Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-6c8bd87754-rc569 Total loading time: 0.347 Render date: 2022-01-20T12:21:35.817Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

‘Acting upon our Religion’: Muslim women's movements and the remodelling of Islamic practice in India

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 March 2020

University of Oxford Email:


In the last 15 years, India has witnessed the expression of a variety of new non-conformist religious practices performed by Muslim women. A range of vibrant campaigns has been pioneered by Muslim women's associations, asserting women's claims to hold and lead congregational prayers, enter and manage mosques, visit shrines, officiate Muslim marriages, and issue shari‘ah-based legal decisions. This article explores the twin questions of why these experimental remodellings of women's Islamic observance and leadership have been so pronounced in the Indian context compared with much of the Islamic world, and furthermore, why Muslim women's rights activists have put such confessional matters at the centre of their work. Exploring a series of specific female-led assertions of religious agency centring upon mosques, shari‘ah councils, and a Sufi shrine, the article argues that India's variant of ‘secularism’, which has normalized the state's non-intervention in religious institutions and laws, has given women the freedom to embark upon overhauls of Islamic conventions denied to their counterparts elsewhere. Simultaneously, this same framework for handling religious questions has historically given intra-community and clerical voices particular influence in regulating Muslim community affairs and family laws, compelling activists to seek women's empowerment in individual and local community contexts to further their objectives, including through the assertion of experimental forms of religious conduct.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s) 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


This article was presented as the Gordon Johnson Annual Director's Seminar at the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, in 2018, and I am grateful for all the comments provided by the organizers and audience. I am extremely thankful to all the individuals named in the references for their extraordinary openness and helpfulness in giving me access to their private collections. Additional thanks are due to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding the research and to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions. The opinions expressed in this article are mine alone.


1 Interview, Nishaat Husain, 22 August 2017.

2 Asra Nomani, ‘Islamic bill of rights for women in the mosque’,, [accessed 23 December 2019].

3 Islamic feminism refers to a global discourse of female equality and justice rooted in a re-reading of Islamic scriptures and laws, which emerged in the 1990s–2000s. Pioneered by a number of well-known scholar-practitioners across the Islamic world, it is usually seen to mark a significant shift from the ‘secular’ rights discourses that previously predominated in women's rights activism in many Muslim-majority nations. For helpful overviews, see Badran, Margot Feminism in Islam: secular and religious convergences (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009)Google Scholar; Aslan, Ednan, Hermansen, Marcia and Medeni, Elif (eds), Muslima theology: the voices of Muslim women theologians (Frankfurt-am-Main: Peter Lang, 2014)Google Scholar; Mir-Hosseini, Ziba, ‘Beyond “Islam” vs “feminism”’, IDS Bulletin (42, 1, 2011), pp. 111CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Seedat, Fatima, ‘When Islam and feminism converge’, Muslim World (103, 3, 2013), pp. 404420CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Moghadam, Valentine, ‘Islamic feminism and its discontents: towards a resolution of the debate’, Signs (27, 4 2002), pp. 11351171CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 This landmark event provoked responses of deep commendation and condemnation alike from across the Muslim world. For commentaries, see Hammer, Juliane, ‘Performing gender justice: the 2005 woman-led prayer in New York’, Contemporary Islam (4, 2010), pp. 91116CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sharify-Funk, Meena and Kassum, Munira, ‘Where do women “stand” in Islam? Negotiating contemporary Muslim prayer leadership in North America’, Feminist Review (102, 2012), pp. 4161CrossRefGoogle Scholar; cf. Wadud, Amina, Inside the gender jihad: women's reform in Islam (Oxford: OneWorld, 2006)Google Scholar. For Nomani's account of her own similar act in Morgantown, see Nomani, Asra, Milestones for a spiritual jihad: towards an Islam of grace (Kalamazoo, MI: Fetzer Institute, 2010)Google Scholar.

5 ‘World's first mosque for women’, Hindustan Times (Delhi), 22 October 2007. In 2006 Nomani took up a fellowship with the South Asian Journalists Association to work on this movement.

