Home Uncategorized Muslim Women in India: Resistance and Vulnerability

Muslim Women in India: Resistance and Vulnerability

Clockwise: Fatima Nafees, Zahera Shaik and Hadiya


In February 2017, I was on a Dalit Camera field visit to pre-election Uttar Pradesh with Greeshma. On the 9th of February, there was a protest march in Badaun, the hometown of Najeeb Ahmed, the JNU student who had been forcibly disappeared from university campus. After the protest ended, I stayed over at Najeeb’s family’s home and returned to Bareilly the day after. At her home, Fatima Nafees (Najeeb Ahmed’s mother) had to deal with a nosy array of visitors: insincerely sympathetic relatives, local busybodies more interested in the upcoming elections than Najeeb’s absence, opportunistic students from JNU looking for a photo-op with her. But Fatima maintained calmness throughout. Only at night did I hear her weep in her dua after namaaz. Before I left, Fatima gave me a small snack for my bus and train journey, and even instructed her youngest son, Hasib, to drop me to the Badaun bus-stop.

What I saw of Fatima Nafees (I personally address her as “Ammi”) at her home and during numerous protest marches in Delhi was her steadfastness and immense courage, born out of intense pain. But the media portrayed her differently. Videos of Fatima Nafees being dragged by the Delhi police at India Gate went viral; Mani Shankar Aiyyar and other unscrupulous politicians made a spectacle of her tears when they came to JNU for a solidarity charade; photo-shopped images of her showed an opaque tear drop below her eye-lashes. The media generated consumable images of Fatima’s pathos (“Ek maa ke aansoon”[1]), but did not care to shed light on her bravery when dealing with the police, her endless hope in anticipating her son’s return, her acts of affectionate care for those students protesting with her. Her frailty and vulnerability were highlighted, but not her resistance which alone kept alive the ‘Justice for Najeeb’ movement.[2] Obviously, this despicable media portrayal supported the politics of those organisations, especially the JNU Students’ Union, who adopted a very paternalistic approach to Fatima Nafees, regarding her as a victimised woman needy of their protection. On the contrary, it was Fatima Nafees herself, and not the self-fashioned revolutionaries from JNU, who sustained the movement for bringing justice to Najeeb, even though she was most vulnerable to violence by the state. Her resistance was in fact resourced from her very condition of vulnerability.

In their recent work, ‘Vulnerability in Resistance’, Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti and Laticia Sabsay have argued that mainstream politics and feminist understanding have an assumption that ‘vulnerability and resistance are mutually oppositional’. They write, ‘Dominant conceptions of vulnerability and of action presuppose (and support) the idea that paternalism is the site of agency, and vulnerability, understood only as victimization and passivity, invariably the site of inaction.’ Instead of conventional frameworks which see resistance and vulnerability in a binary, they build the case for a new feminist understanding in which‘vulnerability were imagined as one of the conditions of the very possibility of resistance.’[3] I find this formulation very useful for a feminist understanding and solidarity for Muslim women (such as Fatima Nafees) in India.

A Glimpse at Muslim Women’s Vulnerability

Apart from specific vulnerabilities based on caste, economic status and social location, Muslim women as a category are victimised by episodes of sexual violence. When do such episodes occur? Writers like Bipan Chandra have argued that communalism is a result of communal ideology, which is an aberration from secular commonsense. But such reasoning does not take into account the fact that Indian democracy is itself sustained by constructing a majoritarian public, defined by Hindu nationalism. Communal violence is woven into the everyday life of democracy; each time an anti-Muslim massacre takes place, a dominant narrative justifying the place of Muslims as second-class citizens who deserve to be killed emerges. Muslims are condemned to permanent un-belonging within the Hindu nation. And every episode of anti-Muslim violence involves the mass rape of Muslim women. The Hindu nation is imagined as the body of an upper-caste Hindu woman whose purity and virtue must be defended by imagined Muslim invaders. Within the discourse provided by this metaphor, the body of the the Muslim woman is regarded as the ‘Other’/the antagonist; Hindu men are instructed to rape Muslim women to avenge the imagined rapes of Hindu women by Muslim men. The most devastating example of this was seen in Gujarat 2002. Meanwhile, the apparatus of Indian democracy does not concern itself with justice for victims of sexual violence committed during pogroms. In Gujarat 2002, ‘sexual violence against women and girls appears to have been inflicted in a systematic manner, involving stripping, rape, mutilation and immolation to obliterate evidence.’[4] But only two cases have seen convictions; in most instances, the police refused to file complaints, investigation was derailed or the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. Bilkees Yakoob Rasool, a victim of gangrape and survivor of her slaughtered family, faced insurmountable odds in securing justice for herself. Before the general elections in 2014, anti-Muslim violence struck Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. This episode also involved the rape of Muslim women. In a nutshell, whenever Indian democracy needs a fresh lease of Hindu nationalist frenzy, Muslim women are raped.

