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Islamic Feminism in India: Indian Muslim Women Activists and the Reform of Muslim Personal Law1



I describe here a nascent ‘Islamic feminist’ movement in India, dedicated to the goal of achieving gender equity under Muslim Personal Law. In justifying their demands, these women activists refer neither to the Indian Constitution nor to the universalistic human rights principles that guide secular feminists campaigning for passage of a gender-neutral uniform civil code of personal law, but rather to the authority of the Qur'an—which, they claim, grants Muslim women numerous rights that in practice are routinely denied them. They accuse the male ‘ulama of foisting ‘patriarchal’ interpretations of the Qur'an on the unlettered Muslim masses and assert their right to read the Qur'an for themselves and interpret it in a woman-friendly way. Their activities reflect an increasing ‘fragmentation of religious authority’ in the globalizing Muslim world, associated with the spread of mass education, new forms of media and transport and a mobile labour force, in which clerical claims to exclusive authoritative knowledge are being questioned by a wide variety of new voices, women's among them. Whether it can ultimately succeed is an open question but the movement is clearly having an impact, even on the clerical establishment itself, insofar as the legal issues it considers most pressing for women are concerned.



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2 Yoginder Sikand, ‘The Muslim Personal Law Debate: Need to Listen to Alternative Voices’, (May 5, 2005), accessed May 7, 2005.

3 Cooke, Miriam, Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism Through Literature (New York: Routledge 2001), p. 62.

4 Moghadam, Valentine M., Toward Gender Equality in the Arab/Middle East Region: Islam, Culture and Feminist Activism, HDR Office Occasional Paper (New York: UNDP 2004), p. 53.

5 For example, Moghadam, , ‘Islamic Feminism and its Discontents: Toward a Resolution of the Debate’, Signs 27/4(2002), pp. 11351171; Moghissi, Haideh, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Post-Modern Analysis (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1999); Badran, Margot, Feminism Beyond East and West: New Gender Talk and Practice in Global Islam (New Delhi: Global Media Publications, 2007).

6 Moghissi, Feminism, p. 10. Cf. Moghadam, ‘Islamic Feminism’; Mir-Hosseini, Ziba, Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1999).

7 Janaki Nair, ‘Doing it Their Way’, The Telegraph (Calcutta), February 9, 2005 (, accessed October 14, 2005).

8 Margot Badran, for example, contends that in the Egyptian context it is inappropriate to speak of a ‘feminist movement’, because gender activism there ‘is mainly pragmatic rather than political in the more highly-organised or self-conscious sense’ (‘Gender Activism: Feminists and Islamists in Egypt’, in Moghadam, Valentine M. (ed.), Identity Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in International Perspective (Boulder: Westview Press 1994), p. 203. Nadje Sadig Al-Ali, on the other hand, is prepared to define the term ‘movement’ more broadly (Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East: The Egyptian Women's Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 3–8.

9 Tarannum Manjul, ‘Four Law Boards: Will Muslim Women Find a “Masiha”?’ ( [February 7, 2005], accessed May 5, 2005).

10 This self-appointed body was established in 1973 ‘to protect the Muslim Personal Law in India’. Its 201 members include many of the country's leading clerics, representing the major Islamic sects ( It has no real authority to set legal policy for the Muslim community but is very vocal and exercises a great deal of public influence on matters related to MPL.

11 Manjul, ‘Four Law Boards’.

12 ‘Muslim women board registers 166 cases’, The Hindu, February 27, 2005,, accessed April 25, 2006.

13 ‘Muslim Women's Board is a Joke’, The Muslim News, February 3, 2005,, accessed October 14, 2005.

14 Originally, 15 seats (10%) were reserved for women: there are now 25. One serves on the 41 member executive committee (All India Muslim Personal Law Board, ‘Rules and Regulations’, Constitution, [New Delhi: AIMPLB, 2003], pp. 7–8).

15 Yoginder Sikand, ‘Interview: Hasnath Mansur on Muslim Women and the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board’, (February 12, 2005), accessed March 8, 2005.

16 For example, when a new nikahnāma (‘marriage contract’) was being drafted, Begum Naseem Iqtedar Ali, the sole woman on the Executive Committee, tried unsuccessfully to insert a provision for ‘delegated divorce’ (see below). See S. Anand et al., ‘Muslim Personal Law: Amend, Amend, Amend!’, Outlook India, July 19, 2004.

17 Yoginder Sikand, ‘Islam and Gender Justice: Interview with Suraiya Tabassum’, (December 6, 2004), accessed March 8, 2005.

