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Talking Policy: Zakia Soman on Muslim Women in India

In August 2017, the practice of triple talaq, or instant divorce, was banned in a ruling by the Indian Supreme Court. Before the ban, if a Muslim man said "talaq" three times, he was divorced from his wife, without her consent. The Bharatiya Muslim Mahina Andolan, or Indian Muslim Women's Collective, garned support in challenging this law leading up to the Supreme Court ruling. World Policy Journal spoke with Zakia Soman, the co-founder of Bharatiya Muslim Mahina Andolan, about the fight against triple talaq and issues facing Muslim women in India today. 

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What was the catalyst for forming the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan?

ZAKIA SOMAN: There was a major incidence of communal riots in 2015 in Gujarat. That took place at a time of polarization along religious lines across India. There was no help coming during the riots; people were being attacked and killed because they belonged to a different religion. There was a kind of fear of religious affiliation and of violence based on the supposed hostilities and animosities between people from different religious backgrounds. On top of that, we were all attuned to the stereotyping of Muslims following 9/11 in the U.S. It was consequential to be Muslim at that time. Personally, I was never as mindful about my identity based on my religious background because I was like any other woman from a middle-class background. At the same time, I was seeing how people with a Muslim background did not get any help from the police or government during the riots, and then there was all the political rhetoric about how they are different, how we are different.

Against that backdrop, people came to my state of Gujarat to volunteer in the relief camps. The camps, set up for survivors of the communal riots, were where I met Muslim women from all over. As we met and started interacting with each other we realized we had a lot in common: we were all women, from a Muslim background, and marginalized, both within our families and within our communities. A kind of solidarity formed and we decided to do something together. Informal talks went on for almost two years, where we would discuss how we could not claim the rights granted by our religion or become equal citizens in Indian democracy. We formed a collective, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, in 2007. We needed to be the change agents ourselves; we could not be represented by the patriarchal groups that often speak on behalf of the entire Muslim community. We also wanted to engage as citizens in a democracy, to engage with the government. We wanted to work for equal citizenship.

WPJ: The Indian Supreme Court banned the triple talaq law in August. Why has triple talaq endured in India, as opposed to countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh?

ZS: I'd like to elaborate on this question. India has a constitution, which gives equal rights to all citizens irrespective of religion or caste. The constitution allows the right to religious freedom for all citizens. At the same time, secularism is one of the fundamental values of the constitution. So, since India became independent in 1947, there has been a debate about it being a highly religious society. This introduces the question of gender justice and gender equality, and how religion will always come in the way of women finding equality. The issue comes not so much from religion, but from the patriarchal forces who are the religious leaders in the state. Through their dominance they have enforced this worldview. In the Muslim community there are norms regarding gender equality that have been generated by the religious leadership. This is an issue because we only have religious leadership; we don't have any social leadership or democratic leadership. Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andola is trying to change that.

The idea these leaders have generated in our society is that, if you are a Muslim, then the man is superior and the woman is inferior. Under the law, the girl has no rights or individuality, and by the time she becomes 16 or 17 she should be married. Once she is married she has to do her husband's bidding. They had no understanding of constitutional principles or Quranic teachings pertaining to the gender gap. There has been a common sense that if you are a Muslim man and you want to get out of your marriage, then all you have to do is just say these three words—talaq, talaq, talaq—and you are free. This is horrible. A man can utter these words in his wife’s absence, without her knowledge, or even when she’s fast asleep. That is how instant divorce has been accepted as a Muslim way to get a divorce despite the fact that there is no mention of triple talaq in the Quran. In the Islamic religion marriage is a sacred contract. The Quran talks about an approach toward reconciliation, arbitration, and mediation involving family members. But the religious leadership has pushed all this wisdom under the carpet because it allows them to maintain this patriarchal order. As a result, the sense has been generated that a wife has no rights or recourse if a man uses triple talaq. This is the kind of imbalanced relationship has been venerated in our society.

WPJ: When you spoke with The Guardian in 2016 you stated that you aimed to "tell the umma that ordinary Muslim women are fully capable of reading the Quran, understanding the Quran, and interpreting the Quran, and obtaining justice for themselves." How have your efforts toward that goal been received? 

