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Negotiating the Mohalla

Restrictions imposed on Muslim women by their own community are closely linked to the exclusion of the Muslim community as a whole. As a group Muslims are being increasingly marginalised from the mainstream political, social and cultural fabric of Mumbai and from access to mixed housing. While homogeneous community-dominated neighbourhoods create the perception of greater safety for the community, they also increase the policing of women. This in turn has a strong impact on Muslim women's capacity to engage risk in public spaces.

Negotiating the Mohalla

Exclusion, Identity and Muslim Women in Mumbai

Restrictions imposed on Muslim women by their own community are closely linked to the exclusion of the Muslim community as a whole. As a group Muslims are being increasingly marginalised from the mainstream political, social and cultural fabric of Mumbai and from access to mixed housing. While homogeneous community-dominated neighbourhoods create the perception of greater safety for the community, they also increase the policing of women. This in turn has a strong impact on Muslim women’s capacity to engage risk in public spaces.


n south Mumbai, Amina, a 16-year old upper middle classspace with concerns of exclusion, risk, civic and cultural safety.dawoodi bohra girl who wears the ‘ridha’1 to collegeHowever, before I proceed further, I will lay out the complexitieseveryday says “the ridha makes me feel safer in crowdedinvolved in a study of this nature and clarify the larger contextpublic places as people keep a bit of a distance from me.” Inwith regard to Muslims in India.central Mumbai, Tasneem, a 28-year old doctor who works inFirstly, there is a common tendency to group all Muslims ina large hospital is rarely allowed to go out for a picnic or partyone monolithic homogeneous category when in actuality thewith friends or colleagues. In Byculla, Zainab’s brother stoppedcommunity is just as ethnically, linguistically and culturallyher from taking a walk in a park and asked her to go to a ladiesdiverse as any other religious community in India with similargym instead. In Govandi’s Bainganwadi slum, young unmarrieddivisions based on caste and class. In the case of Mumbai, as Muslim girls are never sent to stand in the line for tanker waterwe shall see later, this complex heterogeneity of Muslims as asince the queue is formed on the main road where young mengroup is especially telling. Despite their diversity, however,usually hang around to stare and whistle at the girls. For VashiMuslims in India can also be looked upon as a single groupingresident Hajra, the city is accessible only due to the presencewhich share certain things in common namely, a religion withof the segregated ladies compartment on the local trains, “Ita minority status and a collective experience of marginalisationallows me to get permission to leave home and be in the the state.5 Even at night, I feel safe in the “ladies compartment”. It’s mySecondly, often in studies relating to Muslims in India, aspace, I feel possessive about it.”disproportionate weightage is given to the impact of religion andWomen’s access to public space can be explored and analysedpersonal law6 while ignoring other equally important economic,in several different ways and from many distinct perspectives.2 social and political markers to assess their condition, and thisThis essay attempts to examine how being a member of ais particularly so in the case of Muslim women. Apart fromparticular religious minority community impacts a woman’sreligion-related factors, low socio-economic status contributesaccess, experience and negotiation of public space. Moreconsiderably to low education and work levels among Muslimspecifically, it looks at Muslim women in Mumbai and explicitlywomen as well. At the same time, many of the restrictions oninterrogates their relationship to public space in terms of acces-mobility and deprivation faced by poor Muslim women aresibility, usage, and restrictive boundaries. By using ethnographicalso shared by poor low-caste Hindu women [Hasan andand historical data and analysing interviews with Muslim womenMenon 2004].across Mumbai city,3 the essay inquires specific areas of concernFinally, it is imperative in a study of this nature that we take– whether living in ‘mohallas’ (neighbourhoods) dominated byinto account how Islam and the Muslim community as a wholetheir own community has a bearing on Muslim women’s spatialis framed within the larger socio-political context, both locallymobility; if the controls wielded by neo-fundamentalist groupsand globally. Globally, Islam and Muslims are increasingly beinglimit their participation in public space; if wearing the veil inequated with terrorism and religious hysteria.7 The debates on fact facilitates movement; how the issue of civic safety is framedthem have got more strident, confused and much nastier [Mamdaniin the context of Muslim women whose entire community’s safety2005; Roy 2005]. In India in the last two decades, where comis often at risk; and finally, in what way does their community’smunal politics, electoral and otherwise, has intensified and rightgrowing exclusion from the everyday civic and political life ofwing fundamentalist factions have consolidated their hold acrossthe city impact them. Thus in a larger sense the essay asks, howreligions, not only has there been a visible increase in the incidentsand to what extent their community identity inflects women’sof violence against minorities, both Muslims and Christians, butaccess to public space4 and their ability to engage risk.also the violence itself has become more intense and frenzied. The essay begins by laying out the particularities of MuslimsThis was especially noticeable in the nation-wide violence thatin Mumbai, thus attempting to establish the long relationship thatbroke out after the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992 anddiverse Muslim groups have had with the city. It acknowledgesin the specific targeting of Muslim women during the Gujaratthe role of the 1992-93 communal riots in changing the socialriots of 2002. geography of the city and deliberates over the increased exclusionIn Mumbai, there is a noticeable hardening in the attitudeand ghettoisation of Muslims as a result of it. Finally, bytowards Muslims and studies in different areas of the city revealexaminingthe impact of community exclusion on Muslim women,that negative feelings towards Muslims uniformly prevail acrossthe essay attempts to link together the issue of access to public lines of class and locality. The tendency by the non-Muslims is to view Muslim men as aggressors – with “abusive”, “dominating”, and “dirty” being some of the phrases routinely usedby non-Muslim respondents to describe them – and to paintMuslim women as victims of their own men and community.When asked to describe what they thought were the unsafe areasin the city, the answers, almost consistently, were: “Muslimdominated areas like Bhendi Bazaar, Dongri, Mumbra”. Had theyever been there? “No”. Did they know any one who had beenthere and been attacked? “No”. Their reasons for feeling the waythey did? “The men have beards, look dangerous and have a weirdappearance”. Did they think that they may be prejudiced? No.8 As Robinson (2005) says, “Categorised as ‘Other’, taunted asPakistani if not vilified as terrorist, the Muslim in India todayis an anonymous and frightening figure. Fear and anonymity are,of course, crucial to the maintenance of cultures of hostility andviolence.”

