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"Poverty and patriarchy -- not religion -- determine the status of women"

By Rashme Sehgal

To get away from the Muslim stereotype, and the common belief that the status of Muslim women is determined by their religion and personal law, Ritu Menon and Zoya Hasan embarked on a path-breaking survey of 10,000 women. Their study, Unequal Citizens: A Study of Muslim Women in India, looks at Muslim women within the framework of poverty, gender and social disability

Ritu Menon and Zoya Hasan are the co-authors of Unequal Citizens: A Study of Muslim Women in India ( Oxford University Press, 2004), which seeks to dispel popular misconceptions and stereotypes about Muslim women, gender and Islam. Hasan and Menon maintain that the differences between Muslim and Hindu women are minuscule. They dispute the view that Islam is responsible for everything, from poverty and unemployment to marriage, divorce and education. This unbalanced focus on religion as the determining factor has obscured other factors critical to the status of Muslim women, such as location, class and positive social development.

The book is based on the 'first-ever national survey' of 10,000 Muslim and Hindu women in India , across 42 districts and 12 states. It throws up some startling findings, such as the fact that despite triple-talaq, less than 2% of Muslim women are divorced or deserted.

Zoya Hasan is professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi . Ritu Menon is a writer and publisher.

What were the objectives of your study?

Ritu Menon: There has been a lot of misperception about Muslim women. People continue to believe that the status of Muslim women is defined by their religion, with a disproportionate emphasis being placed on Muslim personal law, polygamy and triple-talaq. This is a Muslim stereotype which we wanted to get away from. We needed to look at Muslim women within the framework of poverty, gender and social disability.

Zoya Hasan: Following the Shah Bano controversy, the focus was always on religious laws and how they governed the behaviour of Muslim women. There is a general belief that if Muslim women are unequal, it has to do with their religion. There is no doubt that Muslim personal law has not been refined but it is definitely not responsible for their poverty and low social status. We wanted to look at them in the intersection of community and class; our perspective was a secular development. This has been a four-five-year-old project where we looked at their economic and political status -- which has been worsened by religion.

Ritu Menon: I need to emphasise that there is very little data available, specifically on Muslim women. We have the census, and then there is the National Council of Applied Economic Research, but their data is confined to things like literacy, educational levels and so on. Our survey attempts to look at the entire gamut of issues that affect the lives of Muslim women.

Once we started work, we realised that Muslim women do not belong to any one homogeneous group. Huge variations exist from north to south and from east to west. The status of Kashmiri Muslim women is different from their counterparts in the south. We wanted to focus on these variations and these became the basis for our survey. We interviewed 10,000 women, of which 80% were Muslim and 20% Hindu, spread over 42 districts from 12 states in the country. Each of the districts selected had not less than a 10% Muslim population.

There were ten areas which we wanted to focus on and these included a woman's social and economic status, her marital status, mobility, education levels, political participation levels, access to welfare, access to medicine and educational standards. We asked specific questions on all these ten areas. For example, we correlated a woman's educational qualifications with those of her husband's. The aim was to arrive at a holistic picture.

We found that Muslim women in the south are better-off both in rural and urban areas. Their literacy levels are much higher, in fact the school enrolment levels of Muslims are much higher than those of their Hindu counterparts. But there is a sharp difference at the level of middle school education because of the high drop-out rate of Muslim kids. The reasons for dropping-out vary. With large numbers of households below the poverty line, there are fewer chances of girls being allowed to continue with their education. An additional factor is that there are no sex-segregated schools to which these girls have access.

Another reason for this high drop-out rate is because large numbers of Muslim boys drop out of middle school. They do so because of lack of employment opportunities. These boys go on to become artisans and carpenters and so on. The girls, therefore, are not encouraged to pursue an education. They cannot appear to be more educated than the boys. It would affect their marriage prospects.

What kind of educational status did these women possess?

Zoya Hasan: Their attainments varied from region to region. The vast majority of these women had never seen the inside of a school and 60% of them were illiterate. The drop-out rate was very high and a very small percentage had completed 12 years of schooling.

Their main obstacle in pursuing an education was financial constraints. Their parents could not afford to provide them with an education. With the majority of Muslim boys dropping out between Class 6 and 7, the girls were also discouraged to study, because if they did so, they would not find suitable husbands. The majority of these women opted for self-employment and belonged to families of artisans.

Muslims face widespread discrimination. Only 2% have found jobs in public employment: that is why they opt for self-employment. The women, therefore, end up doing low-end chores.

But we did not find a substantial difference between the Hindu and Muslim women. There is a patriarchal direction in families of both communities, though in the area of decision-making, I would say that Muslim women have a slightly greater say.

How much regional variation showed up in your study?

