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Empowerment of the Indian Muslim woman

By Naazreen Bhura
Editor, Deccan Chronicle, Chennai edition

The Milli Gazette Online

24 September 2006

I am extremely honoured to be here amongst all of you. I would like to first congratulate the Ambur Muslim Education Society on its centenary celebrations and give the organization all my good wishes for continuing with its good work. I am honoured that the society has thought it fit to invite me to address this gathering on a subject which I feel is extremely important as it concerns the upliftment of women, who have for very long in not just our society, but also in many other societies, faced an uphill task in getting their voices heard.

The woman's struggle has never been easy. Particularly so when she is trying to find her place in the new world that is evolving around her. Before I go into the discussion on empowerment of women, I would at first like to clear some misconceptions that exist about the status of the Muslim women in India. It is widely believed that the average Muslim woman is at a greater disadvantage in her community than women of other communities in India. This is a wrong belief in my view and is the result of the fact that a few instances of illtreatment of women make it to the headlines because of the very nature of the actions involved. A triple talaq is given on the phone , a fatwa is given that a woman cannot remain married to her husband because she has been raped by her father-in-law.

Such instances naturally make it to the newspapers because they highlight the plight of the woman. But on the other hand they also tend to give the impression that Muslim women are suppressed and have no voice in the community. But this I say, is a wrong impression. This is something like what the terrorists are doing for Islam. They are giving other communities, who lack an understanding of Islam, a wrong impression of the Muslims, who are by and large a peace loving and a patriotic community of the country. Impressions, as we all know, can be very misleading. For instance, till recently the impression in the West about India was that it was a country of snakes and elephants, feudal and backward. This we know is not true.

And so is the impression about Muslim women in India. They are not cowering, fearful and brow beaten as they are painted. Yes the fatwas that are reported about do exist, the triple talaqs that are written about, also do happen. But what people fail to understand is that these are not the norm, but the exception. Take a look at what two women found when they set out to do research about Muslim women in India. Zoya Hassan, a professor at the Centre for Political Studies at the Jawaharlal University and Ritu Menon, a writer and publisher did a survey of 10,000 Muslim women and found that despite triple talaq, less than 2 per cent of Muslim women are divorced or deserted. They in fact found that Muslim women have a slightly greater say in the area of decision making within the family than their counterparts in other communities.

But having said this that Muslim women are not as badly off as portrayed, can we say that everything is alright in the community? While I would say that the extreme view of the condition of the Muslim women in India is wrong and is as off the mark as the impression in the West about India being a country of snakes and elephants, things are not entirely right as far as Muslim women go.

Let me give you some examples. I am sure that everyone here has come across such cases. These are everyday occurrences. So I am only reminding you of what you already know. Have you not come across cases of women who are widowed with little children to support at a young age? Thankfully as there is no stigma to widow remarriage in Islam, these women fortunately remarry, but there have been instances of the women having to give up their children by the first husband so that they can move to a new future with the second husband. This has happened not just to widowed women, but also to those who have been deserted by their husbands who have chosen to be unfaithful and remarry a woman of their choice. The young wife who is left behind once again finds herself at the mercy of another man, and this time she has to give up a part of herself - her children. What could be more painful?

In the final analysis, it is of course the woman who makes this choice. Does she do it out of fear? Out of lack of confidence in herself or because she thinks she needs someone to take care of her? . Whether educated or not, we are all prone to such fears and wants. But what education does is, it gives us the means to make a different choice, should we overcome these fears. It is when a woman has the ability to make such a choice that I would say she is empowered.

There is still fear in the Muslim community that if a woman is "empowered" she will in some way threaten the family structure and traditions. That she will want to go her own way, become "too independent". But I would like to say that while there will be such "misuse" of empowerment by women who don't understand that independence and decision making go hand in hand with responsibility, there will be a lot of others who do understand this. For a woman to be able to say no to something that will cause her enormous unhappiness, she must have something very solid to fall back on. Most important of all, she will need the unstinting support of her family and of course education and financial empowerment.

