This Group Of Indian Women Are Pushing For Gender Equality At The Intersection Of Religion & Feminism

Muslim-women in-india

When we think about feminism around the world, we look at it as an education into the lives and struggles of women in varied ways, and how they are fighting for equality. With intersectionality being a huge part of the modern understanding of the movement (the notion that racism and sexism mean black women face discrimination different to white women, for example), it opens up our ability to become better allies when we fully see the way feminism, the social, political and economic equality of all genders, can help different groups of people.

In one part of India, feminism is helping a group of women we don’t often associate with gender equality, especially the way the Western media and popular narrative frames them. Muslim women, who are a minority in India, are fighting for equality in a way that benefits their Islamic faith. Yes, you read that right. Faith and feminism go hand in hand for a number of Muslim women across India who see feminism as a means to gaining equal status without compromising their beliefs.

We’ve posted a number of articles about Muslim women who weave feminist themes into their daily lives and personal faith, and we think this is something we need to read more of in mainstream media, especially in a global cultural climate where the dominant narrative surrounding Muslims (of which there are over 1 billion across the world) is negative and extremist in nature.

In an article for TheDiplomat.com, French journalist Eloise Stark, who is currently based in Delhi, writes about the many women who are pushing for equal representation and opportunity at their local temples, within their social customs, and elsewhere in society. The first woman she writes about is Safia Akhtar, a woman from Bhopal, a town with 40% Muslim population. Safia is one of India’s first female Islamic priests, a Qazi, a highly respected role in communities for their ability to preside over family issues in accordance with the Quran.

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While the qazis don’t necessarily have any legal authority, Safia said they are often the first people called upon in a difficult situation.

“When someone has a problem, they don’t turn to Google. They turn to us qazis!” she said.

Becoming a qazi was made possible 2 years ago when the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement started training 30 women across the country. Safia was one of the first to sign up, and did so in the hope of dismantling many of the misogynistic rules the men were making.

“Recently, many male qazis haven’t been doing their duty. They mislead women, by saying that their decisions are based on the Quran, whereas really, they are just speaking for men’s interests,” she explained to The Diplomat.

One of the social issues women want to have more agency over in terms of decision making, is divorce. The commonly-known “triple talaq divorce” rule allows men to instantly divorce their wives, even using digital platforms like social media or Skype. Safia wants to dispute this, as well as the lack of accountability for men who do not pay the traditional “meher” maintenance at the time of marriage which allows a woman to be financially independent. Although the qazi is a role typically taken on by men, Safia is able to combat any criticism that comes her way by showing she knows the Quran inside out.

“Many qazis have a very haughty reaction; they think I am not legitimate to be a qazi. They won’t accept that what they are doing is wrong. They say they know the Quran. But I come armed with my verses, and then they are forced to see. Islam is an open-minded, fair, flexible religion. But our scholars, our mufti, they aren’t any of those things,” she said.

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She is firmly placing emphasis on male religious leaders being the problem with the rest of the world not seeing how equality can be part of a Muslim woman’s faith.

And while it may sound like an oxymoron for a religious woman to be a beacon of equality in her community, Eloise Stark makes an important point about this.

“In the West, feminism and religion are often perceived as being at odds, but in India, where spirituality is a major part of many people’s lives, women are using their religion as a guide for empowerment. Female qazis are just one example of this,” she writes.

Another part of the female qazi’s fight is to be allowed equal access inside their places of worship, a struggle that is shared by religious women of a number of different faiths. In Israel, a feminist group called ‘Women Of The Wall’ have been campaigning to have access to pray on the Western side of the holy wall in Jerusalem. The Western Wall is Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish peoplehood, and the women running the organization have been fighting to be allowed to express their faith freely and publicly along with the men.

In India, women of both the Muslim and Hindu faith are doing the same, fighting to be allowed to access certain parts of their respective temples, as women are restricted from a number of areas, especially when they are menstruating because this is considered a “defilement”.

On January 26, India’s Republic Day, 400 activists from the Bhumata Brigade group marched into the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra demanding to allow women inside the inner sanctum. Police tried to remove the women, but in a stroke of fortune, the Bombay courts ruled in favor of their right to enter, saying: “offering prayers at a temple is the fundamental right of a woman and it is the government’s fundamental duty to protect their right.”

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The Brigade is now focusing on achieving the same goal at the Haji Ali mosque in Mumbai, where they have been staging protests.

“It may seem like a mere symbolic struggle, but this battle is breaking down beliefs about menstruation and impurity. It’s also a huge step for the women demanding equal rights to worship. The importance of such decisions is perhaps best illustrated by the severe reaction from religious leaders, who have been digging their heels in to fight such an evolution,” writes Eloise.

Some of the Hindi temple male leaders claim women being allowed in the inner sanctum will increase rape incidents, and another claimed the only way he would allow women in the scared area is if there was a machine invented where he could scan a woman’s body to check that she isn’t menstruating. Yes, these are actual thoughts from real, live human men…

“Such shocking statements show how deeply ingrained misogyny has become among Indian religious leaders. In a country where faith and tradition lead to female feticide, domestic violence, honor killings and the ostracization of widows, you have to wonder whether it wouldn’t be better for women to fight against religion all together,” continued Eloise.

But that is not an option for many of the women, who feel it is their right to claim equal space in their places of worship and within their faith traditions.

“We live in a religious society. And we have to fight back in that same public space. We have to redefine what is Islamic within Indian society,” said Zakia X, the co-founder of the BMMA, Indian Muslim Women’s Movement.

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That particular activist group formed in 2002, after a series of massacres in Gujurat, and violence toward Muslim women.

“Outside, we were faced with the serial targeting of Muslims, including widespread sexual violence. Inside, we had to deal with to domestic violence, marriage, and divorce laws that leave us vulnerable, and no means of financial independence,” she recalled, also adding that state laws nor any religious leaders offered to help them, so they had no choice but to form a group to protect themselves.

Today, the BMMA has 70,000 members across the country, and is an important symbol of the type of feminism that is growing in a country that is deeply religious.

“In India, religion seems like one of the hardest places to achieve progress in women’s rights. But…it is also one of the most vital. For many Indian women, religion is a huge part of daily life, especially in the lower classes. It’s hard to imagine any large scale feminist movement that didn’t take this into account. By linking feminism and religion, these women are bringing the fight for women’s rights to a wider part of the population,” writes Eloise.

Zakia, and many other female activists like her who are standing up for their right to practice their faith in equal measure to the men, aren’t deterred by the push back they get.

“Many men insult us, they say we are free-minded women, that we don’t wear the veil, and that we have no Islamic identity. They say we are an insult to Islam. But they are backwards; they don’t want evolution to happen,” said Zakia.

Her comment sums up exactly why feminism is an important part of religion. We’ve shared stories of women from other major world religions who are standing up for their right to claim equal space and leadership roles, not in a way to diminish or change their beliefs, but to show that they are just as much a part of its impact on communities as the men.

Muslim-women in-india

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