Framing the Mumbai Muslim

Muslim groups have lived in Mumbai for about 700 years.9 Currently about 17 per cent10 of Greater Mumbai’s 12 million population is Muslim11 and these have come from various partsof the country, particularly from the Konkan coast, Gujarat, UttarPradesh, Bihar, the Deccan, and Kerala. Most of these are selfemployed as traders in retail and wholesale businesses, or workingin the unorganised manufacturing sector – mainly in sweatshopsand ‘karkhanas’ producing ‘zari’ embroidery, leather, readymade clothes, shoes, and bags. If they are in the service sector,it is mostly at the lowest levels as electricians, plumbers, garagemechanics, watchmen or taxi drivers.

Historically, the Muslims of Mumbai have never been a singleentity.12 Thus, the Muslim presence in Mumbai has always beenmarked by heterogeneity. Besides the general doctrinal classification of shia and sunni (which can be further divided by particularschools of theology, such as the deobandis and barelwis amongthe sunnis), the city’s Muslims can be categorised in severaldifferent ways including by place of origin, language, occupation,class and caste. The major groups in the city are the dawoodibohras, the sulaimani bohras, the aga khani khojas, the halaimemons, the kutchie memons, the konkani Muslims, the north Indian UP and Bihari Muslims, the moplas, the deccanis and theIranis. In fact, by some estimates, Mumbai has the most heterogeneous grouping of Muslims than any other city in south Asia.

A sizeable percentage of Mumbai’s Muslims – as well as thecity’s other communities – have historically lived in communitybased enclaves in areas such as Mohammed Ali Road, Bhendi Bazaar, Pydhoni, Dongri, Nagpada, Madanpura and Mahim,which are the older and more congested parts of the city, andstill others have dominated parts of Wadala, Sewri and Jogeshwarieast. Prior to the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai – which for the first time engulfed the city as a whole sparing neitherslums nor lower middle class tenements and not even the middle and upper middle class neighbourhoods – many Muslims alsolived in mixed housing colonies and settlements. Poor Muslims,who form a substantial percentage of the city’s slum population,lived in mixed slums and shantytowns in Dharavi, Govandi,Behrampada and Cheetah camp.13 Middle class and professionalMuslims preferred multi-community suburbs such as Bandra,Andheri, Mazgaon, and Byculla, in some cases even establishingtheir own little pockets of dominance there.

However after the riots, in which over a thousand people,mainly Muslims, were killed in mob rioting and by the police,the city’s social geography underwent a radical change. Asidefrom the thousands of Muslims, mainly migrants from UttarPradesh or Bihar, who left the city never to return, other Muslims,so also Hindus, who lived in mixed areas or housing colonies where they were in substantially smaller numbers consciouslychose to move to neighbourhoods dominated by their communityin order to feel more physically secure. Muslims have movednot so much into “new” areas, but into those where they werealready in reasonable numbers. Some moved into the alreadydense Muslim dominated neighbourhoods of south and centralMumbai – Nagpada, Madanpura and Bhendi Bazaar – othersmoved outwards to Jogeshwari (west), Kurla, Malvani (Malad)and Govandi. Middle-class Muslims were attracted to the Millat Nagar complex in Andheri West while poorer Muslims soughtrefuge in the Bharat Nagar slums in Bandra East. Still otherswent to live in the extended suburbs of Mira Road in north-west Mumbai and Mumbra in Thane district [Robinson 2005].

Exclusion and the Mumbai Muslim

Spatial reorganisation of the city along with a significant “senseof separateness” [Masselos 1994] between the Muslims and thenon-Muslims has been the lasting legacy of the 1992-93 Mumbairiots. Though the city had witnessed several waves of violencein the 1980s and early 1990s,14 the January 1993 communal riots,in particular, were different as they extended throughout the cityand did not remain limited to only a few areas. Similarly, popularinvolvement in these riots was more widespread and vicious withslum dwellers, the middle class, local ‘dadas’, and petty landlordsall joining the right wing Shiv Sena party in a pogrom againstthe city’s Muslims, with the police and state remaining not justineffective but in some cases actively supportive of the violenceagainst Muslims.15 Clearly, the attempt was to ethnically cleansethe city and its neighbourhoods of the Muslim “other” and theShiv Sena’s targeting of Muslims was to some extent even a preplanned effort in order to intimidate them and drive them awayfrom the city [Masselos 1994; Appadurai 2000; Hansen 2001].16

Whether the riots caused the demise of the city’s erstwhilecosmopolitanism or merely proved that this cosmopolitanism hadnot been uniformly shared by all social groups or classes – andthus could be ingeniously eroded upon when faced with ShivSena’s brand of militant urban politics and a collapsing manufacturing economy – what is clearly evident is that they causedan almost irreparable damage to the social and political fabricof Mumbai city.17 It is now commonly acknowledged that theriots, in conjunction with the bomb blasts that followed in March1993, have communalised relations between Muslims and other communities to such an extent that the Mumbai Muslim is now a pariah, increasingly marginalised from the mainstream, displaced and excluded from many of the city’s heterogeneousspaces. More specifically, Muslims find themselves victims ofa spatially divided city18whereby they are progressively debarredfrom accessing mixed housing, that is housing where membersof all communities can reside, as well as from doing businessin heterogeneous areas of the city.