ZS: When we started the organization in 2007 we were thinking about the issues of education, livelihood, health, law reform, and security. We were working to enroll girls in school, get scholarships to some of the children, and help women who are self-employed find some kind of work with decent wages and social security. After three years Muslim women started coming to us from all over the country. We saw a common narrative, where women would say, "You helped my daughter get into school and you helped me fill out some form for the government. That was very good, but now my husband has divorced me instantly and thrown me out, and I don't have a home to go to. I don't know where to go to for help, I don't know where to go with my children. Can you please help me?" Women who were mistreated in this way started coming to us from all over the country, and we realized this is not about one or two or three women—it’s a huge problem in the Muslim community in India. We couldn’t shy away from this issue as a women's organization, as people who are feminists. We talked about needing comprehensive law reform in India. We talked about change at the policy level, about accountability and connecting with an elected representative. The issue deserved urgent attention and drastic measures on the ground, so we began to engage with people.

WPJ: You spoke to The Hindu last year and said that 50 to 60 percent of the Muslim community supported a ban on the triple talaq. How did you go about winning those people to your side in the run-up to challenging this law?

ZS: We founded our collective as a democratic, membership-based organization. Our state leaders talked to thousands of women and encouraged them to become members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andola. If I’m not mistaken, we grew to over 25,000 members from 15 different states. We were able to get this mass base, which is very important to move forward and push a message. The first thing we did was pick verses from the Quran—verses that call upon Muslims to educate themselves and indulge in good behavior, as well as verses that talk about women and men being equal. There are direct verses in the Quran where Allah is directly addressing both women and men and giving his message. The Quran has verses that support our claim to equality and gender justice. We took all those verses, translated them into different Indian languages, and printed them in small booklets. Our state leaders distributed these booklets at public meetings,  workshops, and training sessions for women.  

For the first time, both women and men were learning that Quran is not about what some groups had been suggesting. It is something very different, it is about men and women being equal, it is about being humanistic, it is about being tolerant and respectful of other religions, it is in favor of accepting others for who they are, it is not about discrimination. We are going continue this kind of public education, with meetings, training, and workshops to mold Muslim women. India is a religious country, but if groups can assert exclusionary ideas in the name of religion, then that can lead to a lot of havoc. But we can break that misogynistic and patriarchal ideology by learning about religion. It's important to call the bluff of the opposition forces that are creating divides in our minds and in society.

WPJ: How has the Muslim community responded to the ruling? Do you think this decision will effectively end the practice?

ZS: There is a legal discrimination against Muslim women in India. This discrimination is so evident because our constitution allows for family law to be based on religion. We have the marriage act of 1955, the Hindu succession act of 1956, the Christian Marriage Act. We do not have a codified Muslim law, which is why we have these unquestioned  practices like triple talaq, polygamy, the denial of a women's share of property, and the denial of guardianship and custody of children. We now need a codified Muslim law in India.

WPJ: Some commentators have claimed that this ruling is a gateway to a Uniform Civil Code, which Prime Minister Modi and his BJP have advocated for. Do you think this is likely?

ZS: The question of the Uniform Civil Code is not a Muslim specific question—it applies to all communities, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. I don't see the Uniform Civil Code coming into force in India. Our position in Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan is that this law is the prerogative of every Indian citizen; we should provide the option of a secular law to every Indian citizen. A time will come when those who get married will choose themselves whether they want a Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or registered wedding, or both. A secular law in family matters can be meaningful only when the citizens are educated and empowered. Introducing a secular law from above isn't going to help; it is going to further fuel the politics of religious hatred, and I'm sure that it will lead to the further denial of human rights for Muslim women. When the political bickering and squabbling is over, we will need to advance. Even though the Supreme Court has ruled on triple talaq, it has not touched other important matters, such as polygamy, so Muslim women still have significant fights ahead. If the politics of the Uniform Civil Code takes over, then women will end up being shut out.

WPJ: What is the next issue that you and the movement want to tackle?

ZS: This recent legal reform is welcome, but legal reform is part of a much broader participation reform. We want to engage more closely with girls and women, and at the same time we plan to pressure the Indian parliament for codification of Muslim law because it is one way to fight practices like polygamy and child marriage. In terms of development we lag behind educationally and economically. There is a constitutional obligation for the Indian government to encourage the democratic participation of the Muslim community. For that to happen, we need to engage with the government and decision-making institutions. The Supreme Court judgment is just a first step. It reassured us that we could organize and have a voice. We want to assure Muslim women that they have a place in this democracy, so we will continue lobbying and pressuring to make our voices and interests heard. Our strength is in mobilization on the ground, and that is how we are going to fight this fight.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews.

[Interview conducted by Dennis Meaney]

[Photo courtesy of Zakia Soman] 

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