January issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

In Tamil Nadu, Sherifa Khanum is challenging hardliners for ignoring the spirit of equality, charity, debate and justice enshrined in Islam, and for using religion to discriminate against women. She handles hundreds of applications a year from women who have been cheated of their rights by all-malejamaats (congregation councils) who sit in the cool confines of mosques, adjudicating on family matters such as divorce settlements, domestic abuse and child custody.

“The jamaats have no legal authority but they are strong and the community can force the woman to accept their judgment. The women are not educated, they don’t know that Islam forbids dowry and the law protects them against dowry demands,” says Sherifa. But when a Muslim woman shows up at the police station, hoping to file a complaint, she is often told to apply to her local jamaat for justice — the very jamaat which she knows has never ruled in favour of a woman.

Advocate Fathima Sultana, in Chennai, is familiar with the phenomenon. “Firstly, a woman is not allowed inside the mosque, so her evidence is not heard. Her brother or father has to represent her. There he is often cowed into silence by baseless allegations against his daughter or sister. Hundreds of these jamaats deliver decisions that they have no legal basis to enforce. These are matters that must be tried in a court of law,” she says.

In Pudukottai, Sherifa runs an oasis of hope for women who have no chance of being heard by their malejamaats. “We have caseworkers who will escort the woman to the police station, where we have to tell the police officer that he must register the complaint or he stands in violation of his duty. We sensitise the police thatjamaats have no legal rights to decide the women’s fate. We also have a caseworker fluent in Arabic who quotes passages from the Quran that protect women’s rights, so the women know what they are doing is not un-Islamic. These men who can give 10-hour lectures on the rights of women in Islam, I say to them, give women their rights. All the men in jamaats know the Prophet (PBUH) would hear testimony from women and he was fair in his rulings, they know it is not Islam but greed for power that they practice.”

Sherifa held several meetings in surrounding villages with thousands of women where she floated the idea of ajamaat that included women. She collected 10,000 signatures and marshalled all the women’s suggestions into a letter that she sent to the Waqf board. It came back unopened.

So she started her own jamaat, which meets twice a month and listens to the testimony of women, like those who find out one morning, through a letter from their local jamaat, that they must vacate their home so that their husband can divorce them and marry his mistress or those women who find themselves distraught over some unreasonable ruling.

The jamaat invites the woman’s husband and witnesses and gives them 10 days to respond, after which they begin legal proceedings against the man. “Mostly, all it takes is a letter to the all-male jamaat telling them we will cite them for human rights abuses and this immediately gets them to retract their decision. Then without the protection of his jamaat, the man will either back off or settle the matter in a decent fashion.”

Sherifa’s organisation, Steps, is helping women across the board but she finds that Muslim women are the ones who are caught in the crossfire of illegal rulings and extremist tradition. She has spent all her savings laying the foundation of a mosque on a property far from the protective shade of the Steps office and the women’s shelter.

“They say in the international press, this is the first women’s mosque in the world, but I don’t care what they say. There is need for a space where a woman can breathe and sit, reflect for a few minutes, a place that is safe, where she is welcomed, not bullied, and then a space where a jamaat will help resolve community and family disputes.” The all-female jamaat functions as a secular body that offers guidance to women caught in the clutch of illegal rulings by all-male jamaats.

Sherifa has been slandered and humiliated by local jamaat members: “The jamaats like to say this women’s shelter is a prostitution [racket]. I spent many years trying, but I was 23 when I started and now I am 40 plus and I know the way is to take their power from them and challenge them, not back down because of personal threats,” says Sherifa, who still needs to raise 35 lakhs for the mosque. But she is happy to take donations in the form of labour, concrete, doors, anything that will help her realise the dream that one day women will not be denied justice.

Sherifa is asking the government to recognise the all-women jamaat. She has galvanised women in the region, held hunger strikes, spoken at conferences and is demanding that local bureaucrats and politicians condemn all-male jamaats for legitimising discrimination against women.

Most moderate Muslims, who are confronted by hardliners, leave the mosque grounds swearing never to return. Not Sherifa Khanum. She promises to push right into their midst to take back the space that the extremists have denied women.

Related articles from the January 2010 issue.

The Gender Apartheid

The Female Imam