As Ravinder Kaur (2005) points out, communal violence isessentially committed to altering urban spaces. It is in the oftneglected aftermath of communal violence that “crucial postviolence socio-spatial rearrangements take place”. According toKaur, anti-minority violence does not just keep the traditionalcommunity boundaries in place, rather it pushes these boundariesfurther afar. Thus “physical violence becomes both the occasionand agency for purifying entire mohallas, or neighbourhoods, ofthe polluting ‘Other’... where undesirable elements – membersof the ‘other’ community, their property and places of worship

  • are removed and boxed into ghetto-like locations” (ibid).
  • Spatial divisions have certainly hardened in the city and whereyou live – and indeed where your children go to school or play
  • is no longer a matter of choice, even if you have the right money,class and professional background, as much as “what is your last
  • Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007

    name?” While on one hand there is a decrease of Muslims residingin mixed housing, on the other there is a visible increase in thenumber of Muslim-dominated residential enclaves in the city.This is both a result of Muslims being intentionally denied accessto mixed housing, both rentals and ownership, as well as makinga choice to retreat to homogeneous community dominatedlocalities because they felt physically safer and less at risk fromviolence. One young Muslim couple who looked for an apartmentin Mira Road were told to go to only certain buildings at theother end where people like them stayed. “There you will feelat home”, said the real estate broker.19 Unfortunately, by seekingrefuge in areas where they are in majority, Muslims get increasingly circumscribed in specific identifiable localities.20

    As parts of Mira Road and almost all of Mumbra, JogeshwariEast and Malvani (Malad) get labelled as “Muslim ghettos”, theysimultaneously also get branded as “mini-Pakistans” and as areasharbouring so-called criminals and terrorists. While researchingissues of women and public space, we found that Muslims arealmost uniformly referred to as “threatening” just as their mohallasare tagged as “unsafe”. Similar labels are applied to even middleclass Muslim housing colonies such as Millat Nagar in AndheriWest by their non-Muslim neighbours residing in the adjoiningLokhandwala complex. As a result, many Muslim respondentsin the city report feeling more threatened as a community evenas they appear to others as more of a threat.

    If ghettoisation implies complete insularity from the outsideworld, then it needs to be clarified that all Muslim-dominated areas in the city do not experience it similarly. Unlike cities likeAhmedabad, where the experience of ghettoisation is known tobe uniformly stark and in your face,21 in Mumbai the experiencesof Muslim ghettoisation range from the subtle, like in parts ofMira road and in south Mumbai neighbourhoods of BhendiBazaar and Dongri where there is often some amount of intermixing between communities, to the ruthless, such as in Mumbrawhere exclusion ranks high.22

    Eventually ghettoisation has very adverse social, psychologicaland political consequences. Vora and Palshikar (2003) maintainthat since groups such as Muslims and dalits often live in localitiesthat are imprisoned either by spatial or community location, theirsocial existence results in political ineffectiveness. Panikkar(2006) suggests that it reinforces tendencies of minoritarianismwhich promotes a genre of politics based on internal consolidation of the community and also militancy. The impact of theseprocesses on the future peace of the city is also damaging. AsVarshney (2002) found in his 10 year study of communalviolence in post-colonial India peaceful areas have strong civicinstitutions – trade unions, professional associations – andneighbourhood organisations that cross the communal divide inaddition to active everyday economic relationships betweenMuslims and Hindus. Thus, when migration takes place fromcommunally heterogeneous to communally homogeneousneighbourhoods, the segregation makes it difficult for thosecross-community neighbourhood groups and bonds to be formed.The interaction between communities in everyday social andeconomic civic settings is particularly crucial for the less empowered groups within communities such as women. The impactof community exclusion on their lives is most stark and telling.

    Community Marginalisation and Muslim Women

    It is commonly perceived that Muslim women are moremarginalised and have less access to the world outside their homesthan women of other communities. As our research in Mumbai revealed however, the restrictions imposed on Muslim women’smobility and access to public space were actually quite similarto the curbs exerted on women from other communities. These included controls on timings, purpose, place, dress, and companions, with similar concerns voiced regarding their sexualsafety and respectability.

    However, at the same time it is important to acknowledge thattheir minority location does qualitatively transform Muslimwomen’s experiences and perceptions in very distinct ways[Hasan and Menon 2004]. Since their community is one thatparticularly feels under threat and surveillance, the issues surrounding Muslim women’s access to the public and sexual safetybecome all the more complex. In fact, our research suggests thatthe restrictions imposed on Muslim women by their own community are closely linked to the exclusion of the Muslim community as a whole.23

    The fact that their entire community is looked upon withhostility and habitually fears violence, means that Muslim womennot only have less of a chance to venture out of communityboundaries but also that their movements and behaviour are more closely policed by their families and their community. Our researchamongst women of all communities, and especially among Muslimwomen, demonstrated that while homogeneous communitydominated neighbourhoods or ghettoised localities create theperception of greater physical safety and security, they also allowfor increased policing of all residents, particularly the women.This has a severe impact on women’s negotiation of the publicand their capacity to engage risk.24

    An example of how ghettoisation caused by increased communalism has affected the lives of Muslim women can be seen in Jogeshwari (east), which has seen no less than five riots –1964, 1974-75, 1984, 1990-91 and 1992-93 – in the last four decades. With each episode of violence, Muslims in the area weresystematically pushed into a smaller and smaller settlement areaat the peak of a hill, surrounded by Hindu settlements all aroundand having almost no access routes out of their pockets exceptthrough these Hindu areas. As each riot pushed Muslims inwardsand ghettoised them further – and now they are limited to anarea called Prem Nagar – women’s access to the outside of theslum settlement was the first to go. “The men decided that theydid not want their women to go out because it meant crossingthe other community’s areas, so the world of the women justshrank”, said Noorjehan Safia Niaz, an activist with the Mumbaibased Women’s Research and Action Group.25

