Muslim Women


Discriminated against in society and concerned about discrimination against women in their homes, the two women who co-founded the Muslim Women’s Movement of India (BMMA) set up the organisation to promote Muslim women’s leadership in the country and help them claim their rights.

In an exclusive interview with IPS, Noorjehan Safia Niaz and Zakia Soman say they started BMMA to address communal tensions and prejudices within India and the inherent patriarchal biases they face inside and outside their homes.

Both Niaz and Soman believe that ‘communal’ tensions, the language of prejudice and violence against the Muslim minority in India, shaped their understanding of gender and identity. This led them to stand firm on the principles of gender justice and reform, which led to the formation of BMMA. Since 2007, this movement has grown to include more than 50,000 women.

Soman says she became aware of her Muslim identity while interacting with women survivors of the 2002 Gujarat riots in Ahmedabad. During these riots, many Muslim women were targeted and subjected to sexual violence.

“The Gujarat riots were preceded by 9/11 (the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in September 2001) and the so-called war on terror. I felt a huge burden of my identity. My Muslim name invoked curiosity wherever I went,” says Soman.

She realised that she was not alone and many Muslim women shared her feelings.

“On the one hand, there was communalism (collective ownership) and communal violence along with state neglect. On the other hand, we faced discrimination at home and within the family, wrongly in the name of religion,” she said.

Soman says she was in an “abusive relationship”, and that she and other Muslim women “decided to come together and take charge of our situation”.

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BMMA was born out of these feelings to change a communal patriarchal world in Muslim communities in India.

For Niaz, the journey began in 1992, just after the demolition of Babri Masjid, a mosque in Ayodhya, a northern Indian city on the banks of the holy river Sarayu.

What followed was communal violence across the country. Eighteen Muslims were killed in Ayodhya after houses and shops were demolished and set on fire. Across the country 2000 people were killed, including in Mumbai, India’s most populous city and financial capital.

This communal violence and insecurity were the reasons why Muslim women emerged as leaders in their community, she said.

“At that time, there was also a deeper understanding of all the issues, especially the basic need for education, livelihood, health and security,” Niaz said. “In addition, we had also seen firsthand the legal discrimination faced by Muslim women due to the lack of a codified Muslim family law,” she said.

This became BMMA’s central demand because “we know that if we don’t demand it, no one else will.

“Our struggle, our leadership’ became our motto. Muslim women must lead based on the values of the Holy Quran and the Constitution of India. (Women) must demand their rights emanating from their religion and their identity as citizens of this country,” Niaz said during her interview with IPS.

“Zakia approached me with the idea of a national platform, and that’s how it all started. We worked for two years on the vision, mission, goals, values and principles that would govern the movement, with other women leaders,” she explained.

After talking to other Muslim women leaders in various states and after two years of deliberations, in 2007, the BMMA was formally launched.

Since its formation, BMMA has led change from within the Muslim world in India on several fronts.

BMMA members at a leadership training programme. The organisation has grown to over 50,000 women and has achieved significant success in advocating for Muslim women in India. Photo: BMMA

Soman and Niaz recall the various victories and associate them with the tireless struggle of members who continued to fight for their rights despite having little or no recourse and often felt the wrath of the community for “daring to demand their rights”.

One such victory was the Haji Ali judgment, which overturned the ban on women entering the shrine of the Muslim Sufi religious temple Dargah/Shrine in Delhi.

The BMMA had initiated Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to stop the discriminatory practice. It was a victory backed by the Supreme Court of India and paved the way for women from other communities to demand an end to discrimination in religious places.

Another significant achievement was the filing of a PIL against triple divorce, polygamy and ‘halal’, as defined as not prohibited in Islamic law. A major Muslim group in India maintained the practice of triple divorce, a method where Muslim men could divorce their wives simply by pronouncing the term ‘Talaaq’, or divorce, three times, which was abolished in 2019.

Forming ‘darul-uloom-e-niswaan (houses of Islamic knowledge or seminaries)’ and training 20 women to become ‘qazis’ or religious scholars is a first in India and both consider it a great achievement.

“Some of the women we have trained have even performed ‘nikahs (religious weddings)’, defying patriarchal norms,” Niaz added.

Despite limited resources and criticism, state leaders and members continue to work with the most marginalised women, addressing issues ranging from applying for scholarship schemes for their children and livelihood skills training to empowering them with information on constitutional and Koranic rights.

Most of the women leaders run centres from their homes, many in poor ghettos to reach those most in need.
The movement and its leaders have been criticised for addressing women’s rights at a time when Islamophobia and communal violence are on the rise.

According to Soman, change and reform are slow and require continuous efforts and support from the wider community and progressive forces.

“It is not easy to confront the patriarchal religious system that has governed the communal mindset for decades. Nor is it easy to fight against a discriminatory communal order in the face of state apathy,” Soman said.

“I am not concerned about the views of special interests. I feel satisfied when I see how scores of women riot survivors have become fierce activists in the last two decades,” she said. The BMMA has created women leaders across the country.

“These women had no voice in the cacophony of conservative religious men. (The leaders) have shown the whole world that gender justice is intrinsic to Islam. They have changed the perception of their religion in the eyes of ordinary Indians,” she says.

The path chosen was never easy. They were asked why the state should be involved in matters of ‘sharia’ (Islamic law). They were insulted and called puppets of ‘hindutva’, the definition of supremacist and right-wing supremacist sections of Hinduism in India. This criticism came from both religious groups and so-called secular liberal feminists.

With the additional challenge brought about by covid-19, Niaz is confident that the path chosen is the right one.

“Amidst rising Islamophobia, lynchings and open calls for annihilation of the community by the state and Indian state-backed Hindutva forces, how can the BMMA continue to speak in favour of family law reforms for the benefit of Muslim women?” they were asked.

The two women and other women leaders spread across the states of India, united by shared goals of empowering and uplifting Muslim women, find strength in each other.

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Vol 54, No. 36, March 6 - 12, 2022