6 For this definition of religious praxis as the ‘expression of religious commitment in practical terms’, and for the frequent assumption that Islam places particular emphasis upon rightful conduct as the expression of religious commitment, see Smith, Wilfred Cantwell, Islam in modern history (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 20Google Scholar; Denny, Frederick, ‘Orthopraxy in Islam and Judaism: convictions and categories’, in Brinner, William M. and Ricks, Stephen D. (eds), Studies in Islamic and Judaic traditions: papers presented at the Institute for Islamic-Judaic Studies (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986–1989), Vol. 2, pp. 8395Google Scholar.

7 Both these religious offices and spaces, they argue, ‘have been for long occupied by patriarchal clergymen’ and are now being ‘occupied’ by women. Niaz, Noorjehan Safia, Women's shariah court, Muslim women's quest for justice (Chennai: Notion Press, 2016), pp. i, 45Google Scholar. (This text is a published report on the shari‘ah ‘adalat movement authored by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA).)

8 Mohammed Wajihuddin, ‘Enter the Islamic feminist’, transcript, private collection of Shaista Amber, Lucknow (henceforth: Amber Papers).

9 As recounted in Shaista Amber, ‘Journey of a pedestrian (Peyadah ke safarnamah)’, interview transcript (c. 2008), Amber Papers.

10 The Hindu (Chennai), 3 February 2018.

11 The common restrictions upon women's congregational prayer and entry to mosques are examples: see below.

12 I have heard variations of this argument from several respondents. For an academic version, see Khan, Sameera, ‘Negotiating the mohalla: exclusion, identity and Muslim women in Mumbai’, Economic and Political Weekly (42, 17, 2007), pp. 15271533Google Scholar.

13 The major summative work on this subject is Bano, Masooda and Kalmbach, Hilary (eds), Women, leadership and mosques: changes in contemporary Islamic authority (Leiden: Brill, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 This observation is made in Masooda Bano and Hilary Kalmbach, ‘Islamic authority and the study of female religious leaders’, in Ibid., pp. 23–25. Proving their point, the essays in this volume focus on contemporary assertions of women's leadership chiefly in these same locations, especially Europe.

15 On the particularly Western contexts of new religious practices, see many of the essays in Bano and Kalmbach (eds), Women, leadership and mosques; Webb, Gisella (ed.), Windows of faith: Muslim women scholar-activists in North America (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000)Google Scholar. One author argues that the diasporic context offers Muslim women an environment to ‘reinterpret … the Islamic texts’ and ‘think … about their religious observances’. Hasan, Mahmudul, ‘Seeking freedom in the “third space” of diaspora: Muslim women's identity in Aboulela's “Minaret” and Janmohamed's “Love in a headscarf”’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (35, 1, 2015), pp. 8990CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 For example, Winkelmann, Mareike, From behind the curtain: a study of a girls’ madrasa in India (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Patricia Jeffery, Roger Jeffery and Craig Jeffrey, ‘Leading by example? Women madrasah teachers in rural North India’, in Bano and Kalmbach (eds), Women, leadership and mosques, pp. 195–216; Ahmad, Sadaf, Transforming faith: the story of al-Huda and Islamic revivalism (Syracuse: New York University Press, 2009)Google Scholar; Iqtidar, Humeira, Secularizing Islamists? Jama‘at-e-Islami and Jama‘at-ud-Da‘wa in urban Pakistan (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011), pp. 129155CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also the following articles, all in Modern Asian Studies (42, 2–3, 2008): Farzana Hanifa, ‘Piety as politics amongst Muslim women in contemporary Sri Lanka’, pp. 347–375; Maimuna Haq, ‘Reading the Qur'an in Bangladesh: the politics of “belief” among Islamist women’, pp. 457–488; Elora Shehabuddin, ‘Jamaat-i-Islami in Bangladesh: women, democracy and the transformation of Islamist politics’, pp. 577–603.

17 Mahmood, Saba, Politics of piety: the Islamic revival and the feminist subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)Google Scholar. Several of the works cited above explicitly adopt Mahmood's framing concept of pious subjecthood, for example, Ahmad, Transforming faith; Hanifa, ‘Piety as politics’.

18 As Mahmood argues, ‘the pious subjects of the mosque movement occupy an uncomfortable place in feminist scholarship, because they pursue practices and ideals embedded within a tradition that has historically accorded women a subordinate status’. Mahmood, Politics of piety, pp. 5, 172.