Zoya Hasan: The study shows enormous regional variations. The situation of Mulim women in the northern and eastern states is very bad whereas they are better-off in the south. I must add that although they are better-off in the south, their socio-economic status is not as good as their Hindu counterparts. I would however say that the majority of Muslim women are slightly better-off than their scheduled caste counterparts.

How does the situation differ in the south?

Ritu Menon: The south has a much larger Muslim middle class. In the south, the Muslims are entrepreneurs and in trade. Therefore they earn more than their counterparts in the north. We can have an Azim Premji (of Wipro) in the south but we cannot have one in the north. The middle class in the north moved to Pakistan at the time of Partition. During the last 57 years, the situation of the Muslims in the north has not changed.

The Sikhs and Christians are also minorities but they have done well because of strong community initiatives.

Another reason why the Muslims in the south have done well is because of the influx of large amounts of Gulf money. These monies have seen a substantial increase in the number of schools. A lot of money has also been set aside for the building of girls' colleges. In Andhra Pradesh, the influx of Gulf money saw the building of a large number of women's colleges. Kerala, of course, has invested hugely in education and it enjoys the highest literacy rates amongst Muslim women. In UP, 30% of hamlets have primary schools while in Tamil Nadu, the figure is much higher, with 88% of hamlets having primary schools.

In UP, madrassas have begun to mushroom. At least these provide some sort of schooling for the girls. Girls can go there up to the age of eight. We have found that while 9% of the girls study in madrassas, 99% prefer to go to government schools.

Work opportunities for Muslim women are very poor. The majority are forced to restrict themselves to home-based labour. The age of marriage for girls is 15. By 19, they have had at least two to three kids. With the majority not being able to complete school, the chances of their acquiring skills are very remote.

Our survey has also shown that despite these limitations, 70% of these women vote and another 75% want development resources to be allocated at the local level and not the parliamentary level. If this were to happen, they believe, it would immediately alter their lives for the better.

There is unanimity amongst these women that their daughters must be given access to an education, something that was denied to them. There is a huge aspiration amongst these women that their daughters do better than them.

Muslim women suffer from huge constraints on their mobility -- so much so that they need permission from their in-laws or husbands to even visit the market or go to a place of worship. Since their mobility is restrained, this obviously affects their participation in the workplace.

What conclusions did you arrive at the end of your study?

Ritu Menon: Broadly speaking, we found that the factors of poverty and patriarchy and of social and economic class are much more significant (than religion) in determining the status of both Muslim and Hindu women. This is true in every part of the country. The situation of Muslim women and Dalit women is equal in terms of social disability. Dalit women have borne the brunt of historic discrimination and therefore their social disadvantage remains great.

Are there no major differences between Muslim and Hindu women?

Ritu Menon: Differences between Muslim and Hindu women are minuscule. Despite the triple-talaq, less than 2% of Muslim women are divorced or deserted. In fact, bigamy is equally common among Hindus. Hindu men may not have a unilateral divorce facility but they do not need it. Who is checking whether they keep one or more mistresses? With more state initiatives in the south, the Muslim community remains much better integrated in the south than in the north or east. The Muslim community, both in the south and in Gujarat and Maharashtra, has retained its trade links. They therefore present a much better economic picture than their counterparts in UP or West Bengal. Of course there has been a rise of conservative forces in Maharashtra, as shown by the attempt of the Bohra community to try and restrain their women. But such pockets of conservative influence are limited.

How can this situation be rectified?

Ritu Menon: These women need very serious affirmative action in the areas of education. The state also needs to enforce a legal minimum age of marriage. This can only be done by creating a huge social awareness.

Your study has focused on education and domestic violence. You have also devoted a separate chapter to women's participation in the political process. What conclusions did you arrive at?

Zoya Hasan: The figures for Hindus and Muslims suffering verbal and physical abuse in their marital homes are strikingly similar though our study shows us that Hindu women experience greater levels of interspousal violence in all the four regions where the interviews took place. Around 50% of the women reporting abuse belong to SCs and STs and constitute the poorest sections of society. Muslim women reporting abuse comprise 18% of the women interviewed.

About participating in the political process I would say that the majority of women interviewed do cast their vote, but 95% of our respondents have not participated in any election campaign. These women, however, want reservations for women to be extended to the state legislatures also. Similarly, a large number of these women were not aware of development programmes though non-awareness of these programmes was higher in urban than rural areas.

When we asked them to list the major problems faced by people in their neighbourhood, both Hindu and Muslim women answered that drinking water was a major problem, followed by lack of sanitation facilities. This is especially true in the Muslim-dominated areas of the northern states.

(Rashme Sehgal is a Delhi-based writer and journalist.)

InfoChange News & Features, November 2004