But the vulnerability of Muslim women extends beyond immediate bodily harm to themselves. They also suffer as witnesses to targeted violence against Muslim men: for example as mothers of disappeared men in Kashmir, widows of Muslim men killed in encounters, wives of those who are implicated in false terror charges and anti-terror laws. Muslim women such as Zohra Bibi are vulnerable to intense economic disempowerment. But do Muslim women have a chance to represent themselves in arenas where they can be heard? Within the corridors of power such as the Parliament, or within the ‘secular’ realm of the public sphere for example educational institutes, Muslim women are largely absent even today. Those who venture to study in universities have to face the most banal forms of discrimination and Islamophobia.

Embodying Resistance

In Gujarat, apart from the waves of massacres that have occurred since 1969, Muslims lived in constant fear of persecution under the Prevention of Terrorism ACt (POTA) after 2002. As Zakia Jowher and Mukul Dube note, ‘POTA has been systematically used by the Government of Gujarat to terrorise the Muslim community into submission. At the end of 2003, 286 Muslims were booked under POTA on flimsy grounds and a deliberate attempt was made to make it appear that the Muslim community as a whole had taken to terrorism as a reaction to the post Godhra violence directed against it.’[5] As Muslim men were routinely arrested and harassed on flimsy pretexts, Muslim women of these ‘POTA families’ found themselves vulnerable to constant harassment by police. But one of these women, Salma, told me during my M.Phil. fieldwork in Ahmedabad, that the fear of POTA also emboldened them. She said that earlier, she had been completely ignorant about how the police functions, how an FIR is filed, for example. But after her son, Kalim, was arrested, she and Mehrun-nisa, her daughter-in-law, and many other women of her neighbourhood took part in anti-POTA rallies organised by the Gujarat Janandolan. She also began to stitch bags, in order to make up for the loss of a breadwinner. Mehrun-nisa would struggle and argue with the police, despite her pregnancy, in order to be allowed a chance to meet her husband in prison.

Salma and Mehrun-nisa embody a resistance which is born out of their suffering and vulnerability, a form of ‘political agency developed under conditions of duress.’[6] Their participation in public protests against POTA and their acts of resistance defy the claims of secular activists who accuse Muslims of being non-responsive to political turmoil, of responding only when icons of Islam are attacked.[7] These secular activists habitually draw parallels between religious extremism among Muslims and Hindutva in India. But these comparisons are misplaced because they do not recognise the asymmetrical vulnerability faced by Muslim women in the Hindu nation. Misrecognition of vulnerability also leads to disavowal of the resistance put forward by Muslim women, especially when resistance is founded upon the condition of being vulnerable. The solidarity that is extended to Muslim women by groups within the civil society often assumes a very paternalistic tone towards those women, imagining them as helpless and passive recipients of oppression. On the contrary, women like Fatima Nafees have demonstrated how they are active agents of resistance in the face of vulnerability, and not mere passive victims in need of support.

But let us not forget the fact that when these women, having faced violence from the state, make their presence felt and their voices heard in public protests, they are subjected to further violence and made vulnerable anew. Fatima Nafees and the women of the POTA families had to endure police harassment not only to themselves, but also to their family members. For each of these women, resistance comes with its own price; it is not a moment of glorious liberation, of speaking the decisive truth to power. Even during the due process of seeking legal justice, Muslim women are subjected to the constant surveillance of the state and gaze of a hostile public. In Gujarat 2002, Zahira Sheikh was the survivor and eyewitness to the Best Bakery massacre in Vadodara. Zahira was forced to retract her statements in court several times, because she faced constant death threats by local BJP leaders. Eventually, in a tragic turn of events, the Supreme Court sentenced Zahira to a year of imprisonment for lying under oath. As Megha Kumar writes, ‘Zahira’s predicament and her subsequent imprisonment had a chilling effect in Ahmedabad on some victims of sexual violence and activists engaged in rehabilitation work.’