19 This term is used in, for example, Kirmani, Nida, ‘Beyond the impasse: “Muslim feminism(s)” and the Indian Muslim women's movement’, Contributions to Indian Sociology (45, 1, 2011), pp. 126CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For general background on Muslim women's movements in India in the post-colonial decades, see Narain, Vrinda, Gender and community: Muslim women's rights in India (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2001)Google Scholar.

20 On these and other Indian Muslim women's associations, see the following and other works by the authors in question: Vatuk, Sylvia, ‘Islamic feminism in India: Indian Muslim women activists and the reform of Muslim Personal Law’, Modern Asian Studies (42, 2–3, 2008), pp. 489518CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tschalaer, Mengia Hong, Muslim women's quest for justice: gender, law and activism in India (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tschalaer, Mengia Hong, ‘Muslim women's rights activists' visibility: stretching the gendered boundaries of the public space in the city of Lucknow’, South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (11, 2015), pp. 119Google Scholar; Kirmani, Nida, ‘Beyond the impasse’ and ‘Strategic engagements: analyzing the relationships of Indian and Pakistani women's movements to Islam’, Asien (126, Jan. 2013), pp. 1025Google Scholar; Rafia Zaman, ‘(Re)framing the issues: Muslim women's activism in contemporary India’, ibid., pp. 26–44; Schneider, Nadja-Christina, ‘Islamic feminism and Muslim women's rights activism in India: from transnational discourse to local movement, or vice-versa?’, Journal of International Women's Studies (11, 1, 2009), pp. 5671Google Scholar.

21 Kirmani, ‘Beyond the impasse’; Kumar, Radha, The history of doing: an illustrated account of movements for women's rights and feminism in India 1800–1990 (Delhi: Zubaan, 2011), pp. 160169Google Scholar.

22 On the ‘multidimensional’ approach of Muslim women's associations and their links with other secular human and women's rights discourses, see, respectively, Tschalaer, Muslim women's quest; Narain, Vrinda, ‘Muslim women's equality in India: applying a human rights framework’, Human Rights Quarterly (35, 1, 2013), pp. 91115CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 For example, Hasan, Zoya and Menon, Nivedita, Unequal citizens: a study of Muslim women in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Lateef, Shahida, Muslim women in India: political and private realities (New Jersey: Zed Books, 1990)Google Scholar.

24 The Muslim personal law system, which adjudicates Muslims’ marital and family lives according to a separate body of Islamic family laws, is a key example of how the state has normalized a very different socio-legal predicament for Muslim women.

25 This holds true for movements named above, including Awaaz-e-Niswaan, the Women's Research and Action Group, and the Muslim Women's Forum as well as other women's associations that work extensively, but not exclusively, with Muslim women, such as Majlis of Mumbai (founded in 1991) and the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives of Lucknow (founded in 1998).

26 Kirmani, ‘Beyond the impasse’, p. 16, cf. pp. 11–12.

27 For these organizations, see the works cited in footnote 20 above, especially those by Tschalaer, Vatuk, and Kirmani. Despite some synergies between their activities, these organizations are not formally linked to each other and they have their own particular perspectives and agendas.

28 This chiefly socio-political agenda is common to all of the most studied women's movements in Muslim-majority states, such as those in Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and elsewhere. For example, Moghadam, Valentine, Modernising women: gender and social change in the Middle East (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003)Google Scholar; al-Ali, Nadje, Secularism, gender and the Middle East: the Egyptian women's movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Evrard, Amy, The Moroccan women's rights movement (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014)Google Scholar; Caha, Omar, Women and civil society in Turkey: women's movements in a Muslim society (New York: Routledge, 2013)Google Scholar. The Pakistan's women's movement is another case in point: it was consolidated in the 1980s chiefly to oppose the penal Hudood ordinances and other judicial injustices faced by women and tended to frame its campaigns in the principles of universal human rights. See Khan, Ayesha, The women's movement in Pakistan: activism, Islam and democracy (London: I. B. Tauris, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a leading Islamic feminist scholar-practitioner, claims that Muslim women's movements have tended to give ‘moral support’ rather than substantive assistance to overhauls of confessional praxis (oral communication, 21 April 2018). Indeed, none of the studies of women's movements in Muslim-majority societies cited in footnote 28 above suggests that these movements have ever given more than fleeting attention to questions of religious conduct, if any at all.

