A young Egyptian woman living in Malaysia travels to India, and tells the stories of brave women and men activists fighting for truth, and reclaiming Islam’s spirit for justice in their communities. Between exploring spirituality and understanding India’s politics, she reflects on her own country, and hopes to inspire humans worldwide to seek truth and take action.
I just came back from India in one of the most enriching and eye opening trips I ever made. The 10 days I spent there between Shimla and Delhi leave a place of nostalgia in my heart, between the sweet taste of rich indigenous cultures, deep wisdom and faces, hearts and warmth of the incredible courageous and diverse people I met there.
I was there as part of a workshop on Muslim women organized by the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS) in Shimla.
Shimla, often referred to as the ‘Queen of Hills’ is one of the Hill stations located in the north-west of the Himalayas. As the capital of Himachal Pradesh, it was declared by the British, during colonial rule, as their summer capital. Located at an average altitude of 2,205 metres (7,234 ft), Shimla experiences pleasant summer breeze and cold snowy winters. It has seven hills, the IAS was on one of them. Traditionally, the region of Himachal has strong ties with neighboring Tibet and there are marked cultural and religious similarities. It also houses Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama in exile.
Before making my way to Shimla I had to stop by Delhi for a couple of hours, which I used for some sightseeing. One of the things that really amazed me was the resemblance of this city and its people to Cairo. With the almost 46 degree heat, the “organized chaos”, the somehow still functioning traffic, the passion of its people and how they still make it all work with a cheerful smile and warm hospitality, I immediately felt at home.
I visited Raj Ghat, the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi which marks his cremation in 1948.It is a black marble platform in the open sky with an eternal flame burning at one end. The place was simple and quiet therefore humbling. Around the sides of the garden are Gandhi’s quotes.
I then made my way to the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India and described as one of the most beautiful ones as well. It was built by the Emperor Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, with a courtyard capable of holding 25,000 devotees. As it was the time for ‘Asr Azan (call for prayers) as I walked in, I joined for prayers.
The atmosphere was beautiful, given that the mosque is built on a much higher level, similar to Taj Mahal, the sky line is absolutely clear with no buildings or so in the background disrupting the scenery, its just you and the blue sky. Making the Wudu’ (ablution for prayer) was a very unique experience. Besides the traditional taps rowed on the sides, there was this big pool with pure water right in the middle of the courtyard with people sitting around it and taking their Wudu’ from the same source of water.
It was a beautiful sense of unity and reminder of the oneness of the source of our creation while we joined in this act of symbolic purification. Many women were taking their Wudu’ there as well and praying scattered in the different corners of the Mosque.
It was then time to get ready for my 11 hour bus trip up to Shimla. Arriving there two days before the start of the workshop I took the time to explore the city and the IIAS. A writer-Activist from Kashmir valley, Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander, also reached around the same time, and we along with Dr Yoginder Sikand the convener of the workshop went to trek the mountains around IIAS, as whole of Shimla is located in mountainous ranges, known as lower Himalayas.
The IIAS building itself is a historical one. It used to be residence of the British Viceroy but after independence the Viceregal Lodge and its vast green landscapes were passed into the hands of the President of India, who turned it into present day institute for free research and academic pursuits. Our conference room was the same room that witnessed several crucial meetings with Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah during the Indian Independence struggle. On this very table the negotiation papers on the partition of India were prepared and decided upon.
Realities of Muslim communities in India
The workshop on “Indian Muslim Women’s Struggle for Equality, Justice and Empowerment” brought together scholars and women’s rights activist from across the country to discuss the importance of foregrounding Muslim women’s concerns and issues at the policy making level, and in the media and linking Muslim women’s initiatives and struggles with the broader Muslim community’s strive towards social justice.
Muslims are among the most deprived and marginalized communities in India with Muslim women suffering from extreme poverty and educational marginalization.
While the standard stereotype has been to link this apathy back to Islam, many reports and surveys have shown that this is the result of low economic status rather than religion. The state and mainstream media has not only been indifferent to the question of marginalization of Muslims in India, but has also tolerated and allowed right wing Hindu fascism against Muslims resulting into what many Indian Muslims perceive as State terror and discrimination against Muslims.
