Gender

Ateeqa Bano: an unsung hero of Kashmir

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Ateeqa Bano, January 2015

Situated in the heart of the pristine Sopore town and away from the clamor of the city life is an incredible treasure trove called Meeras Mahal. An extremely modest building, Meeras Mahal is an abode of numerous artifacts of historical and cultural importance that are yet to be disseminated to the outside world. The materials collected over more than three decades of relentless efforts by a legend, an unsung hero of the time — Ateeqa Bano. Born in 1940 in the same town, Ateeqa Ji spent most of her adult life serving as an educator and collecting and curating cultural artifacts of a myriad kind. Before her retirement from government service, she served as the Director of Libraries and Joint-Director Education (Jammu & Kashmir). 

It was a pleasant morning in January 2015 when I set out for the historic town of Sopore during a ten-day trip to Kashmir to discuss the plans for a proposal to digitize the manuscript collection at Meeras Mehal. The meeting and the transportation was arranged by personnel at INTACH Kashmir, my collaborators on the proposed project. DSC03917Ateeqa Ji’s eyes glimmered with joy when we arrived. I had explained the purpose of my visit earlier on telephone; she was expecting me. She greeted us with great fervor and high expectations. Wearing her usual “burqa coat” over a green pheran while a light cotton dupatta lay loose over her head, it seemed she were all set for the meeting. We started our 3-hour long journey in her little compound around midday — a small office space with very modest furnishing, no heating and no curtains in the room in the cold season. As Ateeqa Ji gave an introduction of the museum over a glass bowl filled with dried fruits —  almond, cashew nuts, pistachio and dates, a little girl with a scarf woven round her head kept sneaking in and looking at us from out the window. The window opened into the walkway leading to a series of similar-sized rooms in a row. An associate pulled a table from one corner and set it beside another one of slightly different dimensions in front of us. Ateeqa Ji opened a roll of plastic sheet with golden patterns and spread it over the tables for tea and more snacks. Thereafter, she took us for a tour of the museum, from one room to the other, walking us through history and revealing to us an enormous treasure of several generations.

DSC03941Ateeqa Bano’s Meeras Mahal is a repository of items illustrating Kashmir’s ongoing cultural history in a visual format – rare manuscripts, ornaments, pottery and terracotta utensils, metal works, wood works, stone crafts, traditional dresses and jewelry, a coin collection, some calligraphic works, and different kinds of tools. Each item in the repository has a name, a story, and Ateeqa Ji knew it all. Words that have fallen out of use in the language, items no longer seen in the Kashmiri households, are some of the various attractions I was impressed with during my few hours of experience at Meeras Mahal.  DSC03964Picking up an item in her hands and demonstrating its importance in an exuberant manner, telling its story to the audiences – Ateeqa Ji had it all, the incredible motivation to explore and the passion to preserve Kashmir’s remarkable past, its rich cultural history. Our next stop was the manuscript collection — my primary interest in the museum. Ateeqa Ji handed me a copy of the inventory and we went through the list — item by item. Manuscripts were maintained in a pretty good condition given the limited resources she had had at her disposal.

As we sat down for a second course of tea and snacks towards the end of the meeting, Ateeqa Ji produced a document, a proposal for the creation of an institution of enormous potential. DSC03927She showed me the map of a proposed little township with many aspects including a proposed site for an “artists in residence” program she wished to set up as part of her efforts. It was a spectacular idea and I was fascinated, but it needed resources which had been consistently denied. Over the many years of her work on collecting and curating the artifacts, Ateeqa Ji had been desperately seeking financial support from the government and other sources for the maintenance and upkeep of the museum, for hiring trained staff, for infrastructure to preserve the artifacts, and for the upgrading of the building structure.

DSC03945“If this kind of work was done by a man, he would be supported and recognized. Our society does not recognize women’s contributions, she said to me in a humble tone as her associates moved their heads in silent admission. I knew she was right. I had nothing to offer before I left except for a promise to be fulfilled.  

Ateeqa Bano was a woman of incredible motivation, an inspiration, an institution of her own. I could not help but fall in love with this woman of enormous potential and zeal.

 

© Sadaf Munshi, October 6, 2017.

Is there a conflict between Fiq’h and Uniform Civil Code?

In the past few weeks, we have seen a lot of hue and cry lately among many Indian Muslims, men in general and clerics in particular, including All India Muslim Personal Law Board and some socio-religious organizations claiming to represent Muslims, against “politicizing the issue of triple-talaq”. People have posted fiery lines on social media advising against “any interference into matters of religion”. “I reject Uniform Civil Code; I support Muslim Personal Law” is one of the Facebook profiles some people have adopted to register their protest. And some even went to the extent of equating attempts to publicize the matter with a “nefarious design to annihilate Islam”. In fact some so-called liberals have also jumped in to join the band wagon as advocates of “freedom of religion”. Well, I do not think Islam as a religion is so weak that its foundations will be shaken by a very welcome decision of adopting a uniform civil code that provides justice, equality and dignity for all — notions that Islam has no conflict with. Abolishing an ages-old tribal practice such as triple-talaq, which finds no authenticity in the religion itself, is indeed a commendable step in this regard.

The practice of triple-talaq is not just regressive and anti-women, it finds no historical basis in Islam. There is no evidence either in Qur’an or in the hadith (‘tradition’) that supports its validity in the religion (Note that a number of spurious “traditions” have been claimed to be of Islamic origin but these need to be questioned and rejected wherever necessary). Triple-talaq is a tribal practice inherited and adopted by certain sections of the Islamic world which was packaged in a religious garb just like a number of similar other cultural/tribal practices, such as female genital mutilation, etc. Thankfully the practice has been abolished in much of the Islamic world. Now that the Muslim women of India have finally spoken and spoken so vocally, it is high time the nation comes forward with its full support to reject this outdated practice. It needs to be highlighted that triple-talaq is among several other lies that were propagated by many clerics over generations in the name of “Shariah” and “Islamic law” to keep Muslim women permanently subjugated and deprive them of a dignified life that would otherwise be guaranteed to them had the very essence of the idea of Ijtehad – continued reform and reinterpretation – been implemented in practice as one of the central tenets of Islam.

It is no surprise that the Islamic world often gets mired in controversies in the context of women’s issues, when their role in the public domain is very restricted. Women find it extremely challenging and near impossible to have a powerful and effective voice on matters related to social and religious practices that primarily affect them. While few steps that could allow their participation in the matters of religion are taken, gender-segregation makes things extremely worse and often impossible. Thus, their role in the fiq’h, the Islamic jurisprudence, which is literally and technically based on “deep understanding and broad consensus”, is simply non-existent. Consequently, most of the “Islamic” rules and regulations, often termed as “Shariah Law”, are neatly anti-women – both in structure and in practice.

Now, take a look at the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which claims to be representing the Muslim voice of India as far as matters related to religion are concerned. Last time I checked, all the 41 members of the Board were men, few with any formal education other than in the religious schools they follow. Furthermore, while all the AIMPL Board members are primarily from the majority Sunni community, a great majority of these belong to the Deobandi sect (notorious for its extremist interpretations of Islam), and exclude Shias and Ahmedis. I even went to do some research and checked the AIMPLB website – page-to-page. I read about a number of events, saw scores of pictures, read about the organizers of various events – not a single woman is visible anywhere. This is no coincidence but a deliberate attempt to “keep women where they belong” – behind the four walls of the house, taking care of children of their men, doing their household work, wrapped in layers of fabric concealed from any outside influence, being good wives, and serving their other needs. And it is also reflected in the shrinking space for women in religious places, mosques, and sufi shrines where more and more women feel increasingly unwelcome and often give up and stay away.

