Dr Noorjehan Safia Niaz – Leading Muslim Women In India To The Heart Of The Discourse On Triple Talakby Deepa Bhalerao May 16 2017, 12:51 pm
As the bridge between creative communities and the priorities of our times, Asian Center for Entertainment Education (ACEE) and its flagship program, The Third Eye seek to highlight and showcase all issues of relevance to the Creative Communities.
Women’s rights and rights of the minority communities hold a crucial place in the development of an equitable, just, secular and rights based society. The Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) is an important voice of the Muslim women who have organized themselves to ensure gender equity and equal rights to Muslim women in India.
Deepa Bhalerao, Director Programs at the Asian Centre for Entertainment Education spoke with Dr Noorjehan Safia Niaz, Founder BMMA, about her life and her work of facilitating a gender and rights based movement.
Tell us about your early years and education
I have done my schooling from the Diamond Jubilee High School, Mumbai and graduation from Wilson College, Mumbai University. I graduated with philosophy as my subject. I stayed with my parents and my mother’s family which comprised of six aunts, my mother’s sisters, who looked after us.
We later shifted to Bombay Port Trust (BPT) government quarters. I have one sister and one brother both elder to me. My father was an MA in History and my mother was an MA in Urdu. Both studied in the Ismail Yusuf College, Mumbai where they met and fell in love. My sister and brother are both post graduates. My father was in the Accounts department of Bombay Port Trust and my mother was a teacher in a Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) school.
My school is a Shia Ismaili Trust school. I secured 81% in SSC and yet took Arts, which nobody at that time could digest.
My parents were extremely liberal and always motivated us to do the best in life. No restrictions, no discrimination, and complete freedom to pursue our interests and goals. My father also ensured that his larger family did not take decisions for him and his daughters. As a result, we could acquire higher education.
What was your inspiration for taking up social work as a profession?
There is no specific incident which made me take up this profession. I remember being very sensitive to the plight of the poor and would always wonder how they managed. I also saw my aunts being kind to the poor and sensitive to the vulnerable, especially those who worked in our home. In college, I took interest in the activities of the counselling center where I made anti-drug addiction posters etc. my college counsellor seeing my interest in social issues guided me to take up a Masters in Social Work (MSW) which I did after I graduated from college. In college, I was inspired by Prof Sudhakar Solomonraj, who through his own personality and activities for students inspired me to be a person who can make a difference. To this date, I think of Sudhakar sir as my role model.
What was your journey after your post-graduation?
After post graduation, I worked in MAVIM- Maharashtra Arthik Vikas Mahamandal, a state government undertaking for women. I worked there for 6 months. Being a government organization, the work did not inspire me at all. I joined Youth for United Voluntary Action (YUVA) in December 1992 around the same time as the 1992-93 riots after the Babri Masjid demolition. I worked there for 2 years and got exposed to the plight of poor Muslims for the first time, that too after the most horrible communal violence, which my own family just about managed to survive.
After YUVA, I worked in the Sahara project of Anjuman Islam for 5 years where I worked closely with Muslim women in the slum communities of Mumbai and that is when I met Khatoon Apa who, till date, is my partner in all the work that I am doing. I had to leave Anjuman after my marriage to a non-Muslim which a conservative Anjuman could not digest. After that I worked in Women’s Research and Action Group (WRAG) for 10 years where I was a trustee as well as a co-director. My work on Muslim personal law reform began here. In 2007 when BMMA stated I left WRAG as I felt that a Muslim women’s movement needed full time attention.
Tell us about the genesis of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA)?
In 2005 Zakia Soman, the other co-founder got in touch with me and mooted the idea of a national platform for Muslim women. We met multiple times to work on the vision, objectives, activities and structure of BMMA. It took us around 2 years to do that and in 2007 we launched the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA). The purpose was to create a platform for the Muslim woman so that she can demand her rights from the state as well as from within the community. As a major departure from other small Muslim women’s groups, we in BMMA did not want to be apologetic about being Muslim. We are not ashamed of being Muslim and we want to claim our rights which are in the religion. So instead of rejecting religion, we embraced it to reclaim it from patriarchal forces and to demand the rights within. We also felt that there is no hierarchy in our identity as Muslims and in our identity as Indians. I am both at the same time and I will claim my rights in the Quran as well as the constitution as both espouse the same values of equality, justice, wisdom, compassion, human dignity, freedom and most importantly, gender justice.
What are the major issues addressed by BMMA?
We work on education, health, livelihood, security and law reform. Across all issues, our strategy is to mobilize women, train them, give them information about their rights and collectivize them to do advocacy with the state. So, whether it is implementation of the Right To Education Act (RTE), health services in Muslim ghettos, working with the police to ensure security and safety of not only women but also the Muslim youth, and our work on Muslim law reform, have all moved across the spectrum, from grassroots mobilization to advocacy at the SC and the legislature.
BMMA has put the spotlight on the rights of Muslim women in India. Has this helped the women’s movement in India? How?
It has definitely put the Muslim women’s voices out strong and loud within the community and also within the larger women’s movement. We differ with the larger women’s movement in our understanding of secularism. For us secularism is not atheism, it is respect for religious diversity and shunning from any kind of religious supremacism. Since the women’s movement believes in not engaging with religion, it has still not been able to figure how it should engage itself with BMMA. BMMA has been responsible for bringing the spotlight on subaltern feminism which moves away from the upper caste upper class heavy women’s movement. Muslim women, Dalit women, Adivasi women, women from the unorganized working sector, women laborers in the agricultural field, women in the large informal/semi-formal urban working sector all then become part of the subaltern women’s movement which has its own narrative and its own perception, and the study of its own problems. It does not require another lens at all. BMMA’s slogan is ‘jiski ladai uski agwai’ – Muslim women will lead their own problems, if the women’s movement wants to pitch in to our efforts, it would be wonderful, otherwise we are fine, thank you.