It is not selfish to want education and financial empowerment. It is your right. If you are happy with yourself, you will make others happy, including your husband and children. Being educated and financially empowered does not mean that you turn away from family tradition and practices, that your belief in Allah and his rahmath, become any less. One does not preclude the other. Islam has had highly empowered women.

Bibi Khadija (R. A.), wife of our beloved prophet Mohammed (p. b. u. h), bibi Ayesha(R. A.) his youngest wife were greatly empowered women. Bibi Khadija was one of the richest merchants of Mecca. She had already been married twice and since the death of her second husband she used to hire men to trade on her behalf. As prophet Mohammed (p. b. u. h.) was known as the reliable, the trustworthy, the honest, she asked him to take some of her merchandise to Syria. She was impressed greatly by him and later arranged for a proposal to be sent to him which he accepted. She staunchly believed in him and he greatly respected her.

Then there is bibi Ayesha. She was highly knowledgeable and most of the hadees is attributed to her as she was the prophet's constant companion. She participated in tending to the sick in war and was greatly respected by one and all.

The prophet himself constantly said that female children should be treated exactly in the same manner as male children. According to a report of Ibn Abbas, the prophet's cousin, he is said to have declared, "If a daughter is born to a man and he brings her up affectionately, shows her no disrespect and treats her in the same manner that he treats his sons, the Lord will reward him with paradise."

And so it was not surprising that our prophet valued bibi Khadija , his first wife and later bibi Ayesha greatly and they were his staunchest followers and clearly the beloved of Allah, because they exercised their empowerment as it should be.

Recently there was a debate about Muslim women standing for elections in the Uttar Pradesh panchayat. A fatwa was issued by three clerics of the Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband that Muslim women contesting these elections should do so wearing a veil.

Once again I emphasise that it must be left to the woman to exercise the choice of whether or not to wear the veil when fighting the elections. But then this is not a debate on the veil. The only reason I am bringing this up is because even the clerics of UP who laid down that the women must be veiled while fighting elections, did not say that women could not contest the elections. And several Muslim leaders reacting to this fatwa have since said that Islam does not prohibit women from being leaders.

In fact according to the Quran, men and women have equal duties with regard to prayers, the payment of poor tax and in preaching the good and forbidding evil in society, in the economy and in politics. There are innumerable traditions which show that women, like men used to come freely in the presence of the prophet for putting to him questions on social, relgioous and economic matters. The prophet used to answer them patiently. Later after the prophet's passing away during the reign of the first four Caliphs, bibi Ayesha who was a very learned woman, was very sought after for her advice even on political matters by the rulers of Islam.

So going by tradition even politics is not out of bounds for the Muslim woman. Now let us look at the what the levels of literacy are in the Muslim community in India and why they are so. According to the survey conducted by Ritu Menon and Zoya Hasam, huge variations exist in the status of Muslim women across the country. The status of Kashmiri women is different from the status of women in the south. They found that the Muslim women in the south are better off in both rural and urban areas. Their literacy levels were much higher and more of them enrolled in schools than their Hindu counterparts. But in middle school they tended to drop out. The reasons were poverty and the absence of all girl schools. Also as a large number of Muslim boys dropped out of school at this middle school level and began pursuing carpentry or some such profession, girls were discouraged from studying further as this would affect their marriage prospects.

Overall, however, they found that the vast majority of Muislim women in the country have never seen the inside of a school and 60% of them are illiterate. So this is the reality despite the fact that Islam recommends education highly. And it is not as if the women themselves have no aspirations.

Let me read to you an article that appeared in March this year. It was about a young Muslim girl , her aspirations, the obstacles she faced and how she was transformed through the efforts of an NGO. The report which was from Delhi, said that "Shehasadi Abbas showed no sign of nervousness as she addressed about 500 chattering women from shanties in a New Delhi suburb.

