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Muslim Women



Mumbai Seminar

Muslim Women' most Backward

By Yoginder Sikand

MUMBAI : The Institute of Islamic Studies and the Minority Research Group, London, recently organised here a seminar on ‘Problems of Indian Muslim Women’. A large number of academics and social activists participated in the event. The seminar was inaugurated by film actress Ms. Shabana Azmi. She stressed the need for concrete steps to be taken to improve the lot of Muslim women in the country. In his opening paper on ‘Islam, Women and Gender Justice’, noted Leftist expert on Islam Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer of the Institute of Islamic Studies said that the basic core of the Qur’anic message was that of justice, a comprehensive concept that included gender justice as well. Hence, he said, injustice to women went completely against the grain of the Qur’an’s teachings.

Economist Dr. Abusaleh Shariff, in his paper on ‘Relative Economic and Social Deprivation in India’, pointed out that Muslims were among the most marginalised communities in the country, and that the position of Muslim women was, pathetic. He made the distressing revelation that over the past few years, the enrolment rate in elementary schools among Muslim females in India has actually been witnessing a considerable decline. Dr. Ramala Baxamusa of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, spoke at length on ‘The Economic Status of Muslim Women in Maharashtra’. Based on official data, she showed how Muslim women are in economic and educational terms one of the most backward groups in the entire state. Thus, in rural Maharashtra, 40 per cent of Muslim households are without any land, and 42 per cent had a holding of between .01 to 1.0 hectares only. Only some 25 per cent of rural Maharashtrian Muslim women are literate, and the drop-out rate among them is particularly high. Dr. Baxamusa provided a case study of two projects that have recently been started to impart education to Muslim girls in Maharashtra, and made an analysis of their achievements. These are the Saboo Siddiq Open University Scheme in Mumbai for drop-out girls and women, started in 1997, and the community project run by the Department of Post-Graduate Home Science Studies and Research, SNDT Women’s University, in Gilbert Hill, a Muslim dominated slum in Mumbai.

Dr. Malika Mistry, a Pune-based demographer, focused in her paper on the economic and educational backwardness of Muslims in India, particularly Muslim women. She noted that while the 34.7 per cent of Hindu women were illiterate, the figure for Muslim women was 52.1 per cent. While only 2.7 per cent of Muslim women had studied beyond high school, the corresponding figures for Hindu, Christian, Sikh and Jain women were 11.7 per cent, 16 per cent, 16.6 per cent and 30.5 per cent respectively.

Dr. Mandakini Pant, also of the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, presented an interesting paper on the Bandheria of Jaipur. These are a group of Muslim women, belonging largely to the Kaimkhani Rajput Muslim community, who depend for their livelihood on tying knots in cloths for the tie-and-die handicrafts industry. These women, she pointed out, are desperately poor and, having little bargaining power, are at the mercy of unscrupulous middle-men who pay them just a pittance.

Several speakers dwelt on the Qur’anic injunctions that pertain to women and pointed out how despite the rights that the Qur’an had granted women, these have been effectively denied to them. Noted political scientist Imtiaz Ahmed of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, spoke on the issue of unilateral triple divorce. He said that the Qur’an had actually provided for a system of arbitration for divorce, but that this was not being followed in India.

Diane D’Souza, a research student from Hyderabad, spoke on the growing recognition among Muslims today about the right of women to pray in the mosques. This author presented a paper on the role of Muslim women in the Tablighi Jama’at, an Islamic reformist movement. Others who spoke on the occasion included Dr. Mumtaz Ali Khan from Bangalore, Dr. Mahmooda, lecturer in the Department of English, Kashmir University, Srinagar, Sonia Khan, an Ahmedabad-based lawyer, as well as activists of the Mumbai-based Muslim women’s organisation, Awaz-i-Niswan.

Several recommendations emerged at the conclusion of the seminar. Many speakers called for reservation for Muslim women in educational institutions and public sector jobs within the OBC quota. Others stressed the urgent need for preparing model nikah-namahs or marriage contracts to properly safeguard the interests of Muslim women. It was also decided that a regular newsletter will soon be launched to document the efforts of various individuals and groups engaged in promoting social reform and development among Muslims all over India.

Muslim Women in India
Summary of the MRG Report Muslim Women in India by Seema Kazi

Huma, a Muslim woman from Faizabad, describes the contradictions and pressures of the interface between her Muslim religious identity and Indian citizenship.

'My family has had a communist history, though it later leaned towards the Congress [Party]. Some cousins did leave for Pakistan, it was never a choice open to us. Despite slogans to the contrary, the family has never considered itself marginalized or oppressed. The Babri Masjid [Mosque] demolition taught us a different lesson.

By mid-November '92, lakhs [many thousands] of people began coming into Faizabad even as the Chief Minister continued to claim that the situation was under control. Some of us [the girls] were studying outside, in Lucknow and Aligarh. We received telegrams from our parents telling us not to come home. I can still recall the insecurity - being told our homes were not safe for us. My father moved just one day before the demolition, and he had to leave by the stairs at the back of the house. The feeling of being vulnerable in your own house is one that is etched in my family's memory. It was worse than partition. Much worse. Then at least one had claimed another land and could go there. We had nowhere else to go. Where could we go? Then of course, there was this ongoing refrain that we must remember that we are a minority. Why should we? Does that make us in some way lesser citizens? What is it that the Hindus have done for this country that we have not? Don't we have equal rights?

