Role of women
Restoration of due rights
By Uzma Naheed
Today women face two types of challenges: Internal i.e., within community, and External due to general gender injustice.
It’s no secret that gender justice and women development are mainly confined to slogans and academic debates. Laws which never get implemented do not offer any benefits to women. We reached a stage where we offer justice to women in theory. The GDP of any country includes women’s contribution. No country or society can have overall development in the social, economic or political fields unless the society is just and offers benefits to all its men and women. The logic is simple. No society could possibly develop ignoring the half of its population. The World Bank is aware of the mindset of the general masses and hence it changed the slogan from “Women in Development” to “The development of Women.” Women activists look with interest at the change in vocabulary, but how far this will have an impact on general public is to be seen.
The Muslim women also face challenges within community. Muslim clergy considers modernization and westernization as threats to their traditions and values and they are totally committed to “Taqleed”. In fact, the Quran is an eternal book that will remain current at all the times to come and Ahadeeth will help us interpret it and implement it according to the needs of the hour. For example, there is a hadith saying that a woman’s house is better place for her Namaz than a Masjid for her prayers, while another hadith asks Muslims not to forbid women from going to mosques. Since a mosque is not only religious but also a social centre for Muslims, Muslim women are totally cut off from society as well as from ulama when she refrained from going to mosques due to the extreme attitude of men in respect of purdah. Islamic laws look harsh but in fact they have an inherent elasticity to suit changing times. Women’s knowledge, intelligence and views are ignored or rather our society fails to take any benefits out of her in the development of the community. Ironically we talk more of her disabilities rather then her assets as human being which could certainly be utilized for the overall development of the society. It’s unfortunate that even in this 21st century her role in society is not yet defined.
Social/ matrimonial Issues
I feel that in view of the great void that exists between our ulama and social activists, any thing that latter suggest is termed as anti-Shari’at or at least it is looked at with suspicion by the former. We all know and face the problems of Muslim women owing to misuse of triple Talaq, dowry, non-payment of mahr and practically ignoring women in inheritance. Some of these issues could have been resolved with the introduction of a conditional Nikahnama. It took more then ten years to convince ulama for its approval. Ironically, the Nikahnama accepted by AIMPLB has no practical validity and use as it was totally changed and provisions that could have safeguarded women’s interest have been removed. The problem is that those who are involved in opposing Nikahnama are either unaware of the ground realities or they just want to ignore them. In 2002, a full bench of Bombay High Court in Dadu Pathan v/s Rahimbi observed that during the hearing of a matrimonial case a mere declaration of husband that he divorced his wife would not be acceptable to the court unless he proved that the due process of arbitration was observed by him. This decision is against the Islamic fiqh where mere declaration of divorce by husband makes the Talaq valid. There are many such cases adjudicated in various courts were neither challenged by any Muslim organization including the AIMPLB. If a Nikahnama that protects the rights of women is not introduced soon such deviation from Shari’ah will continue and we shall have no option but to accept them for they would have de facto validity.
In fact most of women are not aware of the protection they are enjoying under Indian Penal Code (IPC) Sec.498-A which deals with cruelty of husband and his relatives and if proved could land them in jail for a period of three years in addition to a fine. Similarly under Sec.406 of IPC the offender who makes a commitment and is found guilty of breach of trust could also land in jail for three years and/or a fine.
A very important act is the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 under which boys and their relatives who are demanding dowry can be booked. The punishment is quite severe i.e., five years imprisonment in addition to a minimum fine of Rs.15,000 or the amount of dowry demanded by them whichever is greater.
A seminar was held on 8-9 March 2006 in Moulana Azad National Urdu University organized by Women’s Education Department. Ms. Bharati Geeta Anjali is a psychotherapist of Hyderabad who is mainly working with Muslim women. Her main area is counseling on health and psychological problems. She read her research paper which reveals mind boggling facts like mismatch marriages where men are more than 20 or 30 years older than their teenage brides, marriages of very young girls of 14-15 years, inter-family marriages, absence of family planning even when the women becomes extremely weak after bearing 6-7 children, absence of gap between two pregnancies, physical and mental torture by husband/his mother and sisters and even victims of Mut’a marriages by some older men coming from Gulf countries. She says that most of the girls and women were brought to her when they were actually planning suicide.
These problems are multiplied when they are coupled with total ignorance on part of women and absence of information about their reproductive system/abilities etc. This results in extreme depression, indigenous depression and stress disorders among Muslim women/girls.
A large number of Muslims in India are religious and cannot ignore the views/fatawa of Ulama. If Ulama take the lead and sermons are delivered on every Friday from every pulpit on these issues asking common men to refrain from these practices then perhaps things would start changing.
Media and Muslim Women
We look at media from two angles: one is to seek opportunities for Muslim women in media and the other is how best we could use media to our advantage. Today’s society is a free society and we cannot stop what is being printed or shown by the print or electronic media. But surely this free society also gives us right and opportunity to feed positive information about Islam and Muslim women. Unfortunately, we are hardly utilizing this freedom/opportunity.
