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THE confluence of gender and community generates vexed conundrums as women more than men are expected to uphold archaic notions of community izzat, overwhelmingly defined by male guardians usually foregrounding outdated and conservative interpretations of community traditions and legacy. Nowhere is this more marked than in the case of Muslim women forced to carry the double burden of maintaining the integrity of a community under siege while staking claims as rights bearing citizens in a democratic republic. It is only after the release of the Sachar Committee ‘Report on the Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India’ that, for the first time, Muslims were rendered visible as an economically, educationally and socially deprived segment of the population, surprisingly with development indicators lower than all socio-religious communities, often worse than even dalits and tribals, India’s other perpetual unequals.

Possibly this was because while Scheduled Castes and Tribes were constitutionally defined as ‘development subjects’, Muslims remained framed as ‘cultural subjects’. Unsurprisingly, even as the state, to varying degrees, sought to respond to Muslim identity concerns – personal law, religious and linguistic freedoms – it did little to counter the historical processes of social exclusion in developmental terms. One might even argue that the cultural-religious lens through which the Muslims continue to be viewed enables the state to absolve itself of responsibility towards responding to their secular expectations. Instead, the widely touted image of the ‘backward Muslim’ generates a circular, self-fulfilling logic that blames the backward for their own backwardness, a framing that neither our political parties, focused obsessively on treating the Muslims as a vote bank nor official agencies and programmes help dispel. Disturbingly, the current political dispensation, by building on and stoking this historical framing, has further intensified the process of ghettoization and marginalization by pursuing an aggressive agenda of either exclusion or forced assimilation.

Intriguingly even India’s vibrant civil society sector which conventionally responds to issues of deprivation seems to have bypassed the Muslim communities. Consequently, even though many NGOs work with women, children, dalits and tribals, or landless fermers and unorganized workers – all traditionally defined as deprived/marginalized social/economic groups, Muslim groups fall low in their priority, in part because of knowledge gaps and possibly because they too share the ideological outlook of more mainstream actors and thus are reluctant to engage with those viewed with suspicion. More specifically, Muslim women continue to be seen largely through the usual tropes of shariat and hijab and not through their need for education, health, employment and public representation.

Fortunately, a recent study, Working with Women: Beyond Burqa and Triple Talaq by Farah Naqvi with Sadbhavana Trust (Three Essays Collective, 2018) frontally tackles the twin themes of Indian Muslim women and the NGO sector, both under continuous attack in public discourse and by the state regulatory schema. Through a detailed, participatory exercise with close to 360 NGOs in eight states and the Mewat region, the study brings alive the work of different types of NGOs and makes visible a very different range of concerns of Muslims – schools, health, employment and income, credit and housing, as also security and justice – helping us better appreciate both their specific concerns as Muslims as also citizens seeking to realize their constitutional rights and exercise autonomous agency.

It is critical that we better appreciate the multiple burdens that Muslim women are subject to. At one level, like all poor women they seek to improve their material status. Equally, to resist being reduced to the realm of personal laws and the domestic sphere as ‘victims’ requiring the benevolent intervention of the state against a misogynist male community leadership. Yet, to ignore their identity concerns or the many ways in which anti-minority communalism and an accompanying sense of insecurity affect their potential and real choices, would be to miss out on the specificity of their lives as disadvantaged members of a beleaguered community.

‘Working with Women’ explores how a variety of NGOs, denominational or otherwise, both women and male-headed, attempt to negotiate these complex burdens in an effort to respond to the myriad concerns of their constituents. Of particular interest is the discussion of what strategy/scheme works and how even well meaning efforts, if insufficiently attentive to the need to augment autonomous agency, can result in consolidating traditional tropes. Nevertheless, the fact that many continue to struggle and retain hope in the promise of equal citizenship creates hope for a brighter future.

Harsh Sethi