Empowerment of the Indian Muslim woman
By Naazreen Bhura
Editor, Deccan Chronicle, Chennai edition
The Milli Gazette Online
24 September 2006
I am extremely honoured to be here amongst all of you. I would like to first
congratulate the Ambur Muslim Education Society on its centenary celebrations
and give the organization all my good wishes for continuing with its good work.
I am honoured that the society has thought it fit to invite me to address this
gathering on a subject which I feel is extremely important as it concerns the
upliftment of women, who have for very long in not just our society, but also in
many other societies, faced an uphill task in getting their voices heard.
The woman's struggle has never been easy. Particularly so when she is trying to
find her place in the new world that is evolving around her. Before I go into
the discussion on empowerment of women, I would at first like to clear some
misconceptions that exist about the status of the Muslim women in India. It is
widely believed that the average Muslim woman is at a greater disadvantage in
her community than women of other communities in India. This is a wrong belief
in my view and is the result of the fact that a few instances of illtreatment of
women make it to the headlines because of the very nature of the actions
involved. A triple talaq is given on the phone , a fatwa is given that a woman
cannot remain married to her husband because she has been raped by her
Such instances naturally make it to the newspapers because they highlight the
plight of the woman. But on the other hand they also tend to give the impression
that Muslim women are suppressed and have no voice in the community. But this I
say, is a wrong impression. This is something like what the terrorists are doing
for Islam. They are giving other communities, who lack an understanding of
Islam, a wrong impression of the Muslims, who are by and large a peace loving
and a patriotic community of the country. Impressions, as we all know, can be
very misleading. For instance, till recently the impression in the West about
India was that it was a country of snakes and elephants, feudal and backward.
This we know is not true.
And so is the impression about Muslim women in India. They are not cowering,
fearful and brow beaten as they are painted. Yes the fatwas that are reported
about do exist, the triple talaqs that are written about, also do happen. But
what people fail to understand is that these are not the norm, but the
exception. Take a look at what two women found when they set out to do research
about Muslim women in India. Zoya Hassan, a professor at the Centre for
Political Studies at the Jawaharlal University and Ritu Menon, a writer and
publisher did a survey of 10,000 Muslim women and found that despite triple
talaq, less than 2 per cent of Muslim women are divorced or deserted. They in
fact found that Muslim women have a slightly greater say in the area of decision
making within the family than their counterparts in other communities.
But having said this that Muslim women are not as badly off as portrayed, can we
say that everything is alright in the community? While I would say that the
extreme view of the condition of the Muslim women in India is wrong and is as
off the mark as the impression in the West about India being a country of snakes
and elephants, things are not entirely right as far as Muslim women go.
Let me give you some examples. I am sure that everyone here has come across such
cases. These are everyday occurrences. So I am only reminding you of what you
already know. Have you not come across cases of women who are widowed with
little children to support at a young age? Thankfully as there is no stigma to
widow remarriage in Islam, these women fortunately remarry, but there have been
instances of the women having to give up their children by the first husband so
that they can move to a new future with the second husband. This has happened
not just to widowed women, but also to those who have been deserted by their
husbands who have chosen to be unfaithful and remarry a woman of their choice.
The young wife who is left behind once again finds herself at the mercy of
another man, and this time she has to give up a part of herself - her children.
What could be more painful?
In the final analysis, it is of course the woman who makes this choice. Does she
do it out of fear? Out of lack of confidence in herself or because she thinks
she needs someone to take care of her? . Whether educated or not, we are all
prone to such fears and wants. But what education does is, it gives us the means
to make a different choice, should we overcome these fears. It is when a woman
has the ability to make such a choice that I would say she is empowered.
There is still fear in the Muslim community that if a woman is "empowered" she
will in some way threaten the family structure and traditions. That she will
want to go her own way, become "too independent". But I would like to say that
while there will be such "misuse" of empowerment by women who don't understand
that independence and decision making go hand in hand with responsibility, there
will be a lot of others who do understand this. For a woman to be able to say no
to something that will cause her enormous unhappiness, she must have something
very solid to fall back on. Most important of all, she will need the unstinting
support of her family and of course education and financial empowerment.
