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  • Published 11.08.06

IN A MINORITY: ESSAYS ON MUSLIM WOMEN IN INDIA Edited by Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon, Oxford, Rs 645

Muslim women have been a subject of considerable debate in India.But the focus revolves mainly around personal laws and religion. ‘Community’ has emerged as a formidable force which systematically subordinates the rights of Muslim women. State support is a compelling necessity for promoting the interests of this disadvantaged group.Yet the state has abdicated its responsibility towards this group by allowing Muslim male leadership to strengthen its control over women. This results in an ungendered identity for Muslim women.

This volume of essays maps the diversity of Muslim women’s lives in India and thereby fills the gaps in the comprehension of the position of Muslim women as ‘women’. The book is based on an all India survey of Muslim women, the first national level survey of its kind. The Muslim Women’s Survey locates Muslim women in a secular discourse of development and empowerment rather than continuing to evaluate them only as part of their community. This has resulted in the refutation of some popular generalizations. For example, the survey shows that though religion does not influence Muslim women’s status significantly, poverty does.

Muslim personal law is a much hyped issue but Sylvia Vatuk’s article on how this law is actually practised on a day-to-day basis brings forth unexpected facts. Contrary to popular belief, divorce is not considered desirable by most Muslims. And, when it does take place, the initiator of the divorce process is the woman. Nasreen Fazalbhoy’s study of 38 inheritance cases in Mumbai shows that rather than shariat provisions regarding women’s inheritance, patriarchal ideology, family obligations and proper conduct of women are more important factors governing the question of property and inheritance.

The article on madrassah education in Uttar Pradesh breaks the myth that the rise of madrassah is a sign of backwardness and conservatism. According to the author, the rise of madrassah in Binjor district is directly related to the inaccessible government-run schools in the state. The only article by Farida Khan on Muslim women’s education in Kashmir shows that the low rate of college attendance among girls is more a consequence of social, economic, political and gender considerations than of community-specific factors. With a focus on high politics, Karin Deutsch Karlekar argues that relatively few Muslim women run for political office and in general it is harder for them to win elections than for other women because most of them do not have the backing of political parties.

Kalpana Kannabiran examines the role of self-help in women’s collectives working for village development in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. In their respective articles, Keri Olsen and Sabina Kidwai meticulously uncover the simultaneous making and reinforcing of stereotypes with regard to the Muslim community and Muslim women by the print and visual media in India.

The lived reality of Muslim women in India is complex and heterogeneous. By moving beyond generalizations and critically examining popularly held notions, this well-researched volume is capable of making a solid intervention at the level of academic inquiry.