Women were the ones who suffered the most. Due to the rhetoric of the majority community, the pressure to be the bearers of one's own community has further intensified. We are the ones who are controlled; we are told that we are supporting the BJP [the pro-Hindu Bhartiya Janata Party] if we demand our rights.'

('Muslim Women Situations and Rights' 29-31 August 1997, IMDUP, Lucknow, organized by Oxfam [India] Trust, Lucknow.)


There exist 110 million Muslims in India - which, with the exception of Indonesia - is the largest population of Muslims in a single country in the world. Muslim communities in India are geographically scattered, culturally diverse and economically disparate. A majority of Muslims in India live in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. According to the 1991 Government of India Census, there are over 48 million Muslim women in India.

Like women from other communities, Muslim women are differentiated across gender, class, caste and community, and are subject to the interface between gender and community within the Indian social, political and economic context. At the same time, Muslim women's location in modern India also derives from their status as a minority which colours their life experience and self-perception in distinct ways, and in this respect they differ from women belonging to other communities.

After five decades of independence the majority of Muslim women are among the most disadvantaged, least literate, economically impoverished and politically marginalized sections of Indian society. The social and economic issues confronting women in Muslim communities mandate attention as does the violation of their rights as citizens of India.

Muslim women in Indian society
Women in India do not constitute an undifferentiated, homogenous category, yet, little information exists on Indian Muslim women. However, the perception that Muslim women's social status in India can be ascribed to a certain intrinsic, immutable feature of Islam or that their legal status derives solely from reference to Muslim laws is widely prevalent. As a result of this misconception, Muslim women are often considered as 'separate' or 'different' from Indian society, reinforcing cultural stereotypes and obscuring their contemporary realities. Mainstream historical narrative with its emphasis on the rise and fall of the Muslim empire excludes Muslim women. Although Muslim women were generally absent from public life during this period, several women from royalty were authors and poets - or even a Sultan as in the case of Raziya Sultana.

At the turn of the twentieth century the topic of female education was taken up by Muslim communities. Several Muslim women made pioneering contributions to female education. Figures for Muslim girls' participation in educational institutions during the early decades of the twentieth century surpassed figures for the national average. Muslim women also participated in campaigns against female seclusion and legal discrimination, and played an active part in the emerging women's movement. This trend suffered a setback due to the social, political and economic upheavals in, during and after the partition of India in 1947. In the wake of the trauma and large-scale migrations during 1947, and a subsequent lack of political presence, it was extremely difficult for Muslim women to articulate their concerns, both within the community and as citizens of India.

The rise of communal politics

The rise of communal politics with its inherent link between politics and religion, privileging 'minority' (or community) interests over gender interests, and the appropriation of Muslim women's experiences and aspirations by a (male) Muslim constituency, rendered the possibility of renegotiating their position vis-a-vis Muslim men even more difficult. Muslim obscurantism coupled with Hindu right-wing prejudice made the possibility of Muslim women raising their concerns harder still, as was seen during the passage of the Muslim Women's Bill in 1986. The Bill subordinated the rights of Muslim women to the demands of community identity, denying them their constitutional rights as Indian citizens. The issue was simultaneously used by the Hindu right-wing to incite anti-Muslim prejudice.

The political pre-eminence of the Hindu right-wing and the subsequent demolition of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in 1992 undermined secular law and seriously questioned the commitment of the Indian state to protect the human rights of its Muslim citizens. Communal violence in the aftermath of the Ayodhya demolition highlighted the collaborative role of the state and its agencies in inflicting grave human rights violations against Muslim communities - including Muslim women. This was in violation of the constitutional ideals of religious non-discrimination, protection of human rights, implementation of social justice and the equality of all Indian citizens, as well as principles of international human rights law. Numerous reports have documented these human rights violations, although prosecutions have yet to take place.

Muslim women's socio-economic and political status

In modern-day India, the socio-economic status of women in Muslim communities, along with their political participation rates and the need for legal reform, are causes for concern and need attention. This point cannot be overstated in a context where, in 1983, the Gopal Singh Committee instituted by the government, declared Muslims as a 'backward' community in India. A central feature of this 'backwardness' is the appalling educational and socio-economic status of Muslims in India, particularly Muslim women.

In a study of 39 districts in 1981 - where the population of Muslims ranged from 20 per cent to 95 per cent (which could be considered a fairly representative sample of the Muslims in India) - the literacy rate of Muslim women was found to be 21.91 per cent, which was lower than the average of 24.82 per cent for the whole country. Muslims' share in public employment in All-India and Central Services is less than 3 per cent. Within this picture of poor overall employment statistics, it is a predictable certainty that the corresponding figures for Muslim women are lower still.

The impoverished status of a large number of Muslim women in India underlines the urgency for further inquiry in this area and also the need for active intervention by state agencies to implement policies to redress this imbalance - and ensure Muslim women's full and equal participation as Indian citizens.

Equally importantly, it is crucial for members of Muslim communities - Muslim women and men - to introspect and debate among themselves as to the reasons and remedies for their economic vulnerability and poor educational and employment status, and to consider possible remedies. There is also a need for debate and moblization by Muslim women on legal reform in order to overcome patriarchal structures with Muslim communities. The debate on legal reform is linked to debates on women and Islam. Muslim women in India need to participate in the contemporary debate on Islam and women's rights. It is imperative for Indian Muslim women to reclaim their right to religious knowledge, enter the discourse on the Shari'a and challenge their historic marginalization from religious knowledge as well as its discriminatory interpretations.
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Last updated: February 26, 2000.