’. It is not that I was averse to writing for a Muslim paper, but the fact is that Muslim papers are generally at the service of the mullahs or else hesitate to publish anything critical of them and their interpretations of Islam for fear of violent reaction and controversy. So, they are simply unwilling to publish my writings because they do not wish to anger the mullahs. One somewhat ‘progressive’ Muslim Urdu paper did take the bold step of translating an article of mine, but when I heard that they had deleted portions of it that were critical of the clerics, I told them not to go ahead with publishing it. What was the use of publishing it, I said, if the edited version left all this out? They told me, ‘The mullahs will get angry if we publish the deleted portions.’ I replied, ‘I am not writing to please the mullahs. In fact, I write in order to de-legtimise the mullahs. So, either you publish the article without editing even a comma or don’t publish it at all.’ The paper chose the latter option.
That said, I don’t know if it would make sense to write for an exclusively Muslim magazine. After all, ‘mainstream’ papers, in Hindi and English, are now read by growing numbers of Muslims, and some of these are certainly more open to my sort of ideas than Muslim papers are. So, that is why I write for some such papers, in addition to Hans—not just on Islam and women, but also on other issues, particularly governance.
Q: Often, discussions about the problems of Muslim women focus almost wholly on patriarchal understandings of Islam, specifically unjust aspects of Muslim Personal Law. Does this not narrow down the terms of the debate, because, surely, these alone are not the cause of Muslim women’s ‘backwardness’? Since the ‘backwardness’ of Indian Muslim women is linked to the ‘backwardness’ of the Indian Muslims as a whole, isn’t this singular focus on mis-readings of Islam and patriarchal aspects of Muslim Personal law too restrictive?
A: Of course, patriarchal readings of religion and patriarchal prescriptions of personal law are not the only problems of Muslim women. There are other problems, such as poverty and illiteracy, which they share with most Muslim men. But it is also the case that culturally-influenced mis-readings of Islam as well as unjust legal prescriptions, enforced by the state under pressure from Muslim patriarchs, are a central factor for the continued ‘backwardness’ of Indian Muslim women. I do not ignore the economic factors for such ‘backwardness’, and I would insist that besides championing gender-just understandings of Islam and reforming Muslim Personal Law, we need to work to ensure Muslim women’s economic security and independence. But, at the same time, I do not think that mere economic empowerment of Muslim women would suffice, because as the case of women in rich Gulf states, for instance, shows, even if women are financially secure they will still be treated as second-class citizens and subordinated to men if patriarchal readings of Islam and laws flowing out from such readings are not effectively challenged. The cultural and religious realm does have an autonomy of its own, distinct from the economic, and we cannot turn a blind eye to it.
Q: How do you see the ways in which ‘mainstream’ Indian feminists have related to Indian Muslim women’s issues?
A: ‘Mainstream’ Indian feminist groups also include some women of Muslim background, but they continue to be heavily dominated by ‘upper’ caste Hindu women. I have problems with the approach of some of these groups—they arrogantly claim to speak for all Indian women, but they continue to be lead by the ‘upper’ caste minority. Hence, they are blind, willfully or otherwise, to the specific concerns of other women—be they Adivasi women or Dalit women or Muslim women. They might sometimes, in a highly patronizing way, say to such women, ‘We are with you’, but that does not amount to much. Their insensitivity to such women is expressed in many ways, as for instance in the current demand of some such groups for 33% reservations in state assemblies and in the Parliament for women taken as a single category, and their opposition to reservations within the category for non-‘upper’ caste women.
Q: How do you see the ways in which the media, both the Muslim and the dominant non-Muslim or ‘mainstream’ media, report Muslim women’s issues?
