Muslim women are once again taking up central roles in defending the Muslim community from majoritarian Hindutva aggression. In raising their voices against policing and state-backed intimidation by Hindu groups, they have emerged at the forefront of defending a victimized and beleaguered community. This time the location is Karnataka, where the government imposed a ban on hijab on educational campuses. Young students studying in pre-college institutions are being forced to respond to the endless onslaught on democratic rights by the BJP-led Center and its network of right-wing organizations. While there have been inspiring images of Muslim women’s resistance, this resistance must be seen in continuity with the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR movement and the earlier movements that emerged from the Shah Bano case.
Shah Bano to Shaheen Bagh – the journey of Muslim women’s movement
In 2019 during the anti CAA/NRC/NPR Struggle, Muslim women had taken the initiative and spearheaded the agitation against the discriminatory citizenship laws. Different boughs of protest sprang up as spaces of inclusion and diversity. We all came together with a common purpose of defeating the forces of hate. We came together to claim the values of equality and justice enshrined in the constitution. We stood with and under the leadership of these women recognising the power of their protest as a community that existed mostly in our blindspots, visibly occupied public spaces.
Dress code have always been an contested issue for Muslim women. Over decades Muslim women have been fighting against the fanatical forces within her community that dictated what to wear, what to read, where to go, whom to love. Women’s movements have long accepted a stream of thought that believed that changes in laws related to family and marriage can happen from within the community and also within the framework of Shariat. All of this makes the sudden discomfort with the hijab a little difficult to comprehend. With the hijab becoming a highly visible symbol of the Muslim community, its assertion becomes an act of protest against Hindutva violence. Diverse voices from within the community that have a critique of the hijab as a patriarchal practice risk becoming marginalized, and the agendas of religious institutions within the community become mainstream. It also homogenizes muslim women’s experiences within the community, experiences of women who come from marginalised communities, from an working class socio economic background invisiblizing the contestations, struggles that have been there within the community with respect to hijab. Several people advocate the idea that reform should come from “within communities”, yet we see communities dominated by men and religious organizations with deeply conservative attitudes towards gender and sexuality. It takes a long time to negotiate the patriarchal and religious control of family and community. When we speak, those in power stifle our voice because they want us to be subservient. Power confronts muslim women at every sphere of domestic and social life. Thus, the fight for and against hijab, both needs to be seen as assertive acts from the standpoint of muslim women. While the hindu and the muslim right wing both capitalises on hijab issue and the court verdict will create a win-win situation for one party, we must remember whether, how, why the muslim woman will or will not claim hijab remains as her own political standpoint.
Muslim women’s organisations have long struggled against religious conservatism and patriarchy within their communities. One remembers the protests against the issuing of a fatwa against Imrana, who was raped by her father-in-law, protests against instant triple talaq… one remembers the 90s while the Hindutva forces began to shape the fabric of ‘securalism’ in India, while the gates of free market capitalism being opened, while the new economic policy ushered in neoliberal sets of beliefs, while the release of the film ‘Fire’ made visible queer lives, the decade also became rife with debates on the Universal civil code, over women’s right to choose, women’s sexuality. Yet, one feels, organizations which have been working with Muslim community over the past decades have not engaged in a significant manner on the subject of religion. We always found ways to navigate through the subject without really critiquing it in an incisive manner. As the RSS gained ground, setting new terms of citizenship, new terms of secularism, we felt now is not the right time to have discussion or we engaged with the subject in a manner which we found convenient. With the coming of the BJP government in 2014 we realized that we didn’t understand the urgency of the subject and delayed it for too long. We need to acknowledge that over the years we have been hesitant to grapple with the subject of religion.
The contestations within
An alternative to reform solely from within the community has been the implementation of the principles enshrined in the Constitution. For Muslim women, who are marginalised within a marginalised community, we have looked towards the implementation of constitutional rights, and not towards the interpretations of verses in the Quran, or towards reforming religious institutions that dominate our community. We do not think it is necessary to draw from religious institutions in order to gain legitimacy for what is, or is not a practice, what is or what is not essential. However, with the state deviating entirely from constitutionalism and embarking on a path of Hindu majoritarianism and authoritarianism, the space to demand the implementation of the constitution has reduced greatly. A loss of faith in the secular functioning of the state and the autonomy of the judicial system has occurred due to repeated acts of violence against the Muslim community- from the Delhi riots, to the arrests of several innocent students and activists under fake terror charges, to name only a few incidents. Is it necessary to say more when Anurag Thakur, who chanted “Goli Maaro Salo Ko ” as part of the BJP’s campaign in Delhi, was rewarded with the post of Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports and Minister of Information and Broadcasting?
