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human interest, Profiles, social issues

An Act of Faith

At Thandeeshwaram, a tiny village in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, Sharifa Khanam is building her dreams brick by brick. The 42-year-old social worker has initiated the construction of a mosque here for Muslim women as a symbol of their struggle for equal rights in a male-dominated society.

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The first recipient of the Durgabai Deshmukh Award instituted by the Central Social Welfare Board in 1999, Sharifa found her calling in women’s rights activism when she attended an All-India Women’s Conference in Patna in 1988. “It was a turning point in my life. I realised it was possible for women to act together to negotiate a space for themselves in society,” she said.

In 1991, she set up STEPS Women’s Development Organisation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), in Pudukottai with the help of the then District Collector Sheela Rani Chunkath. STEPS started functioning near the Pudukottai bus stand as a community welfare centre for women, but eventually it began to handle cases on behalf of battered women. In 2003, Sharifa began to organise a monthly jamaat, or congregation, for Muslim women under the banner of Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat. This was meant to provide Muslim women a space for expressing themselves. And since a jamaat is traditionally attached to a mosque, Sharifa decided to erect a separate mosque for women. The mosque when complete will be fully managed by women, but will keep its door open for men, she said.

The women’s jamaat is an attempt to challenge the authority of the traditional “jamaat system” which by and large controls the social life of Muslims. Each mosque elects a group of influential men from within the community to form what is known as the pallivaasal jamaat. This group, besides managing the affairs of the mosque, would gather outside the mosque and arbitrate over community disputes. “The jamaat is more or less like a caste panchayat – functioning at the behest of powerful men,” said writer and gender rights activist V. Geetha, who has sided with Sharifa and her movement for the last two decades.

Sharifa says because the traditional jamaat has no woman representative, no one hears the woman’s version during a dispute. Often in cases like dowry harassment or domestic violence, she said, the male jamaat members refused to come to the women’s rescue.

The pallivaasal jamaat survives on chanda (commission) collected annually from the community members. Families are also expected to pay up separately for religious rituals on occasions of birth, death and marriage. Individuals and whole families could be declared outcast if they failed to pay up the commissions. According to Sharifa, jamaat members often thrust their decisions on women, threatening to “deny them a space even in the burial ground” if they failed to obey their decrees.

The women’s jamaat handles cases of marital disputes relating to dowry, divorce or domestic violence. Most women approaching Sharifa are those who have apparently been denied justice by the traditional jamaat. There are cases where women are given talaq through e-mails and telegrams and the jamaat would do nothing to condemn the man, said Sharifa. Petitions coming in occasionally from people of other communities and even men are not turned down here.

Sharifa said in the last 15 years she has handled about 10,000 petitions from Muslim women alone. Jamaat members interact with the police and lawyers to ensure speedy resolution of cases. “If the response is poor, we take to the streets,” said Sharifa.

In 2004, the intervention of women jamaat members led to the suspension of a few police officers in Annavasal town for “counselling” a rape victim rather than taking action in the case. A 12-year-old girl employed as a domestic help with a Muslim family in Chennai, Vennila was raped by her employer. The police dragged the investigation on and when repeated petitions to the police were ignored, Sharifa and other members of the jamaat staged a dharna in front of the office of the Superintendent of Police and saw to it that the culprit was brought to book.

The jamaat members are Amazonians in the real sense of the word. The 30,000 Muslim women who form her support base in Tamil Nadu today are an empowered lot. In the last 10 years, Sharifa has mobilised women in ten districts across Tamil Nadu – Trichy, Pudukottai, Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Nagapattinam, Tuticorin and Perambalur.

Women jamaat leaders in these districts travel to the Muslim residential areas to spread word about the jamaat. They also mobilise women to oppose the three dominant social evils in Muslim communities – ex parte divorces (talaq), polygamy and dowry demands during weddings.

At a women’s jamaat meeting held at the Pudukottai office of STEPS on March 26, this reporter met 60 participants who had come from all over Tamil Nadu despite the sudden rain. With their heads covered with dupatta or clad in burqas, the women gathered in a tiny hall and began the jamaat with a rendition of the Quran. Prayers done, the first topic to be discussed was the model nikahnama released recently by the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board in Lucknow. Most jamaat members felt that the new nikahnama had nothing new to offer as such and only reiterated the rights of women, such as the right to demand khula (divorce), which has been guaranteed in the Quran already. But they welcomed the move as a positive development.

