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Muslim women and the courage to change

By Shobha S.V , Tue, 09 Sep 2008 NI Wire

At the recent National Convention of Muslim Women organised by the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) in New Delhi, over 800 women from different walks of life came together to share detailed testimonies of neglect and discrimination, caused by the government and so-called custodians of culture and religion. K.S. Saleeka, the only Muslim MLA from Kerala, who fulfilled her political ambitions despite family opposition; Orissa's Nazama Bibi, who challenged religious diktat to remain married to her husband; and Gujarat riot victim, Shakeela Begum, who has been trying for six years to file an FIR against the police are just some of the inspiring women who took part in the convention.

The 33 per cent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj paved the way for K.S. Saleeka's political career. Currently, she is the only female Muslim Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in Kerala. Saleeka, 46, has an unassuming demeanour for an MLA, but she exudes confidence and she talks passionately about women's rights and Muslim women's issues.

Her introduction to politics came only after her marriage. "My husband was a party worker of Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI-M]. Our house was constantly visited by party workers and the atmosphere was always conducive to politics," she says.

Saleeka plunged into formal electoral politics when the seat of president in a block panchayat (village council) in Palakkad district was reserved for women and she won it. She was block panchayat president from 1995 to 2000. Later, she also served as a member of the zilla panchayat (local governmental body for the district) of Palakkad from 2000 to 2005.

Commenting on the status of Muslim women in Kerala, she says, “To be a Muslim woman in Kerala is not as difficult as it is in some other states. Here Muslim women have a very high literacy rate, unlike in other states."

Saleeka was content with being a member of the zilla parishad, but her husband's death changed things dramatically. “For a Muslim widow, things are never easy. My family members opposed my move to participate in the Kerala assembly elections. However, my children supported me to the hilt and that gave me a lot of confidence."

Saleeka is now a MLA from the Sreekrishnapuram constituency, which has a predominantly Hindu population. "My seat was not reserved for women. I won from a general seat," she says with pride.

While Saleeka managed to come into her own with the support of her community and loved ones, Nazma Bibi, also a participant at the AIDWA meet, wasn't so fortunate. Today, Nazma, who is in her early thirties, lives under constant threat from the people of her Orissa village. All she wanted was to live peacefully with her husband, but that was not to be.

'Jab miyaan-biwi raazi, toh kya karega qazi?' (When husband and wife are in agreement, what can the priest do?) goes a popular adage. But Nazma's case turns this wisdom on its head. In fact, she and her husband have spent around seven years fighting with local religious heads for a right that would appear obvious - the right to live as a married couple under the same roof.

A resident of Bhadrak district in Orissa, Nazma's husband uttered the dreaded three words of 'talaq' in a drunken fit in 2000 and forgot all about it the next day. However, the neighbours, who had overheard him, did not. Soon the religious heads and 'panchayat' members ruled that Nazma should not live with her husband until she had committed 'Halala'. According to this practice, if a divorced woman wants to live with her former husband again, she would have to marry another man, live with him for at least a day, and then only after the second husband divorces her can she re-marry her first husband.

However, Nazma was not prepared to do this. “Why should I? I don't want to live with any other man but my husband," she said. Nazma went through the extreme ordeal of challenging the diktats of religious leaders. “My electricity and water connections were cut, my children were thrown out of their school, and nobody spoke to us."

Buckling under the pressure of the religious leaders, even her in-laws boycotted her. However, with the help of some local women's activists, Nazma knocked on the doors of the State Women's Commission, the family court and the Supreme Court (SC), until she finally got justice.

But, despite the SC ruling, things have not got back to normal. In fact, some of the villagers have even threatened to kill her. "I am glad my family and I are together now. We - my husband, three children and myself - go to the village without any problem. But we stay with my parents, not his. But I'm sure that one day I will be able to meet my in-laws." Hope springs eternal for Nazma.

And it's only hope that has given Ahmedabad resident and riot victim, Shakeela Begum, who is in her early forties, the strength to keep trying to file an FIR against the police for harassment during the 2002 Gujarat riots. It has been six long years and she is still waiting. Shakeela now thinks that only divine intervention can help her.

She alleges the police beat her and her nine-year-old son during that terrible period. Her son was thrashed so badly that today he is permanently disabled and mentally unstable.

Says this resident of Ramol, Ahmedabad, “The police just descended without provocation and went on a beating spree. But I have not been able to file a police complaint - they just don't allow us to do so." All the while as she narrates her tragic tale, Shakeela's face remains passive. But when asked if she feels bitter towards the system, she breaks down just thinking of the Herculean task of seeking justice. "How many people can I blame?" she asks rhetorically.

She now lives in fear in a city, which has been her home for the last 20 years. "We are perpetually worried and scared. We feel someone will come and attack us at any time."

Shakeela is not in a position to work as she too sustained injuries during the riots and so now spends all her time taking care of her ailing son. Her husband and two other sons, who were in school during the riots but had to drop out because of financial problems, work as labourers. The family lives by their meagre incomes. She has already spent Rs 900,000 (US$1=Rs 42.7) on her son's treatment and is in need of more funds.

"I thought coming and sharing my experience in a convention as large as this will help my case," she says.

Shakeela, as do so many other women, lives on sheer faith and hope.

At the National Convention of Muslim Women organised by the All India Democratic Women's Association in New Delhi in late August, over 800 women - elected representatives, home-based workers, self-help group workers and riot victims, among others - from 20 states endorsed a charter of demands pertaining to their living and working conditions. They demanded recognition as equal citizens with equal access to amenities like education, health and employment. In very clear terms, they stated that the responsibility of the welfare of Muslim women was not only the concern of community leaders, but of the government as well.

(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)

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