ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Muslim Women and the Challenge of Religion in Contemporary Mumbai

Two recent mobilisations of women in Mumbai expose the tension between Muslim patriarchies and women’s rights in contemporary Islam. The first case refers to a petition in the Bombay High Court filed by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan that challenged the prohibition of women in the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled against the governing trust of Haji Ali Dargah and restored women’s right to enter the inner sanctum. The second mobilisation was spearheaded by Sahiyo, a group of five women who started a public conversation around the practice of khafz or female genital cutting among Dawoodi Bohras. Their efforts brought attention to the violent control of female sexual pleasure in the name of religion and tradition. This paper argues that women’s critical voices from within the community challenge conservatism and redefine gendered selfhood within the religious realm.

Religious freedom for Muslims in general, and the rights of Muslim women in particular, has been a matter of serious contention in postcolonial India. Although the right to religious freedom is enshrined in the Constitution, and India is signatory to several international conventions, it continues to be highly contested not just in the courts of law, but also in everyday life. The rights of women to equality of religious practice seems to throw up greater political challenges since the guardians of most religions are men, while religion itself is seen by many feminists as another institution that constitutes patriarchal power, to which Islam is no exception.

Religious personal laws, for instance, have posed a major challenge to the career of secularism and one such debate has been the role of religious orthodoxy on the question of Muslim women’s autonomy in marital and family life. The Shah Bano case (1985–86) highlighted how the interests of women are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by an alliance of religious and secular interests (Pathak and Rajan 1989). Muslim women’s activism in India has been trying to challenge patriarchal interpretations of the Quran, calling for broader and more inclusive interpretations of women’s social and religious identity within Islam; a perspective that has influenced change in other parts of the world (Mernissi 1991). Patriarchal interpretations of the Quran have not only been forced upon the unlettered Muslim masses, but also those who leave the interpretations to the male ashraf (high status)-dominated ulema (clergy). In recent times, there have been several efforts in various parts of the country for Muslim women to enter the religious realm as alimanas and qazis, interpreting the Quran and Shariat from a women’s perspective (Vatuk 2008; Albuquerque 2004; Schneider 2009). Although there continues to be much focus on Muslim women’s rights in marital life, the Muslim religious elite in India, much like their global counterparts, have also been preoccupied with dictating the terms of feminine modesty and piety.

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