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Feminists or reformists?

Independence saw the women's movement in India split as a result of the formation of the minority identity. ZARINA BHATTY looks at the Muslim women's movement in its historical perspective and its development.



A new challenge for the Muslim women's reform movements.

A NUMBER of socio-political factors, national and international, led to the emergence and growth of feminist movement in India. An analysis of these factors in their historical perspective is important to understand the impact of the movement on minority women, particularly Indian Muslim women.

After the collapse of the colonial system in Africa and Asia in the mid-20th Century, the newly independent countries, including India, adopted a secular democratic system of governance and tried to remove various inequalities. A distinction needs to be made between pre-independence and post-independence women's movements. The fomer were essentially about social reform and initiated by men who, under the influence of Western liberal ideas, worked against repressive social norms like child marriage, widow remarriage, sati and purdah (seclusion, prevalent especially among Muslims). Movements to eradicate illiteracy among women and bring them out of the house were largely confined to the upper castes and classes, and did not question patriarchy or the gender-based division of labour. In comparison, the post-independence movement demanded gender equality, questioned gender-based division of labour and highlighted the oppressive nature of the existing patriarchal structure.

Muslim social reformers placed much importance on women's education and a number of schools for girls were opened, particularly, in north India. As early as 1896, an Urdu weekly journal for women, called Tehzib-e-niswan (women's culture) was started by Maulvi Mumtaz Ali. Writers and poets also contributed to women's emancipation efforts. A novel written by a woman writer, Nazrul Baqr, entitled Goodar ke Lal (gem in the rags) deserves a special mention. Another, which created a sensation was Choop ki Dad (acclaim of silence) written by the poet Altaf Hussain Hali, a champion of women's liberation.

In 1906, the first English school for girls was started by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh despite opposition both from Hindus and Muslims. This was followed by a number of other schools. Some upper class Muslim women, among them Sultana Jehan Begum of Bhopal, one of the three successive women rulers of the State of Bhopal, also supported such efforts. As a result of these efforts, a Muslim woman was practicing as an advocate in Punjab High Court as early as 1907 and by 1936 Hijab Imtiaz Ali had the rare honour of being the first woman pilot in India.


Muslim social and educational reform movements sought co-operation and drew inspiration from Hindu women leaders, particularly from Sarojini Naidu, the first to reject gender barriers and join the freedom movement. This revolutionary mood continued in the 1930s and a number of Muslim women who had the privilege of education and exposure to the outside world produced daring literature like Dr. Rasheed Jehan and Ismat Chughtai. This period was marked by the convergence of women's issues across the boundaries of religion, focussed more on similarities than on differences. After Independence and the creation of Pakistan, the political situation changed. Indian Muslims, who had struggled for freedom and had opted to remain in India, found themselves referred to as a minority. This not only had a disastrous psychological effect on them but also affected Hindu-Muslim relationships, leading to an identity crisis so that differences rather than similarities became more pronounced.

By the emergence of the feminist movement in the 1970s, minority identities had begun to harden, and Muslim women were affected by this divisive environment. Religious fundamentalists tried to place the onus of preserving religio-cultural identity on women. This identity syndrome, with women in the centre, diverted attention away from Muslim women's grim realities and the deviations from the actual Islamic position.

This created a new challenge for the feminist movement. Having been a secular movement, it did not know how to handle this situation. On the conceptual level, Indian feminists were in a dilemma: how to assimilate Muslim women's issues into broader feminist issues and, at the same time, safeguard their religious and cultural identity. This has been most obvious in the case of Muslim Personal Law. Placing Muslim women's issues within the confines of religion has further marginalised them, and created hesitancy among the secular feminists in addressing their problems for fear of hurting religious sentiments.

Consequently, a number of separate Muslim women's organisations have emerged to improve women's conditions similar to the male oriented social reform movements. These organisations are trying to work within the parameters of Islam. Their approach has been problematic, as it tends to exclude the active support of non-Muslim feminists. The religious approach has also created problems for the organisations, as the activists are not theologians but, in their zeal, invite the support of the Muslim clergy. Thus they lose on purely theological arguments, as there is no feminist scholarship of Islam in India. This gives religious leaders legitimacy to curb woman's rights

However, there are secular movements run by non-governmental organisations working mostly at the grassroots and focussing on women's poverty and vulnerability. hey work with women from all communities including Muslims and Dalits, the common denominator being poverty and lack of access to development inputs. An encouraging example is of SEWA, Lucknow, where a Bengali Hindu woman has organised the Muslim chikan workers. Muslim Personal Law has been made a symbol of Muslim religious and cultural identity and women have become both the subject and object of this identity. By invoking religious sentiments, Muslim women are being prevented from agitating against the most iniquitous provisions of their personal laws. The Government's support to the more conservative elements in Muslim society further inhibits Muslim women's organisations from adopting a radical approach. Therefore Muslim women's movements, as these are working today, can at best be called reformist rather than feminist.

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