    Changes in social geography, thus, often have a drastic impacton women’s access to healthcare and education.26 Many girlssaid that going to school and college usually meant some sortof limited access to the world outside their homes. “It doesn’t matter what you study, what is important is that you get a chanceto get out of your house and your mohalla and at least pursuesomething worthwhile with your time,” said Sanaa, who is currentlypursuing a doctorate in Islamic Studies.27 Parents who do not want their daughters to cross neighbourhood lines in order toaccess English-language schooling are choosing the new Islamic-English schools which offer mainstream English-languageeducation along with religious instruction in the mohalla. “Wefind that after the riots, many more parents do not want to sendtheir children to school outside the area. But they also wantquality education rooted in their way of life”, said Dr ShehnazShaikh, founder and principal of the Al Mu-minah Girls school,which is one such new school in Chakla, off Mohammed Ali road.

    Many middle-class families, however, did allow Muslim girlsaccess to higher education and work outside the mohalla but theyclosely monitored the subjects studied or the jobs pursued. “Wecannot allow her to do something which is not appropriate fromthe point of view of our family and community’s ‘izzat’ (honour)”,said one father of a young girl in Nagpada. Usually “notappropriate” referred to jobs that demanded long hours out ofthe home and neighbourhood or prolonged contact with men outside the community. “Eventually you can’t do what you wantto do, you pursue a job that fits in with their ideas of appropriatetimings for girls to be out, so usually you become a teacher”,explained Asiya, who is now teaching advertising part-time ratherthan working in an advertising agency as she had originallyplanned to do. Her friend, Zainab, whose father threatened tokill himself if she became a journalist because it meant keepinglate hours and going out to interview strangers, has also startedteaching.28

    Even poor Muslim women living in the slums, where employment is not a matter of choice but of economic necessity, oftenfeel trapped by community strictures. Many Muslim womeninterviewed in slums mentioned that even if their economic labour is needed by the family, their going out of the house towork is frowned upon. Thus, they are usually encouraged topursue home-based but low-paying work like tailoring, or workingat piece-rate basis putting together electronic parts or toys, orsorting recyclable parts for industry.

    If educational and work opportunities are policed fervently,then the surveillance of leisure activities is even more stringent.In interviews, several Muslim women in the city reported thatwhile they faced less restrictions to access places like the marketor the ‘jamaatkhana’, their movements were closely controlledwhen motivated by socialisation or leisure (‘tafri karna’).29 For 28-year old Tasneem, an unmarried doctor who stays with herparents in Agripada, being out late for anything hospital or workrelated is usually permissible but the “big no-no is being out lateat night for pleasure purposes”. Similarly, Zainab, 26, a teacherat a south Mumbai college, found herself stopped by her brotherfrom walking in a park at Mazgaon because he felt she wouldmeet the wrong type of men there. “He told me to go to a ladiesgym instead”, she said.30

    Aside from family and neighbours, a higher and more menacinglevel of policing is being encouraged by neo-fundamentalistforces who are gradually entrenching themselves more firmly inMuslim ghettos. The activities of the tablighi jamaat31 and the influences of Saudi Arabian wahabism32 are fostering a newreligiousity that threatens to make the community more inwardlooking, thus isolating it further from the mainstream. It is inthis context that one should see the rise in purdah or veiling amongwomen and the expanded role of sharia jamaats in solvingdomestic disputes and addressing community grievances.

    The ‘hijab’ or ‘burkha’ has always been an important physicalmarker of the presence of Muslim women in public.33 Since the Mumbai riots, there has been a perceptible increase in the numberof women wearing the burkha. Immediately after the riots it wasprobably triggered off by the desire of a victimised communityto mark its identity and demand its space in a communalised city.It also led some Muslims towards a re-Islamisation process ofwhich groups like the tablighi jamaat took advantage. In recentyears, many attribute the rise in the number of women takingto the burkha to increased wahabi and tablighi jamaat activityin the city. The jamaat, which holds regular ‘ijetemas’ or religiousassemblies to raise awareness about Islamic practice, ferventlyencourages Muslim women to observe the hijab.34 At least two of the four Islamic-English schools in Mumbai are run by thetablighis and one is funded by the wahabis. These schoolsencourage the segregation of girls, the wearing of hijab, andlimiting the participation of girls in life outside the community.The Al Muminah Girls school in Chakla, for example, does notallow its students to play or compete in sports such as tennis,basketball and hockey as the girls may then have to wear westernand un-Islamic sports attire which exposes parts of their body.At some of these schools, girls wear hijab not at the age of puberty,as it is usually done, but much earlier – sometimes as early asthe preschool level starting at the age of four.35

    The other method adopted by fundamentalist groups to policewomen’s bodies is by handing out ‘fatwas’ to regulate women’s movement.36In recent times, ‘fatwas’ have being routinely issuedon just about anything – from banning women from wearinglipstick and putting flowers in their hair to blocking cable TVaccess and music at weddings37 – by just about anyone in thereligious hierarchy – from the Darul Uloom Deoband seminaryto any local masjid or maulana. In the last two years itself, wehave seen some fairly strong fatwas that have got implementedquite brutally.38 Women activists report that increasingly evenin Mumbai and areas around, fatwas and dictats are being routinely issued through pamphlets and Friday sermons by localmosques. Many fatwas relate to women, some relate specificallyto their movement outside the house – such as visiting restaurantson their own – and others to marriage celebrations, not leavinghome and always observing purdah. “We notice not only a risein the number of women-related fatwas being issued – on totallyabsurd matters – but also on harsher methods of ensuring thatthey get imposed”, said Hasina Khan, coordinator of Aawaz-e-Niswaan, a Muslim women’s group in Mumbai.39