Here I don’t need a lesson on “emancipated Muslim women” – that is a personal journey and a very difficult one for every single Muslim woman who sets her foot firm and refuses to bend against social and cultural pressures. Many people will try to justify the Muslim Personal Law on flimsy groups and give some examples of women’s participation and their role in the social and political issues. But, let’s be honest. How strong is the impact? Equal rights for women are not a given but an ongoing struggle. No doubt there are many progressive Muslim men out there but more often than not they have little say on matters that affect a large number of women. Few of them are decision-makers as matters pertaining to religion are concerned. In fact, a great majority of Muslim men literally have nightmares if their women were to be their equals. This is not to imply that other men of other religions are any better in their treatment of women, but here we are talking about Muslims.

As far as Fiqh (‘Islamic jurisprudence’) is concerned “deep understanding, expansion and reinterpretation” (foundational goals of Fiqh), can only be achieved through “consensus” – the very basis of the human understanding of Shariah (the divine law). It is because the AIMPL Board is inherently pro-men (and, therefore, anti-women), not only in its composition but also in its themes and objectives that an independent body of All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board had to be created but the latter have unfortunately failed to garner any significant support from the government of India or from the Muslims (read “Muslim men”) in general. In fact, few Muslim men are willing to even treat the Board with any seriousness. Women’s voices are often muzzled and at the most ignored as far as religious issues are concerned. There can be no consensus in Fiqh on matters primarily related to women without complete involvement of women. As an all-male body, AIMPL Board loses its validity and credibility in claiming to be the voice of the Indian Muslims in general and of Muslim women in particular.

Finally, the idea of “freedom of religion” cannot supersede nor should it be in conflict with individual freedoms, justice, liberty and equality. Fortunately, there is no conflict between Islamic jurisprudence and the notion of a uniform civil code both of which are in principle based on a board consensus and aim to provide dignity for all, including women. The very fact that women aren’t given a representative voice in the Muslim Personal Law makes the body of AIMPLB unqualified to speak on behalf of Muslim women. Providing a national platform to such an undemocratic body and entitling it to determine the fate of half of the Muslim population of India is not only unfair but also unconstitutional. The Board has no moral or constitutional right to represent all the Muslims of India. As an informed Muslim woman and as an Indian national, I support uniform civil code and reject Muslim Personal Law in its current form. I also reject any such law which legitimizes loopholes that can be used as tools to continue women’s subordination and subjugation. Any attempt to scuttle the much awaited effort of providing justice and dignity to all Indian women amounts to pushing them in a path of continued hardship and heartache, and should be strongly resisted by every responsible citizen of the country. A healthy discussion on this topic will be the way forward.
© Sadaf Munshi
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(Versions of this article appeared in the daily Rising Kashmir (Oct. 20, 2016) and Scroll.in (Oct. 24,2061). The URLs are for these are:
http://www.risingkashmir.com/article/no-conflict-between-fiqh-and-uniform-civil-code

http://scroll.in/article/819695/islam-has-no-conflict-with-a-uniform-civil-code-that-provides-justice-equality-and-dignity-for-all )

 

 

Talking Gender in Kashmir – V

Social Norms and Dress Code – 2 

Dr. Sadaf Munshi

This article is a continuation to the topic of social norms and dress code that I started in my previous piece in the series on gender in which I argued that it is misleading when people argue that Kashmiri women wear traditional clothing only because our society is more traditional, or that they wear hijab only because hijab is in vogue in many Muslim countries. Both of these positions are misleading and I will explain why based on my personal experiences in Kashmir over the many years.

When I was a child in the 80’s, many of my aunts and older cousins who were either in college or in the university, did not cover their head; today all of them do. There was a great diversity in women’s attire – both Pandit and Muslim women in shalwar-kameez with transparent chiffon dupattas on their shoulders, some putting them on their heads in front of elders, and only some covering most of the time. I would also see a young woman or two occasionally in pants and shirts near our Khankahi Sokhta neighborhood in Srinagar – my ancestral place. My mother’s Seyyid family being exceptionally conservative, for many years I was the only girl in my classroom who wore a headscarf. Almost all of my girl friends came to school without covering their head and this continued until 1989 when things suddenly changed for everyone.

During my higher secondary school and college years in the 90’s, a number of incidents happened where I found myself amidst confrontations with people on matters of dress code. Our college principal extended several “rustication” warnings to me when I refused to follow the new dress code that was made mandatory for Muslim girls by the dukhtaran-e-millat (‘daughters of the nation’), who paid regular visits to schools and colleges to provide lectures on azaadi and shariyah. The prescribed code included, besides the headscarf that I already wore owing to family traditions, a burqa or an abaya. Additionally, an unofficial temporary ban was imposed on various other things in educational institutions, such as wearing high-heeled sandals or make-up. Many atrocities were hurled at the girls on the pretext of not observing purdah. Women squads of militant organizations would patrol bus stops and catch potential targets for a lecture, an admonishment or simply public shaming. Colored paint, and sometimes acid, was thrown upon girls who did not comply. Many schools and colleges were forced to change their uniforms – from skirts to shalwar-kameez in schools, and from white color to grey color for kameez (‘shirt’) in colleges (white being more “transparent”). A young schoolgirl was once shot in her leg for wearing jeans; women were terrorized. Non-Muslim women were asked to were symbols (such as a bindi for Pandit girls), so that Muslim women could easily be identified, targeted and punished for any violations.

While I chose an abaya, my younger sister was pressurized to wear a burqa after a shocking experience one day. She was returning from school in her uniform – an all-white qameez-shalwar and a dupatta that properly covered her hair, when a squad of dukhtaran-e-millet patrolling near Nauhatta threw color on her from inside a moving auto-rickshaw. Humiliated and angered, she ran after the woman holding on to the auto only to be dragged on the street as the auto ran away leaving her bruised. Many years later, a similar incident happened to a young family acquaintance. Naheed, a young girl from a remote area of Kashmir and poor family background, went to school in Srinagar and lived with my aunt helping her with the household chores during the after hours. One day I was visiting my sick aunt at her residence in Soura (Srinagar) and I asked about the girl. I was shocked when she narrated the story of Naheed’s horrific ordeal: “She was returning home after buying groceries. A bunch of young boys, some of them covering their faces with handkerchiefs, followed her in a “tempo”, stopped and dragged her by her hair for not wearing hijab. Her neck is broken; she is back home in her village.”

Although such horrific incidents are rare, they happened nevertheless and changed the face of our society, which became monochrome in a number of ways (Barring an island of the elite society, which is out of reach of the commonplace space and norms, and lives in a mini-world of its own). Last year I was invited for a lecture at a college in Kashmir. When I met the college principal – a lady in her late fifties with a head-to-toe cover – her face suddenly struck me. “I think I know you but I cannot remember,” I told her scratching my head. It took me a while before I recognized my teacher of the early 90’s. I was extremely excited to see her but before I could express my feelings, she said: “Please excuse me, I have to say my prayers.” In a women-only college, I felt it was bizarre and unnecessary to be covered from head-to-toe all the time.

Sometime later, I bumped on to an elderly neighbor on the street walking home with a burqa-clad woman. I stopped for a salaam and as I looked at the woman through the little holes in her face veil, I quickly recognized his daughter, my college friend, but she refused to recognize me and headed home in a jiffy. A year later, two of my distant cousins visited my painting exhibition at the Cultural Academy. It took me a second to recognize them from underneath the burqa. “We read about your exhibition in the newspaper and came to see you. We are so happy for you,” they said to me. But when I invited them in, they refused to come inside amidst a male dominated gathering and left quickly from the main gate. I found a barrier between us that did not exist when I left Kashmir. The two women, now married, never wore burqa when I was in Kashmir in the 90’s though they did cover.