18 Interview, Noorjahan Begum, January 3, 2006.

19 Interview, Neelofar Akhtar, November 30, 2005.

20 Interview, Hasnath Mansur, November 25, 2005.

21 The vast majority of Indian Muslims are Sunni, followers of the Hanafi school of law. Muslim women activists are quite diverse in terms of their sectarian affiliation, though most are also of Sunni background. But in their legal rights work they generally try to avoid identifying themselves or the issues they deal with in sectarian terms.

22 The laws referred to are the Wakf Validating Act 1913, Shariat Application Act 1937, Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act 1939 (DMMA) and Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986 (MWA).

23 Interview, Hasnath Mansur, November 25, 2005.

24 This is true, for example, of Shaheen and Aman Shanti (a Christian-sponsored NGO), both working among low-income Muslim and Hindu women in the old city of Hyderabad. The Mumbai-based Women's Research and Action Group (WRAG), founded in 1993 in the aftermath of riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, has also been deeply involved in efforts to bring about Hindu-Muslim understanding.

25 Many clerics refuse to use this procedure but others are willing to use it to accommodate women who have been abandoned or severely abused (see Hussain, Sabiha, ‘Male Privilege, Female Anguish: Divorce and Remarriage among Muslims in Bihar’, in Ahmad, I. (ed), Divorce and Remarriage among Muslims in India (New Delhi: Manohar, 2003), pp. 263289.

26 Majlis' founder is the prominent lawyer and legal scholar, Flavia Agnes (see her My Story . . . Our Story of Re-Building Broken Lives, 4th edition [Mumbai: Majlis 2004] and ‘Ashoka Fellow Profile—Flavia Agnes’, [1986], accessed April 4, 2006).

27 Shashi Menon, ‘Protest by Mumbai Muslim Women’, (July 29, 2005), accessed July 31, 2006. Women's customary rites have been key targets for Islamic reformers at least as far back as the early 19th century and continue to be so today.

28 For example, the 2005 ‘Imrana case’, involving a rural U.P. woman allegedly raped by her father-in-law. See Sheela Reddy, ‘Imrana Her Story’, (July 18, 2005), accessed April 17, 2006. Barbara Metcalf has analysed public responses to this event in ‘Imrana: Rape, Islam and Law in India’, Islamic Studies 45/3 (2006), pp. 389–412.

29 Muslim Personal Law and Women: A Report of the National Conference (Mumbai: Aawaaz-e-Niswan 1999); Interview, Farhat, Yasmin and Naseem, November 30, 2005.

30 Tentative Schedule: National Consultation on Muslim Women (November 21–23, 2005); Interview, Noorjehan Safia Niaz, November 28, 2005.

31 These women belonged, for the most part, to families whose male members held Islamic modernist views and were themselves engaged in social reform efforts. They were mainly concerned with promoting female education and achieving enhanced mobility for women through relaxation of the more stringent forms of female seclusion (parda). See Minault, Gail, ‘Women, Legal Reform, and Muslim Identity’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 17/1 (1997), pp. 110 and Secluded Scholars: Women's Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India (Delhi, India: Oxford University Press 1998).

32 ‘Ashoka Profile: Hasina Khan’, (2000), accessed April 4, 2002.

33 Vanessa Baird, ‘Making Waves: Interview with Daud Sharifa Khanam’, New Internationalist 367, (May 2004), accessed April 4, 2006. This practice is of Hindu origin but is widespread among Indian Muslims today.

34 Interview, March 18, 1999.

35 In 2002, the Supreme Court of India—in the case of Shamim Ara v. State of U.P. and Anr.—decreed that an irrevocable talāq can only be given for ‘a reasonable cause’ and must be preceded by ‘an attempt of reconciliation’ by relatives from each side. See (October 1, 2002), accessed December 19, 2003. This decision notwithstanding, triple talaqs continue unabated.

36 It is, of course, impossible to validly generalize about ‘clerical opinion’ on any particular matter of MPL. Tens of thousands of men in India are assigned—or claim—the label of ‘alim (plural ‘ulama). They in no way constitute a unified group, either ideologically or organizationally. They are divided by sect and within each sect into many distinct schools of thought and each has personal views on specific points of law, on which he may differ even from his closest peers.

37 Interview, Mohammed Abdul Rahim Qureshi, January 31, 2006.

38 Some qazis insist that, if a man wants to formally ‘register’ his divorce in their office and receive a signed and stamped ‘divorce certificate’ (talāqnāma), he must first deposit the full amount of his wife's māhr. But a man is not legally required to register his divorce and most do not. See my ‘Moving the Courts: Muslim Women and Personal Law’, in Hasan, Z. and Menon, R. (eds.), The Diversity of Muslim Women's Lives in India (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005), pp. 1858.