    The impact of everyday community policing, fatwas and enforcedveiling has been felt most intimately by Muslim women who livein homogeneous inner-city areas such as Dongri and BhendiBazaar, and more so those in ghettoised belts such as Malvani(Malad) and Mumbra, marked by the presence of a dominantMuslim community and all its attendant symbols of mosques,madrasas and jamaatkhanas. Muslim women in these areas testified that they often had less accessibility – and more stringentlyimposed curfew timings and dress codes – to public spaces andthe public sphere compared to women who lived in mixedcommunity areas of the city such as Bandra and Andheri East.“The focus is ‘aas paas log kya kahenge’ or on what will ourcommunity people think or say when you wear such clothes, comehome late, hang out on the road”, said Nagpada resident Hiba,who finds her aunt’s family in Bandra quite relaxed in comparison. Similarly Ayesha, 29, who lives in Mumbai Central, saidshe was constantly told not to wear jeans as the mosque wasnext door and the community “eyes” were constantly surveyingthe neighbourhood. As a result, some girls reported putting ontheir jeans later at the house of a friend or in the college restroom.

    Even when nuanced by other factors such as economic andsocial class, nuclear or joint family type and individual familylevels of tolerance and conservatism, the overall experience ofliving in a community ghetto was found in our research to beseverely limiting for women’s mobility. Muslim women’s groupstestified that this had particularly strengthened in the years afterthe Mumbai riots and more recently the Gujarat riots. In comparison, Muslim women who moved away from a communityspecific ghetto or grew up in multi-community areas reportedmuch more ease in accessing the public. Feroza, a 34-year olddawoodi bohra woman who moved some years ago fromMohammed Ali road to a mixed area in Andheri East, said the experience has meant that she now “enjoys a freedom of anonymity” that she personally finds very liberating. “While my individual family was not so conservative and allowed me to dothe things I wanted to do, one was constantly under the scrutinyof the mohalla – people around would notice my clothes, latehours, lack of marital status and always make comments directlyor indirectly. Now it seems so much less restrictive”, she said.

    Community Risk, Women and Safety

    In examining the issue of Muslim women and public spacein Mumbai, this essay contends that women’s access to publicspace is closely linked to the way in which their community isframed in the larger narrative of the nation. While our research

    Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007

    confirms that Muslim women have fairly similar restrictions andlimitations imposed on their mobility and access to public spacesas women from other communities, this is inflected by theiridentities as members of a minority community which is viewedwith both prejudice and suspicion. Marginalisation and recurrentpogromatic communal violence – which has visibly includedsexual assaults on their women – has meant that Muslims increasingly feel physically and psychologically vulnerable andcontinually at risk as a community. The implications of this havebeen the ghettoisation of Muslims in Muslim-specific localitiesand the rise of neo-fundamentalism within certain quarters ofthe community, both of which have made Muslim women’s claimto public space even more restricted and fraught with anxiety.

    In the context of threatened communal violence, while homogeneous neighbourhoods create the perception of greater safetyand security resulting from “being with one’s own kind”, theyalso lead to increased isolation and segregation of the community.In addition, I argue that for women in the community, it oftenmeans reduced engagement with public space and intensifiedpolicing and surveillance of their movements and behaviour bymembers of their own community. Moreover, it diminisheswomen’s power to negotiate private violence.

    Women also report being wary of the rising tide of conservatismand orthodoxy within their own community as a result of neofundamentalist groups gaining a foothold especially in community-specific mohallas – this, they said, forced them into theprivate sphere and into traditional gender specific roles withlimited access to the public. In fact, Muslim women in ourresearch often saw heterogeneous neighbourhoods and pluralisticurban environments (and the anonymity that they may provide)as offering increased opportunities to partake of the pleasuresof the public. However, this does not suggest that heterogeneousspaces by themselves can further women’s claim to public space.40

    In the circumscribed world of the mohalla, Muslim women thus negotiate the risks of violence – public and private – interwovenwith questions of identity. Women desirous of pursuing highereducation and careers will often toe conservative communitydiktats, including those on curfews, dress codes and veiling, ifonly to appear as “good” women not transgressing culturalboundaries. Many women respondents felt that by appearinggood, such as in being veiled, they could better negotiate somelevel of public access with their families and community. Somewomen mentioned that veiling in particular made them feel saferin areas not specific to their community; other women noted thatin their own areas however, the veil did not always keep themsafe from street harassment. I argue that in any case the discourseof keeping Muslim women within community boundaries on thereasoning of safety is flawed because by their own admissioncommunity leaders state that the threat to Muslim men is noweven more real and discomforting. At times of heightened tension,such as bomb blasts, Muslim men sporting religious markers suchas beards and skull-caps often feel as vulnerable and at risk ifnot more than Muslim women. In fact, aware that the current socio-political and law enforcement climate tends to disfavourMuslims in general, even those Muslim women who are stringently policed by the community or face horrific domestic violence often silence their voices against such abuse fearing thatthis might be used as an opportunity to further harass malemembers of their community. Thus, for Muslim women the risksof belonging and not belonging are equally complicated and invarious spaces they play out differently. In conflict situations suchas communal riots, in pragmatic terms it is safest for a womanin a public space to be in a neighbourhood belonging to her owncommunity where she is dressed or coded in ways that immediately identify her as a members. However, in non-conflict times,it is often the insiders, those who belong, who are expected to conform and in fact are censured for not doing so [Phadke 2005].