Yet, activists in this workshop understand that within this political environment change has to come from within. Many have been working within their communities and beyond, challenging so called political and religious leaders who are also guilty of being indifferent to the specific problems of Muslim women, as well as for forcing a monopoly and hierarchical structures in society and in the production of knowledge on Islam.
Upholding Islam’s spirit for justice, dignity and equality, they encourage women to engage with Islamic texts in order to understand and claim their rights.
Muslim women in India: Reclaiming Islam and advocating for change
Issues like triple talaq and polygamy are some of the main issues that have caused injustice to Muslim women in India. Even though the Qur’an stipulates clear conditions and guidelines for talaq and polygamy that aims to limit these practices and guarantee fairness and harmony within the family, existing cultural patriarchal practices and understandings have allowed misuse of these practices and forcing oppression against women resulting in braking up of families, justified and cloaked in the tenants of Islam.
An organization like Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) is promoting the role of Muslim women within the community to act as leaders and help improve the socio-economic , political legal and educational status and fight for social justice for the community as a whole. BMMA and what used to be the Muslim Women’s Rights Network emphasize the need to have a broader scope when talking about women’s issues such as drawing attention to violence practiced against the community as a whole and addressing issues related to the targeting of Muslims by the state apparatus. People like Zakia Soman, founder of BMMA, whom I met at the conference was emphasizing that till we address the overall exclusion of the community, Muslim women’s exclusion cannot be addressed .
I was also happy to meet the renowned Islamic scholar and reformist Bohra leader Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer.
Dr. Engineer emphasized the difference between religion and culture, explaining that our behaviour is more influenced by culture, and that therefore the Qur’an is violated in every walk of our life because of our culture.
Our customs and traditions reflect this patriarchal culture. The Qu’ran was also revealed in a patriarchal culture and it tried to bring new values and empower women more than 1400 years ago, coming with a clear declaration: “And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable” (Al-Baqarah: 228)
Dr. Engineer explained that in pre-Islam Arabia, it was men who had all the rights and women all the duties. The Qur’an reversed that giving men all the duties and women all the rights. There is a chapter in the Qur’an named after women (Al-Nisa’) but there is no chapter on men.
The Prophet wanted to put a stop to all cruelties to women. He preached kindness towards them. He told the Muslims: “Fear God in respect of women.” And: “The best of you are they who behave best to their wives.”
Dr. Engineer explained that since the Qur’an was very clear in stressing equality between men and women before God, men resorted to infiltrate and invent Hadith to regain their superiority. This would explain such contradictions between a Hadith which says hell is full of women, while another Hadith says Paradise is underneath mother’s feet.
Dr. Engineer conducts workshops with Muslim women and activists on understanding their rights in Islam.
Muslim women leading the fight against corrupt religious leaders
One of the two very interesting figures I met were courageous women who dedicated their life long for struggle against tyranny and corruption against so called prominent religious leaders.
One of these amazing women I was honored to meet is Zehra Cyclewala, a woman who led a decade long jihad alone against priestly tyranny and oppression. She confronted the Syedna Burhanuddin, the head priest or spiritual leader (dai-e mutlaq) of the Daudi Bohra Ismaili Shia sect.
Syedna Burhanuddin and his family have become enormously rich due to all kind of taxes levied upon the Bohras. All kinds of control and dictatorship was exercised on the people and anyone who dared to speak up was punished with the most powerful weapon – excommunication (baraat). According to this so called baraat, a person is socially boycotted by the community and cannot have social relationships with any other Bohra, not even with his or her family.
Many couples have been forcibly divorced against their will because one of them dared to differ with or speak up against the oppression and corruption of the Syedna.
In an interview with Yogi Sikander, Zehra explains how she was excommunicated to the extent that during her mother’s funeral (the only person who remained with her and was therefore also excommunicated), none of her siblings nor relatives attended besides the Bohras of Surat (a place in Gujarat, India) refusing to bury her in the community’s burial ground.