Next, the jamaat heard the case of a Boushiya Begum from a nearby village who was allegedly harassed by her husband for dowry during their three years of marriage. This despite 35 sovereigns of gold and a vehicle being reportedly given as dowry to the groom at the time of the wedding.


At the Women’s jamaat, Mehr-un-Nisa, who is well-versed in the Quran and Arabic, reading out from the holy book. She helps other members to interpret the verses.

Boushiya’s brother Zakir Hussain told the jamaat that her husband “did not like her looks” and was demanding Rs.1 lakh to keep her. He said he had sought help from the Karambakudi jamaat, which presided over their wedding, but they refused to intervene saying it was “their family matter and they must solve it on their own”. The Karambakudi police did arrest Boushiya’s husband, but only on charges of simple hurt and criminal intimidation. No case was filed under the Dowry Prohibiton Act.

Boushiya pleaded for help as her husband had been released on bail and was threatening to separate their two-year-old son from her. Sharifa promised to take up the case with the police. This case sparked off a discussion among the women on the prevalence of dowry in Muslim communities.

Taj Begum, a jamaat member from Singampunari in Sivaganga district, said that traditional jamaats were getting a share of money from the “un-Islamic” practice. As per Islamic tradition, it is bride who is entitled to mehar (gift from the groom) and not the groom to dowry, she said. She said Muslim grooms demanded dowry ten times that of mehar offered to the girl. “And these exchanges are seldom recorded in the marriage contract or nikahnama though the rule says so,” she said.

The women’s jamaat is also demanding that women be allowed to pray in mosques, which they say is a Quranic right. Though some mosques have separate enclosures for women to pray, conservatism is keeping women from congregating in mosques for prayers. Subaitha Begum, a jamaat member from the fishing community in Tuticorin, narrated how she initiated a mosque inclusion movement for Muslim women in Thracepuram last September. On February 22, she assembled 300 women in a separate hall near the mosque for Friday prayers. She said she even managed to garner the support of a few Muslim men in the area who let their wives participate in the mass prayer meet.

“The local jamaat was furious with me for encouraging women to participate in the mass prayer. On jumma day, they even announced over mike from the mosque that Muslim women from ‘respectable families’ ought not to side with me,” said Subaitha. “But after the separate prayer meet for women was held successfully the Thracepuram mosque is considering giving space for women to pray inside the mosque.”

M. Janakam, district co-ordinator of the jamaat from Dindigul, said that when she took up the case of a Muslim woman who was being denied divorce by her husband, the traditional jamaat discouraged her saying, “Don’t go to the women’s jamaat, we will solve your problem.” She said it hurt the ego of traditional jamaat members when the women’s jamaat successfully intervened in a case.

Mehr-un-Nisa, who is well-versed in the Quran and Arabic, pointed out that not all decrees of the traditional jamaat enjoyed religious sanction. “Islam is a progressive religion that guarantees several rights to its women,” she said. “And because the Quran is taught in Arabic, most women do not understand its meaning despite knowing it by heart.” During jamaat meetings, Mehr-un-Nisa helps other women interpret the meaning of Quranic verses.

Quoting from the Quran, she listed the various rights guaranteed to women in it. These include rights to demand a share in ancestral property; demand mehar; seek khula (divorce); choose a husband; approve a groom before marriage; raise children; and speak and participate in community activities. But in practice, the traditional jamaat often denied these rights to women, she said. Mehr-un-Nisa is also compiling a half-yearly journal, Pengal Jamaat, on behalf of STEPS to propagate the message of women’s rights.

The story of Sharifa and the thousands of women who come seeking help at her doorstep is also the story of how Muslim women are marginalised in society. They are faced with the double jeopardy of being “Muslim” and “women”. “In India, political parties woo Muslim voters but when it comes to the welfare of the community, especially its women, they turn their backs,” said Sharifa.

As V. Geetha points out, pitching Muslim women’s issues around personal law has given the impression that issues to do with personal law are pertinent only to the minorities. “We assume that Hindus are default democratic citizens and all others are bound by their religious lives. The flip side of thinking this way is that we do not see Muslims as developmental subjects – as subjects of state policy to do with poverty, employment, malnutrition, housing concerns and so on,” she told Frontline.

Sharifa said such prejudice against Muslims reflected, for instance, in their difficulty to obtain loans. Though the State government had set apart funds for providing loans to the minorities, much of it remained unutilised, she said. To fill this gap, Sharifa is planning to start a jamaat bank, which will provide women with low-interest loans to help them start a small business or such like.

