Hasina Khan, an Indian Muslim who overcame her family's conservative views on women in society, has formed a powerful coalition to fight the discrimination against women that is perpetuated by Muslim Personal Law.
The New Idea
Hasina has created a way for Muslim women in India to fight the discrimination dealt to them at home, at work, in the streets, and in the courts. The Muslim Women's Rights Network is a broad coalition of persons and organizations that want to redress the injustices perpetrated against women and sanctioned by Muslim Personal Law. Hasina believes that no single advocate, whether an individual or an organization, is powerful enough to change laws and public attitudes; but a large coalition can put the human rights of Muslim women onto a broader social agenda. Any efforts to change Muslim Personal Law must begin with widening the circle of interested parties to include lawyers, feminists, citizen groups, and communities. By presenting a common front, the group can exert collective pressure and fight the forces of division in Indian politics. Hasina runs a service that helps poor Muslim women encounter the world outside the home, broadening the narrow social world that tradition has prescribed for them. Through her efforts, alert and educated women are joining the national coalition to bring in legal reforms and promote women's rights.
According to the 1991 census, there are about forty-eight million Muslim women in India. Like all women, Muslim women have been discriminated against by Indian society, politics, and economy–regardless of class, caste, or community. Fifty years after Indian independence, Muslim women are less literate, more disadvantaged, poorer and less well represented than almost any other group. In a 1981 study of thirty-nine districts, the literacy rate of Muslim women was found to be 22 percent, almost 3 percent lower than the women's national average. Girls are taken out of school for religious reasons, and the outside world remains a mystery to them. They are not taught to be independent and they have minimal access to resources. They do not have any rights over their matrimonial or natal homes. The Muslim Women's Bill passed in 1986 subordinated the rights of Muslim women to the demands of community identity, denying them constitutional rights as Indian citizens. Civil and criminal law are secular matters governed by the state, but personal law, which looks after marriage, dowry, divorce, settlement, inheritance, custody, and guardianship, is still determined by religious doctrine. The personal rights of Muslim women come under the purview of Muslim Personal Law, which has not seen any legislative changes since the 1937 Shariat Act and the 1939 Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act. The MPL's most restrictive provisions are Triple Talaq (unilateral divorce by saying talaq thrice in one sitting), and denial of alimony. Custody and guardianship laws are also biased against women. When her children are small, a mother has custody; as they grow up, the father can claim custody and take them away. MPL does not allow for adoption. Muslim religious institutions declare MPL to be divinely sanctioned, beyond human interference. Revising it, they argue, will erode Muslim cultural identity. In fact, the Muslim Personal Law Board seeks to lengthen the arm of MPL by setting up "Islamic Courts" that will dispense justice according to the Holy Quran. Successive Indian governments have avoided taking a position on MPL reform, revealing a lack of commitment to women's rights in the family and society, as well as a disregard for the continuous denial of constitutional rights. Many educated Muslims want reform, but Muslim fundamentalist parties, which are a minority, have appropriated the public debate over MPL for their own ends, while the majority of Muslims have had no unified national voice. Reform of MPL remains an urgent necessity. Along with legal reform must come improved social and economic status; it is through employment and education that Muslim women shall realize the autonomy that new laws should establish and protect. The Muslim community in general needs to reflect and debate among its members the reasons and remedies for its lower economic, educational, and employment status in India. There is also need for debate and organizing by Muslim women on how to use legal reform to overcome a patriarchal social structure.
Hasina addresses Muslim women's rights on two related fronts: the realm of women's personal struggle against discrimination and the realm of legal reform. She runs an organization called Awaaz-e-Niswan (AEN) that works against the oppression that Muslim women suffer within families, communities, religious institutions, and society at large. She believes that women must participate in the international debate on women's role in Islam. It is imperative that Indian Muslim women reclaim their rights to religious knowledge, enter the discourse on Shariat, and challenge their traditional status. Hasina has been able to mobilize women from her community to take part in this debate and raise their voices against discrimination.Aawaaz-e-Niswan started talking openly about discrimination within Muslim Personal Law, and possible reforms, in 1996. Hasina and her team helped create awareness among poor Muslim women about their rights under MPL. She also succeeded in mobilizing them to challenge the lacuna between men and women enshrined in MPL and to suggest changes. Hasina believes that "concerns for MPL should be part of the entire identity of Muslim women. It should not be imposed from the top but should be built into the consciousness." This consciousness writes the agenda for a powerful alliance of organizations seeking legal reform. The idea of a coalition came to Hasina when she attended a workshop in 1998 on "Problems of Muslim Women" organized by Asgar Ali Engineer, a prominent academic in Bombay. "I realize the importance of an academic workshop on Muslim women and their problems. You at least get to share the research. But community participation is very limited, there hardly exists any follow-up," says Hasina. She felt that women, communities and citizen organizations should take initiative for discussing and analyzing Muslim Personal Law. Women should represent their own interests rather than allow political and religious leaders to speak for them. She organized the first national conference on "Muslim Personal Law and Women" in Bombay in June 1999 to kick-start the coalition. The conference generated a lot of interest and discussion, and about twenty-four groups joined the alliance. Hasina accomplished two objectives that would determine the coalition's membership and attitude: explaining that it is not only for Muslim women, but for all women and men working on women's issues, and that it can be used for understanding