I was at a mushairah (poetry recitation) in Srinagar one day. I had invited my family to come as well as it was the first time I was to read any of my poems in Kashmir. Right before the session started, my aunt turned to me: bay maray agar na kalas pyetth duptta thawakh (‘You will see me dead if you don’t cover your head’)an aunt who was quite up-to-date with fashion and did not always cover in the early 80’s during her youth. Today when my father asks me to wear traditional clothing and cover my head in public space during my visits home, I get very annoyed. “You will leave in a few days; I have to live here in this society”, he tells me.

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For feedback, the author can be reached at smunshi2002@yahoo.com.

(This article was first published in the daily Rising Kashmir: http://epaper.risingkashmir.com/EPaper.aspx?kH2sJU5b4Ae_bseFzuBuykEQ_ep_ep )

Talking Gender in Kashmir – IV

Social norms and dress code – 1

In continuation to my previous pieces on gender, I would like to talk about dress code in this issue. Many years ago, soon after I had arrived in the United States for my doctoral degree, I was showing some pictures to an American friend of mine one day at my student apartment in Austin. As she turned the leaves of the photo album, my friend said to me: “How come men in Kashmir wear western clothing while women are only in traditional dresses?” I looked at her and pondered for a moment. How come this stark reality never struck me before? It was the first time in my life that I seriously thought about this striking difference in the dressing norms of men and women in Kashmir. Not that I never wished to wear western clothing myself before I left – in fact while growing up, many Kashmiri women I knew, as part of natural curiosity, had expressed a secret desire to try pants, skirts, saris and other non-local outfits – but I hadn’t even imagined there could be other possibilities for me in life.

Whether at workplace, parties, weddings, and other social gatherings, or in the privacy of their homes – women in Kashmir, just like the women of rural India, are expected to be more traditional. We are supposed to be the torchbearers of our culture and social norms while men continue to break those norms without much scrutiny or hullabaloo. While our men – young and old – have largely switched to wearing more comfortable modern outfits except in case of religious gatherings, cultural events, etc., women are under constant pressure to uphold the practice of traditional clothing. If you don’t trust me, go to a Kashmiri wedding, visit a school or a university campus, go to the marketplace or a picnic area, or even a cultural event – you will see menfolk mostly in modern outfits – Jeans, T-shirts, shorts, pants, leather belts, shirts, suits and neck ties. Now, imagine a situation where men start wearing traditional clothing in a formal office setting at workplace – pheran-yezaar and topi, kurta-pajamah and a dastaar — they are sure to receive many surprised looks, be looked down upon, considered “untidy” or even “backward”. However, as soon as women start catching up to the way men dress like, all eyes are out of their sockets to measure their modesty. Any aberration on their part in the way they carry themselves in public, and everyone is out to give a lecture on religion, traditional values, culture, and morality. Though more and more young girls are seen wearing jeans and riding their newly acquired scooters in some parts of the city nowadays, they are often subject to ridicule and moral policing.

But what is it about western clothing that makes it so attractive for both men and women, and why should we make a big deal about clothing in the first place? I have lived in different cultures and tried all sorts of clothing, depending on the occasion and mood. It seems to me that traditional clothing, unless fairly modified, is not suitable for everyday use. You can’t wear a shalwar-kameez to the gym, for instance (Yes! that is a possibility! Even women like to be physically fit). It’s good for parties, cultural events and “take-it-easy-resting times” when you are not on your toes trying to get things done. You may even love to wear it every now and then if you feel like, but beyond that those traditional dresses don’t really give the confidence that you may get in some of the more comfortable modern outfits where you don’t have to worry about tripping every second and holding on to your dupatta or headscarf with one hand and your baggy pants with the other when you are trying to do some chores, talking at a public event, or simply walking. No, I am not lying. Haven’t you seen our chief minister, Ms. Mehbooba Mufti on television recently? Have you ever noticed how often she talks hands free? Poor Mehbooba had recently attended a wedding without a headscarf, and a storm of trolls attacked her with a volley of judgments after looking at the picture somebody shared on Facebook.

People back home are so obsessed about women’s outfit that it gives me nightmares for weeks if not months before I plan a trip to India. Every year, packing my luggage is an ordeal as I find myself running out of space to fit in clothes that would be appropriate for each place and occasion. With little time for shopping, I find myself digging for discarded and unused clothing that has been sitting in my wardrobe for years. Piling up many sets of kameez-shalwar-duppattas that have to be matching and color-coded (Yes, that’s another headache!), I find it a frustrating wastage of time when I should be doing something more creative and intellectually satisfying. And as soon as I arrive at the Srinagar airport, I become conscious of my body feeling as if everyone is looking at me; and often they are. And it’s not just me. It’s the story of almost every other Kashmiri woman I know. Yi kyah chhuth loagmut (‘What are you wearing?’) is a refrain for any encounter with your acquaintances should you not fit the norm.

But that’s only part of the story. It’s not just the traditional dress code that we are expected to follow. For Muslim women, it’s also the baggage of religious norms associated with that, which is selectively thrust upon us by our society. Every time I am in Kashmir, I find myself irritated with people wanting to provide unsolicited advice on Islam and morality, invoking the practice of hijab. You are walking on the street and someone may yell at you: kalas pyetth thawizihe dduptta (‘Why haven’t you covered your head’). Menfolk, drooling at women in sexy outfits on television, social media and elsewhere, engaging in sex talk with unknown women on Facebook, will give lectures on Islam and haya. “Women look more beautiful in hijab,they will tell you. “It’s mandatory in Islam for women to wear hijab”, they will say without even knowing the socio-historical background of the practice. People who have a very superficial understanding of Islam, Qur’an and hadith will provide sermons on how “it is a sin not to cover your head.” Men shielding their own women from the “sinful eyes” of other men, won’t leave an opportunity to flirt with other women they find more modern and outgoing. You are constantly seen as a sexual object rather than as an individual.

About three years ago, I had a bitter experience at the Kashmir University during a two-day seminar on language and culture, which I had organized with a colleague from the university. While walking towards the Iqbal Memorial Library for the “welcome” address, my co-organizer stopped to give me a friendly advice. He turned to me politely: “If you don’t mind, I request you to cover your head. You don’t know this place; people will say things.” Very politely, I refused to oblige and we carried on. On the following day, however, during the morning session, soon after I invited our plenary speaker to the stage, I was subject to the worst form of public humiliation. Standing on the podium in a crisply ironed safari suit with his freshly dyed hair, the retired professor, a renowned poet and writer, looked at me with great contempt and started a lecture on morality: “In our society, good women value traditions. They don’t go about showing their hair in public. Girls of shareef families respect these norms and that’s how they get suitable grooms.” Sitting right across the stage from him, it was more than clear that I was the target of his abuse. I wanted to stand up and tell him that I was a mother of two kids and happily married to a “good guy” but I did not. In seething rage, I held on to my shaking limbs, clenched my fists against my knees and carried on with the conference. The memory of that humiliation continues to bother me. Sometime later, a similar request was made by a local television host seconds before a live program where I was invited for an interview. When I objected, he said to me helplessly: “It’s the month of Ramzan; people will start making phone calls in a moment. It’s a difficult place.” With little time to argue, reluctantly, I gave in. But I never understood what it was about Ramzan that people suddenly become hyper-religious for a month.