Against attacks, threats Zehra remained steadfast and fought every single battle alone refusing to bow down and reminding other Bohras that “standing up for truth, for values, for principles was true surrender to God, and that the supine surrender to a corrupt priesthood, which the Syedna insists on in the name of Islam, was its complete contradiction.”
Today Zehra is a nationwide known leading figure joined by thousands in the reformist movement against the tyranny of Syedna Burhanuddin. Together with Hindus and Sunnis, they launched a trust fund in the name of her brave mother and dream of establishing a common graveyard for people of all religions and communities.
Despite having lived a life full of struggle, Zehra was probably one of the most cheerful and fun-loving people who were at the conference. Between laughter and jokes, she made me promise her to invite her to Egypt to visit Tahrir square and meet all the brave women of the revolution.
But Zehra is the not the only one who risked her life for truth and justice. I was honored to meet Sheeba Aslam Fahmi, one of the few Indian Muslim women scholars who writes on Islam (among other issues) and the articulation of gender-just understandings of Islam using Quranic arguments. Since February 2009, she has a regular column, tellingly titled ‘Gender Jihad’, in the monthly Hans, one of India’s most respectable Hindi literary magazines.
Her hospitality, kindness and enthusiasm were really heartening, but you would be fooled if you think that’s all she got.
At the discussions that were not in English, I did not need to speak Hindi to see how she was fiercely debating left and right and firmly standing her ground in an unshakeable assertion. I then wasn’t surprised to find out she as well as her family are subjected to threats by corrupt so-called religious leaders which her writings were exposing. You can read more about Sheeba in this interview with Yogi Sikander.
Sheeba is presently a doctoral candidate at the the Centre for Political Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, working on a project on the absence of a visible Muslim women’s movement in post-1947 India.
A young man’s love for Kashmir
A very impressive person I met there was Mushtaq Ul haq Ahmad Sikander, a young activist from Kashmir. Only 23 year of age, Mushtaq has his own blog and reviewed over 60 books related to Islam, fiqh (Muslim jurisprudence) and the political situation in Kashmir, besides adding scores of write ups, research papers, poems, short stories to his credit.
In Mushtaq’s recounts of Kashmir, the raw and mysterious connection of a man with his land was more then apparent. With love and pride he describes the beauty of his beloved Kashmir, his voice turns bitter as he explains how it has been torn by armed conflict and war. Mushtaq writes as a prolific on the extreme injustice and oppression faced by women in Kashmir. Besides writing, he is also actively volunteers for various NGOs which work among the women victims of conflict.
In his own words:
“The Kashmir issue came back on the forefront once again with the inception of armed insurgency to wrest the valley out of the grip of Indian control; to which the Indian State responded with an Iron Fist Policy to suppress the same. In the tussle between the two the common masses became the cannon fodder whose rights, life and property were violated with impunity. In every case the bread earners, sons, husbands or brothers were lost which victimized the fairer sex even more. As is the norm in every conflict and war women who are considered repositories of collective honor, were dishonored, deflowered and defamed through rapes, gang rapes and molestations so as to discourage, debase and deject the manliness of Kashmiris and make them witness how vulnerable they are.
The participation of women in armed struggle and political decision making has been an exception, as fairly they are considered men’s affairs still out of bounds for women, but still some courageous, valiant and brave women became a part of the same.
Women of Kashmir whose souls are bruised, vision blurred, physique burdened, courage undermined, voices choked, contribution pulverized, despite all these atrocities they have been/are contributing in all the spheres of life in their capacity without any desire for fame or recognition.
Nothing substantial has been undertaken to preserve the glory of these unsung legends, who by fate happen to be women and in patriarchal conservative society are bound to suffer in various ways”.
Fighting for peasant’s rights and the Naxal movement
The whole experience would not be complete without telling you about my new friend Amit. He is probably one of the highlights of this trip for me.
The moment he walked in I could feel a sense of familiarity. A tall, dark skinned man probably in his mid to late 40’s (but later on I found that he was born in 1953!) , with his glasses and his long hair tied to the back, he reminded me of the leftist, Marxists of downtown Cairo, the political activists scene of Egypt.
