Unmanning males

Written by Teesta Setalvad | Published on: October 1, 2005
the STEPS hunger strike an anti-religious activity, ordering people not to participate. They threatened the organisers with bodily harm and urged people to beat up anyone who dared participate. Vile statements, not fit for publication, were made, and included filthy aspersions about the character of women members of the TNMWJC. Announcements warned people in Theraspuram that those who participated in the hunger strike would be suspended from the jamaat, and even denied a burial plot in the mosque cemetery. The warnings now took on a far more potent aspect as they threatened all who dared go against their dicta with ostracism. These were all clear-cut instances of incitement to violence and hatred.

On September 22, even as organisers were trying to secure local police permission for the event, the male jamaat used several pressure tactics to try and prevent the hunger fast from taking place. Through the long days and nights of this ordeal, many social activists from Mumbai and Delhi tried to lend their support to TNMWJC and STEPS through statements and letters to the local administration. To no avail. Following fresh threats to Zubaida Begum, members of the TNMWJC and STEPS went again to the Theraspuram police station to register a complaint of threats, physical intimidation and the denial of legitimate means of protest. After several trips to and from various police stations, the assistant superintendent of police, North police station, finally gave them permission to hold the hunger strike between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. the next day.

Law and order be hanged, as September 23 dawned, male jamaat members tried to physically obstruct participants from joining the hunger strike. Vans carrying women from Kayalpattinam and Theraspuram were stopped on the way, but determined in their goal, they finally managed to reach the protest venue. Supported by the wider community of Muslims from Tuticorin, the participants refused to give in and the programme was held despite bullying and threats from members of their own community.

However, the tension and drama still continues. Local activist and member of the TNMWJC, Zubaida Begum remains most vulnerable. Post-September 23, attempts were made to isolate Zubaida through an inflammatory poster that made unsavoury references to her personal life. Refusing to give in, women from Theraspuram made a police complaint about this poster as well. Enraged members of the male jamaat then went to Zubaida’s house and shouted threats and abuse whereupon neighbours and other citizens of Tuticorin lodged another complaint against them at Theraspuram police station.

Today, a movement that began rather diffidently about 15 years ago is a battling band of Muslim women who need encouragement and support both from progressive sections within their own community as well as the wider, secular constituency.

A founder member of STEPS, Sharifa Khanam was the tenth child in a Muslim family from Manapparai in Tiruchirapalli district. As a young girl, with a rebellious streak and a rather wild imagination, Sharifa first opposed tradition by refusing to wear the burkha. She started to question the inequities of the Shariah laws and dreamt of a world where women and men lived "the way they should".

STEPS was formed in 1991 to make Muslim women aware of their rights and to deal with their problems. The host of cases – as many as 55 every month – that the organisation received related to property disputes, marital issues and domestic violence, all revealing the sorry plight of local women. Sharifa and her team now saw the need for a wider forum. They first attempted to work with the existing state-level jamaats. "We kept appealing to the male jamaats that if you claim to adjudicate over the plight of Muslim women, you must include at least 50 per cent women representatives in the jamaat. Letters were written to the state Waqf Board and all district and mosque level jamaats making this request. Even the police were notified. How can men alone decide on issues of desertion, dowry, domestic violence and torture? When they refused, we decided to set up a women’s jamaat."

"As petitions for help and assistance started pouring in, we faced threats and abuse from influential male clergy. The men would abuse me and intimidate the women approaching me for help," said Sharifa, a post-graduate in History and Office Management from Aligarh University.

The TNMWJC was set up in November 2003 and has a 35-member representation from 11 districts in Tamil Nadu. Today more than 15 petitions relating mostly to marriage, nikah disputes, come in every day. Many petitions are forwarded to STEPS by other small jamaats. These cases are then made over to the 35-member Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat Committee for resolution. District-level meetings of the TNMWJC take place each month, with more than 75 members present. Both men and women are involved in the debate, mediations and negotiations. It is only when the men or their relatives refuse to heed its final decision that the TNMWJC threatens police action. In the past year alone, the committee has successfully resolved 55 cases.

"This is so unlike what happens in the other chauvinistic all-male, one-sided jamaats. The women can never present their side. Decisions are taken based on the man’s version alone and talaq is pronounced without hearing what the woman has to say in her defence," Sharifa explains. For instance, Sajjida Banu (23) of Pudukottai was not only tortured by her in-laws for more dowry, but also abandoned by her husband. The local jamaat refused to sympathise. "Sajjida finally came to us. We got her husband jailed and we are also trying to get her a decent settlement," said Sharifa. Sajjida is now an active jamaat member. In the case of Fowsia Banu (21), the jamaat got her out of a proposed marriage to a deaf, dumb and allegedly impotent man.

The TNMWJC’s success has been in its ability to draw complaints from both men as well as women. In fact, Labbaikudikadu village in Perambalur district was so swayed by the all-woman jamaat’s fairness in handling issues that village leaders agreed to conduct marriages without accepting dowry. In Sharifa’s opinion, "The women were so harassed, they only needed a spark. That is all that we provided – and a space. The suggestion for an all-woman jamaat came from the women who had suffered indignity themselves."

Archived from Communalism Combat,October 2005 Year 12    No.111, Gender Justice 1