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Below is an article which appeared in the Hindustan Times Dt.22/10/2007.

Equality, at any cost

Sunita Aron

Pudukkottai (Tamil Nadu)

It's a big project, with all the necessary trappings - fund-related delays, a big bunch of opponents and, therefore, the need for secrecy of the kind surrounding a defence project. Will it ever be completed?

Deep inside a village in Tamil Nadu's Pudukkottai district is a building under construction. The base is ready and there are a couple of unfinished columns sticking out. It looks like some one ran out of money here.

And that, indeed, is the situation. The building is an unfinished mosque and its builder is a woman called Daud Sharifa Khanum. When, and if, it is completed, it will be the world's first mosque for women.

This will be the second first for Sharifa. Her first first was starting a jamaat made of only women. A jamaat is a group of religious leaders and elders for sorting community and domestic issues in villages. They are always made of men. And because jamaats are held in mosques - women never get a hearing, and cases involving them are settled without their presence or participation. Sharifa started jamaats of women.

The 41-year-old is a fulltime activist; she began social work in 1991. She was born in a large family of 10 siblings. Just after she was born, her parents separated, and Sharifa was raised by her mother, a teacher. Most of her education took place in Tamil Nadu. She then left for the famed Aligarh Muslim University to study office management. She lives with her husband, a businessman, in Pudukkottai.

Sharifa has grand plans. Not only will it be the first mosque open to women, it will also have women in all key positions there such as the muezzin (the one who calls for the prayer - the azaan) and the pesh imam (the one who leads the prayers). "We will invite men also," Sharifa says without a hint of rancour, "they can come and pray." But here is the revolutionary idea: "All positions of power and responsibility shall remain with women."

Just as she did with the jamaat. Her female jamaats have been so successful that even men approach them for help now. Also, the all-male jamaats are little more sensitive to women now.

The buzz around the mosque project is growing in the area. And though money is hard to find - the construction work happens in fits and bursts - there is hope that it will be completed. Some day.

An estimated 10,000 women showed up for prayers at the groundbreaking ceremony. Now, however, she is struggling for funds. Things haven't improved much since, despite many appeals. "I can complete the construction work in three months provided I have the funds," said Sharifa. The project began in 2003, and she hopes to complete it by 2009, if she can find the funds for it.

She says women had access to mosques during the Prophet's time, and to his abode, to clarify doubts. But, today, men have interpreted the religious tenets to their advantage, keeping women out. "Ninety percent of Muslim women face issues related to dowry, a practice prohibited in Islam. Rs 50,000 dowry and Rs 500 meher, our clerics know about it, but no one raises these isssue. But when it comes to discriminating against women, they never lose an opportunity. See how they opposed Sania Mirza, Imrana, Khushboo…"

Getting land for the mosque was difficult, too. Some people enthused by her campaign backed out when they heard the clerics were up in arms against Sharifa's mosque. She says clerics tell her to turn the building into a community centre - they are fine with that. There have been threats to her life, too, something that she does not take seriously despite police advice.

Eventually, Sharifa donated her own land. "How can anyone stop me from constructing anything on my land? I have kept our beliefs about the mosque direction in mind while getting it designed."

She agrees to give us a tour of the mosque - or the building under construction. But makes it a condition that we will not identify the village. We agree readily. The building has plenty of natural green cover.

The project is likely to cost Rs 35 lakh. She has launched a $1 million project urging her friends in India and abroad to donate a dollar each. And her appeal has started fetching support. A friend sent her Rs 55,000.

In her appeal, she says: "I appeal to you to contribute to accomplish the historical edifice, which stands as a mark of rights of Muslim women and ensures space for them."

And here is her ultimate dream: down the road from her mosque is a church managed by two sisters, and there is a temple that is being looked after by the 75-year-old mother of the man who made it. "One day this would emerge as the biggest holy centre in the world run and owned by women."

For now, she says, work will resume shortly on the mosque.



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