Enter the Islamic feminist

They're not burning bras, or burqas. But a bunch of non-conformist Muslim women activists are making an attempt to free the sorority from the clutches of a patriarchial clergy.

Last week, Lucknow-based feminist Shaista Ambar was on television again. This time she was siding with the three daughters-in-law - Nishat, Hina and Arshi - who had beaten up some maulvis at Sultanul Madaris, the city's famous Shia madrassa which also houses a Sharia court. The maulvis had given talaqnamas (divorce documents) to the women's husbands without consulting them when they tried to get justice against the advances of their father-in-law.

Incensed, Ambar batted for the brave women whom the clergy predictably attacked for taking the law into their hands. "The maulvis should have spoken to the women before they wrote the talaqnama. The patriarchal, misogynist clergy will have to mend its ways or women know how to avenge injustice," Ambar told TOI-Crest in between giving interviews to news channels.

Ambar belongs to a small but increasingly influential group of Islamic feminists in India. They may not be as powerful as the senior maulvis who head leading Islamic seminaries or run Muslim Personal Law Boards and Sharia courts, both Shia and Sunni. But this band of non-conformist women is silently and successfully ushering in change.

They may not equal the audacity of the bra-burning feminists of several decades ago, but they've hit hard at the patriarchal and misogynist elements in Muslim society. And their guiding sources are the Quran and Hadith (the Prophet's traditions). Ambar, who founded the Muslim Women's Personal Law Board in 2005, saved the marriages of hundreds of Muslim couples in Muradabad (UP) village a couple of years ago.

A maulvi belonging to the Deobandi sect had led the namaz-e-janaza (funeral prayer) of a man from the Barelvi sect. Calling it a sin, another maulvi of the sect issued a fatwa that all those who had attended the funeral prayer under the imamat (leadership) of the Deobandi imam needed to remarry, as their wives had become haram (illegal) for them. "This diktat threatened not just to throw the marital lives of several dozen Muslims into disarray, but also inflame a sectarian strife in western UP," says Ambar, who quelled the crisis by opposing the fatwa. She cited the example of holy mosques in Mecca and Medina where lakhs worship behind Deobandi imams. Ambar was also among those who opposed the recent Darul Uloom fatwa that called women's earnings illegal. India's Islamic feminists are bucking trends courageously and cannily.

In August 2008, Planning Commission member Sayeda Hameed created history by becoming the first woman qazi when she solemnised a nikah ceremony in Lucknow - that of activist Naesh Hasan and PhD scholar Imran Naeem. "Naesh told me that she would remain unmarried if I didn't act as the qazi. I had to give in to her demands," recalls Hameed, who drew flak from a section of clerics who said there was no precedent of a woman acting as a qazi. "I asked them to show me a verse in the Quran or a Hadith which prevented a woman from becoming a qazi. If it was not forbidden by Allah and His Prophet, who were the maulvis to oppose it?" she asks. After they couldn't come out with a convincing reason, some maulvis spread the lie that Hameed had not covered her head while she chanted Quranic verses during the nikah. This was a lie, claims Hameed, fabricated to malign her.

The Islamic feminist movement is not confined to occasional acts of rebellion by contrarian "progressives" . There are some feminists who are respected by even senior clerics and regularly invited to their meetings. Mumbaibased Uzma Naheed is one such. Coming from the family of the clerics that founded the famous Darul Uloom Deoband (UP) in the mid-18th century, Naheed is a member of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIIMPLB) and heads Iqra International Women Alliance (IIWA), an NGO committed to empowering Muslim women. A few yeas ago, she drafted a model nikahnama which had, among other provisions, a right to talaq-e-tafweez (delegated talaq) which allowed women a right to put certain conditions in the nikahnma. If the husband failed to meet those conditions - like not taking another wife till the first wife was alive - the woman could divorce him. Many members privately appreciated Naheed's revolutionary nikahnama, but are yet to implement it.

Unlike most Muslim women who are expected to remain veiled when they meet strangers, Naheed doesn't use a face veil, though she covers her head with a scarf.

"Initially, some ulema were uncomfortable with my being unveiled. Now they have accepted me," she says.

Another feminist is Zeenat Shaukat Ali, who teaches Islamic Studies at Mumbai's St Xavier's College and has made "freeing Muslim women from the clutches of the clergy" her life's mission. Thirteen years ago, Ali created a stir among educated Muslims with her critically acclaimed book Marriage and Divorce in Islam (1997). "The book's main argument is that since Allah made male and female as complementary to each other, there is no reason to treat women as inferior to men," says Ali, who adds that her feminism is not about male-bashing , but about sharing space with them.

The academic has organised several multi-faith programmes, including a cricket match featuring maulvis, Hindu pandits, Christian, Zoroastrian and Sikh priests as players. Her Art for Peace project had similar multireligious participation where the participants were asked to paint on a theme of peace. "Many of the maulvis had never picked up a brush before," she recalls.

Fiery woman activist Daud Sharifa's aim is to build a mosque exclusively for women. Since mosques are binding forces for practising Muslims, there has been a movement to allow women to worship there, and a few mosques in India, like the Tajul Madaris in Bhopal, do allow women worshippers, though segregated by a wall or a curtain. But an exclusive mosque for women was unheard of in India till Sharifa took up the issue a few years ago.

Having seen the discrimination against Muslim women at the hands of the local jamaat in Tamil Nadu, Sharifa launched a movement for women's empowerment not financially but spiritually too. She is building India's first mosque exclusively for women in Pudukkottai, around 300 km from Chennai. "It will serve not just as a place of worship but even as a cultural centre where women can air their views and discuss their problems," explains Sharifa whom the local maulvis vehemently opposed, but failed to stop.