Faced with prejudices both within and outside the community, the emergence of the Muslim women’s jamaat is “one of the most creative things to have happened in Indian feminism,” Geetha said. “The jamaat takes the feminist battle away from these familiar forums to those that are not known to many of us: community lives and organisations. In doing so, it carries the struggle for gender justice to where it is often denied: the family, kin network, the larger community world…,” she added.

But as Frontline gathered the opinions of popular representatives of the Muslim community on the women’s jamaat, it emerged that the movement does not enjoy much support. Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) President M.H. Jawaharullah dismissed Sharifa and her women’s jamaat as being a “fringe group thriving on media hype”. “It is unfair for Sharifa and STEPS to take away credit for work that other Muslim organisations are doing as well,” he said, adding that the TMMK too runs a “reconciliation centre” for settling marital disputes between Muslim couples.

His party, now an ally of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led coalition government in Tamil Nadu, extended full support to the pallivaasal jamaat system because it provides an “alternative forum to settle disputes at a time when the courts and police stations are already overburdened”. He said the pallivaasal jamaat had an important role in making sure “discipline prevailed in society”.

Concerning women’s rights to pray within the mosque, he said while Islam gave equal rights to women to pray besides men, some Ulemas at home were “extra-conscious” about this. “I cannot use the word conservatism, but yes, some Ulemas fear that letting women pray in mosques may lead to untoward incidents,” he said.

Eminent lawyer Bader Sayeed and Member of the Legislative Assembly of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam concurred that the jamaat upheld patriarchal norms of living for Muslim women. Her personal experience in dealing with jamaat leaders during her tenure as Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Wakf Board had sensitised her to the issue, she said.

She said a few months ago she filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court against members of the jamaat in Ammapettai, Thanjavur, on the charges of excommunicating a Muslim woman and torturing her. The jamaat had not satisfactorily settled a divorce case between the woman and her husband and when she approached the court the jamaat members took offence. They retaliated by treating her like an outcast, said Bader Sayeed. “When her husband died, the jamaat did not send a priest to perform the funeral and it forcefully separated her daughter from her,” she said. “In such cases confrontation is necessary.”

Bader Sayeed said she supported the view that women leaders should be appointed in traditional jamaats. She prefers judicial settlement of Muslim divorces and registration of marriages, and is also for codifying Muslim law so that the judiciary can resolve disputes easily. “But I disapprove of the idea of a separate women’s jamaat as that would mean alienating women from the mainstream,” she said. Her argument was that if Sharifa built a mosque for women, men in the community would only be too happy to exclude women, asking them to go and pray there.

Leading Muslim scholar Asghar Ali Engineer, however, extended full support to the women’s jamaat. He said Islam allowed its followers to interpret the Quran and live their life accordingly. “So, if women wish to build a mosque for themselves, religion gives them the right to do so,” he said. He also sought speedy implementation of the recommendations of the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee submitted to the Indian government in 2006 so that socio-economic conditions of Muslims in India could improve.

As of today, Sharifa’s dream mosque stands incomplete – only a few bricks have been put together and the iron rods jutting out of the concrete base rust among wild bushes at the construction site. But Sharifa is hopeful. “I will erect the structure in another two years,” she said.

There has been no dearth of media coverage for the mosque project and in the last four years Sharifa’s work has drawn attention from India and abroad. But as Sharifa points out, “This has brought much appreciation, but little in terms of support.” Global Fund for Women, a United States-based non-profit organisation, offered Sharifa help initially but later shied away from supporting a “Muslim religious cause”.

What Sharifa and her women need now is support, both moral and financial. “I need at least Rs.40 lakh to finish the mosque and a steady flow of funds is necessary to keep the movement alive.” But fund-raising has been difficult. “I have already put in all my money in buying the land for the mosque and setting up a foundation,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is squeeze the poor Muslim women coming to me to donate for the cause.”

“So how are you going to manage to build the mosque for women?” I ask. Sharifa does not answer. She only turns to the women attending the jamaat meeting and says, “The cause of the women’s jamaat and women’s mosque should not die with me. You, my women, must keep it alive.” And the women nod their heads in unison.

(Originally published in Frontline in Apr, 2008)

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About Vidya Venkat

Senior Assistant Editor, The Hindu. Anthropology graduate from SOAS, UK.

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