In the context of explicit disregard for Muslim lives which takes the form of bloodthirsty anti-Muslim riots and lynchings, along with the never-ending list of discrimination and intimidation in social life, questions of gender justice and reform within the Muslim community been forced to take a backseat. Our experiences as activists who have spent several decades working with Muslim women has revealed the difficulty of demanding reform and change from within the community. We tried to carve out a space to discuss the way in which Muslim Personal Law discriminates against women, raising issues of polygamy, triple talaq and halala. Muslim women’s organisations challenged not only their families but also ulemas, qazis and religious institutions like the All India Muslim Person Law Board. We have also struggled against the compulsory wearing of a hijab, along with restrictions on mobility, education and freedom to choose partners. As activists who work within the Muslim community, we ask ourselves the question, how can we defend our community without sidelining questions of gender justice within the community? As the assertion of identity itself has become a political act, we also seek to maintain a different understanding of what being a “Muslim” means- one that encompasses socio-economic factors like employment, livelihood, education and access to healthcare. As the boundary between the community and the individual is dissolved due to the political violence of Hindutva, the individual becomes the community and the community becomes the individual. We fear that the space for discussion, dissent and sharing of multiple voices is slowly vanishing, both within the Muslim community and in society at large. The space that existed for Muslim women to demand Constitutional rights and engage in a productive dialogue with the State in order to bring about gender just reform has all but disappeared. The assertion of identity, which is an act of resistance in the face of discrimination and hate crimes must take into account multiple voices and criticisms of the community, in order to prevent the notion of being a “Muslim” from becoming a singular identity defined by religious groups. How can we maintain our resistance to the majoritarianism of the State within losing our critique of patriarchal practices?
We have also seen over the years that there has been an attempt from the BJP to appropriate Muslim women’s struggle. We have been resisting this appropriation and also countering the onslaught on human rights of the Muslim community which has become severe with the coming of BJP to power. We are faced with challenges on numerous fronts. In the last month Muslim women were targeted online through the Bulli Bai app, earlier a similar app (Sulli Deals) was created to target them. In this month we are seeing attempts to enforce segregation and apartheid in places of learning. These questions become all the more urgent as we stand on the verge of Uniform Civil Code once again becoming the agenda of the Hindutva brigade to further criminalize and marginalize the community. While the Hindutva forces would attempt to appropriate our voices to further their own agenda, we would also have to be prepared to counter their move as it will be detrimental for women’s rights as well as rights of sexual minorities.
Struggle against Hindutva Fascism and fight against patriarchy
The budget session stands testimony to the tremendous drawbacks in the economic planning of the government – drawbacks that are going to affect large parts of the Muslim community already staggering economically as proven by every survey and statistics and as anticipated by the steady attacks on their livelihoods as well. There are elections in various states especially UP wherein in some areas we are also seeing strong anti incumbency sentiments. One of the biggest challenges moving forward is how we can strategize our actions to fight against the anti people agenda that BJP is pushing across on various fronts. Today the Muslim women youth who are wearing the hijab are fighting the Hindu Supremacist regime which has only strengthened over the years and which has systematically targeted the community. We have in no way forgotten Muslim women’s struggle and the numerous battles it has fought, one of the crucial being the struggle against religious institution, clerics who try to enforce the religious identity on women’s bodies. The tendency of many of us to give examples from West Asian countries in order to illustrate our point about hijab is mistaken, the conditions of Indian Muslim is very different economically, socially and politically. Giving such examples is drawing false equivalence. We have to remember that what is happening in the state of Karnataka is orchestrated by the State Government along with the support of Hindutva groups. The Toxic Masculinity which is on display is being promoted to stifle the voices of Muslim women and her struggle for dignity. At this juncture when young Muslim women are being constantly targeted and denied their fundamental right to education, we need to stand in unconditional solidarity with them. We may have differences of opinion and point of view regarding the hijab/burkha but we need to keep in mind the political project of the Hindutva regime which is moving closer each day towards the extermination of Muslims.
Therefore, I think a very rigorous discussion needs to take place amongst us. I wish that voices of women who are working at grass-root level in towns and rural areas across the country were also part of this discussion. These women came out in large numbers against the fatwa of Imraana and Gudiya. A lot of times these voices are not part of the larger discussions that take place. I think in order to grasp things in a more comprehensive manner we need to engage and listen to the voices of the grass-root, and sharpen our fight against patriarchy within the community as well as against the fascist onslaught of the Hindutva government.