India: Muslim women in India - prisoners without parole

New India Press
When her parents asked her to wear a burqa while attending her university classes, Fauzia refused to comply. The result was that she was barred from going to the university and sat at home washing dishes.
Barely 16, Safia, a brilliant student of Class 10, was on the warpath against her parents who had fixed her marriage with a man almost three times her age.
Safia, who aspired to be a doctor, had no choice but to discontinue her studies despite being a topper at school.

These are just two examples of forced illiteracy among Muslim women, which lies at the root of the backwardness of the community.

After the debilitating trauma of the subcontinent's division, Muslims struck to traditional forms of education in a futile bid to retain the identity of their religion. That's why we don't have many Fatima Beevis, Syeda Hameeds and Shabana Azmis.

While some people of the dead and defunct All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) are revelling over the model 'nikahnama', Muslim men are still divorcing women in a single sitting.

The latest case was of a woman who was divorced a day after the board declared its much hyped nikahnama!

Even now, the Indian Muslim women continue to be helpless. The responsibility for this doesn't lie with Islam, but with Muslim men who have curtailed most of the rights of their women in the face of the Quranic injunction that it is the duty of every Muslim man and woman to attain knowledge equally.

Muslim women in India are also handicapped by the dictates of Muslim personal law that is not scriptural in nature and the conservative 'ulema' interpret them in a very orthodox manner.

The Shariat law that came into being in 1937 is outmoded in its provisions relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance and the maintenance and custody of children.

The repression of women has weakened the Muslim community. The Muslim girl's lot has been reduced to that of a prisoner without parole, according to Fehmida Riyaz, a globally acclaimed Pakistani poetess.

One has heard of Muslim men opting for divorce over insignificant matters such as poorly cooked meals or the wife's choice of clothes.

But this is not what Islam is all about.

Prophet Mohammed abhorred divorce. At his time, women were even exhorted to act as imams and lead the congregational prayers. According to Islamic tenets, a Muslim woman can also seek divorce, though that rarely happens.

But she cannot act unilaterally, unlike a man. This inequality must be mitigated by the intervention of the state. Islam has unreservedly condemned those who use their legal rights of divorce indiscriminately.

Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tunisia and Turkey have enacted laws requiring permission from a court of law to remarry. Because of the increasing incidence of polygamy, the Islamic court of Dar-ul-Qaza has laid down the condition that polygamy will be allowed only if a person shows sufficient cause, and satisfies the authorities that he will be able to bear the additional economic burden and not divorce the first wife.

The time has come for Muslims to think about the uplift of their womenfolk within the four walls of the scriptures. But Indian Muslims have actually taken away from their women the rights the Quran has granted them.

Muslim fundamentalists throughout the world are trying to make Muslim women voiceless, faceless and nameless.

Women in Islam have many rights. Prophet Mohammed had restricted polygamy, discouraged divorce and forbade female infanticide. Moreover, he established a law of inheritance for women.

It is high time that Islamic laws are interpreted and understood from a progressive perspective to do away with discrimination. Prophet Mohammed did not discriminate between men and women.

(Ahmed is a teacher and commentator on social and political issues and the grandnephew of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, India's first education minister. He can be reached at

Originally published on 18 May 2005