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A space of their own

By Sujata Madhok

Women's activist Daud Sharifa Khanam, first recipient of the Durgabai Deshmukh Award instituted by the Central Social Welfare Board, began a Muslim Women's Jamaat in 2003 to provide Muslim women a space to express themselves and contest traditional, repressive diktats

sharifa khanam"I have courage, not authority. My work is a necklace of hot burning coals," says Sharifa who heads the Muslim Women's Jamaat of Tamil Nadu.

Daud Sharifa Khanam is a women's activist and first recipient of the Durgabai Deshmukh Award, instituted by the Central Social Welfare Board in 1999. She began the monthly jamaat (congregation) for Muslim women in 2003, to provide Muslim women a space to express themselves and contest traditional, repressive diktats.

The Muslim Women's Jamaat is an attempt to challenge the authority of the traditional jamaat system which, to a large extent, controls the social life of Muslims. Each mosque elects a group of influential men from within the community to form what is known in Tamil Nadu as the pallivaasal jamaat. Besides managing the affairs of the mosque, the all-male jamaat also arbitrates in community affairs, acting as caste panchayats in hearing and settling disputes and ruling on matrimonial matters including divorce, custody and maintenance. They are respected and feared and have the backing of the mullahs. They even get funds from the wakf boards.

The pallivaasal jamaat survives on chanda (donations) collected every year from community members. Families are also expected to pay up separately for religious rituals like births, deaths and marriages. Individuals, even entire families, may be declared outcastes if they fail to pay up. Sharifa says jamaat members often thrust their decisions on women, threatening to "deny them a space even in the burial ground" if they fail to obey their decree.

A woman cannot become a member of the jamaat committee. Worse, since women are not allowed into mosques where the jamaat committee meetings are held, a woman cannot represent her own case to the committee. She can at best send her husband or brother to represent her. A woman's life can thus be decided by a group of men without her being given even a hearing!

Many factors contribute to discrimination against Muslim women in Tamil Nadu, including large-scale migration of men to the Gulf to make money. With the men earning in dollars, dowries have spiralled. Yet mehr (the bride price that has to be paid to the wife) has not kept pace. Dowries range from anything between Rs 30,000 and Rs 2 lakh, but mehr is rarely more than Rs 1,000. Migration and the resultant distance causes the break-up of many marriages; in some cases, the easiest way for a man to desert his wife is to disappear abroad. Oral triple talaq is still recognised as legitimate by the male jamaats. Some men use email to divorce their wives, others resort to SMS!

The Muslim Women's Jamaat, set up in 2003, encourages a liberal interpretation of Shariat law, freeing women from patriarchal bias. It takes up disputes, intervening to try and get women a better deal in what are, basically, unequal marriages. The jamaat has spread to several districts in Tamil Nadu, with coordinators in each district, most of them voluntary workers. It meets every month, usually at its headquarters in Pudukottai. The coordinators travel to meetings unescorted, sometimes staying overnight or catching the night bus home.

"We are slandered as anti-religion, anti-Islam. But it's not a religious struggle, it's a power struggle," says Sharifa. Sharifa has been reviled, abused from the mosques and threatened for organising Muslim women in rural Tamil Nadu to resist the oppression of the mullahs.

Many of the women who come to Sharifa seek redress from the unfair judgments of the traditional jamaats. This often puts her and her organisation in direct confrontation with the male jamaats and religious elders. This is the major reason for their hostility. However, the jamaats are beginning to recognise the positive role that Sharifa's group can play and occasionally approach them for intervention.

Muslim Women's Jamaat meetings are held in a specially constructed hall -- a large open room built in traditional style with a high, red-tiled roof. It is built within the precincts of Sharifa's residence which also houses the office of the NGO she founded, STEPS.

Sharifa Khanam herself has had a turbulent life. Her father died early and her brothers ran the household in traditional, patriarchal style. However, she was given a decent schooling and sent to Aligarh Muslim University for her graduate studies. Unfamiliar with north India, Sharifa was unhappy and dropped out to return to Tamil Nadu. Her elder brother was so angry that he cut off her allowance. Independent by nature, Sharifa decided to support herself by giving tuitions. Then, in1998, she was offered the chance to act as translator at a women's conference in Patna as she had picked up Hindi in Aligarh and spoke it better than most Tamil women.

The event was an eye-opener for her. "It was the first time that I heard of women's rights. I was surprised! I realised that these women were speaking of the same kind of oppression that went on in my own house too."