Recently, Hadiya’s conversion — an act of resistance against the Hindu religion itself — was met with confinement by her father, parens patriae jurisdiction by the High Court (in which the court declared that it has full authority to supervise a “misguided” woman), and Islamophobic suspicions of the secular public sphere including journalists and mainstream feminists. But Hadiya’s resistance and her undaunted cry for freedom to live her life on her own terms gave a jolt to the Hindu nation and its Islamophobic hatred of women who convert to Islam.

But as revealed in the case of Hadiya’s conversion and marriage to Shafin Jahan, the Indian state has a vested interest in depicting Muslim women as helpless victims: this gives legitimacy to the state’s femo-nationalist intention of ‘saving’ Muslim women by showing that they are oppressed by the religious community to which they belong. The pretense of saving Muslim women by criminalising Muslim men in conjunction has been seen most blatantly in the recent Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017, which seeks to criminalise any man who issues triple talaq to his wife. The move to get this Bill passes came in the wake of campaigns by women’s organisations such as Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) and Bebaak Collective to get the practise of instant triple talaq among Muslims abolished by law. The campaigns by BMMA and Bebaak Collective have been opposed by the Muslim Mahila Research Kendra (MMRK), which insists that the Bill is ‘draconian as the civil matter is converted to a criminal offence and the husband is sentenced to jail for a term of 3 years.’[8] Notwithstanding the opposition between different organisations of Muslim women, it is clear that Muslim women’s efforts to initiate social reform and gender justice within their community has been hijacked and appropriated by the Indian state for its own motives. Be that as it may, it is clear that any movement for the emancipation of Muslim women, even when directed towards the institutions of the state with an expectation of ameliorative measures, must also include a critique of the power which those institutions represent.


Muslim women’s resistance is shaped in response to the violence inflicted often with complicity of the state. Hence, any genuine feminist understanding of solidarity for Muslim women must eschew a simplistic binary between paternalism and victimisation. What needs recognition is the fact that Muslim women face multiple marginalities in everyday life, but their resistance is also shaped through these. When it comes to the question of securing justice against violence, the state does not provide any reliable and timely measures. Therefore, as A. S. Zainaba, President of National Women’s Front said at the MMRK Press Conference in January, ‘Muslim women find the Islamic based dispute resolution fora such as darul qazas more accessible than courts and police stations as there is a general fear among the poor of accessing these formal structures.’

This is not to suggest that Muslim women do not face iniquities within their own Muslim community. Differences in income groups, hierarchies of caste among Muslims, the existence of patriarchy even among Muslims determine the relative dominance of certain groups among Muslims themselves. But instead of addressing these concerns with honesty, Muslims get defensive and often express indifference to intra-communal issues. This is the hallmark of a besieged minority: the need to always be vigilant of the state’s gaze from the outside surpasses the need for inward introspection. This much needed introspection can be fulfilled by Muslim women themselves

[1]Translation from Hindi: ‘The tears of a mother’

[2]I thank Sadath Hussain for discussing with to me the selective media portrayal of Najeeb’s mother

[3]Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti and Laticia Sabsay, Vulnerability in Resistance, Durham, NC: 2016, Duke University Press

[4]Megha Kumar, Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969, New Delhi 2017, Tulika Books

[5]Zakia Jowher and Mukul Dube, ‘POTA in Gujarat and Its meaning for India’ http://www.sacw.net/Gujarat2002/Dube_Jowher15August2004.html

[6]Judith Butler, et. al., Vulnerability in Resistance, p. 6

[7]For example, these claims about Muslims were made when Muslims protested against anti-Prophet remarks made Kamlesh Tiwari in 2015 and also when there were protests against Rohit Sardana’s comments about the Prophet’s daughter in 2017. There is a salience to protesting against Islamophobic attacks on Islamic icons, but this is not my point of discussion here.

[8]Mentioned in a Press Statement released by MMRK at the Constitution Club of India on 29th January, 2018