30 Interview, Zakia Soman, 25 May 2018.

31 For example, Bhargava, Rajeev, ‘The distinctiveness of Indian secularism’, in Srinivasan, T. N. (ed.), The future of secularism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 2021, 36–40Google Scholar. A number of other analysts too diverse to discuss here have considered India's unique style of secularism as an ideology or strategy for the contextual handling of questions of cultural and religious autonomy. For representative examples, see Madan, T. N., Modern myths, locked minds: secularism and fundamentalism in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jacobsohn, Gary, The wheel of law: India's secularism in comparative constitutional context (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005)Google Scholar; Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney and Rajan, Rajeswari Sunder (eds), The crisis of secularism in India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)Google Scholar; and others cited below.

32 For just a few examples of state ‘management of religion’ in the Islamic world, see Skovgaard-Petersen, Jakob, Defining Islam for the Egyptian state: muftis and fatwas of the Dar al-Ifta (Leiden: Brill, 1997)Google Scholar; Malik, Jamal, Colonialization of Islam: dissolution of traditional institutions in Pakistan (Delhi: Manohar, 1996)Google Scholar; Pierret, Thomas, ‘State management of religion in Syria: the end of “indirect rule”?’, in Heydemann, Steven and Leenders, Reinoud (eds), Middle Eastern authoritarianisms: governance, contestation and regime resilience in Syria and Iran (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013)Google Scholar. See also the works cited in footnote 47 below.

33 For overviews of the juridification of Islamic family law by post-colonial Muslim-majority nations, see, for example, Hallaq, Wael, Shari‘ah: theory, practice, transformations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009) pp. 443499CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Otto, Jan Michel (ed.), Sharia incorporated: a comparative overview of the legal systems of Muslim countries (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2011).Google Scholar

34 The works cited in footnote 28 above often hint at the frequent suspicion with which these states have viewed women's rights movements within their borders.

35 This phrase is taken from Bhargava, ‘The distinctiveness of Indian secularism’, pp. 39–41.

36 Partha Chatterjee especially has elaborated upon the ‘paradox’ that Indian secularism, which simultaneously incurs state involvement and non-interference in religion, has had different implications for the Hindu majority and religious minorities. He argues that the religious laws and institutions of the latter have been subject to fewer state interventions, and that in the case of Indian Muslims, secularism has empowered an ill-defined, non-state Muslim ‘leadership’ to regulate community institutions. Partha Chatterjee, ‘Secularism and toleration’, Economic and Political Weekly (29, 28, 1994), pp. 1768–1777; Chatterjee, P., The politics of the governed: reflections on popular politics in most of the world (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004), pp. 115128Google Scholar.

37 On the significant role of non-state community bodies in adjudicating Muslim personal laws, see, for example, Solanki, Gopika, Adjudication in religious family laws: cultural accommodation, legal pluralism and gender equality in India (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 267332CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vatuk, Sylvia, Marriage and its discontents: women, Islam and the law in India (Delhi: Kali for Women, 2017)Google Scholar; Lemons, Katherine, Divorcing traditions: Islamic law and the making of secularism (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Agnes, Flavia and Ghosh, Shoba Venkatesh (eds), Negotiating spaces: legal domains, gender concerns and community constructs (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012)Google Scholar. See also footnote 69 below.

38 Sharat Pradhan, ‘Sisters in arms’, manuscript, Amber Papers.

39 This is the case for all the movements cited in footnote 28.

40 Tucker, Judith, Women, family and gender in Islamic law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 127CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Respectively Amber, ‘Journey of a pedestrian’; interview, Zakia Soman.

42 Cf. Tschalaer, Muslim women's quest.

43 I suspect that the beginnings of these religious experimentations, in around 2004–2005, are in part due to an increasingly acute sense that the state had proven powerless in its efforts to improve the normative conditions of the Muslim community and of Muslim women in particular. This was evidenced both by the increase in anti-Muslim violence (2002), the findings of the Sachar Committee Report (2006), and the ongoing reluctance of the legislature to engage in the codification or overhaul of personal laws.