There are many schemes designed by the government, particularly for women in media. We hardly take advantage of these schemes. In fact, most of us are not even aware of them. Muslim women may not like to come on screen for reading news or act as an anchor. But there are large numbers of jobs behind the screen that Muslim women could take up. She can produce documentaries with government help and do other technical jobs in media industry. I found some hejab-clad women operating cameras in Hyderabad.
My Experience & Remedial Action
I have been working on Muslim women’s economy through training them technically for the last 15 years. My deliberations today would be focused on this issue while summarizing the other areas too.
The reason for the economic backwardness of a society is many-fold and multi-faceted. Considering the present economic condition of Muslims and problems being faced by them, the situation is alarming and calls for immediate attention. There is a need to chalk out short-term and long-term plans in a systematic and organized way. It’s easy to educate people who are illiterate but it’s really difficult to change the psyche of people who have developed indifference towards their own problems due to continuous oppression, illiteracy and discrimination.
We know that when the elite of a segment of a society becomes indifferent towards the lower strata of the society, the general masses develop total indifference towards their own problems. They live like cattle and their position continues to deteriorate to such an extent that it becomes difficult to even make them realize what they are missing in their lives.
My practical areas of operations have always been education, economic upliftment, particularly those of Muslim women and also social awareness. I neither talk of theories or books on the subject nor do I propose grand and impractical ideas for solving the problems. I feel that in order to address the issue we must first understand the psyche of common Muslims in India for which we must ascertain and analyze the reasons responsible for their sordid condition.
The division of education as secular and religious instead of making a comprehensive and integrated curriculum is one of our major problems. In order to save and keep their culture and religion intact from forces working against it during the British period, ulama established madrasas. This was what best they could think of or do for the purpose at that time. But since India was not a Muslim state where graduates from these madrasas could be absorbed in mainstream and higher posts in the civil service, they were totally cut off from other communities. And because they also were not aware of English, which carried ever- developing modern education and new techniques, madrasa graduates were also cut off from modern society, concepts and education.
Muslims by nature opted for short-term planning, something that gives them immediate relief no matter what amount of energy is spent for the purpose. Muslim artisans are mainly involved in work that needs a lot of skill, labour and time but with meager returns. Lack of education and absence from the mainstream created a force of Muslims labourers. Banares for Zardozi, Aligarh for locks, Ferozepur for churis, Moradabad for brass utensils and Khurja for potteries, are all examples where Muslims work as labourers earning paltry sums each day whereas the non-Muslim manufacturers and exporters earn real profits. As per the statistics available, Muslim artisans constitute 52% of the approximately 13 lakh workforce whereas the ownership of Muslims is as low as 4.4%. Moreover, Muslims always tried to maximize returns instead of striving to reduce workload.
In sharp contrast, other communities indulge in long-term planning and find avenues where one could earn more with lesser time, labour, and energy making them stronger economically as compared to Muslims. Moreover, they also add professionalism in their work, which makes the work less labour-oriented and more payable in every term. I can quote the example of Lijjat Papad, having an annual turnover running in hundreds of crores of rupees. It was mainly a women’s cooperative movement established in South Mumbai with 20 women who agreed to roll papad for sale. It’s one of the highly professionally-managed organizations with very high standards of quality generating honourable employment for more then 30,000 women.
When I tried to introduce a similar scheme among Muslim women it failed. I observed that many such efforts made by some NGOs also failed. Was it due to a specific mindset of Muslims where they have been trained to be contented what they have. Lack of efforts to augment their income appears to be the cause of their failure to sustain growth wherever they could achieve something.
A few years ago I read a paper on contribution of madrasas students to the national economy in a symposium organized by Tata Institute of Social Sciences. I told them that I have been working in social field for more then 15 years and not a day passes when I do not find a fresh graduate boy or girl seeking my assistance in getting employment. However, both the participants and organizers were astonished when they heard that during this period I did not receive a single application from a madrasa student for employment. They were eager to know the reasons. One of the reasons I offered was their specific mind-set where they have been trained to be contended with what they earn. May be this psyche is at work, for these very same ulama also convey this message to common Muslims who, due to extremely limited scope or choice before them, take solace in this psyche and develop total indifference towards every effort of betterment of their economy. In sharp contrast, we find that the Qur’an encourages us to strive for akl-e halal. It ordains:
Rasulullah (S) always encouraged people to have a sound economy instead of carrying a begging bowl. Ibn Umar narrates a hadith of the Prophet:
Countries where this classification of religious and secular education does not exist were able to strengthen their economy gradually like Malaysia, Indonesia, Libya, Egypt and Iran etc.