    In conclusion, I wish to clarify the links between exclusion,risk and civic and cultural safety. I argue that civic safety cannotbe separated from and exist in the absence of the cultural safetyof various community groups in the city. Every cultural andcommunity group in the city has the right to be different andbe accepted for the same. If Muslims with their beards and veils feel excluded and unsafe then civic safety cannot truly exist.Similarly, one cannot establish civic rights by taking awaysomeone’s cultural rights or the right to be different. Placing civic safety and cultural rights in opposition to each other serves toeffectively other the Muslim, suggesting that the presence ofMuslims and their culture hinders the establishment of civic safety. Further, the larger discourse that perceives Muslim womenas being oppressed by their own culture (and male relatives)obscures the fact that this same discourse exacerbates the restrictions that Muslim women experience.41 It also obscures the fact that Muslim men as much as Muslim women are excluded from public space.

    When a community finds itself excluded and perceives highlevels of risk to itself, all its members are unable to engage morefully and substantially with public space. This perception of riskto the community facilitates and legitimises a greater surveillanceof the women of the community; the restrictions on them aremore carefully and extensively imposed and their capacity toengage risk in public space, as elaborated by Phadke (2007), areseverely diminished. Therefore, women’s capacity to engage riskin public is dependent largely on their entire community alsobeing able to take similar risks.

    The anxiety that marks Muslim women’s engagement withpublic space is both the anxiety of being a woman in public aswell as the anxiety of being a woman of a particular minoritycommunity group in public. Thus, for them, political and culturalsafety as a Muslim is as much a concern as the issue of everydaycivic safety.

    To even begin to tackle the issue of Muslim women’s exclusionfrom public space we need to engage more deeply with the kindsof marginalisation that the Muslim community as a whole hasexperienced from public space. The access of Muslim womento public space then is inextricably linked to both – the rightsof all women to access public space and the rights of all Muslimsto access public space. While there are particularities to women’sexclusion, “women’s safety or access to public space cannot besought in the absence of a more general claim to city public spacesfor all citizens,” notes Phadke (2007). In the absence of Muslimsbeing able to access and lay claim to the city – even just in thematter of finding housing for themselves in non-communityspecific locations, it is not surprising that Muslim women cannotfurther their claim to the city’s public spaces either.




    [This essay draws on insights and findings of the research conducted by the Pukar Gender & Space Project (2003-06) on the issue of women and public space in Mumbai with funding from the Indo Dutch Programme on Alternatives in Development (IDPAD). For more information on the project, please see Many of the ideas in this essay have been developed in collaboration with Shilpa Phadke and Shilpa Ranade, my colleagues on the project. I would also like to thank George Jose, Kalpana Sharma, Lakshmi Lingam, Manesh Patel, Mary John, Mustansir Dalvi, Rahul Srivastava, and Tejaswini Niranjana for their perceptive comments on earlier drafts of this essay.]

    1 The ridha is the distinctive dawoodi bohra style of veiling for women

    – a combination of a coloured loose long skirt, a short frilly cape and a hood covering the hair.

    2 See Phadke (2007) and Ranade (2007) in EPW, this issue.

    3 The research that informed this essay in particular included focus group discussions (FGD) and interviews of Muslim women in Mumbai, of differing age, class and locality, in Dongri, Govandi, Mumbai Central,Mazgaon, Byculla, Cheetah Camp, Behrampada, Charni Road, Nagpada, Mira Road, Worli and Andheri. Leaders of Muslim women’s groups and some Muslim men were also interviewed. Ethnographic and historical information on Muslims and data from FGDs in non-Muslim areas and our pedagogic exercises further informed the interviews. Some names of respondents have been changed in this essay (unpublished reportsubmitted to IDPAD, Phadke et al 2006).

    4 Public space in this essay refers to public places [Phadke 2007], but public space is only a part of the larger construct of the public sphere which also implies access to education, employment, and political participation. In this sense the essay covers both public space and public sphere.

    5 The Rajindar Sachar Committee report (November 30, 2006) positionsIndian Muslims amongst the most backward of all communities in India. According to its findings, though Muslims have a share of 13.4 per cent in the country’s population, their representation in government jobs is a mere 4.9 per cent and in the elite civil services (IAS, IFS, and IPS), it is as low as 3.2 per cent. Only 59.1 per cent of the community is literate while the national average is 64.8 per cent. Only 68 per cent of Muslimgirls go to school, compared to 72 per cent of dalit girls and 80 per cent of girls from other groups. In urban areas, incidence of poverty among Muslims has a headcount ratio of 38.4 per cent as compared to 36.4 per cent for SC/ST.

    6 Muslim Personal Law in India regulates marriage, divorce and inheritance for Muslims.

    7 Muslim and Islamic are terms often used interchangeably but while Islam is the religion, Muslims are those who believe in Islam and attempt to practise it.

    8 These responses were recorded in focus group discussions, interviews and in pedagogic settings.

    9 As per the Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island (1909), between 1343and 1534, Bombay came under the Muslim rule of the Sultans of Gujarat. This period saw the growth of a distinct indigenous Muslim community in Bombay. By the 1800s, the community had grown substantially and several Muslim sects were found in the city.

