How Muslim women are changing attitudes and the community
By: Hasan Suroor
With Eid behind us, the countdown to the annual Haj pilgrimage, one of the most important events in the Islamic calendar, has started.
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Like every year, millions of Muslims from across the globe — their bodies covered only by a white sheet signifying austerity and spiritual purity — will congregate in the holy city of Mecca in what is hailed as the biggest ‘live’ demonstration of Islamic egalitarianism. Except that until now women were not quite shown the courtesy of being treated on par with their menfolk.
A key precondition for them to be allowed to perform Hajj required them to be accompanied by a male guardian.
The practice has no sanction in Islam, but was introduced by Saudi Arabia as part of its extreme Wahhabi interpretation of sharia ostensibly to ‘protect’ women, the logic being that they would be less vulnerable, if accompanied by a male.
The rules also prescribed that the male escort must be a mahram — husband, father, brother or son among others — irrespective of their age and physical capability to protect them.
It led to ridiculous situations where elderly women were seen bossed around by their little male escorts.
Winds of change
Happily, however, all that is in the past. Following widespread protests and international criticism, Saudi Arabia has removed some of the restrictions imposed through the male guardianship system.
For instance, women above 21 now have the right to obtain a passport and travel without the permission of a male guardian.
So, for the first time, women will perform Haj as independent entities — not as ‘male baggage’. And India is set to send the largest contingent of single women. According to the ministry of minority affairs as many as 4,314 ladies without mahram (LVM) have been approved for Haj.
Until last year, they would have been denied the opportunity to perform Haj if they didn't have a suitable mahram to accompany them.
It might seem like a small number compared to 1.4 lakh, the total number of approved applicants across all categories. But, given the stereotype of the submissive Indian Muslim woman who has no independent agency, it's a huge step forward.
It's hard to believe that their menfolk wouldn't have resisted the idea of letting them go alone. Let us remember most of these women come from conservative religious backgrounds and lead extremely sheltered lives.
But, clearly, for once they decided that enough was enough and made a conscious choice to throw away the crutches and be on their own. And the fact that men chose not to get in the way — maybe out of deference for a holy occasion — shows that, contrary to the assiduously cultivated notion, all Muslim men are not raving fundamentalists.
In recent years, a new generation of Muslim men has come of age and most are a lot more relaxed about women's independence.
But the real import of the Haj episode is that it reflects a wider change in Muslim attitudes towards women and the latter's own growing assertion of their rights.
Stand up for your rights
Indian Muslim women missed the first wave of feminism and their current push for change is an attempt to catch up with it. Significantly, it is not restricted to upper middle-class left-liberal families alone, but cuts across traditionally conservative sections.
The latest pressure point is a spirited campaign for mosques to be thrown open to women worshippers. Several women's groups in different parts of the country are working to facilitate access to mosques. And their efforts have started to bear fruit with a number of mosques across India opening their doors to women, as the TOI+ reported recently.
In Kerala, Huda Ahsan, director of the Khadija Maryam Foundation, is leading a campaign for a women-only mosque where the imams, devotees and committee members will all be women.
"We didn't want the token gesture of someone allowing us a small space in a mosque or anyone's sympathy," Ahsan was quoted as saying.
As with most discriminatory practices, restricting women's access to mosques too has no sanction in Islam. It's an invention of hardliners. In the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), mosques were open to all irrespective of gender.
According to scholars, there is no mention in the Quran prohibiting women from going to mosques.
Tuba Sanober, an activist, told an interviewer that it was a Sunnah (tradition of the Prophet) to offer namaz in masjid.
“We must remember the Prophet’s clear commands and ensure that no one prevents women from coming to the masjid. We endeavor to make the masjid’s doors open for everyone – men, women, persons with special needs and kids. Mosques should be accessible like they were in our beloved Prophet’s time,” she said.
Across Europe, mosques are open to women and double up as community centers and common spaces for families to meet.
Taking on the right
To cut to the chase, the Indian Muslim community is in the throes of a momentous change though it is still at the ‘baby-steps’ stage. Even arch conservative groups such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board have started to recognize with gritted teeth the need for reform. To be sure, it is driven by pressure from grassroots women.
Tabassum Sheikh, the teenaged Karnataka student who has topped the Class XII state board exams, is a case in point. Caught up in the hijab row and faced with the stark choice of missing her exams or taking off her hijab for a few hours while writing her papers, she bravely chose the latter despite being goaded by Muslim groups to boycott the exams in protest.
But, she prioritized education over a contrived symbol of Muslim identity even as many of her classmates stopped attending classes.
"I decided to give up the hijab [in college] and pursue my education. We will need to make some sacrifices for education,” she told the media, pointing out that it was not an easy decision to make for someone who had been wearing the hijab since the age of five. And she is now back to wearing it.
So far so good. But lamentably there is still no nationwide and inclusive reforms movement — only a patchwork of individual women-driven initiatives on specific gender issues with men reluctantly tagging along. The Wahhabi-minded clergy and patriarchal attitudes still retain a stranglehold over vast swathes of the community.
This, combined with Hindu nationalists' belligerent campaign to isolate and cow Muslims into submission, makes even limited success in moving the community forward a lot more significant than it would in normal circumstances.
Indeed, there's a view — and it has some merit — that pressure from the Muslim right on the one hand and Hindutva-inspired Islamophobia on the other has made Muslims more determined to assert their independence and stand on their own feet.
If so, here is commiserating with the assorted jamaats and senas for getting Muslims so wrong.