44 Interview, Nishaat Husain.

45 For example, ‘World's first mosque for women’, Hindustan Times, 22 October 2007.

46 Katz, Marion, Women in the mosque: a history of legal thought and social practice (New York: Colombia University Press, 2014)Google Scholar. Another useful summary of hermeneutic arguments legitimizing female-led prayer and mosque worship is available in Elewa, Ahmed and Silvers, Laury, ‘“I am one of the people”: a survey and analysis of legal arguments on woman-led prayer in Islam’, Journal of Law and Religion (26, 1, 2010), pp. 141171CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 For government-led appointments of female imams as a form of state-led Islamic modernization, see, for example, Margaret Rausch, ‘Women mosque preachers and spiritual guides: publicizing and negotiating women's religious authority in Morocco’, in Bano and Kalmbach (eds), Women, leadership and mosques, pp. 59–84, and Mona Hassan, ‘Reshaping religious authority in contemporary Turkey: state-sponsored religious preachers’, in ibid., pp. 85–104. For grassroots movements for the appointment of female imams, see other essays in ibid., and works cited in footnote 4 above.

48 China is the key example: see, for example, Jaschok, Maria and Shui, Jingjun, The history of women's mosques in Chinese Islam: a mosque of their own (Richmond: Curzon, 2000)Google Scholar. There have also been various efforts to set up women's mosques in a range of Western nations in the last few years, including in the United States, Germany, Denmark, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

49 As one maulvi from Tamil Nadu rather self-defeatingly put it: ‘women should have the right to offer prayers in mosques: in at least five percent of our state's mosques, there are separate enclosures for women’. S. Anand, ‘A masjid for Sajida’, Outlook, 8 August 2004.

50 There are isolated instances of women's public prayer meetings being held: for instance, a Muslim women's organization of Lucknow, the Bazm-i-Khawateen, has been holding salat-i-tasbeeh women's prayer assemblies to break the ‘Eid fast in a public park in the city for some 75 years. Tschalaer, ‘Muslim women's rights activists’ visibility’, pp. 6–7.

51 For example, recent Deobandi fatwas suggesting that women should conduct salah and taraweeh prayers at home rather than in the mosque include nos. 1520/1521/M=1430 (2009); 1808/D=283/K=1430 (2009); 208/208/M=1433 (2012); 1449/1102/B=11/1434 (2013); 1049/1049/M=11/1436 (2015), all of which are available via the website of the dar-al-ifta at Deoband:, [accessed 23 December 2019]. For comparable historical decisions, see Gangohi, Rashid Ahmad, Fatawa-i-Rashidiyya (Delhi: Da'irat-i-Ma‘arifat, 2008), pp. 3840Google Scholar; Barelwi, Ahmad Raza Khan, Fatawa-i-Rizviyya (Karachi: Da‘wa't al-Islami, 2005), Vol. III, pp. 102144Google Scholar.

52 For background on the AIMWPLB, see the works cited in footnote 20 above, especially the second chapter of Tschalaer, Muslim women's quest.

53 Amber offers an autobiographical account of her campaign in Amber, ‘Journey of a pedestrian’.

54 Shaista Amber, oral communication, 22 March 2014.

55 Shaista Amber, ‘Mufakkir-i-Islam’, ‘Aalami Sahara (Lucknow), 30 April 2007, Amber Papers.

56 ‘Separate mosques for women demanded’, Amber Papers.

57 Shaista Amber, oral communication.

58 Anand, ‘A masjid for Sajida’; Shafee Ahmed, ‘The lady of “Women's Jamaat”’, 6 September 2009,, [accessed 23 December 2019].

59 Lakshmi Subramanian, ‘A feminist force’, India Today, 26 June 2008,, [accessed 23 December 2019].

60 Some activists speak of Tamil Nadu's mosque jama‘ats as ‘structures of patriarchy’ that prevent women from receiving local justice, noting that even the police will often send vulnerable women to their jama‘at to handle their problems. Interview, Jaib-un-Nisha, 15 August 2017; Anand, ‘A masjid for Sajida’.

61 Subramanian, ‘A feminist force’.

62 Ahmed, ‘The lady of “Women's Jamaat”’.

63 Shaista Amber, oral communication; Amber, ‘Journey of a pedestrian’.

64 Arshad Alam, ‘Women leading mix gender prayers: smashing patriarchal certainties’, New Age Islam, 29 January 2018,, [accessed 23 December 2019].