It is not selfish to want education and financial empowerment. It is your right.
If you are happy with yourself, you will make others happy, including your
husband and children. Being educated and financially empowered does not mean
that you turn away from family tradition and practices, that your belief in
Allah and his rahmath, become any less. One does not preclude the other. Islam
has had highly empowered women.
Bibi Khadija (R. A.), wife of our beloved prophet Mohammed (p. b. u. h), bibi
Ayesha(R. A.) his youngest wife were greatly empowered women. Bibi Khadija was
one of the richest merchants of Mecca. She had already been married twice and
since the death of her second husband she used to hire men to trade on her
behalf. As prophet Mohammed (p. b. u. h.) was known as the reliable, the
trustworthy, the honest, she asked him to take some of her merchandise to Syria.
She was impressed greatly by him and later arranged for a proposal to be sent to
him which he accepted. She staunchly believed in him and he greatly respected
Then there is bibi Ayesha. She was highly knowledgeable and most of the hadees
is attributed to her as she was the prophet's constant companion. She
participated in tending to the sick in war and was greatly respected by one and
The prophet himself constantly said that female children should be treated
exactly in the same manner as male children. According to a report of Ibn Abbas,
the prophet's cousin, he is said to have declared, "If a daughter is born to a
man and he brings her up affectionately, shows her no disrespect and treats her
in the same manner that he treats his sons, the Lord will reward him with
And so it was not surprising that our prophet valued bibi Khadija , his first
wife and later bibi Ayesha greatly and they were his staunchest followers and
clearly the beloved of Allah, because they exercised their empowerment as it
Recently there was a debate about Muslim women standing for elections in the
Uttar Pradesh panchayat. A fatwa was issued by three clerics of the Darul Uloom
seminary in Deoband that Muslim women contesting these elections should do so
wearing a veil.
Once again I emphasise that it must be left to the woman to exercise the choice
of whether or not to wear the veil when fighting the elections. But then this is
not a debate on the veil. The only reason I am bringing this up is because even
the clerics of UP who laid down that the women must be veiled while fighting
elections, did not say that women could not contest the elections. And several
Muslim leaders reacting to this fatwa have since said that Islam does not
prohibit women from being leaders.
In fact according to the Quran, men and women have equal duties with regard to
prayers, the payment of poor tax and in preaching the good and forbidding evil
in society, in the economy and in politics. There are innumerable traditions
which show that women, like men used to come freely in the presence of the
prophet for putting to him questions on social, relgioous and economic matters.
The prophet used to answer them patiently. Later after the prophet's passing
away during the reign of the first four Caliphs, bibi Ayesha who was a very
learned woman, was very sought after for her advice even on political matters by
the rulers of Islam.
So going by tradition even politics is not out of bounds for the Muslim woman.
Now let us look at the what the levels of literacy are in the Muslim community
in India and why they are so. According to the survey conducted by Ritu Menon
and Zoya Hasam, huge variations exist in the status of Muslim women across the
country. The status of Kashmiri women is different from the status of women in
the south. They found that the Muslim women in the south are better off in both
rural and urban areas. Their literacy levels were much higher and more of them
enrolled in schools than their Hindu counterparts. But in middle school they
tended to drop out. The reasons were poverty and the absence of all girl
schools. Also as a large number of Muslim boys dropped out of school at this
middle school level and began pursuing carpentry or some such profession, girls
were discouraged from studying further as this would affect their marriage
Overall, however, they found that the vast majority of Muislim women in the
country have never seen the inside of a school and 60% of them are illiterate.
So this is the reality despite the fact that Islam recommends education highly.
And it is not as if the women themselves have no aspirations.
Let me read to you an article that appeared in March this year. It was about a
young Muslim girl , her aspirations, the obstacles she faced and how she was
transformed through the efforts of an NGO. The report which was from Delhi, said
that "Shehasadi Abbas showed no sign of nervousness as she addressed about 500
chattering women from shanties in a New Delhi suburb.