national as well as local problems, views, and positions. She stressed that, while differences of opinion should be accepted, the coalition should speak with one voice. A few practical strategies help make the coalition a success. Each member organization takes responsibility to host the coalition for six months. No one organization takes the lion's share of responsibility. The structure remains autonomous and loose so that anyone can join. Cost is no barrier to membership, and time-bound objectives ensure responsiveness and accountability. Early on the coalition identified six areas within the MPL needing reform: nikahnamah (contract marriage), Triple Talaq (divorce), Maintenance or alimony, Right to Matrimonial Law, polygamy, and Mehr (money that a bride brings to the marriage and may recover upon divorce). The coalition's first report was circulated in English and in Hindi.Once the coalition got going, Hasina started talking about MPL with women from her community, asking them to imagine what they would do with the legal system if they were in control. Divorce and maintenance arose as the two main issues. On the basis of her findings, Hasina held a meeting on reforms to Triple Talaq that was attended by about twelve local religious administrators. By presenting the concerns of local women to local religious leaders, Hasina is trying to build consensus and support for reform from the bottom upwards.At Awaaz-e-Niswan women receive legal aid and basic education. Education has been important to Hasina's personal struggle, and she sees it as a way to empower other Muslim women. She offers a literacy course that begins women on the path towards formal education and employment. In the adult education center in Dongri, women are taught to read, write and speak Hindi and English. They use typewriters and computers to write their life experiences in booklets that the organization publishes. This program has helped twenty women with little or no education to seek formal certificates, and about sixteen others are now preparing for school and college-level examinations. They have opened up avenues for income, too. Some tutor small children and some have taken up secretarial and accounting jobs. Hasina introduces these women, who have very little space of their own, to the world that exists outside the four walls of home and the cramped slums of Bombay. The AEN office offers them a place where they can laugh and talk loudly, watch movies, have discussions, share their experiences, dreams and hopes. They go to cinemas and exhibitions and are exposed to the simple pleasures of life, such as eating in restaurants and taking day trips around Bombay. From one neighborhood in Mohammed Ali Road in 1993, Hasina's work has spread to predominantly Muslim areas in Central Bombay and its suburbs. It has spread outside Bombay to Thane and Kalyan. Hasina's plan is to build adult education centers in three other Muslim neighborhoods over the next three years. The other major activity of AEN has been to provide legal aid and counseling to women in crisis. Hasina and her team of six have handled about one thousand cases over the last six years. AEN has retrieved dowry articles, helped women gain custody of their children, and has even helped women receive financial assistance. Since every situation is different, Hasina believes in using different strategies–dialogue, the help of neighbors and the local religious court or Jamaat, police, and the civil courts. The Local Jamaat has been so impressed with Hasina's success that the Jamaat consults her on problem-solving. Hasina invites women to make concrete suggestions about how to change the status of Muslim women, informing the broader effort to reform MPL with their insights.The coalition is now inviting participation from all of South Asia. Counterparts in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka will participate in a regional conference. At the greater international level, AEN has been networking with the Minority Rights Group and Women Living Under Muslim Law in U.K. Attempts to invite members of the Muslim Personal Law Board to interact with women have so far failed. Wanting to keep them informed, Hasina sent them the 1999 conference report.
Hasina's life story illustrates her resilience and dedication. Family fortunes tumbled when her father, an alcoholic who sometimes became violent, gambled away the family's money. Hasina's mother worked as a maid and seamstress to send her children to school. Life changed for Hasina when her brother went to work in the Gulf states–she could continue school even though her sisters had by then dropped out. Her luck changed again when the rich brother came back home, squandered all his money and became involved in crime. With her mother, she supported the family by running a catering service. As Hasina grew up, she recognized the injustices of patriarchy–what it does to women, the poverty and the socio-economic implications that surround it. She was determined to go to college, so she tutored small children for cash and sought donations, discounts and free books. Illness, pressure at home, lack of money, and hours spent supporting her family did not prevent Hasina from earning her degree. But Hasina's story is not just the tale of a downtrodden, hardworking girl who put herself through school. For all the bad luck that intervened in her life, she had one powerful stroke of good fortune. Across the street from Hasina's house stood the headquarters of the original Awaaz-e-Niswan, the first Muslim women's group to challenge MPL, the organization that Hasina would someday lead. Hasina would, from time to time, peep into the office. This is how she met the activist Shehnaaz Shaikh, who became her mentor and her guide in life. Hasina was finally introduced to the Bombay beyond her slum, to books outside her syllabus, to music and film and to the social and cultural life that Muslim girls seldom enjoy. Hasina joined AEN in 1985 for a modest salary, giving up her other jobs and devoting herself to her work. The organization made her aware of issues that influence the lives of women in general and Muslim women in particular. She gave up her religious practices and threw herself into her work. The local religious court wanted her family to stop her from going to work–they could not. When Shehnaz left in 1993, the organization fell apart. But Hasina felt indebted to AEN, and nine months later she brought it back to life.She has earned a reputation as a problem-solver and organizer in her own community, the community that once tried to silence her. Even her father and the Jamaat have come around to see her point of view. Hasina has worked hard for 12 years to put her organization on the map of Indian civil society. Awaaz-e-Niswan is her lifeblood and she sees in its rise, fall and resurrection a reflection of her own struggle.