A mosque for women

In several Muslim countries of Asia and Africa, women have acquired the right to pray in mosques. In India, their entry is still resisted by the clergy. A mosque for women is already under construction in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district, thanks to the efforts of Sharifa Khanam and her group, writes Zarina Bhatty

Women’s entry into mosques for purposes of prayer is still resisted in India

IN judging the status of women of any religious community, it is generally assumed that their behaviour is determined only by scriptures. What is always ignored is that scriptures are written or narrated in the language of the country or region of their origin, but translated and interpreted in varied ways once a faith has crossed the borders of its original geographical and linguistic location. In the process, much of the original intent of the scriptures gets lost.

To this day, this has remained a crucial issue—unaddressed and ignored. Islam came to India from Arabia. The Koran and the Hadis (teachings of the Prophet) were translated into Indian languages and interpreted exclusively by Indian male scholars, whose mindset was, and continues to be, conditioned by local Hindu traditions and culture. Some of the local Indian cultural traditions were incompatible with pure Islamic strictures. However, this situation is not peculiar to India alone and has been observed in countries outside Arabia.

As a result, although there is only one Islam, there are many Muslim communities. In India, the situation is made worse by the fact that it is considered even holier to read the Koran and recite the Namaz in Arabic, a language which, barring a few scholars, is not understood by the masses. Furthermore, a highly patriarchal interpretation of the Koran and the teachings found legitimacy in the fact that Islam originated and flourished in Arabia at a time when tribal patriarchy existed in full force. Unfortunately, the historical context has been conveniently ignored and what’s important to note is that in terms of the position of women in Islam, a great deal depends on how Islamic scriptures are positioned historically and who translates and interprets them.

A few feminist scholars who have been studying and interpreting the Koran and the Hadis, claim that the holy book can be read in different modes, including an egalitarian one. So far, male scholars have interpreted the Koran only in the patriarchal mode; this has been the case in India, too. In some ways Indian Muslim women suffer more gender discrimination than their counterparts in other Islamic countries because some orthodox Hindu practices, which discriminated against women, were adopted by their communities. After the enactment of the Hindu Code Bill in 1954, Hindu women began to enjoy more rights and are today moving towards more substantive gender equality.

Muslim women in India, in contrast, have not progressed much due to the rigid attitude of the Muslim clergy and the absence of feminist scholarship. Some Muslim countries of Asia and Africa, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco and South Africa, are now witnessing the rise of Islamic feminism. In these countries, women, and even a few men who have faith in Islam and in whose lives religion plays an important role, feel troubled by the unequal gender practices perpetrated in the name of Islam. Scholars in these countries are interpreting Islamic scriptures in the feminist mode and now claim that equality of all human beings, irrespective of gender, class and colour, is the essential teaching of Islam.

For instance, based on this egalitarian interpretation, Morocco has modified its civil code removing gender inequalities from its laws. In Indonesia, too, the Ministry of Justice has appointed a commission of religious leaders, comprising 50 per cent women, to revise the family code in the light of gender equality derived from the Koran and the Hadis. It is reported that in Nigeria, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is interpreted in a gender-just manner to settle cases of adultery. In these countries women have acquired the right to pray in mosques, albeit in separate enclosures.

In Pakistan, too, the Muslim personal law has been modified to some extent. Women are allowed to pray in mosques but in separate enclosures. All this is a decided improvement on the situation prevailing in India, where women’s entry into mosques for purposes of prayer is still vigorously resisted.

In India it is heartening to learn that in Tamil Nadu a women’s group under the leadership of Sharifa Khanam, 42, has already begun construction of a separate women’s mosque in the Pudukkottai district, after failing to get entry into the exclusively male bastion of mosques.

Sharifa decided on a mosque that would be for women and run by women. She argues that the Koran and the Hadis do not forbid women from offering prayers in the mosque. Furthermore, the mosque, apart from being a place of worship, also provides a platform for discussing and resolving social and community problems. Keeping women out means that their problems are not addressed and, if addressed, decisions are made without consulting them. So Sharifa and other women decided to have a mosque of their own where their problems can be dealt with.

Opposition from the local maulvis was intense. The maulvis even invited their counterparts from Deoband, a town where India’s most famous Islamic seminary is situated, to give their fatwah (ruling issued by an Islamic scholar). It was ruled that the Koran does not allow women to go to mosques to offer prayers. But Sharifa’s group did not relent and countered by quoting verses from the Koran to justify women’s right to pray in the mosques.

The main reason for such rigid and orthodox attitude on the part of the Muslim clergy in India is that feminist scholarship is still lacking in the country, although across the globe a new breed of feminist scholarship is now emerging. Asma Barlas and Rifat Hassan from Pakistan (Rifat Hassan now resides in the US), Amina Waddud, an African-American, Zakia Mir Hosain from Iran and Fatima Mernici from Morocco are a few among those ‘liberated’ feminist scholars. According to them, there is no gender discrimination in the Koran. It was then decided to construct a mosque for women.

The construction of the mosque in Pudukkottai district, which began around three years ago, has been rather slow as a result of opposition from religious heads and shortage of funds. While the initial estimate was around Rs 25 lakh, the cost has now risen to Rs 40 lakh. But Sharifa Khanam is determined to complete the construction.

In the meantime, now around 20,000 women have joined Sharifa Khanam’s group and monthly meetings are held in each district of Tamil Nadu.

The writer is a Delhi-based academician and an expert on Muslim personal law.