39 These same arguments were put forward in an anti-polygamy campaign conducted by the Anjuman-i Khawatin-e-Islam (All-India Muslim Ladies Conference) in 1918 (Minault, Secluded Scholars, pp. 145–146, 289–290).

40 See Carroll, Lucy, Talaq-i-Tafwid and Stipulations in a Muslim Marriage Contract: Important Means of Protecting the Position of the South Asian Muslim Wife’, Modern Asian Studies 16/2 (1982), pp. 277309. Already in the late 1930s a ‘model nikahnāma’ containing such a clause was promulgated—under the leadership of its Muslim president—by the non-sectarian All-India Women's Conference (Minault, Secluded Scholars, p. 299).

41 Its authors were Uzma Naheed, Flavia Agnes, Nasreen Fazalbhoy and Neelofar Akhtar, assisted by Maulanas Mohammed Shoeb Koti and Abdul Waheed Wahid Fayazi.

42 All India Muslim Personal Law Board, Nikahnama (New Delhi, 2005).

43 Geeta Seshu, ‘Nikaahnama: Time for a Gender-Just Model’, (June 2005), accessed April 26, 2006.

44 Under the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act 1978 (CMRA), which applies to all Indians, regardless of religion, the minimum legal marriage age for women is now eighteen, for men it is twenty-one. But a large proportion of Muslim brides are younger than this.

45 Anupama Katakam, ‘Reluctant Reform’, Frontline 22, 11 (May 21–June 3, 2005), accessed October 14, 2005.

46 Seshu, ‘Nikaahnama’.

47 Manjari Mishra, ‘Muslim Women to Pen “Nikahnama”’, Times of India, New Delhi (January 31, 2006).

48 In April 2006, the Supreme Court, in the case of Sher Mohammed vs. Nazma Biwi, decreed that an irrevocably divorced couple cannot be prevented from reestablishing a conjugal relationship, thus setting a precedent for future courts to refuse to enforce the halāla rule (J. Venkatesan, ‘Protect fatwa-separated couple: court’, The Hindu, April 22, 2006, [accessed May 18, 2007]).

49 Interview, November 28, 2005.

50 Interview, Farhat, November 30, 2005.

51 Moghadam, ‘Islamic Feminism’, p. 1157.

52 Moghadam, Toward Gender Equality, p. 53.

53 COVA is not a women's organization as such, but rather ‘an umbrella group of over 100 community-based organizations’. It was formed in 1994 when a number of Hindu and Muslim groups joined together to work for communal harmony and only later broadened its mandate to include issues of specific relevance to women.

54 Interview, January 3, 2006.

55 In February of 2006 the Supreme Court ordered all states to institute such procedures (Smt. Seema v. Ashwani Kumar [2006] 2 SCC 86). They are already on the books in several states, though not yet actually implemented in all of them. See J. Venkatesan, ‘Registration of Marriages Must: Court’, The Hindu, February 15, 2006,, accessed April 23, 2006.

56 Interview, Haseena Hashia, October 14, 2005.

57 Interview, Neelofar Akhtar, November 30, 2005.

58 Seshu, ‘Nikaahnama’.

59 For example, the fact that the Founder President of the AIMWPLB, is ‘a long-time secretary of the Rashtriwadi Communist Party’ has been raised by at least one of its prominent clerical critics (Puja Awasthi, ‘Our Own Personal Law Board’,, accessed May 18, 2007).

60 Moghadam, Toward Gender Equality, p. 51.

61 Interview, November 28, 2005. Though some activists do wear saris, most wear the salwar-kamiz, draping a dupatta over their chest and shoulders when indoors. Assuming this dress is not necessarily a religious statement: it is nowadays de rigeur among college-educated young women of all religions. Some activists wear a black burqa when in public, either the older style two-piece garment with attached face veil or the newer long coat with a separate square of cloth covering the head, neck and shoulders and sometimes pulled tightly across the face in such a way as to leave only the eyes visible.

62 Interview, February 18, 1999.

63 Moghadam, ‘Islamic Feminism’, p. 1165.

64 For this reason some scholars question the appropriateness of using the term in their own writings (cf. Cooke, Women Claim, p. ix).

65 See Engineer, Asghar Ali (ed.), The Shah Bano Controversy (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1987).

66 Eickelman, Dale F. and Piscatori, James, Muslim Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 6879, 131135.

67 Robinson, Francis, ‘Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print’, Modern Asian Studies 27/1 (1993), pp. 244251.