    10 Census of India 1991.

    11 As per Census of India 2001, Muslims are the second largest religiousgroup of India comprising 13.4 per cent (138 million) of the population, with nearly a third of them living in urban areas. The proportion of Muslim population in Maharashtra is 10.6 per cent (10 million), see

    12 In a letter to The Times of India (1908), Rafiuddin Ahmed, a prominent Muslim, pointed out that “the most essential fact to be learnt about theMahomedan community of Bombay is that there is no such community. There are various communities in this city which profess this religion.” The 1901 city census listed 14 different categories of Muslims in the city: arab, bohra, baluchi, Egyptian, julhai, khatri, khoja, memon, moghal, pathan, sayyad, shaik, sidi, turk, and a further category of “unspecified”. See also Masselos (1977).

    13 As per Census 2001, Greater Mumbai has a slum population of 6.5 million. At least 28.5 per cent of these slum dwellers are estimated to be Muslims (The Milli Gazette, September 16-30, 2004).

    14 Mumbai was a communally violent city even before the 1992-93 riots. It saw several communal clashes including the 1984 Bhiwandi riots which spread to Govandi, Pydhonie, Kherwadi, Jogeshwari and Kamathipura;the 1982 riots in Nagpada, Kherwadi and Dongri; the 1987 riots in Kamathipura; the 1989 riots in Dongri, Nagpada and Bhendi Bazaar; the 1990 riot in Mahim [Robinson 2005; Varshney 2002] to mention some.

    15 See report of the Justice B N Srikrishna Commission, February 1998, for the 1992-93 Mumbai riots.

    16 According to Appadurai (2000), the public performance of the ‘mahaarati’s’ between December 6, 1992 and January 15, 1993 were in fact “ritual acts of ethnic warfare” organised by Hindu groups to push Muslims out of streets and public spaces in areas where the two groups lived cheek by jowl.

    17 Historian K N Panikkar (2006) believes that “religionisation of public sphere” or the increasing practice of putting religious rites and ritualson mass public display has meant a reinforcement of religious divisions and a widening inter religious distance.

    18 The idea of a spatially divided city is not new to Mumbai whose built environment, like many other colonial cities, comprised of distinct spaces for the colonial administrators and the “natives”. By the late 18th century the so-called “native” quarter emerged forming the inner city areas ofKalbadevi, Girgaum, and the areas around Mohammed Ali road. This was the locale of the indigenous bazaar economy whose unplanned chaos was part of a well-thought out strategy of spatial segregation [Dossal 1991]. The Indian quarter also contained within itself other divisions, the most evident being those based on religion and regional language, and within it was the concept of a neighbourhood and this could be a lane, a quarter,or a colony whose distinct character was shaped by the communities who inhabited it [Masselos 1991].

    19 Television channel NDTV 24/7 conducted an expose on this on March 12, 2004. Two reporters (Supriya Sharma and Rakesh Solanki) did an undercover story pretending to be a Muslim couple looking for a flat. They were refused flats in several localities including Matunga, Mulundand Borivili and were often directed by real estate brokers to Muslim areas. Even the Sachar Committee report (see note five above) mentions that there is a marked reluctance on the part of house-owners to sell or rent houses to Muslims and that banks discriminate against them in giving loans as well.

    20 Kaur (2005) mentions that “a clear indicator of isolation and subjugation of victims lies in the aftermath of violence when survivors seek ‘safetyin numbers’, that is, migrate to areas considered safe because of the numerical strength of their group; and/or economic boycott by the majority group that ensures further loss of economic and social equity of the minority group”.

    21 Panikkar (2006), Robinson (2005) and others report that in places like Gujarat, ghettoisation and spatial segregation has taken place so extensivelythat internal “borders” have come in to being, demarcating residential areas of different communities with little or no interaction between them.

    22 The role of real estate markets in exploiting ghettoisation cannot be ignored. New building projects in the city are increasingly marketing themselves on caste/community lines and as places that you can live in without the troubling presence of the “other”. This offers them a nicheclient base but the premiums they charge for exclusion more than make up the small clientele. This sort of ghettoisation now has legal sanction. In 2005, the Supreme Court of India upheld the formation of cooperative housing societies where membership is restricted to persons from the same caste or religion. In recent years, there has been an upsurge in exclusive community ghettos and only vegetarian housing societies. ATimes of India report in November 2005 gave examples such as Millat Nagar, Oshiwara (Andheri West) for Muslims; the Hooseini Coop Housing Society in Kandivali and the upcoming Burhani Park project in Mazagaon only for dawoodi bohras; separate enclaves for Jains such as two buildings of Flower Valley complex in Thakur village in Kandivali, Sudha Park in Ghatkopar and Sumer Towers in Mazgaon; the St Sebastian andSalsette complexes in Bandra for Roman Catholics; and the Shreepati Arcade at Nana Chowk only for Gujarati and Marwari vegetarians.

    23 This has to be looked at in terms of women being considered as markers of communal boundaries – both in their role as biological reproducers of communities and as active participants in the ideological reproduction and transmission of culture and religion – through their role as motherswith the primary responsibility for socialising children [Yuval-Davis and Anthias 1989; Kandiyoti 1991].

    24 See Phadke (2007) in EPW, this issue, for an analysis of women’s capacity to take risk.

    25 For detailed analysis, see study on Jogeshwari east by Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (1996) and Robinson (2005).

    26 Any kind of transformation in spatial organisation has important implications on women’s mobility. Contractor, Qudsiya, et al (2006) study of involuntary resettlement of a predominantly Muslim slum community shows that even the simple change of moving the poor from the horizontal physical structure of a slum settlement to the vertical structure of an apartment block – as is being done under Mumbai’s slum redevelopment scheme – redefines the public-private dichotomy of space and has a major impact on women’s mobility, participation in public and community life. The study shows that women’s access to education, work and healthcare was affected adversely by resettlement.

