Fri, 22 Aug 2003

The Muslim women of India: From purdah to politics

Omar Kureishi, The Dawn, Asia News Network, Karachi

The official declaration of 2003 as the Year of the Madar-e- Millat puts the spotlight on what is nowadays called the empowerment of women. Miss Fatima Jinnah certainly embodies a role model -- a sister who not only took it upon herself to look after her widowed brother but also became a companion in his political pursuits.

At the same time she continuously exhorted the Muslim women of India (and then of Pakistan) to come out and do their bit for society and the nation. The most significant step in the field of female encouragement in recent years has been the substantial increase in the number of women's seats in the assemblies and the local bodies through the otherwise much-maligned Legal Framework Order. But the truth is that it is not government actions that prompt women to take to public life. They emerge from the four walls of the home when circumstances so demand, and the urge comes from within their hearts and minds.

This aspect comes out very well in a book called Muslim Women of the British Punjab by Dushka Saiyid of Islamabad's Quaid-i- Azam University. It was published some years ago, but just as Irfan Husain in his column on Saturday confessed to reading Dr Mubashir Hassan's revealing book about Zulfikar Ali Bhutto three years after it came out, I too somehow took my time in going through it. The book chronicles the march of Punjabi women from seclusion to politics, accelerated as it was by changing social conditions and increasing awareness.

The Punjabi Muslim woman was far behind her Hindu, Sikh and Christian sisters, both in education and development as an independent and self-assured member of society. Seclusion behind the veil and the four walls of the home was the main reason for this. Dushka Saiyid points out a significant aspect of this handicap. The Muslim gentry, the shurafa, agreed that their concept of purdah was not strictly Islamic, but then (they said) how could they observe the Islamic version and let their women loose to imbibe heretical influences?

Many factors played their part in Muslim women's backwardness in Punjab and their emergence from purdah in a bid to take their due place in society. Social taboos, restrictive laws, lack of education and confinement to the kitchen were responsible for the former, while enlightened education outside the home, release from the constraints of purdah and gradual participation in politics -- mainly in the context of the Muslim identity -- led to the latter. It was an uphill task, and it speaks volumes for the Muslim women's good sense and strength of purpose that she brought about a complete metamorphosis in her personality in the fifty years before Pakistan. Since then of course it has been an easy journey.

A refreshing addition to my knowledge was the visit to Lahore by Sarojini Naidu, the "Nightingale of India" and great friend and admirer of Jinnah's, at the invitation of the Islamic Education Conference in December 1917, during which she called upon the Muslims of Punjab not to force their women to observe purdah. In this she was ahead of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who, despite being a great reformer, did not mind Muslim women remaining secluded, nor was he a keen votary of their education. His point was that if Muslim men acquired modern education some kind of liberation for women would automatically follow.

Keeping today's conditions in mind, it's a wonder no maulvi or newspaper stood up to abuse Miss Naidu for having the cheek to interfere in an Islamic matter and trying to lead Muslim women astray. I suppose we were more tolerant of non-Muslims when we lived in their midst than we are now when you can't find a Hindu or Sikh to show to your children and the atmosphere in the country is completely and wholly Muslim.

There were legal hurdles too in the way of Muslim women. In complicity with their feudal Muslim friends, the British had, in 1872, foisted the customary law on Punjabi Muslims, thus preventing operation of the Sharia in respect of inherited property. The shurafa did not want their daughters to have a share in the property left by their elders. This un-Islamic law could not be undone till 1937. Even now, among many agricultural tribes in Punjab, daughters are deprived of their share.

Let me tell you a story about this. A few years ago I asked the head of one of the leading feudal Jat families why they did not follow the example of the Holy Prophet in this behalf. (His son-in-law was a very dear friend of mine and I was permitted this liberty). You may not believe it but the cynical reply was, "My life for the Prophet, but when this law was laid down what did the Arabs have? A few camels and some date trees? If they had canal-irrigated squares of land I would have liked to see how they gave them to their daughters!"

Dushka Saiyid pays a lot of tribute to Muslim writers, poets and newspaper-owners for their missionary zeal in favor of education, emancipation and advancement of Punjabi women. It had to be men, for none of the Muslim women were in a position to write and broadcast their views till just a few years before independence. These writers, she says, created an intellectual climate that made the liberation of Muslim women central to the contemporary debate and discussion of social issues.

The author cites two occasions in modern history when Muslim women came out of their homes to participate in political campaigns. The first was the Khilafat movement when the Ali Brothers' mother toured Punjab, addressed public meetings and thus broke the taboo on politics as the exclusive preserve of men. The second was in the forties when the Quaid-i-Azam followed a deliberate policy of getting Muslim women to take part in politics in order to strengthen the demand for Pakistan.

The Quaid visited girls' schools and colleges and addressed the students. This policy paid dividends, as school and college girls from Punjab played a major role in popularizing the movement and displayed a militancy unheard of among Punjabi Muslim women.

They toured all over, even the conservative North West Frontier Province (NWFP), took out processions, hoisted the Muslim League flag on the secretariat and withstood teargas shells, when many of them were still in burqa. They made the point that Muslim women were out of the confines of the home to shape the future of a new country as partners of Muslim men. More than women, Muslim men should read Dushka Saiyid's book.