RISING Women Ulama: Professor Nishi Mitra vom Berg’s FULL SPEECH

RISING Women Ulama: Women Leadership for Peace, Prosperity and Pluralism welcomes Professor Nishi Mitra vom Berg, Professor and Chair of the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India.

The Role of Women in Building Peace in Pluralist Societies: Our Experiences in Contemporary Times in India with Focus on Muslim Women

“I first thank Prof Mike Hardy and Dr Sariya Cheruvallil Contractor and other colleagues of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University for giving me this opportunity to represent views from India in this august gathering.

India is a multi-cultural and a diverse nation. It has an inspiring history of pluralism that has been thriving for thousands of years even though we had also our black periods of communal unrest and violence. Among the many faiths represented in India are Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Besides many tribal religions.

As the world’s largest democracy, India presents a unique opportunity to understand a long and multifaceted heritage of religious diversity that is today threatened in the context of right wing politics, widening gaps in wealth and extreme poverty, dispossession and marginalization of large sections of populations, lack of access of large masses to gains of modernity and development, increased violent resistance and some loss of faith in electoral politics.

These factors have made many fragments of our pluralistic society and cause conflict and unrest. Muslims are India’s largest religious minority, making up more than 13 percent of the 1.2 billion population. They are among the most excluded and marginalised communities, with social indicators such as education and employment lower than the national average.

However one needs to point out at the outset, the diversity and plurality of Muslims in India and that Muslims are not a homogeneous community. There is remarkable distinctiveness amongst Muslims in culture and development status across geographies, sects and class which has remained unrecognized in the homogenizing discourse on Muslims. In general economic and educational deprivation has contributed to their backwardness and poor representation in government services and politics. Moreover, there is isolation and ghettoization among Muslims leading to social stagnation. There is a growing sense among Muslims that the democratic process in post independent India has not made for peace and development for their community .The religious violence in 1992 following the destruction of Babri Masjid, Gujarat riots in 2002, other communal riots leading to enormous loss of life and property and continuing State violence in Kashmir have demoralized Muslims and alienated some sections. The most harmful impact of this has been the restriction of women’s rights in the context of fear of the community. In the name of protection, the community stronghold on women has increased and has led to further ghettoization, isolating women in particular from the mainstream.

Muslim women suffer triple marginalisation : as women, as members of a religious minority and as individuals living in abject poverty. As per 2011 Census, Muslim women number more than 71 million , 60 percent of women are married before the legal age of 18, over 50 per cent are illiterate. The 2005 Government of India Sachar Report commenting on the social, economic and educational backwardness of the community said that both the civil society and government blame the religious community for the position of Muslim women but we need to rethink societal discrimination of Muslims and faulty development policies. The committee noted that a reasonable representation of various communities in government employment is necessary to enhance participatory governance required in a pluralistic society.

Muslim women’s backwardness not only depresses the communities development but because a significant portion of the community is marginalized, it becomes vulnerable to anti- national and extremist ideologies and may nurture violence.

In this background, I would like to draw on a few heartening initiatives by Muslim women in furthering their communities development and restoring and promoting peace.

Self Help and Income Generation Projects

I first draw on Muslim Women’s Initiatives launched by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems( IFES) along with its civil society partners in villages and urban slums in Karnataka and Rajasthan for 7 years between 2004-2011. Here multiple layers of intervention were implemented in phases to empower Muslim women within the community. The initiative drew the support and knowledge of predominantly male community leaders such as Maulvis ( Muslim clergymen), Ulemas ( religious scholars) academicians , activists and lawyers in the community. Awareness workshops for Muslim men and women on rights of women enshrined in the Quran and rights of women protected by Indian law were conducted.

The basic goal was to demonstrate the progressive elements of Quran in terms of personal law in matters of consent to marriage, payment of mehr, dowry, dissolution of marriage, rights of property ownership and inheritance. In these workshops women articulated their vulnerabilities, lack of decision making and violence in marriages and the ground work for their voluntary engagement in their own empowerment was made .Counseling cells were formed and women volunteered to network and support needy women in police stations,courts, banks, shelter homes etc. Thrift and credit activities came up next with women joining courses for vocational skills to address their economic vulnerabilities . Women got basic leadership skills in the Program and in time more and more engaged themselves in solving local problems such as reform of local schools, improving facilities in local hospitals, applying for welfare schemes etc to initiate community activities. Orientation programs for teachers in community madrassas were organized as a next step to address school curriculum towards a continuing empowerment of women. There was some resistance but with sensitivity and tact and persuasion the scholars and teachers in madarsas took these orientations. They collaborated with religious scholars and civil society members to develop and teach new course materials on gender equality for class 9 and 11 grades. Boys were targeted and this was very successful as several boys understood their own criticality in leading change. Monthly mentoring meetings were held to consolidate and strengthen grassroots leadership among women and men, girls and boys.