    27 WRAG, an NGO working with Muskaan, a girls peer group (for 18 to 20 year olds) in the predominantly Muslim slum areas of Jari Mari,Behrampada and Jogeshwari East in Mumbai, informs that when education and mobility outside the house is curtailed, and this is particularly a phenomenon in homogeneous neighbourhoods after riots, many girls report feeling frustrated and also suicidal.

    28 Many conversations with young Muslim women and their parents and teachers in Mumbai revealed a high trend towards teaching – considereda “noble”, “safe” profession with “decent” hours – as a profession among young Muslim women. Teachers at Anjuman-i-Islam’s Saif Tyabji Girls High School in Mumbai Central confirmed that of the 50 per cent of girls who did pursue higher education, a majority ended up doing a Bachelors in Education (B Ed). Medicine is another favourite among brighter science students – the reason being that it brought respectabilityand eventually women doctors could choose a specialisation like radiology or pathology with stable working hours.

    Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007

    29 Farha Ghannam (2002) in her study of Egyptian women’s mobility outside the house in the al-Zawiya al-Hamra area in Cairo makes a similar observation.

    30 A recent article profiled the increasing numbers of young women fromconservative and ‘burkha’ wearing Muslim families in Lucknow “who have got the fitness craze and are registering at gyms”. What the reporter did not investigate were the restrictions these women faced in exercising/ walking in open spaces of the city [“Parde Ke Peechhe Kya Hai…” by Alka Pande, Outlook, November 21, 2005].

    31 Tablighi Jamaat was founded in India in 1926 by M Ilyas to purify Islamof Hindu and Christian influences. It focuses on the basic tenets of Islam and on educating Muslims in correct Islamic practice. They instruct their members to avoid entanglement in local politics, to promote veiling of women, to close co-educational schools, and to ban social interaction with non-Muslims, all the while insisting on prayers and piety. Much Tablighi propaganda is based on verbal and door-to-door personal contact.The growth of the Tablighi Jamaat is linked with the rise and spread of the influence of the Hanafi Islam seminary at Deoband in north India [Roy 2005; Robinson 2005].

    32 Wahabism, named after Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, is a transnational sunni religious movement with its centre in Saudi Arabia which takes the scripturalist approach of adhering only to the word of the Koran andthe Sunnah. It is inclined towards a highly conservative and austere interpretation of Islam. Like other neo-fundamentalist Islamic movements, it discards philosophy, literature, sufism and any sort of sophisticated theology [Roy 2005; Robinson 2005].

    33 Muslim feminist Mernissi (1982; 1987) argues that “space boundaries divide Muslim society into the universe of men – the umma, the worldof religion, and power – and the universe of women – the domestic world of sexuality and the family”. Since men enjoyed rights over public space, the presence of a woman outside her home was mediated by the veil “since it allowed women to move in men’s space without being seen…” Women can thus “enter men’s public space only by remaining shielded in their private space”, with the veil rendering women “invisible” in the street.

    34 It is estimated that the tablighi jamaat reaches out extensively among Mumbai’s sunni Muslim community. In December 2006, the sunni Dawat-e-Islami held its annual ‘ijetema’ over three days at Azad Maidan and apparently more than four lakh sunni Muslims showed up.

    35 In the Muslim context, veiling is seen in many different and complex ways, most of which are not addressed by this essay. In interviews, girlswho wore the burkha said that it made them feel more safe and comfortable in public; when harassed it usually got them more help. Others reported using the hijab in a strategic sense to get increased access to public space. In fact, the wearing of a “modern” hijab by some working women is a sign of entry of women in a public space [Roy 2005] and as feminist and nationalist struggles in Algeria, Egypt and Turkey have shown,historically the veil has been flaunted or discarded depending on prevailing conditions – sometimes it has been used as a symbol of anti-colonial resistance, at other times it has fallen in to disuse in an attempt to assert modernity [Badran 1995].

    36 Technically, fatwas are legal opinions to be issued only by a high priest; in reality they are being issued by all kinds of ‘maulvis’ and seem towork more like legal verdicts or royal edicts.

    37 For a news story on fatwas, Outlook magazine obtained a fatwa from a maulana in Delhi against Muslim women working outside the home unless in dire need, and against wearing make up [“Ayatollahs All”, December 12, 2005].

    38 In the Imrana case, wherein a mother of five children from Muzaffarnagarwas allegedly raped by her father-in-law in June 2005, the ‘shariah jamaat’ passed a fatwa which nullified Imrana’s marriage with her husband. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) later put its stamp of approval on the fatwa issued by the Darul Uloom Deoband’s above ruling. The AIMPLB states that Imrana’s father-in-law will be treated as per the law of the land but Imrana will be ruled by the shariah.

    39 Women’s groups such as Aawaaz-e-Niswaan report that fatwas have been issued in Malvani (Malad), Jogeshwari East and Cheetah Camp on shunning marriage celebrations such as dancing, singing, haldi/mehendi ceremonies, video shooting, and photography during a wedding. There are also fatwas on Qazi’s not solemnising “joyful” weddings (those marked by singing/dancing/film music). If a family defies the fatwa thenthe Qazi will not issue the nikaahnama (marriage document) and the local Masjid will not bury the dead of that family.

    40 See Phadke (2007), in EPW, this issue.

    41 Sociologist Veena Das (1995) contends that cultural rights, usually articulated in the context of minority rights, are not parallel to political rights for they include a variety of situations with very different moralimplications. Das maintains that the conflict between the rights of subordinate groups, such as women, to break the power of traditions which subordinate them to men on the one hand, and the radical recognition of the right of minorities to exist as cultural entities on the other, are not capable of being resolved through easy solutions. Still, it is necessary that these issues are addressed on their own terms and that they do not become a contest between the passions of the state (national integration, patriotism) and the passions of the community (its cultural survival in the form given to it by the dominant male culture).


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