A: The non-Muslim media is a victim as well as a producer of negative stereotypes about Muslim women. By and large, it is not interested in breaking that stereotype—that requires a lot of effort that few journalists are willing to expend. As for the Muslim media, it retains almost entirely its feudal, hierarchical and painfully patriarchal character. With some exceptions, it has no space for progressive thought—and this holds true for the Muslim publishing industry as a whole as well. As I just said, it is still feudal, and has not even entered the capitalist phase. So, it will routinely report on the rallies and conferences organized by all sorts of mullahs, sometimes being paid by the mullahs for this purpose, but will refuse to entertain voices that challenge the internal status quo of Muslim society in terms of caste and gender hierarchies and relations. The Muslim media is in the grips of the mullahs and like-minded men, and their consumers share their worldviews and understandings of Islam. In almost no Muslim media house in north India, the part of the country I know best, will you find even a single woman employee, not even as a humble typist, so deeply-ingrained is the patriarchal bias. Not surprisingly, few, if any, women are allowed or encouraged to write on serious issues for Muslim papers. At the very most, a paper might make an exception by publishing a recipe for Mughlai qorma by a Muslim housewife!
Q: How do you view the demands that organisations that claim to speak for Islam and for the Muslims of India make on the state? These are all male-led and heavily controlled by the clerics. What demands, if at all, do they make on the state with regard to Muslim women?
A: Till recently, the demands these organisations placed on or before the state related almost entirely to ‘religious’ or identity-related issues, issues such as government patronage to Urdu, subsidy for the Haj, and so on. But now things are, I am glad to note, changing, and some of these outfits are raising substantive, economic and educational issues and making demands accordingly. But on the specific concerns of Muslim women, such as much-needed reforms in the regime of Muslim Personal Law, or state provision for education and employment for Muslim women they continue to remain silent, thus suggesting that, in actual fact, they continue to oppose all this as it would undermine their authority and that of Muslim men. I think they make no substantive demands on the state at all for Muslim women’s empowerment, often their sole demand being that the state should desist from ‘tampering’, in the name of reform, with Muslim Personal Law that continues to heavily discriminate against women.
Q: What practical measures, besides of course writing and scholarship, do you suggest for popularizing the sort of alternate, progressive Islamic discourses on women’s issues that you are developing so as to make them more ‘mainstream’?
A: I think the demand for allowing women to pray in mosques is a very potent way of getting this message across. Muslim women lack any space to meet, to discuss their own specific issues, and the mosque is the most appropriate place for this. At the time of the Prophet, women used to gather in the mosques, so who are the mullahs to prohibit us from doing so? It is striking how the mullahs will never issue fatwas prohibiting women from going out of their homes to watch movies, but they routinely issue fatwas banning women from going to mosques. Why this is so is easily understandable—because this poses a major challenge to the mullahs and their regressive, patriarchal understandings of Islam. Likewise, mullahs won’t issue fatwas against Muslim women who become doctors or engineers, but will at once hurl fatwas against a woman who wants to become an imam or a prayer-leader. This is because this would directly challenge their hegemony. So, my point is that women must reclaim sources of religious power and authority, which early Muslim women enjoyed, so that they no longer have to rely on the patriarchal mullahs to tell them what Islam is. And for that they need to develop scholarly expertise in Islam, in gender-just and egalitarian readings of Islam. There is a lot of material available on the subject—mainly in English—produced by Islamic feminist scholar-activists abroad, and we need to work out ways by which this can be made accessible, in local languages, to people here—both women and men.
We also need to establish our own networks, and this is happening, through conferences, NGO meetings and so on. We need all this and more so that Muslim women realize that their suppression at the hands of the patriarchal establishment is not God’s punishment, nor a divinely-decreed fate for which they would be richly rewarded in heaven, as the mullahs have taught us to believe for their own benefit and that of Muslim men, but, rather, a result of systematic oppression that has continued unabated over generations.
This task of awakening has also to aim at enabling women, who are committed to gender equality, to emerge as interpreters of the Quran in their own right. We cannot achieve our goal unless we are liberated from the clutches of the patriarchal mullahs, who twist Islam to suit their own purposes, and whose prescriptions and proscriptions are geared to crippling women and reducing them to utter subjugation.
Sheeba Aslam Fehmi can be contacted on email@example.com
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