Friday, May 9, 2008
‘My work is a necklace of hot burning coals'
“I have courage, not authority. My work is a necklace of hot burning coals,” says Sharifa who heads the Muslim Women’s Jamaat of Tamil Nadu.
Daud Sharifa Khanam is an activist and first recipient of the Durgabai Deshmukh Award, instituted by the Central Social Welfare Board in 1999. She began the monthly Jamaat (congregation) for Muslim women in 2003, to provide Muslim women a space to express themselves and contest traditional, repressive diktats.
The Muslim Women’s Jamaat is an attempt to challenge the authority of the traditional jamaat system which, to a large extent, controls the social life of Muslims. Each mosque elects a group of influential men from within the community to form what is known in Tamil Nadu as the pallivaasal jamaat.
Besides managing the affairs of the mosque, the all-male jamaat also arbitrates in community affairs, acting as caste panchayats in hearing and settling disputes and ruling on matrimonial matters including divorce, custody and maintenance. They are respected and feared and have the backing of the mullahs. They even get funds from the wakf boards.
Denying a space even for burial
Sharifa says jamaat members often thrust their decisions on women, threatening to “deny them a space even in the burial ground” if they fail to obey their decree.
A woman cannot become a member of the jamaat committee. Worse, since women are not allowed into mosques where the jamaat committee meetings are held, a woman cannot represent her own case to the committee. She can at best send her husband or brother to represent her. A woman’s life can thus be decided by a group of men without her being given even a hearing!
The Jamaat encourages a liberal interpretation of Shariat law, freeing women from patriarchal bias. It takes up disputes, intervening to try and get women a better deal in what are, basically, unequal marriages. The jamaat has spread to several districts in Tamil Nadu, with coordinators in each district, most of them voluntary workers.
“We are slandered as anti-religion, anti-Islam. But it’s not a religious struggle, it’s a power struggle,” says Sharifa. She has been reviled, abused from the mosques and threatened for organising Muslim women in rural Tamil Nadu to resist the oppression of the mullahs.
Many of the women who come to Sharifa seek redress from the unfair judgments of the traditional jamaats. This often puts her and her organisation in direct confrontation with the male jamaats and religious elders. This is the major reason for their hostility.
However, they are beginning to recognise the positive role that Sharifa’s group can play and occasionally approach them for intervention.
A turbulent life
Sharifa Khanam herself has had a turbulent life. Her father died early and her brothers ran the household in traditional, patriarchal style. However, she was given a decent schooling and sent to Aligarh Muslim University for her graduate studies. Unfamiliar with north India, Sharifa was unhappy and dropped out. Her elder brother was so angry that he cut off her allowance.
Sharifa decided to support herself by giving tuitions. Once she was offered the chance to act as translator at a women’s conference in Patna as she had picked up Hindi in Aligarh and spoke it better than most Tamil women.
The event was an eye-opener for her. “It was the first time that I heard of women’s rights. I was surprised! I realised that these women were speaking of the same kind of oppression that went on in my own house too.”
In 1987, she set up the organisation STEPS Women’s Development Group. STEPS began functioning in Pudukottai as a community welfare centre for women, but soon it began handling cases on behalf of battered women.
In 1991, with the backing of progressive bureaucrat Sheela Rani Chunkath, who was then collector of Pudukottai, Sharifa was able to get a piece of land in the heart of the town and build a room to live in and work out of.
In 1995, Sharifa decided to focus on the women of her community since they seemed singularly helpless in the face of dual oppression, both as women and members of a minority community.
In a few years, Sharifa was able to set up a strong women’s organisation, tackling numerous cases of violence against women and solving matrimonial disputes.
Sharifa says that in the last 15 years she has handled around 10,000 petitions from Muslim women alone. Members interact with the police and lawyers to ensure the speedy resolution of cases. “If the response is poor, we take to the streets,” says Sharifa.
In the past 10 years, Sharifa has mobilised women in 10 districts across Tamil Nadu. Women leaders travel to Muslim residential areas to spread word about the jamaat.
A mosque for women
In a dramatic challenge to the patriarchy of the all-male jamaats, the women thought of building their own mosque. A local family agreed to donate the land for the mosque.
However, the tremendous publicity that the announcement of the mosque generated led to an angry counter-campaign from the ulemas. Under pressure, the donors withdrew the offer.
Sharifa then decided to build the mosque on her own land. This led to the edict that Islam does not permit an unmarried woman to build a mosque. Sharifa promptly accepted a proposal of marriage from a progressive businessman.
Sharifa visualises the women’s mosque as a place for prayer as well as community service, with a meeting hall, a shelter for destitute women and a training and education centre for girls.
It will have a woman priest and other female religious functionaries. Men will be permitted to enter and pray but they will not control the mosque.
Sadly, today the mosque at Thandeeswaram village near Pudukottai town stands built only up to basement level, as the organisation has run out of money to complete it.
Despite an organisation to run and a baby girl to take care of, Sharifa, now a feisty 42, plans a fund raising tour in India and abroad. “My target is to raise a million dollars for the women’s mosque” she says, confident that she will achieve her dream.
By Sujata Madhok
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.