Zakia Soman: We Must Fight the Men of Religion

Zakia Soman

ZakiaSoman, the founder of Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (an organisation of Muslim women in India), has been the wheel behind the mass movement demanding the law to criminalise the draconian practice of Triple Talaq.Soman, the epitome of pluralistic faith, remained untouched of hatred peddled in the aftermath of 2002 Gujarat violence while her activism brought together thousands of women to stand against religious prejudices, finally resulting into The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2019.

In an exclusive interview with Countercurrents, she spoke to Ujjawal Krishnam.

Faultline today seems to be the degree of religious orientation which has diluted conscience. This is now allowing propagation of misogyny in the garb of religion…

The fact of patriarchy and woman subjugation masquerading as religion is as old as religion itself. We are a deeply religious society and our constitution gives us the right to religious freedom. All the talk of secularism being an ideal has not translated into reality in the lives of ordinary women and men. Religion as a personal belief is one thing but religion as an institutionalized system is a huge nuisance. It is a threat to democracy, justice and equality. Women are denied their rights in the name of religion and on the other hand, women are instrumentalised as torch bearers of an unfair order that is sought to be passed off as religious customs and traditions. Women have to seize the situation pro-actively and wrest their Ishwar or Allah or God back from this misogynist set-up. Women must refuse to be cowed down by the unfettered power of men of religion, many of whom are just power mongers.

Whatis the biggest challenge for women’s movement in this country?

The biggest challenge is of course the deep-rooted patriarchy in community, society and politics. Despite the Constitutional promise of gender justice and equality the male-domination mindset undermines the rights and well-being of women and girls. This is witnessed in every sphere of life- at home, at work, during movement outside, in public life – everywhere.

When it comes to minorities, including Muslims, the political parties mainly address the concerns of only ‘male members’ of the communities. Indian politics has a history of rejecting the rights of women–from Shah Bano case to Sabrimala…

The hope comes from ordinary women speaking out against injustice and for equality the way it was seen in the Muslim women’s movement against triple talaq. Ordinary women may not use words like “feminism” but they know that Allah created them equal. They know that throwing her out by uttering these 3 words is wrong and it is not sanctioned by the Quran. She is demanding justice from the political system and democratic institutions like the courts and others. The women who have stood up and fought against rape and violence in far-off places outside of the media glare are the brave new heroines of India. The hope comes from such ordinary voices.

Your comment on politicisation of critical issues like FGM or The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019?

All political parties in our country have used religion for political gains. This includes the BJP, Congress and most others. Although the govt took a correct stand on triple talaq abolition in the SC, they back tracked on Sabarimala. It is about keeping vote-banks happy. Unfortunately, in our country everything gets politicized and the marginalized continue to suffer. But the fact remains that Indian women are inequal even after seventy years of independence and several decades after the Constitution promised equality.

What barricades did you have to overcome in the ‘patriarchal’ India?

I have had my own share of injustice and violence in my personal life. That said, I got my inspiration from my fellow women in Gujarat who were struggling to gather the strands of their lives after the communal violence of 2002. The way some of these women were fighting for justice, with so much courage and faith in democracy was really inspiring for me. It jolted me out of my middle-class existence and brought out the rebel in me. It has been a very fulfilling and enriching journey ever since.

How do you see ‘Me Too in India’?

I would not say that Me Too has petered out but yes, it did not receive adequate attention from the powerful and the well-known, several of whom were the accused. Like I said, patriarchy is omnipresent and all powerful. Why would somebody like a sitting minister or a film personality support Me Too when man of his colleagues are the accused! And who knows, perhaps he fears that “kahimera number bhina lag jaye”! It is a power circle that is vicious and challenging to break. But we now have the law against sexual harassment at workplace since 2013. What we need is awareness, education, empowerment of women to be able to speak out. For this there has to be a paradigm shift in societal attitudes where a woman speaking out against sexual harassment is heard and not vilified and demonized. We need to shed our age-old ideas about “good woman” and “bad woman”. We need to hold men accountable for their criminal and immoral behaviour.

How was this movement against Triple Talaq catalysed?

It all started when way back in 2008-2009 when women started coming to us saying,“you are helping me with my child’s education [ or other issues] but my husband has just thrown me out by uttering talaq; please help me.” That is when we realized how grave the situation was and we began working on reform in Muslim personal law in a sustained manner. In December 2012, we held a national meeting where 500 women from different states participated and victims of triple talaq narrated their painful stories. It made everybody cry, this was covered in the media. We have been campaigning for legal justice in family ever since.

The way forward…

Ideally, India must have a codified Muslim marriage law just like the Hindu marriage law and other laws passed by the parliament for all communities. Such a law should lay down a divorce procedure and regulate other aspects such as marriage age, polygamy, property share etc.

The legal discrimination of Muslim women in the name of upholding minorities rights and supposed secularism must end. A licence to Muslim man to violate the rights of his wife cannot be termed secularism. It is inhuman and wrong and must be stopped.

We are a Muslim women’s group [BMMA] that believes in gender justice and equal citizenship. The struggle for this is very long and it would continue. More and more women and men will own up these spaces and join the action be it for reform in Muslim family law or for a just and inclusive India.

How do you see Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013?

Yes, I chair the ICC of a major social organization and realize that the challenges of sexual harassment far outweigh what the law covers. The awareness about the law is very low and the lesser said the better about the enforcement. 90% of India’s work force is in informal sector. For example, the women vendors in public places and women working in small joints hardly have protection. How will they benefit from the law? Equally, we need sensitization of employers, employees, police, judiciary, administration – all against sexual harassment. We need to create awareness about it being criminal behaviour. The government and social organizations can do a lot to build this awareness

In India, Purdah is seen both as an identity as well as a manifestation of patriarchy. This projection is almost the same globally. Where exists the thin line between identity and patriarchy driven imposition?

I am against any kind of dress code. I see it as plain and simple violation of individual freedom. Patriarchy controls the whole world and it includes the men and women inhabiting the world. This is a very complex issue. The identity question is equally complex with several nuances such based in political, cultural and social realities. I laugh at the woman’s own decision to cover her head; is there really a choice for her?

Ujjawal Krishnam is an Independent Journalist & Researcher




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