The women were there to celebrate International Women's Day on a Saturday, March
4, since International Women's Day would fall on March 8, a working day. "I want
to study and earn for my family," the 21-year-old Muslim woman shouted over the
din after presenting a dance drama about women's education. Pinned to the back
curtain of the stage were banners proclaiming, "March toward progress," "Give us
equal right to education," "End atrocities against women" and "Punish the
guilty." The programme was staged in Seelampur, a Muslim-dominated shantytown in
the eastern part of the capital.
Though it was her first "public address," Abbas later said she did not feel
nervous. She said her courage came from her two-year association with the
voluntary association. Every year since coming to Seelampur 11 years ago, the
association has been training about 300 women and children, mostly Muslims, in
the 14 centers they manage in Seelampur and certain other suburbs. These
centers, called mahila samiti (women's forum), conduct courses lasting from six
months to a year on tailoring, beauty and health care. They also provide
conversational English classes for the women and coach students of government
primary schools. In addition, their facilities help the women socialize with one
another by celebrating programmes such as Women's Day.
"It is quite amazing to see these young Muslim women on the stage without any
nervousness," commented a member of the voluntary association. She pointed out
that it had been "quite unthinkable" in the past for Muslim women to perform in
Before her tryst with the centre run by the NGO , Abbas said she had no courage
to leave her one-room tenement alone. She did not even dare tell her parents she
wished to continue her studies when they asked her to care for her siblings
after her fifth grade. "Girls must stay home to do household chores," she echoed
their words as she bottle-fed her 4-year-old brother, the youngest of 11
Abbas, the second child but oldest of the four girls, said her parents insisted
that her brothers study but the girls had to stop their own studies after a few
years. Only the youngest girl, now 11, goes to school. "I will not allow my
parents to stop her studies," asserted Abbas, one of the 51 women given diplomas
for completing a tailoring course this year. She said she can now support her
family thanks to her tailoring job. To join the classes, Abbas had to contend
with her father, who runs a butcher shop in the locality. As the 52-year-old man
shooed away flies and puffed on beedi, a local cigarette, he elaborated why his
daughters had to stay indoors: "Girls are like money. If you keep money in the
open, others will loot it. A girl's responsibility is to attend to household
chores," he said.
The only support Abbas received came from her mother, who learned about the
center from neighbours. "When I saw my neighbor's daughter stitching her own
clothes, I wanted to send my daughter to the same center," the
42-year-old illiterate woman said.
The lanky woman with sunken eyes on a wrinkled face has no regrets. She said her
daughter's surprising performance in the dance drama "was the first time I saw a
stage programme." The progress Abbas has been making has convinced the mother of
the value of education, so she has shifted her youngest daughter from a
government school to a private one where, she said, the teaching is better.
Abbas herself now plans to prepare privately for 10th-grade exams. "The girls
have a lot of desire and willingness to study," observed Rounak Jaha, who
manages a coaching center in the shanty. The 32-year-old woman laments that
parents in the slum do not encourage the education of their daughters, and some
cannot even write their own names. According to a coordinator of the centers the
young women initially were so fearful "they could not tell their names to the
class, but now they have no problem in facing an audience." She acknowledges
they are not creating a sea change in the area, but that is fine, because "it is
a slow process and there is much we have to achieve."
So as the report shows there is a long way to go. How are we going to tackle
this problem? What do we do to make sure that girls get education? The survey
shows that women are not being held back from pursuing an education because of
Islamic ideals, but more because of economic and social reasons such as their
marriage prospects. It then stands to reason that the men in the community must
also aspire for higher education. They should not give up education at the
mid-school level and be determined to fight the odds and make a better life for
themselves than being mere carpenters or artisans. The more educated the men and
women are in our community the better for all of us.
I would like to conclude by saying that let us not hold back our women because
we fear where it will lead them or us, but rather let us give them the love and
support they need to be the best they can be and to realize the potential that
Allah has given them, so that they can be the best in every role they are here
to play, that of mother, wife, sister and also those of a valued citizen and
member of the community. I thank you all very much once again for giving me this
(Paper presented at the educational conference of the
Ambur Muslim Educational Society's centenary celebrations, Ambur, Tamil Nadu, on
September 6, 2006)