It is heartening that this experiment led to visible results as later 8 of the mentored women from these grassroots groups were elected in local governance bodies in Bijapur ( Karnataka) .This example illustrates a model of peace work successfully implemented for Muslim women’s integration in mainstream democratic processes through involvement of critical men in religious offices and civil society.

The Fight against Instantaneous Divorce

India does not have a common civil code in matters of marriage, divorce, maintenance guardianship and succession as the constitution allows people from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds to follow their religious personal laws that derive from religious norms, scriptural injunctions, culture, customs and values. Personal laws in general do not guarantee women equal status or rights. Women have subordinate position in the patriarchal family system and are discriminated in matters of inheritance, adoption, marriage, divorce, right to dwelling, maintenance etc.

In August 2017 after a prolonged struggle for more than three decades by Muslim women’s groups , the Supreme court of India struck down “triple talaq”, a practice where a Muslim man can get instantaneous divorce from his wife by saying “ I divorce” three times. This practice had been outlawed in much of the Muslim world but continued to exist in India. This form of divorce practiced unilaterally had a very negative impact on Muslim women who lost their homes and rights in marital property and child custody instantaneously and went through extreme dispossession and trauma . The banning of the so called ‘Islamic’ divorce as unconstitutional is said to be a victory for 90 million women. Though the self directed reforms in the community would have been the best option, they were stifled by the patriarchal interpretation of religious law by the Muslim clergy. The religious organizations in the community also denied Muslim women to seek legal remedies and in recent times Muslim women were emboldened through their own associations to rebel against the patriarchal interpretations of religious law. They sought legal intervention to offset Muslim clergy. There was resistance by All India Muslim clerics on grounds of interference in religion. The right wing government’s pronouncements on the issue were perceived as an attack on Muslim religion, culture and values especially as Muslim marriage arrangements are held to be more respectful and empowering for women’s individual identity than that of the Hindus. Yet the Supreme Court’s decision to hold the practice of instantaneous divorce as unconstitutional and undemocratic was upheld by Muslim women from across the board as they welcomed the verdict.

This campaign and its successful end demonstrates how Muslim women could stand together and demand in unison in spite and despite of patriarchy of communities and state institutions. The women’s movement in India stood strong behind the Muslim women and their claim to India’s constitutional values of equality, pluralism and secularism. Muslim women’s coming of age and confidence is reflected in the fact that they withstood intense community pressure in the wake of a right wing majority government’s propaganda. The Government was spearheading the change in personal law with the idea of 8 per cent of Indian Muslim women suffering under religious patriarchy and bigotry while overlooking similar practices in other religions that make for women’s general dispossession and vulnerabilities.

This debate has again demonstrated that women are important symbols of communities yet women’s rights are marginal and contested in their own communities . In India other communities have colluded in denying women their citizenship rights in terms of their equal representation in parliament or equal inheritance rights through adopting complicated identity politics and dividing women along religion, caste and ethnic lines. For the women’s movement it has meant that they are challenged to constitute a strong pressure group in the face of religious and caste identities. Group identities and group rights have special significance in post colonial democracies where individual rights and individual citizenship is an idea that has still not taken roots and women themselves cannot be treated as a self evident category by either feminists or by other political groups. There is gender inequality both within and between communities that should define our peace agenda. The question of gender justice needs to be attended and not made a casualty the way it has been done till now in terms of contesting patriarchies of caste and religion. We need to focus on overall democratization of society which remains a challenge. Gender rights are a non negotiable part of this democratization and inclusion of women’s perspectives and participation is a not only invaluable but a must. Now the task before the State and Muslim women in India is to ensure that the change in law is accepted as a need and not trivialized as a measure of upstaging a religious community. It would be a big disaster if the law fails to resonate in particular families and communities on grounds of oppositional religious solidarity. Implementation of laws in India is a continuing problem. In that case it may exacerbate tensions in families , and between communities and remain meaningless for most women despite existing in law books.

