December Issue 2015
Book Review: Changing India
Changing India is a collection of essays by Iqbalunnisa Hussain, first published in 1940. Compiled by her daughter, Salima R. Ahmed, the aim of the compilation is to introduce Hussain’s work to the modern Muslim world and to educate and enlighten readers about the issues of Muslim women.
Hussain was born in Bangalore in 1897, and identifies herself as a “Muhammedan writer.” She was married at the age of 15 to a government official, who urged her to acquire an education. This fostered her strong belief in women’s education and the need to reform Islamic tradition in order to improve the status of women in society. In the spirit of her reformist nature, Hussain established a middle school for girls, a vocational training centre for women and a teachers’ association in Bangalore. She was also a keen member of the All-India Women’s Conference.
In these 34 essays, the author argues that issues surrounding polygamy,purdah, marriage, education and dowry can be changed for the better for women if Islamic rulings are reformed.
In one essay titled ‘Ijtihad: The Basic Principle of Islam,’ Hussain writes that ijtihad (consensus) can liberate Muslim women, but that it is not used enough. She defines ijtihad as “independent judgement on a legal problem,” but goes on to say that this principle should be extended to other social issues as well.
In another essay, ‘Woman as an Individual,’ Hussain criticises the practice of polygamy, arguing that it is against a woman’s natural instincts. She says that a woman who adheres to rigid traditions will never be able to improve her living conditions.
Hussain also makes a strong argument against purdah. In ‘Purdah and Progress,’ she criticises the practice and says that it deprives women of educational, social, economic and physical liberties. She asserts that purdah-clad women are not accepted in society as civilised individuals when compared to the women of other communities. However, her argument gets a bit convoluted when she changes track to say that the purdah is also advantageous because it protects women from objectification, before reverting to her original stance, that, despite this benefit, the purdah only secludes women and limits their mobility. This inconsistency of argument is one of several flaws in Hussain’s work.
Another flaw is Hussain’s insistence on stereotyping Muslim women’s roles in life. She wants to bring about a revolution in the status of Muslim women, arguing that the progress of any society is only possible if the women of that society are educated. But by refusing to acknowledge that women can play any other role in society apart from that of mothers and daughters, Hussain defeats her own purpose.
The essays also have a narrow focus and are not even representative of all Muslim women, because Hussain’s focus is entirely on women in the subcontinent. Lastly, Hussain’s essays are set in a completely different time period, and for today’s reader, her work might not be as relevant as it may have been when first published.
Rather than a social critique of the Muslim woman’s experiences in the subcontinent, Changing India is really a collection of personal opinions. It is difficult to view Hussain’s book as a substantial body of work because it does not really give any ground-breaking insight into the position of Muslim women in society. The book does unarguably make an attempt to educate and to be critical of serious social issues, but ultimately, Hussain’s analysis is inadequate.