This bunch of Islamic feminists is fighting for a better future for sisters in distress. Ask the three women in Lucknow who, after bashing up the corrupt maulvis, found Shaista Ambar as a shield against the threats, both verbal and physical.

Spreading wings: Islamic feminism is a decade and a half old. In the 1990s Iranian, Egyptian, Turkish, Moroccan, South African, American, feminists and religious scholars, among others, found they were all simultaneously working on reinterpretations of women's rights under Islam. It is now well on its way to becoming a robust international movement with more and more women pushing for a progressive Islamic discourse to promote gender equality.

In Lucknow, three Shia women beat up clerics who granted instant talaq to their husbands for a price. The victims are now fighting back, literally.

The first time Ali Imam brushed against her, Nishat Fatima dismissed it as an accident. Imam, her 67-year-old father-in-law, went a few steps further the next time. He barged into her room and tried kissing her. A terrified Nishat complained to her husband, who laughed off the advances and warned her not to make a mountain out of a molehill.

Ali Imam had allegedly tried the same trick on the other two daughters-in-law, Hina and Arshi, as well. Their husbands also made light of the issue till the three women got together, exchanged notes and resolved to fight back. Embarrassed, the husbands proceeded to get talaqs with shocking ease.

"It has proved to be an unequal fight," says Fatima, carefully unrolling the talaqnama which puts an end to her 12-year nikah. "They have the mullahs on their side." The muftis in Sultanul Madaris Darul Qaza (Shariat Court) in Lucknow gave an ex parte divorce without giving her an opportunity to be heard — a mandatory precondition among the Shia sect. Hina met a similar fate, and now Arshi is waiting for her estranged husband to flash a talaqnama any day.

"All it costs is Rs 599 to ruin a woman's life," Fatima sighs, though the 35-year-old school teacher is happy that she has had a chance to hit back quite literally.

Last Tuesday, the three women broke into the Darul Qaza and accosted the muftis. When the clergy tried to shoo them off, the women pounced on them and caught two of them by surprise. Blocking the passage, they showered them with blows and expletives even as a third ran for cover. "I don't regret it one bit. This is the least I could do to settle scores with a man who brought me and my children to the road," says Arshi.

A post-graduate with a law degree, the attractive young woman finds herself named in the FIR as one of the three accomplices for assaulting the clerics. She is unfazed. "What was expected of me? Wait till my father-in-law turned me into another Imrana (see box)? she shoots back. Assaulting the maulvis was the last resort, the women claim. "We tried all venues to seek justice... went to the police station, to the senior clerics of the Shia sect, also to the Women's Commission. But nothing worked, no one helped," Fatima recalls. Her husband, a property dealer in Nainital, procured the talaq to marry his girlfriend who was pregnant with his child. "I knew he was wayward, but thought he was humane and would not desert me and our 10-year-old son." Her worst fears came true when she was shown a copy of the talaqnama.

Buying a talaq is as simple as shopping for meat. You quote your price, bargain, strike a deal and come back with a sealed and signed document that no one can question. This is not the first time a talaq has been bought for a price in Lucknow. But, this is certainly the first time an aggrieved woman has dared to raise her hand against the maulvis.

Says Fatima, "Par khuda ki kasam bahut sukoon mila hai unko sabak sikhane mein (Beating them up was extremely satisfying )." Already, she has become a hero of sorts for women duped by their husbands. "At least 15-20 women have called me up and sought advice."

Like Fatima, there are others who don't want to suffer in silence. "There is a change and it's long overdue," says Naeesh Hasan, convener and founder member of Akhil Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan.

"Women are simply sick of the khap panchayat kind of justice delivered by the clergy. The same gender bias, the same insensitivity and cruelty... If the khap can kill, so can the maulvis by taking away all that a woman built in 15-20 years of her marriage, including her home," Naeesh says. "Auraton ne har mamle mein inki bahut dakhalandazi sahi hai (women have put up with a lot of interference in every walk of life)." The revolt of the three Shia girls in Lucknow shows how pent up their fury was.

Begum Shahnaz Sidrat, president of Bazme Khawateen , a women's organisation headquartered at Lucknow, says complaints of talaqnamas for sale are pretty common. She quotes the case of an IAS officer from UP who got rid of his wife after paying maulvis Rs 500. "The maulvis declared the girl was unchaste as her residence in Mumbai was above a pub and gave a onesided decree. Despite all our efforts, nothing happened. She went back to Mumbai and this man remarried."

Herself at the receiving end of the clerics' ire after she announced her intention to contest the Lucknow parliamentary seat (she was ordered to withdraw, stay indoors, and not set a bad example for the community), Sidrat declares, "I believe in Shariat and Islam, but not its interpretation by the mullahs."

Naeesh agrees that it's time for change. "Women, whether Shia or Sunni, have become victims of male whims. Among Sunnis, the man can end the relationship by pronouncing talaq three times. In the Shia sect, which makes serving three notices or the wife's presence mandatory in the proceedings, the talaqnama has turned out to be quite a money spinner for unscrupulous ulema."

An unlikely crusader

An illiterate mother of five, Imrana became a crusader of sorts when she charged her father-in-law with rape. Her story had a twist after a Darul Uloom Deoband decreed that sharing a sexual relationship with the father-in-law turned her into her husband's mother. Therefore, they said, any physical relationship between the husband and wife would be wrong.

Imrana is now back with her husband in Charthawal, Muzaffarnagar as her father-in-law languishes in jail, sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. The maulvis, though, still call the union haram.

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