65 For example, Deccan Chronicle (Hyderabad), 28 January 2018; Times of India (Mumbai), 29 January 2018.

66 Chekanoor Muhammad Abul Hasan Maulavi was a controversial Keralan Islamic orator and writer who died in mysterious circumstances, presumed assassinated, in 1993.

67 For background on the ‘Qur'anist’ school, see Musa, Aisha, ‘The Qur'anists’, Religion Compass (4, 1, 2010), pp. 1421Google Scholar. For its early roots in South Asia, see Qasmi, Ali Usman, Questioning the authority of the past: the Ahl al-Quran movements in the Punjab (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)Google Scholar.

68 For instance, in 2015 the Khuran Sunnath filed a case in the Kerala High Court demanding equal rights of inheritance for Muslim women, in defiance of existing Muslim personal laws:, [accessed 23 December 2019].

69 On these shari‘ah dispute resolution bodies in India, see Lemons, Katherine, ‘Sharia courts and Muslim personal law in India: intersecting legal regimes’, Law and Society Review (52, 3, 2018), pp. 603629CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Redding, Jeffrey, ‘The case of Ayesha, Muslim “courts” and the rule of law: some ethnographic lessons for legal theory’, Modern Asian Studies (48, 4, 2014), pp. 940985CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Husain, Sabiha, ‘Shariat courts and question of women's rights in India’, Pakistan Journal of Women's Studies (14, 2, 2007), pp. 73102Google Scholar.

70 See footnote 37 above; also Basu, Srimati, The trouble with marriage: feminists confront law and violence in India (Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2015), pp. 9496CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

71 For the attendance of women in shari‘ah councils, see Husain, ‘Shariat courts’; Redding, ‘The case of Ayesha’; Vatuk, Marriage and its discontents, esp. pp. 118–134.

72 Syeda Hameed, ‘When a woman conducts the nikah’,, [accessed 23 December 2019].

73 Na'ish Hasan, oral communication, 24 March 2014; Tschalaer, ‘Muslim women's rights activists’ visibility’, pp. 9–11; The Telegraph (Delhi), 12 August 2008; The Hindu, 13 August 2008.

74 I discuss this movement in more detail in Jones, Justin, ‘“Where only women may judge”: developing gender-just Islamic laws in India's all-female “shari‘ah courts”’, Islamic Law and Society (26, 4, 2019), pp. 437466CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

75 BMMA, ‘Darul Uloom-e-Niswaan Institute of qaziat for women’ (2015): this internal document is a syllabus for the training programme.

76 Interview, Khatun Shaikh, 8 August 2017.

77 Ibid. The Mumbai court especially works with several sympathetic male imams and qazis to whom it can refer its female clients.


78 These include even Na'ish Hasan, the activist mentioned above whose wedding was officiated by a woman. She left the BMMA amid concerns at the appointment of female religious judges.

79 Interview, Khatun Shaikh. It is worth noting that talaq-i-bid‘ah has now been criminalized by the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act of 2019, and at the time of writing it seems possible that incidences of this practice are likely to decline.

80 Ibid. The female qazis argue that where divorce is necessary, it must be enacted via an incremental process which allows space for negotiation or reconciliation (known as talaq-i-ehsan) between the couple, as outlined in the Qur'an (for example, 4:35).


81 These qazis negotiate a form of divorce that involves the woman's surrender of all or part of her bridal dower (known as khula‘), but, when possible, they prefer to seek out a more equable separation that does not exact such obligations upon the wife (known as mubarah). Interview, Khatun Shaikh; Jan Maharastra (Mumbai), 22 January 2018.

82 Interview, Jahan Aara, 21 August 2017.

83 Mariya Salim, ‘Woman qazi conducts marriage: a victory in women reclaiming spaces taken up by men’,, [accessed 23 December 2019].

