On the wings of a prayer

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By M.R.Venkatesh meets the person who is history in the making" response.write intro %>
  • Published 7.11.04

Behind the municipal bus station in the sarkari area of Pudukottai is what looks like a cattleshed. Occupying it is a soft-spoken 39-year-old woman called Daud Sharifa Khanam, dressed today in a non-descript green salwar kameez. The unlikely combination make up the precincts in which, and the spirit behind, a historic decision: the setting-up of the world?s first mosque for solely women worshippers. Backing the decision is the world?s first women?s jamaat.

Just outside the structure, which houses the women?s NGO, ?STEPS?, is a tin-roofed STD booth, ?manned? by two tremulous little girls, less than 12 years old. One of them is Hindu, the other Muslim. Both are recovering from abuse and rape, one of them by her own father. In this poor and backward district of Tamil Nadu, these things happen.

Khanam drops in on the girls, as she does everyday. ?How many calls have been made today so far?? she gently enquires. Her voice is tinged with compassion. The children?s faces light up when they see her. She is, after all, the bright side of the establishment ? the woman who rescued them and provided them with a living.

Khanam has just returned, she says, from a prospective village site near Pudukottai, where the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women?s Jamaat (TNMWJ) plans to build a mosque exclusively for women. Only last fortnight, three policemen had been suspended after Khanam, who is also STEPS? director, staged a road-roko here protesting police inaction in not even registering an FIR on the tragic plight of the two girls. That is what Khanam has devoted her life to: gaining women recognition of their worth, giving them a voice, and forcing public attention when those two are taken away. ?Are we a democracy or not?? she fumes, her voice suddenly fierce. ?Why keep women and their babies away from all deliberations that decide their future??

When Khanam was born, as the 10th child in a Muslim family of modest means at Kulithalai near Tiruchirappalli, nobody thought she had a future either. Her father, an ex-army man, was ?very religious, but not useful for us, particularly me,? she says. Her mother, a schoolteacher in nearby Manapparai ?struggled a lot to bring us up?. After completing her Plus Two at Manapparai, thanks to some support from her brother, Sharifa went to Aligarh Muslim University, rather uncharacteristically, given her way of looking at the world, for a three-year diploma course in ?office management?. She returned home to take up odd jobs to eke out a living, as a shorthand instructor and as a Hindi teacher. ?The turning point in my life came in 1988,? she says, ?when I happened to go as a translator for a 40-woman group to the ?All India Muslim Women?s Conference? at Patna. ?The deliberations at the Patna conference ? gender issues, sexual harassment of women, domestic violence, politics and women ? woke me up rudely to the painful realities of the larger women?s world,? says Khanam. She resumed her teaching, this time in Pudukottai, but the activist in her would no longer rest. Teaching Hindi in rural Tamil Nadu gave Khanam an opportunity to see and interact with different women and ?I slowly got involved with their problems,? she recalls. ?The then Pudukottai district collector, Sheela Rani Chunkath (now Tamil Nadu home secretary), put the idea in me of starting a women?s forum in the district, mainly with abandoned and destitute women in mind.? That is how STEPS came to be in 1989.

The initial response by the local people in a male-dominated society to STEPS would have discouraged anyone else but Khanam. ?People used to throw condoms on our premises and defecate everywhere,? she says. But when women from nearby villages began coming to STEPS, things began to change. Problems arising out of property, second marriages, drunken violence, eve-teasing, dowry and talaq surfaced and STEPS dealt with them all. Khanam?s special focus was on the plight and vulnerability of Muslim women.

The problems of Muslim women ?are too pathetic,? she laments. ?Strictly speaking, according to the Shariat, it is only the groom who has to give mehr to the bride. But they give mehr of Rs 500 and then take a dowry of Rs 50,000. And though in declaring talaq, there are three stages before separation is pronounced finally, today it is just casually served even through E-mail. With no maintenance given to these divorced women, many of them are forced to beg outside mosques. And as the jamaats attached to mosques, which adjudicate on family matters, are totally male, the woman?s point of view is not even heard.?

This led to the idea of organising the first ?All Women Jamaat?, whose first meeting took place in Tiruchirappalli in February 2004. It took up cases directly of affected Muslim women through the local police and the courts. Khanam cites the telling case of Rajitha Begum to illustrate the achievements of STEPS in making a difference in women?s lives. Rajitha was married to one Shamsuddin for nearly 15 years and the couple had a boy and a girl. But Shamsuddin later fell in love with another women and declared talaq to Rajitha, who was asked to immediately vacate his house and accept a pittance of Rs 1 lakh. ?That girl came to us, filed a case with our assistance and refused to take the talaq,? recounts Khanam. ?Rajitha kept insisting that Shamsuddin was her husband, won the case and retained the house and cash amounting to Rs 2 lakh.? Khanam beams exultantly as she relates the story in a mixture of Tamil and English. ?It is in these ways that the TNMWJ has been able to take up women?s issues.?

On August 11, a large number of Muslim women came out to join a one-day fast at Madurai, to protest against injustices committed on them. ?How can the jamaat permit a man to take five wives? If we took four husbands, we?d be branded prostitutes,? cried Balkis Begum, one of the fasting women who were overwhelmingly in favour of constructing an exclusive mosque for themselves. The idea behind the mosque is to help propagate education and health among Muslim women, besides providing them a space to freely discuss their issues and problems, says Khanam.?We need at least 10 acres of land to build a mosque,? she elaborates, adding that the land was yet to be finalised. The project would cost about Rs 1 crore, for which Khanam is running from pillar to post to collect donations. (?It would be helpful if STEPS was contacted at E-mail ID sherifasteps@yahoo.com,? she pleads.)

Just last month, Khanam stunned a gathering of Muslim scholars and intellectuals at the Hamdard University in Delhi in a ?National Dialogue on Social, Economic and Legal Issues of Muslim Women? with her proposal for a women?s mosque. ?Some professors from the Jamia Milia University supported my plan and I want to have the women?s mosque inaugurated by Congress president Sonia Gandhi,? declares Khanam.

Asked if a mosque can really solve problems facing Muslim women, she is guarded. She is equally disinclined to get into any debate over the Muslim Personal Law or whether a Uniform Civil Code can deliver. ?I do not want to comment on the status of women under Islamic law as it will be given a politico-religious colour,? she fears. ?Personally, I am not a religious person but we need the women?s mosque as a demonstration, to deter the male-run jamaats from acting so irresponsibly on issues affecting Muslim women. After all, we women can?t build mosque for ourselves on every street,? she admits, even while conceding that she had ?heard? that very orthodox sections represented by the likes of the Imam of Jama Masjid in Delhi have opposed the plan for a women?s mosque. ?We are saying that basic women?s rights are enshrined in the Shariat. Why not implement them?? Khanam demands to know.

Why not, indeed. And with a little bit of luck ? and a huge amount of effort ? Khanam may live to see that happen.