Insights into Indian Islam

Date: April 2010

Landing in Delhi, I was flying high because I had just read that the Indian parliament voted for a bill (in the Rajya Sabha) reserving 33% of seats for women in parliament – a crescendo moment for India, women and activists. Unlike the health care debate in Congress, both sides of the aisle – the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the left wing Communist Party of India (CPI) members – submerged their differences and supported the bill for the “greater good.”

Sonia Gandhi, President of the Congress Party and Italian-born wife of the late Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, championed this legislation, following in the footsteps of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, who abolished the Privy Purse for Indian royalty and Rajiv Gandhi, who allocated 33% seats for women on village councils through Panchayati raj.

Tehelka, Mother Jones of India, hosts lunch for Muslim Women’s Fund

On my first day in Delhi, I met with 12 exciting Muslim women opinion leaders at a lunch hosted by Tehelka, a public interest website, weekly magazine and publishing company (Read Tehelka’s story here). The group included journalists and NGO leaders, government leaders, advertising gurus, and staunch Indian secularists who represented human rights and women’s rights NGOs in both rural and urban India. There were clear delineations between our Saudi and Indian sisters photograph of Delhi meeting

In a nutshell, secularism, democracy and heterogeneity are three key defining characteristics of India and they were evident in full splendor at our lunch and differentiated Indian sisters from our Saudi sisters whom I had reported on in my last e-newsletter.

Discussion Focused on India’s Distinctive Issues

Dr. Safia Mehdi of the Muslim Women’s Forum, an academic at the Jamiya Milya Ismailya University, asserts that education and economic empowerment of women are our issues. We would like to work with our sister at the Muslim Women’s Fund on these issues. I concur: we are in synch. Video of Dr. Safia Mehdi

Shabnam Hashmi represented Unhud, a well-respected Indian NGO which runs women’s empowerment centers in Haryana, Kashmir and Gujarat. They work with the Mewati Muslims in 400 villages of Haryana and Rajasathan and also work in 30 Kashmiri villages. Shabnam was crystal clear when she said: Our work is being done in the framework of the Indian constitution. I am disturbed by you looking at Muslim women only through the Shariah lens. That falls into the trap of the fundamentalists. 90% of Muslims are Video of Shabnam Hashminot fundamentalist so why work through the mosque?

In Kashmir’s conflict zones, women face a special set of challenges and Tanvir of Unhud explains: There are lots of bans. 50% of the women are widows in a village and in one particular village there are 300 widows. Unhud does political and social education and now has a crafts center, which gives women a way to go out of the house. Kashmiri women always had a place in society and it is one place in India where women can attend the mosque.

Laila Tyabji is a trailblazer whom I’ve long admired and wanted to meet. For 30 years, Laila has advocated for and advanced Indian craftswomen. Through her organization, Dastkar, she has enabled rural craftswomen to find markets, develop a customer base and earn a sustainable living. Laila offered her version of the secularist, anti-mosque perspective: We work with the crafts. There is no gender bias and no community bias. The strength of crafts people is that they are multi-cultural and that can serve as a catalyst for development. In Kutch she said, People build on each others’ strengths but now there are new political parties coming in and changing the balance….

Shazia is a young, hip TV journalist who worked with Star News and is the daughter of the publisher of an Urdu newspaper. She has watched, what she calls, the communalization of Urdu (the language of Indian Muslims). She tracks caste, class and gender issues and specifically high-profile legal cases and infamous fatwas (legal but non-binding opinions) in the Muslim community. In the famous Imrana affair, the jurist demanded that the father-in-law, who had claimed his daughter-in-law while his son was at war, had first rights to her even when his son returned from war. The fatwas are issued in the name of Islam. But are they Islamic?

Yasmeen Abrar, the government of India’s Director of the National Commission for Women, also attended the lunch. She highlighted the Indian government’s allocation of Rupees 400 crores ($95 million) over five years for the advancement of Indian women. The funds were being grantedVideo of Yasmeen Abrar and her daughter exclusively to Indian NGOs for implementation. Mrs. Abrar urged the Muslim Women’s Fund to apply for a grant, which we will follow up on. (Mrs. Abrar’s daughter translates for her in mother in English in the video.)

Dr. Sabiha Hussain is an academic and researcher at Jamiya Milya Ismailya University in Dehli. She is the author of two books, The Changing Half: A Case Study of the Indian Muslim Woman and Exposing the Myths of Muslim Fertility. She shares the plight of 3-year-old girls and women, who rely on incense production in Gaya, Bihar: They eat one meal a day but the second meal comes from rolling a kilo of incense sticks. It takes 6-8 hours a day and earns them Rs. 9 (20 cents). Incense production is a toxic business and by the time the girls reach puberty, they encounter respiratory problems; and their health and education are arrested. Producing incense is the last and least preferred means of employment, explains Sabiha. She constantly hears the refrain which validates our Fund’s focus on creating employment: We want a means of livelihood, sewing machines for our daughters, contracts for school uniforms and knitting machines.

Meeting with Mrs. Ansari, wife of India’s Vice President

One of the highlights of Dehli was the privilege of having a quiet, intimate lunch with Mrs. Salma Ansari, wife of the Vice President of India. She lives in one of Luyten’s fabulous bungalows (more like a mansion) with spacious grounds, gardens and dahlias a foot wide. She served a fusion lunch down to the palette-cleansing sorbet served in a period setting.

More importantly, Mrs. Ansari is an incredible Muslim woman, the wife of a diplomat who is now Vice President of India. Mrs. Ansari has lived in many Muslim countries and consistently started schools. Seeds were planted in her teenage years when she attended Aligarh University, one of India’s premier Muslim academic institutions in Lucknow.  She told us about her student days when she would ride into the poorest Muslim slums on horseback since there were no roads for cars. She started three madrassas in Lucknow in the poorest of slums, including Al noor, which was inhabited by Rickshawallas and prostitutes. She shared her wisdom on schooling underprivileged children: Education has to be redefined. Don’t give the kids homework. Disregard the age of the child in class and please don’t fail the kids. Financial stipends to the family help to secure support for their child’s education.

While Mrs. Ansari struggled with raising funds for the schools, her teachers would say to her, “don’t worry, you don’t have to pay me for six months.” Today, the Indian government supports her three schools in Lucknow by providing ($7) monthly stipends to the children, free books, school bags, salaries for two teachers and up to Rs. 5 lakhs ($12,500) for each school.

Before we left, Mrs. Ansari indulged us with a lovely tour of the gardens and a visit to the mosque and mandir (temple) on the property, both of which she has had refurbished simply and embellished appropriately by village artisans. As we were saying our goodbyes, in a crowning moment, Mrs. Ansari said: Hinduism taught me my Islam. These five words captured the essence of Indian Islam. What a perfect statement from the Vice President’s wife, who was preparing to inaugurate the temple the next day.

Zooming out on the advice and wisdom of our Indian sisters, I was reminded by what Farah Pandith, President Obama’s emissary to Muslims worldwide, said about the President’s new lexicon: There is no such thing as the Muslim world, only Muslim communities. I would add that it is imperative for our Fund to look, listen and learn about local nuances as we support women’s education and economic empowerment through grassroots NGOs in Muslim communities globally.

Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin’s blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife. Khadijah is the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist

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