84 Interview, Khatun Shaikh; interview, Nasreen Metai, 3 September 2017.

85 Salim, ‘Woman qazi conducts marriage’; interview, Khatun Shaikh.

86 A few elaborations of women's sainthood and participation in Sufi orders include Schimmel, Annemarie, ‘Women in mystical Islam’, in al-Hibri, Azizah (ed.), Women and Islam (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1982)Google Scholar; Hoffman, Valeria, ‘Muslim sainthood, women and the legend of Sayyida Nafisa’, in Sharma, Arvind and Young, Katherine (eds), Feminism and world religions (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998), pp. 107144Google Scholar; Hermansen, Marcia, ‘Women in Sufism: Turkey, South Asia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Caucasus and the Middle East’, in Joseph, Suad and Najmabadi, Afsaneh (eds), Encyclopedia of women in Islamic cultures (Leiden: Brill, 2005), pp. 766770Google Scholar; Birchok, Daniel, ‘Women, genealogical inheritance and Sufi authority: the female saints of Seunagan, Indonesia’, Asian Studies Review (40, 4, 2016), pp. 583599CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

87 For example, Pemberton, Kelly, Women mystics and Sufi shrines in India (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 2010)Google Scholar; Abbas, Shemeen Burney, The female voice in Sufi ritual: devotional practices of Pakistan and India (Austin: University of Texas, 2002)Google Scholar; Werbner, Pnina, Pilgrims of love: the anthropology of a global Sufi cult (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), esp. pp. 113123, 218–231Google Scholar; Zaidi, Noor, ‘“A blessing on our people”: Bibi Pak Daman, sacred geography and the construction of the nationalised sacred’, Muslim World (104, 3, 2014), pp. 306335CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

88 For example, Mernissi, Fatima, ‘The story of a contemporary woman mystic’, in Roded, Ruth (ed.), Women in Islam and the Middle East: a reader (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999), pp. 237254Google Scholar.

89 Explaining how Sufism's message of ‘spiritual equality translates directly into the realms of social relations and the law’, some of Shaikh's work appropriates Sufi teachings as ‘resources for more relevant, enriching and benevolent interpretations’ of the Qur'an and shari‘ah respectively. Shaikh, Sa‘diyya, ‘Islamic law, Sufism and gender: rethinking the terms of the debate’, in Mir-Hosseini, Ziba, al-Sharmani, Mulki and Rumminger, Jana (eds), Men in charge: rethinking authority in Muslim legal tradition (London: OneWorld, 2014), pp. 107109Google Scholar; cf. Shaikh, S., Sufi narratives of intimacy: Ibn Arabi, gender and sexuality (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

90 Interview, Noorjehan Safia Niaz, 28 August 2018. Other Indian feminists have evoked Sufism as a model for gender emancipation. For instance, the liberal-leaning activist Sadia Dehlvi has appropriated South Asia's illustrious Sufi past to call for a renewed non-gendered piety. Citing historic chronicles of woman Sufis and mystics, she explores Sufism as a field of knowledge that has been open to active female participation and can offer women a direct relationship with God. Sadia Dehlvi, ‘Mystic women’, Times of India, 12 March 2012; cf. Dehlvi, S., The Sufi courtyard: dargahs of Delhi (Delhi: Harper Collins, 2012)Google Scholar.

91 For example, Amber, ‘Journey of a pedestrian’; Shaista Amber, oral communication.

92 For example, Na'ish Hasan, oral communication. On Baba Jaan's intriguing biography, see Shepherd, Kevin, A Sufi matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (Cambridge: Anthropologia Publications, 1986)Google Scholar.

93 Originally, all entrances and spaces were open to both genders, though at some point, women were conscribed to a separate entrance and space from men.

94 ‘High Court of Judicature at Bombay, Ordinary Original Civil Jurisdiction; Public Interest Litigation No.106/2014’, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan Private Papers, Mumbai (henceforth: BMMA Papers).

95 For example, Zakia Soman and Noorjehan Niaz, ‘What the Haji Ali victory means for India's women’, The Wire, 3 October 2016,, [accessed 23 December 2019].

96 The BMMA subsequently co-filed the Public Interest Litigation that led to the Supreme Court's declaration of talaq-i-bid‘ah as unconstitutional and invalid in August 2017. Shayara Bano Vs Union of India (2017).

97 BMMA, ‘Research based on the Quran and Hadiths’; Gibril Haddad, ‘Proofs for visitation of graves by women’; and BMMA, ‘Survey of dargahs at Mumbai’: Appendices to Public Interest Litigation No. 106 of 2014, BMMA Papers.