I have visited different educational institutions in Kashmir in the past many years where I noticed a drastic change in the dress code of girls. In certain places I was taken by shock finding almost every single girl in a black abaya and a headscarf. In some cases, they even cover their entire face except for a tiny little space for their eyes. On the other hand, you will see young men in tight-fitting T-shirts, comfy trousers and jeans, showing off their abs, stylish hairdos and modern gadgets, standing nearby. I don’t have an objection to anyone wearing a particular dress as such, but when it becomes a social norm and people are under immense pressure to follow suit, it is problematic. It can be suffocating and that’s exactly how most women feel quite very often in public spaces in Kashmir. Many women simply give in to avoid confrontation but live double lives nevertheless.

But how did we arrive at this stage? Many people will argue that it’s only because Kashmiri society is more traditional, or because hijab is in vogue in many Muslim countries around the world. But that’s only part of the story, and it’s misleading.

(To be continued)
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For feedback, the author can be reached at smunshi2002@yahoo.com.

(This article was first published in the daily Rising Kashmir)

Talking Gender in Kashmir – III

I began this series by citing some personal experiences on the topic of sexual harassment of women in public and private space. Continuing the discussion on the topic of gender in Kashmir, in this third piece in the series, I would like to focus on some micro aggressions which women of Kashmir face on a day-to-day basis – aggressions that often get unnoticed but have an enormous impact on the mental and social psychology of women in terms of their growth and development as thinking and feeling individuals. These are verbal and/or behavioral aggressions that are so common that we don’t even consider them abnormal.

I was fifteen years old when one of my cousins was getting married. All of my peers were very happy and excited, playing and laughing at jokes and silly remarks. Suddenly all of our excitement vanished when an angry aunt admonished us: “tuhy kya khit-khit karaan? besharam koryi!” (‘What are you giggling about? Shameless girls!’) Apparently “shareef” girls are not supposed to laugh out loud. It is not a trait that can be associated with women of sophisticated background. Later in the day, a bunch of us went out to buy some ice cream at the street corner. It was a beautiful weather and since the groom had just left to get the bride, there was nothing to do indoors. So we decided to take a short walk along the Dal Lake — minutes away from my aunt’s house. When we came home after about an hour all hell broke loose. One of my cousins was slapped by her mother on the face in front of dozens of guests. A bunch of young girls taking a walk by themselves, what a shame! Since it was my idea and I being the eldest one in the group, I was the villain. My aunt showered a volley of threats on her daughter: “khabardaar agar yihund gara gayekh” (‘Don’t dare to visit their house again’). I had violated a norm by making a decision to take a walk and I had influenced my cousin to do the same. But imagine if I were a boy. This would never have happened. We don’t admonish boys for going out and taking a walk or get an ice cream at the street corner, do we? Boys hardly ask anyone before they leave the house, not when they are out in the neighborhood.

While the men of my household would leave any time of the day, often without letting anyone know, and return as and when they pleased, we had to follow a strict timetable and be home before a certain time. If you are a woman, you could not step out without permission. You could not, for instance, say, “ba gatshay nyebar taam” (‘I am going out for a bit’), like men do. You could not have a sleepover at a friend’s house like boys often do. You couldn’t go for a cup of coffee or tea and hang out with friends in a restaurant after work or after college like menfolk. And when you get married, you have to ask for permission even to see your family. So, two days after my wedding, when I wanted to “pay a visit home”, my husband suggested I should ask his parents. Irritated, I went to the father-in-law who sent me forward to ask my mother-in-law. The mother-in-law turned: “az na, pagah gatshakh” (‘Not today, go tomorrow’). I was annoyed. Why tomorrow? Why can’t I go today? There is no particular reason that I cannot go today. “I want to go today”, I said confidently risking the wrath of the family and a big fight with my husband. Thankfully, I did not have to ask for anyone’s permission from that day on.But then the many social aggressions did not end there.

While boys often travel on their own, women need a chaperone everywhere they go. So, when I was conducting a fieldtrip for my doctoral research in 2004, an elderly uncle turned to me: “tati aasna mard ti tse saet?” (‘Will there also be men with you there?’). Well, heck, no!!! A year prior to that I had canceled an upcoming research trip to Kargil because my family was adamant to not let me travel alone; I could not arrange a chaperone to accompany me on that harsh journey. “You won’t be able to travel alone; it’s a border area, it will be difficult”, I had to hear despite the fact that I had already lived on my own for the past several years – first in Delhi and then in the US, and had travelled half a world from India to the United States, to Belgium, to Switzerland, to Germany and to Iran without a chaperone and had survived.

Even if you are a successful professional woman, when it comes to childcare that’s your sole responsibility. It was December 2007 and I was on another research trip to India from the US. I was to attend a conference on Linguistics at the Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu. After a short tour of Chidambaram with a colleague, I decided to pay a brief visit to my family in Srinagar. When I reached home, some relatives came to visit. Flabbergasted at finding out that I had left my eighteen-month-old son back in the US, beating her chest, an aunt said to me: “hatay, nyechuw trowuthanay teyt?” (‘Did you leave your son behind?’) I tried to explain that he was in the safe custody of his caring father, but she was hardly convinced. “taawan hay, tse kitha keyniy trowthan su!” (‘My goodness, how could you leave him!’). And when I visited an old friend in Mumbai a couple years later, leaving behind two kids this time, all eyebrows in the family were raised; many people were tortured even at the thought of such an aberration.

Normally young men in Kashmir get married when their mothers are no longer able to take care of them and the household chores: “woyn kerizyeha khaandar? toti gatshihiy yemis maaji madath” (‘Why don’t you get married? Your mother could get some assistance’). Fourteen years ago, on my wedding day an aunt had declared to my father-in-law: “azyiki pyettha chhe yi tuhunz nokar; yi kari tohyi khedmat” (‘From this day onwards she is your servant; she will serve you’). I had looked at her with disdain. I am no one’s servant, mind you! Thankfully, my father-in-law had come to my rescue immediately: “She is our daughter, not a servant”. And on the day of our phira-saal when I refused to bring tash-naer and asked my husband to wash his hands instead “at the sink” in the hallway, my father was astounded: “zaamtur hay chhu asyi; tse chuy na kahn ehsaas?” (‘He is our son-in-law! Have you got no sense?’)

For years after my wedding, women in the family would take pity on me: “amyis may chu bichaari khaandaar kihin karaan” (‘Poor thing, her husband is not working’). Since my husband was still pursuing his education when we got married, the family back home was devastated at the thoughts of a “byekaar zaamtur” (‘a jobless son-in-law’). For a couple years we lived on my scholarship money and then I joined a university as a faculty after completing my Ph.D. in 2006. Thus, I was practically the “head” of our household until my husband completed his specialization in family medicine. That did not go well with the taunting relatives who wouldn’t leave an opportunity to take a pity on us until my husband finally got a “real” job.

A few months ago, when Mehbooba Mufti was taking her good time to make a decision on whether or not to be the chief minister of the state, many netizens were expressing their displeasure at the idea of a woman in control. I made a phone call to family in Kashmir and after some regular conversation I turned to the person on the other side: “I guess Mehbooba Mufti is going to be your next CM, heh?” Bang came a disdainful response: “woyn chaa asyi zanaananiy athi hakumat karnaawyin?” (‘Do we have to be ruled by womenfolk now?’). No matter how intellectually advanced a woman is people in our society continue to have a misogynistic attitude toward her. Her success, her independence, her individual freedom are perceived to be a threat to the society that continues to push for a male-dominated world. Let’s hope things will change one day.