BMMA was instrumental in facilitating/ conducting the first marriage through a Muslim woman priest. How has this paved the way for change? What is the situation now?
The first marriage is yet to happen. But the first ever organized training of women to become qazis is because of BMMA’s effort. The first batch passed out on 6th April 2017. This change is because of the complete ‘keeping out’ of women from the realm of religion. Male qazis have been doing the biggest disservice by conducting underage marriages, not checking basic documents of the parties, encouraging unilateral divorce, encouraging *halala etc., instead of trying to reform the patriarchal qazis, we felt that we should create an alternative system of women qazis. In our build-up to the training we realized that there is no centralized system of registering qazis, or even their training. There is no common syllabus nor is there a certain amount of time allotted for the training. It all varies according to different religious institutions. We felt that there is no rocket science here and we can also do it. And so, we started on our own. We developed our own syllabus, teaching methods, schedule, time frame etc. we did not take any alim or any scholars help. It is completely an all-women effort. We are now waiting for the community to accept this challenge and come forward to solemnize marriages through women qazi. We have taken the challenge and we have succeeded in bringing forth the first ever formally trained 15 women qazis. Now, the ball in in the court of the community.
……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….*Halala is a practice where if a divorced husband and wife want to come together they cannot remarry directly. She has to marry another man, consummate that marriage, he will divorce her and then only she can she go back to her former husband.
Tell us more about the Triple Talaq issue that is faced by Muslim women?
In 2016 we received 380 cases in our 4 Aurton ki Shariah Adalats (Women’s Courts of the Shariah), out of which 85 women were unilaterally divorced, which makes it a whopping 22% of the total divorces. Out of the 525 women interviewed by us for our national study, 385 were unilaterally divorced. This is the rate of unilateral divorce. In this method, the woman has no say at all. Her husband decides to terminate the marriage and it is done at his will, anytime, anywhere, with no reasons given, and with no process involved. As he says talaak thrice, the marriage is terminated in a second and she is rendered homeless. In this, the husband is fully supported by the qazi who issues divorce letters without even calling the woman for hearing her side of the story. In cases where the husband regrets and wants to take her back, she has to marry another man, consummate that marriage, get divorced by him and then come back to her former husband. This is nothing but prostitution. In some places, it is like a sex racket all in the name of religion.
Whereas, in the Quran there is a well laid out system of divorce with a minimum of 90 days of gap wherein arbitration is mandatory. BMMA has been demanding the codification of the entire Muslim family law like the Hindu code bill. Our demands are that instant talaak must go, temporary marriages and halala must go, polygamy must go, age of marriage must be 18 and 21 for girls and boys respectively, there should be equal inheritance rights for women including share in the matrimonial property, there should be equal rights to children’s custody and annual income of the groom to be the bride’s minimum mehr amount. With these demands we will be approaching the parliament soon.
BMMA has a very strong grassroot presence. Tell us about the challenges faced by women members/ volunteers in their life?
Challenges come largely from the religious clerics. Also at one level, many women want to play an active role but are constrained by the family and community pressures. The family and the larger community gets easily influenced by the local clerics who discredit the work of BMMA and its volunteers. Especially in the last one year when our public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court, (SC) against the Triple talaak and also around the Haji Ali case, we were called anti – Islamic, or enemies of Islam, it was alleged that we are paid agents of RSS, VHP, BJP, that we have been propped up by them so that the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) will be imposed on Muslims, and that we have married non-Muslims and hence are not Muslims anyway. Obscene Facebook and Whatsapp messages were passed around defaming and discrediting us as individuals as well as BMMA as an organization. Some of our volunteers faced opposition from within the family, emotional pressure was put on them through the male members of the family, asking them to tell their mothers to stop doing this work. But every time pressure has been put on us, we have only emerged stronger. We knew and we were expecting this – no change has happened without opposition especially when Muslim women are bringing about not just cosmetic change but basic structural change within the community.
How do you build the capacity of the BMMA women members/ volunteers?
We conduct regular training programs at the national level. We invite eminent speakers from different fields to give exposure to our leaders on various issues. Also, capacity increases when you challenge your own boundaries and get out of the comfort zone. Our efforts are towards encouraging our leaders to challenge their own capacities to move further. Our work in the direction of law reform through campaigns, studies, researches etc., are methods by which our leaders build up their capacity to counter patriarchal forces.
Would you like to share something about your work that you feel deserves to be known by a wider audience?
We think of our work as falling within the ambit of Islamic feminism, a worldwide resurgence of believing Muslim women who are seeking to reconcile the teachings of the Quran with the modern human rights documents. A feminist translation, interpretation and explanation of the Quran reveals that there is no contradiction between the values of the Quran and the modern human rights values as mentioned in ‘The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women’ (CEDAW) or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR).
What are the future plans for BMMA?
BMMA will continue to raise the concerns of Muslim women from a Muslim women’s perspective. Right now, our petition lies in the Supreme Court against triple talaak and halala. Our next level of engagement will be with the parliamentarians on codification of Muslim law which will includes other issues within family law.
We will also continue with the Qazi training and with also training and awareness programs for Muslim women across the country.