When it comes to Islam and Muslim women, the field has become increasingly crowded. Doctrines of patriarchy have always existed and these principles were dominated by the power play within the community. The challenge often lay in examining the implications of a misogynistic belief system within the Muslim community. But now, another challenge that needs to be addressed is examining the implications of actors entering the stage to speak on Islam, and often on behalf of Islam.
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It is a widely held belief that Muslim women have been subjugated in Muslim society. The notion of identity is analysed along the lines of being conservative and without having any choices. While one is aware of the patriarchal and cultural set-up within the community, it is also a fact that “Islamic feminism” is emerging as an ideology amongst Muslim women across the globe, including in India. There are women, who, while holding on to their religious beliefs, are resisting, fighting back and speaking up for their rights.
What is interesting is that while Muslim women are coming forth and enforcing ideas of agency and freedom, they are caught between the loud spokespersons of their own community at one end, and those speaking on their behalf for them, at the other. In India, there has been an ongoing debate about triple talaq (divorce by repudiation) and the need for its abolition. The petition signed by Indian Muslim women, challenging the validity of this method to end a marriage has opened up conversations once again on reforms based on gender equality and justice. However, voices within the Muslim community seem to be divided on this, with some calling the abolition of triple talaq “un-Islamic”.
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If the fights within the community were not enough, the Modi government has taken things one step further and introduced the idea having a Uniform Civil Code (UCC). This law would be based on the principles of secularism, as suggested by the government, putting all Indian citizens under the same law, irrespective of their religious affiliations.
While the idea of a Uniform Civil Code in the country on paper sounds like it balances the gender injustices that women have faced, this law, without any draft and with unclear terms, still raises important questions on what precisely those ideas of justice and gender equality would be — in this particular case, for Muslim women.
At a recent rally in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke specifically about the “rights of Muslim sisters”, and broke his silence on the issue of triple talaq. “Shouldn’t Muslim mothers and sisters be protected? Shouldn’t Muslim sisters get equal rights? Some Muslim sisters fought for their rights in court. The Supreme Court asked us, what is the stand of the Government of India? We replied in very clear terms that no injustice should be done to mothers and sisters, that no discrimination should take place in the name of religion,” Modi said.
It is indeed important to address and also apply such feminist ideals and campaigns against patriarchal set-ups within the Muslim community, or any other religious community for that matter. However, there is a difference between “rights” and “laws”.
In France, a similar dialogue on the basis of “secularism” has questioned the “right” of a Muslim woman to wear what she wants to wear — which includes a hijab or a Burkini. French officials have championed the law as a protection of the country’s “secular constitution” and a defence against the regressive Islamic attitude towards its women. The question is: Is this constitutional secularism pitted against freedom of religion? Why does it not include “rights of all its citizens”, which includes the right to wear what one wants to wear? There seems to be a trend of selectively targeting a minority community and justifying it as an attack on a feudal-religious order. It is important not just to address these issues, but also challenge the intention behind going after a minority community.
Given the current status of India, it would be more meaningful to have uniformity of “rights”, given to all its citizens, which would also include protection of women’s rights, gender justice and most importantly, education, culture and religious freedoms of its citizens. But as of now, citizens are only being told of a uniformity of law based on certain vague ideas of “secularism”. It is important to know what those ideas will be, how they could affect individual lives in the country and whether they will be at the cost of national integration.