(to be continued)

—-
(Published in the daily Rising Kashmir, June 8 2016:  http://epaper.risingkashmir.com/PopUp.aspx?8ZkljZ_ppDowqZNPStH8WDcQ_ep_ep
Or http://www.risingkashmir.com/article/talking-gender-in-kashmir–iii )

Talking Gender in Kashmir – II

In continuation with the previous piece on the gender discourse and focusing on the violation of women’s space in the public domain, I wanted to narrate some experiences that have helped shape my understanding of gender issues in our society. In order to address these issues effectively I think it is extremely very important to be able to talk about one’s own experiences. But it is not that easy. The reason I wanted to bring out these anecdotes is to emphasize the importance of identifying and talking about a problem which exists in our society and for which we need effective remedies. I hope this way I can encourage some other women to come forward and share their own stories.

During my early childhood and up until I was twelve years old I used to go to a Darasgah – a small religious school where children of some of the families of my neighborhood were receiving lessons on Qur’an and Deeniyat. As the Darasgah dismissed everyday after the daily lessons were over, Peer Saeb would kiss on the foreheads and cheeks of only the prettier-looking girls, I being one of them. It felt quite awkward. One could argue that it was done in a fatherly manner, but generally you can tell the difference even at a young age. The man was dismissed from his services as some parents received complaints from their wards. I never went to the Darasgah afterwards.

When I was thirteen years old, once I was visiting a doctor at the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences for some gastrointestinal problem. Accompanying me was my twenty-three year old aunt. While my chaperone waited in a corner, the doctor, who was probably in his early forties, started doing my “exam”. After placing the stethoscope on to my chest to listen to my internal sounds, the man quietly grabbed my breast with his hand under my shirt and pressed it for a few seconds. As I stood dumbstruck as how to respond to this daring violation right in front of my aunt, I felt quite powerless. But my witty aunt had read the expression on my face as she made a silent gesture to me from the other end of the room: badmaash chaa (‘Is he a scoundrel’)? I could read her lips very clearly but I quickly turned my gaze to the floor without uttering a word. I did not have the courage to open my mouth, let alone create a scene in the hospital. I did not confront the man, who felt like a monster to me at that moment. As we left, my aunt asked me about the ordeal on the way. When I narrated the incident, her response was a curse: ha peyi sa tratth! There was no further discussion on the topic.

As I grew older, just like my peers, I continued to experience similar, and sometimes worse, violations of my personal space. This happened even at the hands of people I knew. Like one day, during my college days, when I was visiting a famous ophthalmologist at his private clinic for an eye checkup. My burqa-clad mother, who also needed her eyes examined, was sitting at another end in the room waiting on me. I lay my face on the platform of the machine as directed so that the doctor could look into my eyes. I felt an awkward tinge in my body and sat stiffly holding on to my abaya (the long black robe that we started wearing at the onset of militancy in Kashmir) and my headscarf with both my hands when the man came a bit too close to me. At the pretext of looking into my eyes through the machine, the doctor slowly pressed his face and his lips against my cheeks in direct physical contact. I could even feel the heavy puffs of hot voluminous breath against my skin. But I sat on, powerless. Although I felt like asking him what exactly he was doing, I feared he might turn the allegation around and shame me instead by saying that he was simply doing his job. With a couple dozen patients waiting outside the room, I had little courage to take the risk. So, I kept quiet and let him complete the torturous “exam”. I had a feeling that no one would trust me. Besides, my family had been seeing the man for years; he had earned great respect in the neighborhood. The doctor continues to have a prolific practice till date.

A couple years ago, during one of my annual visit to Kashmir, I went to see an old friend. As we were having tea in her cozy bedroom, my friend began to narrate a story of sexual assault from our neighborhood. It was about the ordeal of a young domestic help of an upper middle class family. Both of us knew the family very well. The poor girl, originally from a rural area of Kashmir, had been living with the family for years taking care of their domestic chores in return for some small earning. Things were perhaps working fine until a time when the lady of the household “went abroad to visit her elder son for some months”. During her absence, the girl was “repeatedly raped and twice impregnated by the father-son duo”. The duo surreptitiously took the girl to Delhi for a few days for safaayi (‘abortion’). Everyone associated with the family hushed the matter under the carpet. It was a collective shame nobody wanted to talk about.

Tshunus balaay (‘Let it go’) is a very common attitude that we have adopted towards many social menaces in Kashmir. Numerous cases of horrific sexual abuse keep happening behind close doors in the comfort of our own households – cases that never get reported due to the social taboo and the price to be paid for exposing anyone: little girls assaulted by male domestic helps or caretakers who they were entrusted to by their parents while the latter were away at work, young girls (and even boys) sexually assaulted by their close family members or family friends who often keep torturing them for years without any retribution, young domestic helps being abused by their wards, and many others with little recourse to social or legal assistance whatsoever. There are numerous such cases where victims opt to shut their mouths for life in fear of shame and public disgrace, thus going through the worst kind of psychological trauma for years, fighting it all alone.

Sexual assault and women’s abuse are an extremely common problem across cultures, regions and religions, and Kashmir is no exception. Until and unless boys and girls are educated about gender issues and sexual abuse from very early on in their life and unless efforts are made where men and women understand each other, know each other better, respect each other, and communicate with each other, and until and unless the society treats men and women at par at all levels, women and children will continue to be harassed, abused, and tortured. Parents have a responsibility to talk to their children about how to deal with such aggressions. Our educational institutions need to incorporate special measures that can proactively address the epidemic of traumatic sexual harassment. Students should be provided resources so that their basic human rights are not compromised. Segregation of boys and girls, especially during the early years of their development, should be highly discouraged as it only adds to the wide gulf between genders.

(to be continued)
_____
(This article was first published in the daily Rising Kashmir on May 2, 2016).

© Sadaf Munshi.

Talking Gender in Kashmir – I

Almost a year ago, I was talking to some friends on Facebook one day about the BBC documentary “India’s Daughter”; indeed an amazing film which ought to be broadcast in every Indian household rather than having been banned. The very brutal and barbaric nature of the crime sends shivers across one’s spine every time it is described in detail. As the discussion ensued and people presented their perspectives, a Kashmiri poet and journalist friend of mine, referring to Kashmiri society, proudly responded: “We live in a very civilized society, where a woman is respected in all her shades”. The gentleman even went ahead with allegations against western societies being “immoral”. The statements triggered an unpleasant spurt of objections and disagreements. My friend was seriously offended when I claimed that Kashmiri men were no different when it came to harassment and sexual assault of women. In fact, I wanted to add that my personal experience with men from my homeland has been equally embarrassing.

While the discussion went on, I came across an online article by Anees Zargar about women commuters in Srinagar talking about their experiences in the public transportation vehicles. Clearly this is only the tip of the iceberg, but definitely an area where we need to break the silence. However, I believe women in general are not comfortable providing explicit details of the extent of the daily harassment they experience. So, I thought let me add a few lines to this discourse to tell some of my friends in Kashmir how ignorant many of us have opted to be. While there are horrendous and traumatic experiences, in this piece I will barely touch upon a few extremely very common examples but those that are quite displeasing for women. I will cite a few personal anecdotes as an illustration of exactly what young women in Kashmir go through on a day-to-day basis in public spaces. I will continue to write about some of the more gruesome cases that I have directly or indirectly witnessed in the next few weeks.