I found many NGOs working for lower strata of the society irrespective of caste, creed and religion. Ironically, Muslims could not establish NGOs worth a mention. However, during my travels I come across many Muslims and organizations who are doing yeoman service for the uplift of the poor, mainly women. In Mumbai, Anjuman-i-Islam’s Sahara is a home for destitute women where they are taught technical courses to earn their living. Similarly SEWA and WITS can also be mentioned as organizations contributing to women’s cause. Women India Trust is working for the last 25 years for destitute women. They help women manaufacture pickles, murabba and other edible items with FPO tag. These women also export furnished items with black prints and other household items including makeup goods and bangle boxes etc.
My own organization Jazba and Assalah International have been working for the last 15 years. I find that in Pakistan, Kishwar Naheed is doing good work for women. I would like mention in particular the tremendous amount of work being done by Dr. Yunus in Bangladesh. He was successful in launching millions of women into business. His working is simple. He organizes loans of Rs.2500 to each participant after training them in any technical field with 100 % buyback arrangement of the products they manufacture. Their daily sale including exports is more than a million rupees.
In 1993 I established the Ladies Department in Anjuman-i-Islam’s Saboo Siddik Polytechnic in Mumbai where I introduced 21 technical courses within the framework of Shari’ah for women and young girls. More than 3500 girls graduated from this institute so far. I also helped them either in getting some gainful employment or establishing their own businesses. I helped them participate in various exhibitions including those held in world trade centres where they could get access to export avenues. I also arranged an exhibition in Saboo Siddik ground where more than 30 stalls were erected. I also invited press and exporters and big business houses and could arrange sponsorships worth Rs.2.5 lakh for working girls. Some of them proved their worth and were hired by multinationals and export houses at lucrative salary.
Here I would like to state the problems usually faced by women in getting bank finance. Women are illiterate and do not know the cumbersome procedures of obtaining loans. They are also unable to provide any guarantee for their borrowings. This could only be handled by an NGO which could remain involved in such projects.
In order to comprehend the problem I suggest the participants to read a report by Dr. Farida Husain (chairperson, NABARD). Another report by Mr KM Arif and one by Mr Abu Saleh Sharif on Muslim empowerment are also worth reading.
I feel that the problem is so acute in India that what we need is a concerted effort of coordinating three forces like NGOs, media and private sector companies. I feel that with their active involvement alone the problems could be addressed. Recently when I expressed this view to Mr. Nadkarni, the editor of Economic Times, he looked surprised and said that ‘It’s interesting that a research scholar has reached the same conclusion what you learnt from your experience at grassroots level.’ I have already initiated action in this direction and our organization is coordinating various projects in active coordination and cooperation with Times Foundation.
In this area a good development is the formation of an umbrella body for the artisans of India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They organize exhibition-cum-sale of their products so that they get fair price for their labour.
The major reason for dropouts in schools among Muslim children is our poor economy. This is biggest hurdle that is coming in the way of pursuit of higher education by Muslim children. The rate of dropout is quite high in Muslim children. One way to address this problem is that women could supplement the income of the family through technical knowledge / handicraft work which could improve the financial position of the family. This in turn will help eradicate child labour and also help provide an opportunity to get education for poor children. Moreover, there is a need for widows to earn their own livelihood rather than depend on alms (zakat etc.). With this objective in mind I have started a totally free Technical Education institute in Mumbai for women. During the last 15 years more than 3500 girls learnt various skills in various courses like beautician, ceramic designing, fashion designing, mehndi designing, screen printing, tailoring, cutting, embroidery, crochet work, etc. through 21 courses specially designed for them.
I did not want these women to add to the force of artisans being exploited by exporters and businessmen. But the poverty is so acute that these trained artisans did not have funds to manufacture their own products. I arranged micro-finance for some of them and helped them display and sell their products in exhibitions, supply to showrooms and door-to-door sale. This proved successful but the pace of work was not satisfactory. In order to solve this problem, I created Social Work Department and trained them as to how they could explore the markets both locally, up country and through exports. I arranged interaction of these girls with experienced and sharp businessmen. They also needed a platform, a showroom, where they could display their products for the benefit of prospective buyers.
Thus the concept of Jazba, a showroom with the slogan “FOR THE WOMEN BY THE WOMEN” materialised. The showroom was established in a busy and predominantly Muslim locality of Bombay on cooperative basis. Our girls hailing from very poor families were encouraged to manufacture quality good for which raw material was also provided free of cost. The product was then displayed at Jazba showroom where it could fetch fair price for the girls who manufacture them. After deducting the cost of raw material and administrative costs, the sales proceeds were paid to the manufacturing artisans as their share in the profits. Each day not only many new women and girls come forward with novel products and ideas but there is a trend to replicate the concept of Jazba in many other cities. Kolkata took the lead where a Muslim minister requested me to establish such showroom in that city for the benefit of Muslim women and girls.
In order to boost the sales of Jazba, my strategies are:
With the improved Indo-Pakistan relations the scope of business more particularly in art and craft has tremendous scope. There is a need to explore and exploit this market.