68 See Charles Hirschkind's discussion of how the wide circulation of religious cassette tapes in modern day Cairo has contributed to the creation of a new and diverse ‘Islamic counterpublic’ there: ‘Civic Virtue and Religious Reason: An Islamic Counterpublic’, Cultural Anthropology 16/1 (2001), pp. 3–34.

69 Eickelman, Dale F. and Anderson, Jon W., ‘Defining Muslim Publics’, in Eickelman, D. F. and Anderson, J. W. (eds.), New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003), pp. 1011.

70 As Syed Jalaluddin Umari, a founding member of the AIMPLB and Vice-President of the JIH, remarked, ‘The Imrana case was very bad but such things [incest and rape] also happen among Hindus. The media is biased. If something happens, one case, they make a big hullaballoo about it. One Hindu journalist said to me, ‘then you should make your views known in the media’. I said ‘how? The media are in your hands!’ (Interview, October 25, 2005).

71 Metcalf, Barbara D., ‘Reading and Writing about Muslim Women in British India’, Islamic Contestations: Essays on Muslims in India and Pakistan (New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 2004) pp. 99119; Devji, Faisal Fatehali, ‘Gender and the Politics of Space: The Movement for Women's Reform in Muslim India, 1857–1900’, South Asia 14/2 (1991), pp. 141153. This was at work also in the nationalist discourse on women's education and reform that was directed largely at a redefinition of Hindu tradition (see Chatterjee, Partha, ‘The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question’, in Sangari, K. and Vaid, S. [eds.], Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History [New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990], pp. 233253).

72 ‘Reading and Writing’, p. 102.

73 I do not mean to suggest that men in these movements are not also expected to adhere to norms of proper Islamic behaviour but I am specifically concerned here with the way these movements construct the ideal Muslim woman.

74 See Saba Mahmood's description of a women's piety movement in Cairo (Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2005]) and, for some South Asian examples, Metcalf, Barbara D., ‘Women and Men in a Contemporary Pietist Movement: The Case of the Tablighi Jama'at’, in Jeffery, P. and Basu, A. (eds.), Resisting the Sacred and the Secular: Women's Activism and Politicized Religion in South Asia (New Delhi, India: Kali for Women, 1999) pp. 107122; Shehabuddin, Elora, ‘Beware the Bed of Fire: Gender, Democracy, and the Jama'at-i Islami’, Journal of Women's History 10/4 (1999), pp. 148171; and essays by Shehabuddin and by Maimuna Huq in this volume.

75 Moghadam, Toward Gender Equality, p. 53.

76 (June 13, 1998), accessed June 19, 2006.

77 ‘Fight Injustice, Jamaat Tells Muslim Women’, curpg-1.cms (February 13, 2006), accessed April 12, 2006; ‘Women's Meet Blazes a New Trail’, http://www/ (February 12, 2006), accessed May 29, 2007.

1 I thank Filippo and Caroline Osella for giving me a reason to think more seriously and systematically about the movement I discuss here and for their careful reading and critiques of earlier drafts. Geraldine Forbes, Karen Leonard and Andrea Rugh have also provided valuable input. I am especially grateful to Yoginder Sikand for initially calling my attention to the phenomenon of Muslim women's rights activism in India. I am indebted to the following women who, at various times between 1998 and 2006, kindly made time in their busy schedules to allow me to observe their ongoing activities, talk about their ideas, their goals, their past and current activities and their future plans: Haseena Hashia, Sona Khan, Sughra Mehdi, Terry Rogers and Suraiya Tabassum in New Delhi, Nigar Ataulla and Hasnath Mansur in Bangalore, Flavia Agnes, Neelofar Akhtar, Farhat, Nasreen Fazalbhoy, Hasina Khan, Khatun Begum, Uzma Naheed, Naseem, Noorjehan Safia Niaz, and Yasmin in Mumbai, Jameela Nishat, Noorjahan Begum and Rehana Sultana in Hyderabad and Badr Sayeed in Chennai. Finally, I thank the following religious authorities for discussing their work and sharing their perspectives on women's rights and duties under MPL: Mohammed Abdul Rahim Qureshi, Secretary of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), Muhammad Khwaja Sharif, Dean of the Department of Hadis at Ja'mia Nizamia and Qazis Anjam Arifi, Mir Muhammad Qadar Ali, and Najamuddin Husain Shah in Hyderabad; Qazi Salahuddin Muhammad Ayyub in Chennai; Qazi Muhammad Waliullah in Vanyambadi; and Syed Jalaluddin Umari, Vice-President of the Jama'at-i Islami Hind (JIH), and Qazi Maulana Kamil, presiding officer of the AIMPLB's dar-ul quzat, in New Delhi.

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