The women were there to celebrate International Women's Day on a Saturday, March 4, since International Women's Day would fall on March 8, a working day. "I want to study and earn for my family," the 21-year-old Muslim woman shouted over the din after presenting a dance drama about women's education. Pinned to the back curtain of the stage were banners proclaiming, "March toward progress," "Give us equal right to education," "End atrocities against women" and "Punish the guilty." The programme was staged in Seelampur, a Muslim-dominated shantytown in the eastern part of the capital.

Though it was her first "public address," Abbas later said she did not feel nervous. She said her courage came from her two-year association with the voluntary association. Every year since coming to Seelampur 11 years ago, the association has been training about 300 women and children, mostly Muslims, in the 14 centers they manage in Seelampur and certain other suburbs. These centers, called mahila samiti (women's forum), conduct courses lasting from six months to a year on tailoring, beauty and health care. They also provide conversational English classes for the women and coach students of government primary schools. In addition, their facilities help the women socialize with one another by celebrating programmes such as Women's Day.

"It is quite amazing to see these young Muslim women on the stage without any nervousness," commented a member of the voluntary association. She pointed out that it had been "quite unthinkable" in the past for Muslim women to perform in public.

Before her tryst with the centre run by the NGO , Abbas said she had no courage to leave her one-room tenement alone. She did not even dare tell her parents she wished to continue her studies when they asked her to care for her siblings after her fifth grade. "Girls must stay home to do household chores," she echoed their words as she bottle-fed her 4-year-old brother, the youngest of 11 siblings.

Abbas, the second child but oldest of the four girls, said her parents insisted that her brothers study but the girls had to stop their own studies after a few years. Only the youngest girl, now 11, goes to school. "I will not allow my parents to stop her studies," asserted Abbas, one of the 51 women given diplomas for completing a tailoring course this year. She said she can now support her family thanks to her tailoring job. To join the classes, Abbas had to contend with her father, who runs a butcher shop in the locality. As the 52-year-old man shooed away flies and puffed on beedi, a local cigarette, he elaborated why his daughters had to stay indoors: "Girls are like money. If you keep money in the open, others will loot it. A girl's responsibility is to attend to household chores," he said.

The only support Abbas received came from her mother, who learned about the center from neighbours. "When I saw my neighbor's daughter stitching her own clothes, I wanted to send my daughter to the same center," the
42-year-old illiterate woman said.

The lanky woman with sunken eyes on a wrinkled face has no regrets. She said her daughter's surprising performance in the dance drama "was the first time I saw a stage programme." The progress Abbas has been making has convinced the mother of the value of education, so she has shifted her youngest daughter from a government school to a private one where, she said, the teaching is better.

Abbas herself now plans to prepare privately for 10th-grade exams. "The girls have a lot of desire and willingness to study," observed Rounak Jaha, who manages a coaching center in the shanty. The 32-year-old woman laments that parents in the slum do not encourage the education of their daughters, and some cannot even write their own names. According to a coordinator of the centers the young women initially were so fearful "they could not tell their names to the class, but now they have no problem in facing an audience." She acknowledges they are not creating a sea change in the area, but that is fine, because "it is a slow process and there is much we have to achieve."

So as the report shows there is a long way to go. How are we going to tackle this problem? What do we do to make sure that girls get education? The survey shows that women are not being held back from pursuing an education because of Islamic ideals, but more because of economic and social reasons such as their marriage prospects. It then stands to reason that the men in the community must also aspire for higher education. They should not give up education at the mid-school level and be determined to fight the odds and make a better life for themselves than being mere carpenters or artisans. The more educated the men and women are in our community the better for all of us.

I would like to conclude by saying that let us not hold back our women because we fear where it will lead them or us, but rather let us give them the love and support they need to be the best they can be and to realize the potential that Allah has given them, so that they can be the best in every role they are here to play, that of mother, wife, sister and also those of a valued citizen and member of the community. I thank you all very much once again for giving me this opportunity.

(Paper presented at the educational conference of the Ambur Muslim Educational Society's centenary celebrations, Ambur, Tamil Nadu, on September 6, 2006)



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