Right to Pray

Since late 2015 and early 2016 there have been several protests by women (especially media campaigns ) that have raised the call for the Right to Pray .Women protesters on social media have opposed being barred from entering prominent temples and shrines on grounds of women being impure. Three sites have been important in this debate: Sabrimala Temple in Kerala, Shri Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra, and Haji Ali, a sufi Shrine in Mumbai. Both Hindu and Muslim religious orthodoxy opposed women’s entry into these sacred places and claimed the freedom to practice religion as a basic constitutional right, as per tradition and faith. In case of Haji Al, the restrictions on women to enter the sanctum sanctorum were made only in 2012 when women devotees were told by the Haji Ali Dargah Trust that Sharia law (as interpreted through a fatwa) demanded them to be excluded from the shrine. The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan led a spirited campaign against this restriction.

In Aug 2016 the High Court of Bombay gave a verdict removing restrictions on the entry of women into the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah. This led to women reclaiming what was earlier the right of women devotees of the dargah. It is noteworthy that in the protests to reclaim their rights of access, women of different religions have come together to oppose the Hindu and Muslim religious leaders. The movement drew its strength from this unified approach. The supreme court argued for and upheld the constitutional right of women to enter these places , countering traditionalists that denying women the right to worship/ pray could amount to a violation of their constitutional right to equality. Also the court was compelled to hold that personal choice of women needs to be defended. Forbidding women entry could be seen as a violation of their constitutional Right to Freedom of Religion and Right to Equality. The court recognized that the issue was in fact more than merely the right to pray, as it entailed also the right to access all public spaces of educational, historical, cultural value as well as spaces of natural beauty.

Women’s movements were divided about taking a youth driven and media focused confrontation seriously. There were vitriolic exchanges between women’s groups. Some distanced themselves from these protests calling feminists as trouble makers and non believers, and wondered what was the purpose of staking the right to enter sacred temples and shrines. Some held other issues — like political representation, pervasive violence against women including rape, female foeticide, and dowry deaths; caste and religious intolerance; and lack of economic options available to women — to be more important than the temple and shrine entry.

Although it may be true that the Right to Pray protests were sporadic and may not lead to a fundamental change in patriarchal attitudes ( rather they polarized people without any real change), the women’s groups protesting upheld the victory as a concrete manifestation of their fight against religious and symbolic subordination.


In discussing women’s contribution to peace in pluralist societies I have taken a more expansive feminist definition of peace, influenced by the acclaimed peace scholar Johan Galtung and feminist peace activists such as Birgit Brock Utne and Betty Reardon. All three have conceptualized peace work within a framework that integrates personal, structural and cultural violence. Peace in this sense is not just absence of conflict but rather a positive condition where people are not differentiated in terms of their life chances due to differential power and can realize their potentialities maximally.

In terms of women, this definition focuses on the linkage of the macro and the micro, the society and the family and the different forms of violence that inhibit women’s full contribution to development and peace in society. This definition highlights women’s diverse roles in their families, communities and society and recognizes their agency. It complicates our understanding of violence and peace even as it foregrounds gender in terms of power relations, making it an important axis implicating peace in society. A transformative approach to peace in society needs to recognize that women play critical role in their homes, communities and society and that everyday violence against women is an important agenda for peace in national and international context.

Muslim women are often represented in an essentialist way as oppressed, backward andpassive victims of religion and patriarchy and are invisible in the grand historical narratives. However the fact is that Muslim women are quietly involved in rewriting this narrative and redefining their rights. They are not submissive, or fragile or too weak to fight for their rights. Rather they are engaged in processes of economic and cultural change, nation building and secularization. They have explored new ways to engage with religious and political discourse and to seek simultaneously legitimacy within the Islamic discourse. Muslim women in India are engaged in setting up their own Jamaat ( assemblies ), questioning the exclusive authority of patriarchal religious male authorities in interpreting Muslim law; they are building mosques for women as alternative public spaces; they are training themselves to be Qauzis. They are engaged in fighting State repression in Kashmir not only as mothers, daughters and sisters but also as individuals with political agency and voice resisting the invasion of their space while at the same time urging stop to senseless violence that tears families and communities in strife.

Muslim women in India have an increasingly audible voice that is leading the community to accept gender equality as the way to Peace and Development.”

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