As time passes, it becomes increasingly intriguing for me to pen down my thoughts as a Muslim woman in the 21st century. The reason is that each time I thought I was done counting and recounting my experiences, something new would always inspire. There are plenty of factors that affect me, especially as a Muslim in a globalizing world. Although it might sound like an elitist statement, however, it is one that applies to Muslims from even the most remote areas of the world.
Since time immemorial, the law has been made by and interpreted by men. This kind of approach to the law has been problematic for women. Gender theory has only recently begun to play a prominent role in the interpretation and understanding of the law, and Islamic Law is no exception to this. Slowly but surely, we have observed women taking their position at the head of the table (and their country) to help change the undertones of the discussion surrounding women and women’s rights in Islam. Across the world, female Muslim leadership is growing stronger and changing the lives of others around them.
Beginning with something closer to home, I can think of the regal Begums of Bhopal, who were such revolutionaries in their approach to Islam and Muslim women. They sought to reform and create a space for Muslim women free from the stranglehold of their male counterparts. They also played a crucial role in the shaping of the 1939 Muslim Personal Law legislation. There is no lack of learned Muslim women taking the lead in a way that improves upon their status without having to compromise their identity. Even in terms of religion, no longer do we see scholarship in Islamic studies exclusive to men.
So what does it mean to be a Muslim woman in 2020? It is a rhetorical question for which you will find a multitude of answers. You will believe the one that suits your prejudice rather than the one that challenges it. That does not make it right or wrong. It is what it is. For me being a woman and a Muslim one at that, in the Indian context, has come to mean what a dear friend of mine concurs with is that I am doubly discriminated against. For the simple reason that being a minority in India, one observes in the more recent contexts, how basic survival has come to be so painful in this beautifully diverse land and secondly, as a woman itself. To make it worse, some claim to be our saviors on both ends of the political spectrum. They are nothing but dictatorial towards me, deciding and defining me for me. The dilemma is disheartening.
In terms of our identity, it has come to be many things. There is no one streamline identity of Muslim women in India. Furthermore, there has been a dramatic change in the perception of what is to be a Muslim woman in India. More than ever before, we have young girls embracing the modest way of dressing. It may surprise you, but most do it out of their own free will. Albeit, for their reasons, that include but are not limited to; it is a religious obligation to God (some may disagree, feel free to), pollution, easy escape from bad hair days, etc. Bottom line is that they are beginning to redefine and reclaim their identity on their terms.
That being said, there are some Muslim women that have no habits, no practices, no religion per se, in effect making her identity ambiguous as a Muslim. She lives in a free country and can do as she likes. The problem arises when the non-Muslim community is under the impression that women like her are what all Muslim women in India (or elsewhere) must be. The truth of the matter is that they are not. The non-Muslim community fails to understand this crucial point. When she chooses to put on a bindi or embrace non-Islamic practices, it is her personal choice. It shouldn’t be a benchmark of anything and especially not about one’s nationalism or integration into society as a member of the minority community. Unwittingly, she enables the othering of Muslim women and Islam in India. It gets further complicated when we see young Muslim girls being beaten up for wearing burqas while on their way to school, being discriminated against in the workplace for the headscarf, or simply being put under pressure to oblige to things that are not expected of their non-Muslim counterparts.
Religion and religious practices need to be understood and defined in a way that allows for a rational discussion, intellectual discourse, and logical conclusion. We deliberately choose to continue to limit ourselves to futile communal politics of the worst kind. We have a strange fetish about Muslim women. The moment they decide that they want to define their identity for themselves, it becomes an impossible request. How dare she try!
India is a beautiful country. Complete and wholesome. We even have a national integration day commemorated in the memory of the late Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Of late I can’t help but wonder, where have we lost this spirit of unity? Why do we Muslim women have to bear the brunt of having to prove ourselves day in and day out?
The lack of Muslim women representation is the bane of our lives and more so in the Indian subcontinent. Due to this reason, we have been constantly hindered in defining ourselves on our terms. As a matter of faith, I am not alone in my dedication and love for my religious beliefs. We have our ideas and ambitions about who we are. Do not politicize us when you have no comprehension of what it means to be us and then pass laws that reek of ignorance. Do not speak while silencing us because our ideas don’t suit your biases. Do not stifle our voices when we have the loudest voice in the room.