During my college days in the 90’s, sexually triggered violations were a routine for my peers and me every day while commuting between home and college in the over-loaded buses. Men – young, old, and middle-aged, pressing their bodies and their faces against those of young women, pushing their arms and elbows on their breasts, shoving their genitals against the women’s behinds or thighs, and some even grabbing an arm, a hip or another body part, while the poor girl would juggle for space in discomfort; with so many passengers in the bus, at times it was difficult to tell exactly who did it. With no better alternative, most of the times the girls stayed quiet, but at times they did speak. Yet, most often the men would simply deny any mischief and at times put the blame on the woman. At one such occasion, a man turned to a complaining woman: teli gotsh na hawaeyii jahazas khasun (‘You should have traveled in an airplane instead’). Many of us would be terrified of the young men waiting outside college premises to “follow” us and harass us on our way home. Thankfully, as I grew into an adult, I managed to be more confident, more vocal and less submissive. When need be, I even extended a blow on the back of a young man or slapped them right in their face when they tried to violate my personal space. I did not shy away from grabbing a young man by his arm and thrashing him down the door of a bus even as they pretended innocence. But it wasn’t always easy and caused enough discomfort.

Much more common than physical assault is the verbal assault on women, which may look harmless at the surface but often causes great emotional damage. Every time a young woman is walking down the street, a man or two will make a lucid remark about her looks, or her body, or simply pass a vague comment to harass her. During one of my annual visits to Kashmir, I was taking a walk on Srinagar’s Eid Gah road one day when a young teenager, barely sixteen years old, came forward and said: walay kushti karkhay mye saet (‘Hey, would you like to wrestle with me?’). I might have tried the adventure, despite my petite structure, had I not been five months pregnant at that time. So I kept quiet and carried on. The following day I was going out somewhere and encountered the boy again, this time on a motorbike. As he repeated the phrase and made a couple rounds on his bike trying to harass me, my husband, who was nearby, noticed. The event resulted into a scene with the entire neighborhood on the street. While getting a big thrashing and injuring himself in this commotion, the boy turned to me sheepishly: Sister, mye kyahaz kor? (‘Sister, what did I do?’).

There are numerous such cases where women have to put up with such harassment on a daily basis. But why do women choose to be silent even when an incident like this happens in broad daylight? Why don’t we confront such public demonstrations of uncivilized behavior vigorously? I think most of us know the reason why. Raised in a deeply conservative society which enforces strict gender segregation, women are brought up as submissive and subservient to men. While men of all shapes, sizes and ages could merrily ogle at you, girls are expected to lower their gaze. They are asked not to talk to or be seen by male strangers. They are even discouraged from talking to their male classmates in educational institutions. When men are passing by, they are told to not stand by or look out the window. Women cannot lie down in a public park or garden and relax like men do. You must keep your voice low at all times and not laugh out loud or you are not a shareif koor (‘refined girl’). You are reprimanded should you go out on your own. When our menfolk had no problem in wearing western outfits or using modern gadgets, these are especially banned for women as marks of “cultural aggression” and “immorality”. Ah, what hypocrisy!

(To be continued)

© Sadaf Munshi, April 18, 2016.

(Note: An edited version of this article was published in the daily Rising Kashmir on April 18, 2016, available at URL: http://www.risingkashmir.com/article/talking-gender-in-kashmir-new/ )

Unveiling the Hijab: a Socio-historical Overview

Does Qur’an mandate a specific dress code for Muslim women?

Hijab has been a topic of much debate and controversy both within and outside the Muslim world. In Islamic countries where a Shariah (Islamic) Law is enforced, women are required to follow a strict dress code. There are also many countries where millions of Muslims live and where women are not obliged to follow the Shariah dictates, yet many of them are forced into a strict dress code owing to social compulsions. Many women, however, do tend to wear a certain type of outfit as a matter of personal choice, believing that they are mandated or required to do so by the Holy Qur’an and that they might go to hell if they show their hair or their body to a stranger (mahram). Here, it is important to distinguish between cultural practices and the tenets of Islam, which are not really, strictly defined anywhere.

Critics argue that hijab (interpreted as a dress code) is a symbol of oppression. Some western countries have even imposed a ban on its use. But many people claim that it is a matter of personal choice. Both of these statements are true and false depending on various factors. Advocates of hijab will claim that it is mandated by Qur’an for Muslim women to wear a piece of cloth over their head and cover their body in a certain way – a position unattested by historical evidence. Many Muslim women are forced to wear hijab against their will because of the legal repercussions in countries where hijab is enforced by law, or because of the constant pestering by family or by the self-appointed moral police in the society. Many women, however, wear hijab as a fashion statement or style, or simply under peer pressure. In a recent trend, some young Muslim women in western societies have resorted to donning headscarves over sexy western outfits as a political statement against racism and Islamophobia.

Many people erroneously associate the wearing or not wearing of hijab with the oppression or emancipation of women (respectively). But not wearing hijab does not automatically entail women’s emancipation. There are educated hijab-wearing Muslim women who are able to integrate seamlessly in different cultures, work in public spaces in mixed gatherings, and take no gender-driven nonsense. And there are hijab-less (Muslim and non-Muslim) women who are victims of gender-discrimination, domestic violence and constant abuse at the hands of their male partners but do not have the guts to stand up for their rights regardless of where they live. As far as women’s rights are concerned, sexual objectification of women is no better than the obsessive urge to protect women into invisibility. Gender-based discrimination is not limited to clothing; it is expressed in a number of different ways.

Often the distinction between the tenets of Islam and cultural customs is lost when we are faced with a world of ignorance and misinformation. Socio-historically speaking, there are a number of contexts to the use of a head covering. In many societies, a headgear (e.g., a scarf, a turban, a cap, or a hat), was used by both men and women simply as a protection against extreme temperatures, viz., heat, cold, or other climatic changes. In a number of cultures, however, since head was considered to be the most important and perhaps sacred part of the body, a special headgear was used to cover or adorn it. You couldn’t imagine a bride or a groom without a special headgear at the wedding ceremony. In many cases, headgear was a mark of one’s social class, an indication of a privileged social background. Thus, in many societies men and women of higher social status would (partly or completely) cover their head in formal situations or in public. These include members of royal families, religious figures (e.g., priests and nuns), etc. Often people of lower status would follow suit in their quest for upper social mobility and acceptance in the elite classes. This trend is still in practice in many societies where a certain type of headgear is symbolic of one’s status rather than a religious binding. Often adorned with decorative trinkets, a headgear in such a situation has little to do with the concept of morality or women’s oppression and more with social superiority. Pulling a person’s headgear off could be the most disdainful and disrespectful of an act one could commit against anyone irrespective of gender.

The concept of a face veil, such as, naqāb, burqa, or ghoonghat in the Middle East or South Asia, as also observed in the conservative western societies of the yore where women would draw a net under a hat over their face, could be viewed as a special extension of the headgear. Historically, women have often been concealed in closed-door cabins and carried over by male escorts from place to place (c.f. pālki in northern India, or zāmpān in Kashmir). In a socio-cultural context, such a covering could be perceived as an extreme form of protection of the sacredness of a woman of higher social status where the rest of the world is barred from even looking at her. But the same does not apply to women of lower status who were often taken as “slave girls” or concubines by men of higher status. In a purely religious context, however, it could be experienced as an extreme form of protection of morality where a woman must completely conceal herself lest she should attract attention in a sexual way. Thus, whereas man is some sort of a powerless character incapable and absolved of being in charge of his own chastity, a woman is entitled with an extraordinary power to seduce or corrupt a man, and must, therefore, be disempowered.

Thus, Hijab becomes a symbol of oppression when it is associated with morality, when a woman’s character is evaluated by the society on the basis of whether or not she covers her head (besides her body) in a piece of cloth. It becomes a symbol of cruelty against women when they are punished – either physically or psychologically – should they violate the practice. In the most bizarre cases, some people will argue that the hijab “protects women against lustful men” – a claim that is not supported by any empirical evidence. Many Muslims, especially the menfolk, will argue that the Qur’an makes hijab mandatory for women. Little girls are tortured into believing that they will go to hell and that their bodies will be covered with snakes as they burn in hell fire if they do not “cover”. Such radical positions are based on ignorance and misinterpretation of certain verses of Qur’an and are rubbished by many scholars and experts of Islamic thought.