And I was right, Amit had an incredible aura around him, you could immediately feel a personal fundamental commitment and urge for truth and justice in him, an inherent raw compassion. Amit has a revolutionary soul, yet his calmness whenever he spoke, or even just his presence, just sent a wave of reassurance, his soul seemed so old, wise and settled. You immediately feel embraced and accepted in his presence.
Amit was a political prisoner due to his involvement in the communist Naxalite movement fighting for radical redistribution of land to the landless against exploitative landlords and mobilizing peasants under the slogan “Land to the tiller” and power to the peasants, workers and the middle class alleys in the 1970’s following the Maoist paradigm.
As I had just come out of the Egyptian revolution, I was hungry for his reflections. Although the Naxalite movement was successful in having middle class people turn to the voice of the oppressed, yet Amit remains sceptical whether an armed revolution or armed struggle was the right strategy and whether the Maoist leftist ideology could be copied in India and assume it will work the same as it did in China.
The more militant the movement became, the more splits it witnessed. Although it seems that splits happen due to different political ideological rhetoric, Amit analyzes that what it really causes it is simply a clash of egos. It was therefore simply more and more difficult to unite workers and peasants under one slogan while the movement was splitting more and more.
When I asked him of what kind of political mobilization of the people he advocates for, he mentioned that he supports horizontal mobilization even if it’s temporary as opposed to vertical. This means that instead of having a representative democracy we should look into building a participatory one, so it is a structure whereby I’m represented but also taken in.
Coming from a background of psychiatry, Amit’s research field today is how modern science was copied from the West without incorporating indigenous healing practices. In that sense modern science came into India, but was taken in and practiced with a complete disregard to cultural practices and indigenous knowledge of mental health. In that sense it is completely deaf and blind to the person’s background rendering ineffective but also very harsh violent. What would be regarded as a social or cultural practice helping people to internal healing would be now categorized under paranoia or schizophrenia under Western developed medical criteria.
Amit noticed that still majority of the people in India don’t visit a psychiatrist for their mental healing, it also rendered us slaves to Euro-American psychiatry and part of an imperialist project of which knowledge and science is a major strategy used to maintain the control and thereby growth of globalized corporate world of science and medicine.
Some of his work:
- ‘Historicizing Indian Psychiatry’ available here.
- ‘Disaster and Mental Health: Revisiting Bhopal,’ (Co-author R. Srinivasa Murthy), Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.XXXVIII, 15-21 March, 2003, pp.1074-1082. Available here.
- Emergence of a Marginal Science in a Colonial City: Reading Psychiatry in Bengali Periodicals. Indian Economic and Social History Review, 41, pp 103-141, 2004. Available here.
A visit to the Buddhist temple
My last day I spent with Dr. Laura Yerekesheva, Associate Professor and head of the department of Central and South Asian Studies, and UNESCO Chair Coordinator.
Dr. Laura was very kind to take me to a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Shimla. We talked a lot about similarities between Buddhism and the Islamic tradition of Sufism. Both traditions emphasize the need to rise with yourself and overcome your ego to be able to receive divine knowledge or Noor (light in Islam). This knowledge is attained not through the ordinary scientific organs we know but through an enlightened self an internal source of intellect that connects you to the ultimate, irreducible, time-and-space-transcending mysterious Truth or Essence (equivalent to God in Islam).
Yet while the destination is one, the path of acquiring this knowledge is different. This was summarized in a biography of ibn-Sina (Avicenna) who after his talk with the famous Sufi A.S. Meiheni said: “He sees what I know”; while Meiheni commented on the same talk the following way: “He knows what I see”.
On our way back , we watched the green valley beneath us as we were driving down the mountain hill, with Sufiaana music in the background. It all took the richness of this experience to a different level.
As I’m writing these lines, I wish to send a warm thank you to all the great people who welcomed me in India, especially those who I didn’t get to mention here. Your struggles and tireless effort for justice and peace are humbling and inspiring.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, personal stories and reflections with me and I pray it equally inspires readers to rise up for the betterment of their communities and our world.
May Allah reward you, and bless your endeavors.