In Focus 31st August, 2016

Patriarchs, entitlement and the story of how they failed this one time.

A year and a half back, I was interning with Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), an organization working for the rights of Muslim women and the Muslim community. A group of us from the organization went to Haji Ali for a visit. I remember walking down that stretch of lane which goes till the Dargah, a lane with shopkeepers on both sides. Women are expected to cover their head with a cloth inside the Dargah. However, these shopkeepers (male) made it a point to preach to us how we were breaking the moral codes because we did not have our heads covered while walking through the lane. The sense of entitlement with which they told us what to do was frustrating but also, not a surprise. Being a woman, it is something you deal with almost every day. But, what was a breath of fresh air was when the women accompanying me gave it back to the shopkeeper, sternly enough for him to back off, stunned and defeated.

Last Friday, the Bombay High Court came out with a verdict for the Haji Ali petition. The Haji Ali Dargah Trust had banned the entry of women into the sanctum sanctorum of the Dargah post 2011. One of their reasons for doing so was that women bend down and then their dupatta moves and, well, you know how that is the end of this world as these patriarchs know it. Yes, there is no limit to how ridiculous all of this gets. I remember when the reasons stated by the trust were being discussed in the BMMA office. It was the start of a new work day at office. Majority of the BMMA employees were women from the communities BMMA worked with itself. A fact which always pushed me to fill that gap between ideology and the lived realities of people, a gap which we ‘academics’ are critiqued to never successfully bridge. We were all sitting together sipping on tea when the reasons were spoken out loud. Post that, all that there was, was a room full of women laughing and ridiculing the stupidity of it all. If only my memory was sharper and I could write the comebacks they came up with. However, the playfulness, fearlessness, the energy, the indomitable spirit of these women has been etched in my mind forever.

BMMA is the NGO that filed the petition against the ban imposed by the Haji Ali Dargah Trust. BMMA challenged the trust by stating reasons to establish their claim that Quran does not advocate for this and also conducted a survey which showed that women were allowed entry into the sanctum sanctorum in several other dargahs. To put it simply, there was nothing which could hold up the ban the trust had imposed. It was just a product of the entitlement men think they enjoy to dictate what women can do and can’t do.

However, the verdict which found the ban invalid and allowed for women to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah managed to prove the fickleness of this entitlement. And, thus, in a way was a big win! If you read the verdict you realize that the verdict is not really making a statement about how oppressive these supposed ‘guardians’ of a particular religion were being towards women. The verdict is a result of the inability of the trust to substantiate their claims for excluding women. Further, the trust being a public association failed to establish its authority as a religious institution. The judges refused to comment upon BMMA’s evidence that Quran advocates for gender equality. Thus, the verdict very smoothly is a step out of the debate between freedom to manage religious affairs and other freedoms such as equality, non-discrimination etc.

Despite all of this, I personally do believe that it is a big win because it calls out on the unchecked male entitlement. It tells the patriarchs that we cannot support your arbitrariness or rather dictatorship or rather fickleness if you can’t support it substantially with anything. And, well, how can they if it’s all a figment of their oppressive imagination.

My internship with BMMA has been one of the greatest learning experience of my life. BMMA has a very interesting approach towards Islam. Their work claims that the problem is not with what is written in the Quran. Rather, the problem is a patriarchal reading of it. BMMA’s approach is interesting because it is a democratic attempt of Muslim women to reclaim their religion for themselves in their struggle to secure the rights of Muslim women. The approach has been contested within the feminist movement itself and while I do not know what is it that I subscribe too, yet, I do know that BMMA is doing some fabulous work.

I was in a conversation with one of the co-founders of BMMA and the topic of discussion was this contestation within the feminist movement. Who gets to decide what is feminist and what is not? How can you ask a woman to give up her religion just because you don’t think that is feminist? These are the questions she posed and they have remained with me ever since. We all have things we rely on for strength at some point or the other in our lives. For some people, religion is that strength. Yes, the existing structure of majority of the religions is oppressive. But then, can a structure be reclaimed or does it have to be done away with altogether? If the people who practice it are choosing to understand it in a way which liberates them, does it hold a transformatory potential? In saying that no religion can ever move with the changing times, are we not reinforcing an absolute eternal status to a human institution such as religion?

My association with BMMA made me think, push boundaries, face my own biases and taught me to contextualize a situation. For all those times when I sat in the BMMA office and felt uncomfortable because the happenings did not match up to the ethics of my politics, there were also times when I realized how premature and rigid these notions were. My association with BMMA made the recent verdict (which now has been taken up to the Supreme Court) a little more special for me. Somebody enabled the state to expose the baselessness of patriarchal assumptions and it is the group of people who taught me that victories don’t only stem from upheavals but also from our very own everyday revolutions. It could not get any better. At least for a start.

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