As an unmarried woman, Sharifa eventually began to feel unwelcome in her family house. "I found myself becoming a third person in my own house. I felt neglected by the family," she says. In 1987, she set up the organisation STEPS Women's Development Group. STEPS began functioning in Pudukottai as a community welfare centre for women, but soon it began handling cases on behalf of battered women. In 1991, with the backing of progressive bureaucrat Sheela Rani Chunkath, who was then collector of Pudukottai, Sharifa was able to get a piece of land in the heart of the town and build a room to live in and work out of. In 1995, Sharifa decided to focus on the women of her community since they seemed singularly helpless in the face of dual oppression, both as women and members of a minority community.

In a few short years, Sharifa was able to set up a strong women's organisation, tackling numerous cases of violence against women and solving matrimonial disputes. Recognition came her way quickly; the STEPS office is decorated with awards and trophies from both local and national organisations including the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development. It is the award money from various organisations, in fact, that enabled the building of the STEPS office -- a single room above Sharifa's home. Accessed by a flight of steps, the room is built from red brick and tile in the Laurie Baker style, allowing in ample natural light, a glimpse of green trees in the neighbouring courtyard, and a breeze that wafts through the room keeping it cool. In this cocoon Sharifa and her staff battle with the grim realities that face them on a daily basis.

Sharifa says that in the last 15 years she has handled around 10,000 petitions from Muslim women alone. Members interact with the police and lawyers to ensure the speedy resolution of cases. "If the response is poor, we take to the streets," says Sharifa.

In 2004, the intervention of women jamaat members led to the suspension of a few police officers in Annavasal town for "counselling" a rape victim rather than taking action in the case. A 12-year-old girl employed as a domestic help was raped by her employer. The investigation dragged on until the jamaat staged a dharna in front of the office of the superintendent of police and made sure the culprit was brought to book.

In the past 10 years, Sharifa has mobilised women in 10 districts across Tamil Nadu -- Trichy, Pudukottai, Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Nagapattinam, Tuticorin and Perambalur. Women jamaat leaders in these districts travel to Muslim residential areas to spread word about the jamaat. They also mobilise women to oppose the three dominant social evils in the Muslim community -- ex-parte divorce (talaq), polygamy, and dowry demands..

Taj Begum of Sivaganga district has emerged as a local leader, and the jamaat in her area values her advice. People take cases to her house. She counsels families and only takes the case to the STEPS headquarters if legal intervention is required.

Rashida Begum is typical of some of the younger women who belong to the Muslim Women's Jamaat. She says: "After getting a talaq I have gained self-confidence. My mother had a difficult marriage and she tolerated so much to be able to bring up her children. But I am educated and can work and earn to bring my child up on my own."

The Muslim Women's Jamaat's major demand is that half the members of the traditional jamaat committees should be female. They want all brides to be at least 21 years old, mehr to be substantial and marriages to be registered with the government. Also, that a woman teacher be appointed in each mosque as, they allege, male hazrats have been accused of misbehaving with girls who go to the mosques to study the Koran.

From the government they demand reservation in education and employment and concessions for the Muslim community on a par with backward classes and the poor. They want employment under NREGA to include home-based occupations that Muslim women do, such as processing of foodstuff and production of goods, craft items etc. Jamaat members recall that when some poor women went to work on a NREGA construction site they were told they could not do the work in a burqua! They also say that land should be distributed to them under the government's land distribution schemes.

In a dramatic challenge to the patriarchy of the all-male jamaats, the women thought of building their own mosque. A local family agreed to donate the land for the mosque. However, the tremendous publicity that the announcement of the mosque generated led to an angry counter-campaign from the Ulemas. Under pressure, the donors withdrew the offer. Sharifa then decided to build the mosque on her own land. This led to the edict that Islam does not permit an unmarried woman to build a mosque. Sharifa promptly accepted a proposal of marriage from a progressive businessman.

Sharifa visualises the women's mosque as a place for prayer as well as community service, with a meeting hall, a shelter for destitute women and a training and education centre for girls. It will have a woman priest and other female religious functionaries. Men will be permitted to enter and pray but they will not control the mosque.

Sadly, today the mosque at Thandeeswaram village near Pudukottai town stands built only up to basement level, as the organisation has run out of money to complete it. Despite an organisation to run and a baby girl to take care of, Sharifa, now a feisty 42, plans a fundraising tour in India and abroad. "My target is to raise a million dollars for the women's mosque" she says, confident that she will achieve her dream.

InfoChange News & Features, April 2008