Multi-layered deprivations of Muslim women

By Syeda Hameed

Patriarchy in the Muslim community is that much stronger because it is seen -- erroneously -- as enjoined by religion. Women from within the Muslim community must speak out if the stranglehold of patriarchy is to be broken. They must reject triple talaq, reject the burkha, lead namaaz, perform the nikaah and insert gender-just clauses into the legal contract that is their nikaahnama

Muslim women suffer double oppression. The first is, of course, the experience of all Indian women across religions, classes, castes and communities. The second is the undermining of their status by Muslim Personal Law which to me -- as a person who knows the religion, has read the Koran and knows the Shariat -- is not in accordance with what the religion enjoins. Muslim Personal Law is a customary law. Muslim women find themselves between these two difficult realities.

Patriarchy in the Muslim community is not unlike patriarchy in other communities, but it is given the additional weight of authority because it is seen as being enjoined by religion. Nobody tries to understand what the Koran stands for, what the Prophet stood for, or that Islam was revealed in the Arabian peninsula. So, whatever anyone who proclaims to be the interpreter says is taken as the word of Allah.

As a result of such interpretations, we see multiple marriages and triple talaq -- two issues that are peculiar to the Muslim community. In 2000, as part of the National Commission of Women, we published a document called the ‘Voice of the Voiceless’. The report was a compendium of views of Muslim women from the ground, captured through public hearings held across the country. The voices we heard were from remote districts in Assam, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and accurately reflect local realities. One of the major traumas that emerged was the propensity of men to pronounce triple talaq and throw women out of the home. Or, for men to remarry and completely abandon their earlier wife and often children as well.

Three years after those hearings, I did a follow-up study and realised that nothing had changed in the intervening years. The same concerns emerged once again -- even though the locations the second time around were different. The suffering of the women and their deprivation were due to the fact that they had no means of survival. The poorest of the poor were now reduced to an almost sub-human existence, because having been abandoned they had to eke out a living for the children and themselves. They were ragpickers, beedi-rollers, zardosi workers, all women who laboured with their hands as piece-rate workers. That was the story right across the country. I have not had occasion to revisit those places since 2003, but I have tried to work more at a macro level to devise policies and programmes for Muslim women. Things have marginally improved thanks to an awakening among some in the Muslim community in terms of educating the girl-child.

Divorce by triple talaq is pronounced by word, sent in a letter, and now by SMS message on a mobile phone or by email.  The man then simply walks out. This, incidentally, is specific to India. There is an injunction against such a practice in Pakistan, where a fair deal of reform took place after the Family Reform Code was introduced in the 1960s. Today, it is difficult for Pakistani men to take recourse to triple talaq although it is not as if they don’t do it by violating the law. In Bangladesh too there is an injunction against the practice.

India has not been able to address the issue despite a lot of effort. Every time the issue is broached, the ‘community’ lets out a howl of protest and the matter is dropped, despite the practice being based on a wrong interpretation of religion. I’ve been saying this for the last 20 years, ever since I plucked up the courage to speak out on the subject (earlier I was daunted by the fact that such criticism would invite fatwas). Now it really needs to be said that triple talaq is a contravention of the religion.

Some years ago, I had presided over the marriage of a friend who told me that if I didn’t perform her nikaah she would not get married! So Naish and Imran got married. I tried to find out if there was anything inimical to a woman performing the nikaah and a lot of scholars were consulted. There was nothing in the texts that forbade such a practice. I then asked what the procedure was, and was told that there are three very important things in a nikaah. The first is to have at least two witnesses, because marriage is regarded as a legal contract and not a sacrament. Secondly, there must be a meher, a dower (not dowry) for the woman, for the ceremony to be legally binding. I also asked what I should recite to conduct such a ceremony, and was told it could be anything -- about leading a good life, the rights of women, etc. The third important thing is a nikaahnama which should register the witnesses and the meher. That was all there was to it. Interestingly, a woman is permitted to write anything in her nikaahnama and a man too permitted to write what he wants, since it is a contract. The woman could put down the injunction that the man will not remarry in her lifetime. Not that anybody does it, but the possibility does exist. So the nikaahnama that was used in the marriage I presided over had whatever conditions either party wanted written down. I had two women witnesses, and the meher was declared.

There are two kinds of meher, one is a meher given at the time of the nikaah, and one is a deferred meher. Giving the meher immediately on marriage is preferred. It is not something that you give on divorce. That is the wrong notion. The meher is a woman’s right to a certain sum of money when she gets married, a dower. What is given at the time of divorce is maintenance -- known in Arabic as naam naka -- which is quite different. The woman can also write in the nikaahnama that she should have the right to khullah -- that is the right to divorce. She has this right in any case, but in order to make it more concrete she could include it in her nikaahnama.

This great difference between the principles of Islamic marriage and the realities of marriages that take place in the Muslim community underlines the lack of equality between men and women in the community today. At the time of the nikaah, a woman can name any amount for her meher, and can make any kind of conditionality. But there is so much pressure brought to bear on the bride and her family that they settle for a blank nikaahnama. So the amount of meher given can be as little as Rs 51 -- on the basis of what is known as meher-e-zakme, which was the meher the Prophet stipulated for his daughter, and equivalent to what existed 1,500 years ago! The girl’s side is so disempowered they can’t protest or contest it. Similarly, the man’s side can ensure that only their witnesses are called. The fact that the bridegroom’s family can exercise so much disproportionate power is a comment on the biased nature of such marriages.


Educational reform for women in the Muslim community began more than 100 years ago. Unfortunately that legacy is all but forgotten, and the common notion among most Muslim families is that there is no need to educate the girl-child. Since she is only required to look after a family and home, all she really needs is some household training. What lent weight to this justification was the infrastructural geography of the city and the general vulnerability of the community. Usually, schools closest to minority areas are the poorest; good schools would be located a distance away and commuting was not safe; flashpoints like Gujarat 2002 can always happen. This may be changing a little and parents in some of the bigger cities in India today do have aspirations about educating their daughters. But there are other places, pockets in states like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, where parents still don’t send their daughters to school once they have reached puberty because they are afraid for their safety.

As for traditional institutions of learning like madrasas, they are generally closed segregated spaces. I remember visiting a madrasa for girls in the Mewat area of Haryana. It was like a garrisoned space. There were hundreds of lovely girls but I wondered what sort of education was being imparted to them. A government initiative -- the provision of quality education in madrasas -- is trying to introduce subjects like science, computer learning and so on in madrasa education, but there are many like the one in Mewat, tucked away in a corner of the country, that are inured to any change. We have just not been able to reach these institutions.

Dress is definitely an impediment to the progress of Muslim women. There are many examples of girls in the hijab who have been sportspersons or have done yeoman public service all over the world, and they are always presented as examples of how excellence is not undermined by clothing. Among privileged sections, both in India and abroad, you see a lot of girls from the younger generation choosing to go back to the hijab. This has to do with the whole resurgence of identity, especially in countries where you are identified as ‘different’. What these youngsters are trying to do is doubly emphasise that difference by adopting this way of dress.

Many of the women I have known and loved, who have adopted the burkha, say they feel safe wearing it. I don’t know, because I have never worn it myself, but this argument seems to suggest that somewhere these women have a perception of insecurity which makes them retreat into a kind of protective shield.

The fact of the matter is that the hijab or burkha is a marker; the minute you wear one, you are regarded as someone who needs to be treated differently. I remember in my mother’s generation, 50 years ago, women actually gave up the burkha after Independence. It was a big step that was accepted by the men of the family. Immediately, because they became like everyone else, you perceived how much more easily they could participate in public life.

In the initial period after Islam came to India it was the Sufis who took Islam to the mohallas of the country. The Sufis encouraged the people to remain true to their own customs and ways of life, which is what made Islam so palatable to the local population. Some of the Sufis wore dhotis. This diktat about how women should dress is a recent phenomenon and I find it disturbing that wherever one goes in the country, you see Muslim women adopting the hijab or burkha. In earlier days, if you went to Kerala, you could never make out the Keralite Muslim from other women because she dressed more or less like her counterparts from other communities. Now you will find that even when women wear saris, they always don a hijab.

My religion enjoins me to dress modestly, but modest does not mean donning garb that proclaims you are a Muslim woman. Modesty, according to the Koran, means that you protect your private parts. That’s all it says. That doesn’t mean you have to cover your head or your hair. I definitely feel this ethos of dress is dictated by patriarchal values, and is creating a lot of polarisation.

For a more equal future, patriarchy has to go. Women are speaking out across the world, but there is such a stranglehold of patriarchy on Islam. Today, Islam has been stigmatised and has been identified as anti-gender, anti-development, anti-progress. Because anything that is done from the outside will invite a backlash, which will only make things worse, I feel that change must come from within the Muslim community. There must be more enlightenment and much better addressing of gender concerns.

While there may not be many obvious signs of change, there are stirrings. For instance, when I performed the nikaah I expected a fatwa, but it did not come. I hope more and more women within Islam push the boundaries -- lead the namaaz for instance, do kullah openly, or speak up against triple talaq -- and thereby carve out a new destiny for themselves and their community.

(Syeda Hameed is Member, Planning Commission, Government of India. She is also a committed women’s activist, a founder member of the Muslim Women’s Forum and South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR))

Infochange News & Features, December 2012