Historically, the term hijab is not found in the Qur’an or Hadith in the context of dress code or women’s hair. The word hijab, as it is used in the Qur’an, means a ‘screen’, ‘partition’, or ‘barrier’. It appears in a total of about five instances in the text. In a loose sense, it is closer in interpretation to a ‘curtain’ than anything else. The word is used to mean a ‘screen’ or ‘barrier’ in a number of instances, e.g., between Muslims and non-Muslims (Chapter 7 Al-A’raf: verse 46, and Chapter 41 Ha-Mim: verse 5), between Maryam and her family (when she “withdrew” from them and conceived Jesus; Chapter 19 Maryam: verses 16-17), and between the wives of the Prophet and the nāmahram male visitors of the family (Chapter 33 Al-Ahzab: verse 53). It is also used to refer to a ‘veil’ or ‘screen’ from behind which “Allah could speak to a human” (Chapter 42 Ash-Shura: verse 51).

The words that do refer to ‘(type of) covering’ and ‘headdress’ are jalabib (Singular jilbab) and khumur (respectively), independently used at two separate instances in the Qur’an. The words are pre-Islamic; while khumur was used by both Arab men and women as a headgear (to protect the head from weather and dust/sand), jilbab was probably only used by women to cover the body. The occurrence of jalabib is found here (Chapter 33 Al-Ahzab: verse 59):

“O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their jalabib close around them; it is more suitable that they should be known (recognized) and not harmed (annoyed). And Allah is ever forgiving, and most merciful.”

If we pay attention to the words “known (recognized)” and “harmed (annoyed)”, it is very clear from the verse cited above that being “known (recognized)” is “more suitable” (than not being known (recognized)). Therefore, a face veil or naqab is simply out of the question as far as the Qur’an is concerned. Further, women are advised to cover their body so men are unable to (physically) harm them (i.e., touch or grab on their naked bodies). There is no mention of hair or hell-fire in this verse or the adjacent verses. Both men and women are advised to “reduce their gaze (or cast down their glances) and guard their private parts” (Chapter 24 Al-Nur: 30-31). Women are further advised (not necessarily mandated) to “draw their khumur over their bosoms” and “not display their zinat (beauty/adornment)” to strangers (i.e., men other than their “husbands, fathers, fathers-in-law, sons, husband’s sons, nephews, male attendants having no physical desires, and children”) (24:31).

In this context it is very important to draw one’s attention to the type of clothing that Arab women wore during the Prophet’s time in the early 7th century Arabia. In absence of properly stitched clothing, the idea of “drawing the khumur over the bosom” or the “jilbab around the body” is to cover a woman’s nakedness as opposed to wrapping herself in an all-concealing (black) shroud or the modern-day abaya – a word that does not appear in the Qur’an. The word hijab as a ‘screen’ is used in the Qur’an to cater to the sense of privacy in a society where it was very common for male visitors to show up any time uninvited and violate the private space of the hosts, especially women (and more specifically the women of the Prophet’s household in the context of the Qur’anic verses; See Chapter 24; 27-29 where men are advised to “not enter houses other than their own without permission”, to “go back” when asked, and not linger around unnecessarily). During those times, houses had very little privacy, with no separate compartments. There were no covered toilets and no specific means of sanitation. With utter disregard for women’s personal space, menfolk would often indulge in socially undesirable activities and harass women. Oftentimes, during the night, when womenfolk of the Prophet’s tribe went out to relieve themselves (away from the household), they would be attacked by men of other tribes. Furthermore, in the absence of modern facilities and sanitary napkins, menstruating women, had to be temporarily “screened” (separated) from the rest of the people with limited interaction with the public. Thus, for instance, when they hesitated to come out even after his invitation one day, the Prophet advised the screened (menstruating) women that they could have themselves “covered” by jalabib and participate in the upcoming Eid elebrations; one of the (screened) women who did not possess a jilbab, was asked to “borrow one from a companion.” (Sahih Bukhari, Book 8, #347).

Here I would like to make a note of an account of the 13th century Arab women in Tarikh-al-Mustabsir by Ibn-al-Mujawir, a Persian traveler to Mecca. The upper class womenfolk of the sacred city, Mujawir notes, “wear bonnets” (perhaps akin to khumur). In an account of the poor women in a town about two miles from the sacred city, Mujawir writes: “the woman takes two pieces of leather and stitches them together, cuts a round hole in it and puts it on. When she walks, the whole of her body can be seen, above and below” (quoted from Sardar 2014: 157). In such a context, going backwards to the 7th century Arabia when fewer women would know how to stitch clothes in absence of the modern tools, it makes perfect sense to have to “draw” the jalabib “around the bodies” or the khumur “over the bosoms” to cover the nakedness. Note also that none of these verses indicates the use of both khumur and jilbab at the same time.

To conclude, the primary question that I wanted to delve into in this article was whether or not the Qur’an mandates any specific dress code for Muslim women and whether they are entitled to wear layers and layers of certain type of clothing as a religious binding. As revealed by the available historical evidence, it turns out that that is not the case. The recommendations in the Qur’an are clearly contextualized and ought not to be interpreted in the extreme sense as a strict dress code observed in the modern day, as many people would erroneously tend to believe or argue. The imposition of hijab in its more recent connotation as a strict religious dress code for Muslim women is an innovation; it seems to be an outcome of the puritanical canonization of the Islamic tenets that occurred centuries after the death of the Prophet.

© Sadaf Munshi, December 28, 2015.

Male hypocrisy and the lies about Islam

Given the touch-me-not attitude one experiences in Kashmir, I have observed that many rational voices steer clear of indulging in talking about controversial topics, especially those related to religion and politics. Several months ago during my annual visit to Kashmir, I had expressed an objection to the extensive use of loud speakers for broadcasting religious sermons or Qur’anic recitations at night, at which occasion I was dubbed as an “anti-Islamic” and “westernized” non-resident Kashmiri by a friend without giving an explanation of as to why it was necessary to do so. The primary reason for my objection being my two-year old daughter who was unable to sleep, not to mention the inconvenience this might have caused to many other people wanting to sleep for various reasons. Since religion and politics have become so intertwined, if not synonymous, over the many years of political turmoil in Kashmir, it is extremely challenging to talk about these topics in the public domain without apprehensions. One is bound to face extreme amounts of criticism even when there is a compelling need to question and respond to matters of social injustice and oppression. I am writing this article keeping in view the risks of disappointing certain conservative schools of thought.

An article recently published in a Srinagar-based daily (November 20, 2013, Rising Kashmir) cited a mufti objecting to the visit of a noted Muslim women’s rights activist Amina Wadud to the Kashmir valley. Wadud, an accomplished scholar and social activist of international repute, was condemned for her advocacy for the Muslim women’s right to lead prayers in mixed gatherings in mosques. Indeed, what a blasphemy! The mufti had further stated that, “such people should not be allowed to visit the masjids, khankahs and shrines in Kashmir”. As a woman of Kashmiri origin, who was brought up in a fairly conservative Muslim family, and who has repeatedly suffered the male-dominated oppression of many kinds back home, I took the opportunity to respond and register my protest in the form of this article.

As I write this piece I am reminded of many incidents of Kashmiri male hypocrisy and misogyny but I will cite only one here: an incident that happened around February 2013 when three young Kashmiri Muslim girls had decided to pursue music as their career and a fatwa (‘a religious decree’) was extended by the afore-mentioned mufti about music being “un-Islamic”. Hordes of young Kashmiri netizens, mostly males, had come out in severe criticism and condemnation of the young girls in the name of Islam. Amidst all the controversy, the girls eventually decided to quit for “the happiness of all”. What their critics failed to recognize was that if music were actually harām (‘prohibited’) in Islam, it should be equally so for both men and women. It is no news that there are scores of men’s musical groups and bands in Kashmir thriving and performing for millions of Kashmiris who regularly listen to and enjoy different kinds of music. No such religious decrees were extended to these men. Incidentally the same mufti had, at a later point, been spotted on camera at a musical performance.

As far as the question of whether music is harām in Islam is concerned, there has been a long debate over this subject over centuries. In fact, many extremist Muslims may say that the increasing popularity of music “poses a tremendous danger to Islam”. Interestingly, there are a number of references in historical texts, which claim that Prophet Muhammed and his wife (Ayisha) had, in fact, at various occasions, enjoyed, encouraged or expected musical performances. Different kinds of music were part of the festivities of various kinds even during those medieval times. The best ever music that we enjoy and appreciate today originates from some of the important Islamic countries and Muslim cultures of the world. From the best recitations of the religious scriptures to the qawwāli and na’at (songs of devotion), poetry and music have been an important and intrinsic part of the Islamic cultures of the world. Yet Muslim women of Kashmir are largely deprived of this blessing on the basis of unsubstantiated claims in the name of religion and Islam.

Now, going back to the earlier question of whether women can in fact “lead” prayers in mosques. For those who subscribe to such patriarchal and outdated views, it needs to be clarified that there is neither such a theological restriction in the Qur’an nor any attested statement made by the Prophet where women have been particularly prohibited from leading prayers, or where men have been specifically prescribed to do so. Such restrictions were placed about 300 years after the death of the Prophet when Islamic law was encoded, depriving Muslim women from this position by a majority rule that was put to practice for centuries up until this date. As also maintained in many important Islamic texts, praying is perceived to be a very direct and personal relationship between an individual and (his/her) God; there is no requirement for any third person to intercede between the two. Thus, a Muslim woman is entitled to a direct relationship with God as much as a Muslim man is. In other words, the question of “leading” does not even arise. However, the act of “leading” is a mere functionary practice of organizing the prayers and not a leadership role per se. The latter of course is another controversial issue in the context of the women’s role in social and religious practices in the public domain, as well as the their role in the fiq’h, the Islamic jurisprudence, which again, is based on consensus, and which in turn is male-dominated, not surprisingly.

To conclude this article, I would like to barely touch upon the notion of taqlid (lit. ‘unthinking imitation’) as being propagated by the Muslim Ulema all across the world (including Kashmir) and blindly followed and adopted by the general masses as opposed to any emphasis whatsoever on the concept of Ijtehad which should rather be highlighted as the need of the time. Ijtehad, which literally means ‘to strive to make efforts to solve a problem’, or more broadly, the concept of change and reform in organized religion, has unfortunately taken a backseat in the development and evolution of Islamic thought and thus led to various decadent and deteriorated practices which are not only old-fashioned but oppressive in character. There is an imminent and increasing need for a feminist re-interpretive schema that revisits the scriptural sources in an effect to address the gender-based discrimination in social and political rights vis-à-vis Islamic law, or Shari’a.

About the author: Dr. Sadaf Munshi is an associate professor in Linguistics and an affiliated faculty in the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Institute at the University of North Texas. For feedback email the author at smunshi2002@yahoo.com.

(This article appeared in the daily Kashmir Observer, Dec. 20, 2013. URL: http://kashmirobserver.net/news/opinion/male-hypocrisy-and-lies-about-islam )

 

Revisiting the PR Bill: Why only Women?

We will not settle for anything less than EQUAL status at par with men.

Yes, it is the 21st century world where women are being considered, not as goods and commodities which could be bought and sold, but as real human-beings entitled to what we call “fundamental rights”, just like those of men. It is a time when globalization is leading the women of today into new roles around the world establishing greater equality to men, where the social role for women is changing from that of the traditional “mother” to that of the “provider” (in addition to being a mother). Unfortunately, we are still living in a society which is yet to comprehend, let alone acknowledge this changing reality. It is still a society where men tend to make decisions for women, despite the fact that social roles have considerably changed. It is a society where it is taken for granted that a woman, after marriage, will and must leave her home and hearth to settle in with her husband, and that she will belong to his family. An opposite scene where a man would join his wife is no less than a blasphemy and a matter of great humiliation; and the possibility for a woman to choose to live on her own is even out of question. In such a scenario, it is unthinkable and even unimaginable for us to admit that our woman is not only quite capable of, but, in fact, is entitled to the right to make decisions on her behalf.

In the year 2004, during the first week of March, a stream of extreme rage and dissatisfaction had passed all up my nerves so that I had to suspend all my day’s work after I read through the headlines of the various local dailies of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. This was about the passage of the J&K Permanent Resident (Disqualification) Bill 2004 (“PR Bill”) which deprives the women of the state from maintaining Resident status and from the right to own property should they marry a “non-state subject”. Same law, however, would not apply to men in a similar situation. Irrespective of the fact that the Bill was fundamentally flawed and absolutely unjust and discriminating towards one-half of the population of the state, it was unanimously passed. The then National Conference President, Omar Abdullah, himself born of and married to a non-native, had even taken a very strong stance by issuing a whip for ensuring a “smooth passage of the PR Bill 2004” warning that any violation would entail action in terms of Anti Defection Law against its Legislative Council members should they oppose the Bill. Shortly afterwards, however, the passage of the Bill had caused a great upheaval in and outside the state in various circles, and it had, at least temporarily, been shelved aside.

After six years, the Bill has resurfaced from the debris to haunt us a second time — this time ironically on the International Women’s day, around exactly the same time of the year (moved by the PDP legistator Murtaza Ahmad Khan on March 8, 2010). Interestingly this time too, the Bill was allowed “unopposed”. What is even more interesting to note is that during the same session, the Minister for Social Welfare, Ms. Sakina Itto has proposed a Bill on Domestic Violence for “empowering women”. Was that a bad joke?

The PDP’s stance may be a bait for the separatist mindset aimed to “safeguard Article 370” (or “special status” of the J & K), or a part of some new political gimmick to regain its lost face, but one must concede that such politicians can no longer make a fool of the womenfolk who are more informed, more confident, and more determined to fight for their rights. There is no rationale whatsoever behind the argument that women’s marrying non-state subjects causes an “imbalance in the state demographics” while the same action by men, committed on a much larger scale than women, does not. It does not take a genius to realize that the Bill is absolutely blind to our women’s basic and fundamental rights.

While many political parties supporting the Bill certainly have their motives, the important question that must be addressed by everyone today, irrespective of our political orientations or ideologies, is: Do the women of the state of Jammu & Kashmir deserve equal treatment as that of men? On the one hand is the question of their basic human and fundamental rights, their right to live with dignity and equal status as that of men in a country which boasts of being the largest democracy in the world, and on the other, is the issue of safeguarding article 370 of the “privileged” state. The answer is more than clear: If such a Bill must pass at any point, it must apply to everyone irrespective of their gender; under these circumstances, the first person to be disqualified from the Resident status must be our honorable Chief Minister, Mr. Omar Abdullah, followed by everybody with similar qualifications. If that is not likely to happen any time, the Bill must be buried for good.

© Sadaf Munshi, March 11, 2010.
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(This article was published in the March 17, 2010 issue of the daily Rising Kashmir available at URL: http://www.risingkashmir.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=21676&Itemid=53)