98 ‘Indian Muslim women's entry in the Haji Ali Dargah: perspectives and the struggle’, manuscript, BMMA Papers; cf. interview, Khatun Shaikh; interview, Jahan Aara.

99 It is worth noting that many of the groups I discuss in this article do not openly adopt the label of ‘Islamic feminists’, probably because it might distinguish their cause too much from other women's groups and secular campaigns for rights or equality with which they hold shared aims. Nevertheless, the leaders of movements like the AIMWPLB and BMMA align themselves selectively with the global project of Islamic feminism: they are all familiar with the ideas and achievements of major Islamic feminists like Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, and Asma Barlas, and echo their ideas in the language of ‘gender justice’ and the recovery of a ‘spirit of the Qur'an’.

100 Works that analyse Islamic feminism as a project of evaluating the meaning of Islamic texts and ethical principles include Aslan et al. (eds), Muslima theology; Hidayatullah, Ayesha, Feminist edges of the Qur'an (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bauer, Karen, Gender hierarchy in the Qur'an: medieval interpretations, modern responses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

101 This is in contrast to Christian and Jewish feminists, who, since the 1960s, have developed identifiable ‘religious feminisms’ that are distinct, ‘specialised [and] compartmentalised’ on issues particular to their own traditions, including ‘refigur[ing] the practice of religious ritual [and] opening up new roles for women as ministers and rabbis and for “unordained” women as leaders of congregational prayer’. Badran, Feminism in Islam, pp. 220–221.

102 Niaz, ‘Women's shariah court’, pp. 10–11, cf. Jones, ‘“Where only women may judge”’, pp. 443–444.

103 As alluded to in, for example, Badran, Feminism in Islam; Hidayatullah, Feminist edges of the Qur'an.

104 Interview, Zakia Soman.

105 Groups like the BMMA frequently compare themselves to equivalents elsewhere such as Malaysia's Sisters in Islam, founded in 1989. BMMA leaders argue that their movement shares with the latter a more proactive approach to rethinking Islamic texts and observances, and a deliberate blending of Islamic and secular principles of equality and justice. This is something that is possible for both organizations since, the BMMA argues, they operate within a wider civil society space than do women's organizations in many Middle East nations, whose engagements with religious precepts have therefore been more restrained. Ibid. See also Basaruddin, Azza, Humanising the sacred: Sisters in Islam and the struggle for gender justice in Malaysia (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015), esp. pp. 220221Google Scholar; Moll, Yasmin, ‘“People like us” in pursuit of God and rights: Islamic feminist discourse and Sisters in Islam in Malaysia’, Journal of International Women's Studies (11, 1, 2009), pp. 261289Google Scholar.

106 Chatterjee, The politics of the governed, p. 127.

107 For instance, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, which invalidated and criminalized talaq-i-bid‘ah, in July 2019, following two years of attempts to see the bill pass successfully through both houses of the legislature.

108 These were attempted, respectively, by the Shiv Sena nationally and the Akhila Bharatha Hindu Mahasabha in Kerala in 2019. For example, India Today, 30 April 2019; Times of India, 10 October 2018.

109 The Shah Bano case is often given as the archetypal example of this trend. For just a few examples of this argument, see Agnes, Flavia, Law and gender inequality: the politics of women's rights in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hasan, Zoya, ‘Gender politics, legal reform and the Muslim community in India’, in Jeffery, Patricia and Basu, Amrita (eds), Appropriating gender: women's activism and politicized religion in South Asia (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 7188Google Scholar; Menon, Nivedita, Recovering subversion: feminist politics beyond the law (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois, 2004)Google Scholar; Rajan, Rajeshwari Sunder, The scandal of the state: women, law and citizenship in postcolonial India (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2003)Google Scholar; Vatuk, Sylvia, ‘A rallying cry for Muslim Personal Law: the Shah Bano case and its aftermath’, in Metcalf, Barbara (ed.), Islam in South Asia in practice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), pp. 352367CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

‘Acting upon our Religion’: Muslim women's movements and the remodelling of Islamic practice in India
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

‘Acting upon our Religion’: Muslim women's movements and the remodelling of Islamic practice in India
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

‘Acting upon our Religion’: Muslim women's movements and the remodelling of Islamic practice in India
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *