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Transcending Binaries through Self-empowerment and Personal Development

Exploring the Role of Muslim Women Activists in Community Reforms
Qazi Sarah Rasheed


Instead of zeroing in on the challenges that women in general, and Muslim women in particular, are expected to pose to structures of male authority, this article makes the point that Muslim women’s lives are not reducible to Islam or religion-based personal laws alone, and that circumstances impact their experiences of marriage and life after divorce. Without framing the actions of Muslim women within the logic of repression and resistance, this ethnographic study explores their transformative role in Muslim communities, and in a wider polity. It explores various strategies adopted by Muslim women activists vis-a-vis the global Islamic feminist movement while navigating their life courses. The strategies include: staging alternative, gender-neutral interpretations of Islamic scriptures; promoting reading of the Quran in native languages; taking over roles as mediators to resolve marital/familial conflicts; empowering women through education and awareness; and involving them in income-generating activities, often with state support.

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1The promotion of women’s rights has long been regarded as a “secular project” by activists and women’s rights organizations committed to a secular-liberal paradigm. (Kirmani and Phillips 2011). The feminist literature is replete with the idea that religion is a patriarchal institution which perpetuates gender inequality. Islam, in particular, gains disrepute for being “anti-women” and supporting a social system in which women are economically and politically marginalized. In this framework, Muslim women are commonly portrayed as passive victims in need of saving from Islam and Muslim men, even when they themselves have been resentful of such concerns (Abu-Lughod 2013; Al-Hibri 1997). In India, the root cause of Muslim women’s inferior status has been linked to Islam, especially to the religion-based Muslim Personal Law (MPL) (to be further explained below). Such a monolithic approach to understanding Muslim women’s issues ignores the fact that Indian Muslim women are not “homogeneous, and are differentiated along the fault lines of class, caste, community, and region” (Saeed 2005:119). Their social reality and expectations are diverse and contextual (Sakai and Yasmeen 2016). Muslims in India are themselves divided into different sects, each subscribing to a different system of jurisprudence (Kazi 1999). However, ignoring such realities, in India and elsewhere, the life experiences of Muslim women have been abstracted into “a binary model of subordination and resistance, coercion and choice” (Jacobsen 2011:65). This dichotomous categorization effectively denies the possibility of examining the social lives of Muslim women in specific socio-political and cultural contexts. It essentializes the complexity of Muslim women’s lives and disregards forms of agency that do not fit predetermined Western conceptions of freedom and autonomy (Abu-Lughod 2013; Mahmood 2005). Against this backdrop, the article shifts the debate on the resistance vs. submission dichotomy to expand our understanding of the agency of Muslim women that does not necessarily imply desire for freedom from or subversion of norms, but rather “the capacity to act according to the demands of the specific socio-cultural context” (Malmstrom 2012:24). Instead of focusing on the oppositions and challenges that Muslim women are expected to pose to “religion” and “state” (Suneetha 2012), this article examines how Muslim women activists engage with traditional structures and sources of authority and negotiate various aspects of their lives while striving towards self-reliance achieved through a combination of knowledge, skills, and control of the living environment in the societies to which they belong. This article mainly discusses various strategies adopted by Muslim women activists vis-a-vis the global Islamic feminist movement while dealing with everyday life matters. The strategies include: staging liberal interpretations of Islamic scriptures; promoting reading of the Quran in native languages; taking over the role of mediators to resolve marital/familial conflicts; empowering women through education and awareness; and involving them in income-generating activities, often with state support.

  • 1 Lucknow is the state capital of Uttar Pradesh. It has a unique significance in the history of Islam (...)

2The findings in the article are drawn from ethnographic data collected between 2015 and 2017 in Lucknow,1 from three Muslim women’s rights organizations, namely Bazm-e-Khawateen (BeK hereafter), All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board (AIMWPLB hereafter), and Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA hereafter). The Bazm-e-Khawateen, which translates as “association of women,” was founded in 1934 by Begum Sultana Hayat, a freedom fighter who, along with Mahatma Gandhi, exhorted women across religions to take part in the Indian freedom movement. Through BeK, she aimed to provide a forum for Muslim women to come together for a common cause and also to let them air their issues and grievances, thus furthering the scope of social reform within Muslim communities. This tradition was revived by Shehnaz Sidrat, daughter-in-law of Begum Sultana Hayat and the current president of BeK. On the fifteenth of each month, she organizes a meeting at the Zenana Park (women’s park affiliated with BeK), situated in the middle of a busy marketplace in old Lucknow. A number of women from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and belonging to all age groups participate in the meetings and activities organized at the park. The BeK is a vibrant organization comprising women from all walks of life, including students, doctors, teachers, writers, and homemakers. Shehnaz Sidrat works largely with Muslim women and aims to provide them with a platform which they can use to improve their lives. BeK has a separate wing known as All India Taaleem Ghar, which offers various teacher training programs to enable women to find employment.

  • 2 The AIMPLB is a non-governmental organization founded by Muslim leaders and ulema in 1973 to guaran (...)

3The AIMWPLB was established in 2005 by Shaista Amber, who had been working for women’s rights since 1997 and had participated in multiple social reform movements. Dissatisfied with the lack of reforms for women within the ambit of personal laws and being denied membership in the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB),2 she decided to form an alternative board to address wider issues faced by Muslim women that had not been addressed by Muslim male leadership. The AIMWPLB adopts suitable strategies to protect and preserve the rights of Muslim women within and outside marriage. For example, in 2008, it released a sharai-nikahnama (Islamic marriage contract), which entitles Muslim women to immediate payment of mahr (dower) after marriage, advises men against polygyny, stresses reconciliation, discourages arbitrary divorce, and stipulates the wife’s right to initiate a divorce (khul). The purpose of sharai-nikahnama was not, however, to challenge the patriarchal construction of marriage or to refute the existing nikahnamas issued by men-dominated religious bodies; it was rather an attempt to gain acceptance within a socio-legal space reserved exclusively for men (Tschalaer 2012).

  • 3 Triple talaq is a method of divorce in which a Muslim husband can divorce his wife by pronouncing t (...)
  • 4 Halala is derived from the Arabic word “halal” which means “lawful” or “permitted by Islamic law.” (...)

4The BMMA was formed in 2007 and describes itself as an autonomous and secular human rights movement that advocates equal citizenship rights for Muslims in India as well as gender justice in Islam. It is a Muslim-women led organization which recognizes the rights of individuals to practice their faith and choose to work within a framework that is acceptable within the community (Kirmani 2009). The BMMA has a democratic structure with regional and local branches, all headed by a National Council which comprises the co-founders and state leaders. The important administrative decisions are taken by the National Council. The state leaders undertake various tasks and activities at the grassroots level. The National Council meeting convenes every three months to share the progress and work done by women activists across different states. Over the years, its membership has increased to a total of over 30,000 in fifteen states. These states include Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Orissa, Rajasthan, Telangana, West Bengal, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. The BMMA aims to mobilize Muslim women at the grassroots level and advocate for change by acting as a pressure group. These three organizations work independently and advocate around the issue of reform of personal laws, but their objectives are broader, i.e., education, health, employment, and security. They focus on advocating for a progressive understanding of Islam, promoting the development, reform, and welfare of Muslim communities, and building up Muslim women’s leadership therein. They proactively engage with both the government and the judiciary to undertake reforms and provide evidence-based reports for deliberation. For instance, in 2016, to support a ban on unilateral, instantaneous triple talaq,3 Shaista Amber collected nearly 250 applications from women who had been divorced via text message, email, or by a spouse in a state of anger and inebriation. She collated these applications as evidence to produce in the Supreme Court (Ramgopal 2018). Similarly, in 2015, the BMMA published its survey conducted across 10 Indian states titled “Seeking justice within family,” in which 4,710 Muslim women were interviewed. The survey focused on the condition of Muslim women with regard to polygyny, divorce, maintenance, and custody of children. Based on firsthand stories of women in distress, BMMA corresponded extensively with the Law Commission of India, the National Commission for Women, the National Human Rights Commission, and eminent jurists, among others, to ensure legal justice for Muslim women. The BMMA demands legislation on issues, such as polygyny, age of marriage, the practice of nikah halala,4 unilateral divorce, custody of children, and inheritance rights. It has also come up with a draft of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Bill (renamed the Muslim Family Law Bill) for enactment by the government. Through such engagements, they lobby the state for legislative action, but also emphasize the fact that change has to come primarily from the action of Muslim women along with the support of reform-oriented clergy, as will be explained below.

5Thus, the decision to choose these organizations is related to their significance in advocating for the socio-economic upliftment of Muslim women, and creating awareness of equality and justice in the areas of family law and political and civic rights while engaging with discourse on women’s rights in Islam. The Islamic feminists worldwide aim is to expand the space of women’s rights in Islam through gender-inclusive analysis of the Quran (Wadud 2009). Similar to Islamic feminists, Muslim women activists in India, including the Muslim women in this study, are also invested in promoting women’s rights through engaging with the Quran (Schneider 2009; Vatuk 2008; Jones 2020). Despite a similar exegetical approach focusing on Quranic interpretation, it is important to stress at this point that these women cannot be termed “Islamic feminists,” but rather, more accurately, “Muslim activists.” Many interviewees echoed their concerns regarding feminism, especially radical or Marxist feminism, as that carries a negative connotation and aligns with secularism. In India, feminism is often perceived as a foreign concept, and feminists are generally viewed as men-haters and home destroyers (Khan and Bhasin 2004). In Muslim societies, specifically, feminism is regarded as against Islamic tradition and culture. Therefore, a Muslim woman who identifies herself as a “feminist” or a “communist” is assumed to be a kafir (non-believer or atheist) (Rasheed and Sharma 2021). Hence, to dilute such assumptions and to gain acceptance within Muslim communities, these women embrace the image of “respectable Muslim women’s activist” through their appearance and actions in public spaces (Tschalaer 2015). While attempting to address social issues pertinent to Muslim women, they choose to work within a religious framework which they find relevant and acceptable to Muslims, including Muslim women. Although, in the strict sense of the term, “Islamic” is perceived as something divinely ordained, unmediated by human reasoning and interpretation (Kamali 2009), women activists endorse diversity in the interpretations of the Quran and, instead of acquiescing in traditionalist interpretations, advocate for critical engagement with those interpretations to formulate their own religious opinions. Hence, the term “Muslim” is more appropriate to emphasize the human role in defining what is seen as Islamic and what is not. In the second place, the term “Islamic” denotes a normative order, whereas “Muslim” denotes an individual who happens to be a Muslim, but cannot be defined narrowly as one who strictly adheres to the shariah, or Islamic law. Woodward (1988), in his study of Islam in Java, found that Kejawen Muslims, in keeping with the moderate Sufi view, actively neglect the ritual practices mandated by the shariah, such as five daily prayers, fasting during the month of Ramadan, payment of zakat (alms), and pilgrimage to Mecca, yet consider themselves to be Muslims. He suggested that instead of arguing for the normativeness of Islam, the main focus should be on understanding “the degree to which core symbols, beliefs, and modes of religious action are derived from interpretation of Muslim texts and tradition rather than the extent to which religious behavior corresponds to a shariah-minded conception of piety” (p. 62). Thus, “Muslim women’s activism” neither ignores the discourse of those women who are Muslim, nor necessarily confines itself to an Islamic framework. To advocate for women’s rights, they draw equally from religious sources, i.e., the Quran and hadiths, and secular sources, i.e., the Indian Constitution and state laws. Considering this, it would be unjust to categorize these women as active or passive believers in Islam because this would lead to their forced expulsion from the ranks of believers and would be reckless labeling.

6Much of the fieldwork for this research was conducted when the country was witnessing a shift in the political paradigm. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing political party, came to power in 2014—on the back of a Hindu nationalist agenda. Since then, anti-Muslim animus and minority discrimination have gained fervor. Hate crimes against religious minorities, especially Muslims, have increased in quantity and kind. There have been numerous incidents of Muslims being threatened, lynched, beaten, and murdered in different states of the country by “cow protection” vigilante groups and those involved in “anti-love jihad” campaigns (Minority Rights Group 2017). This has contributed to an overall atmosphere of intolerance, which has left Muslims feeling insecure and vulnerable to the threat of communal violence. In a politically heightened context, the question of trust was crucial in gaining access to the Muslim women’s organizations. Therefore, to facilitate my entry into the field, I sought the help of acquaintances in Lucknow who were already in touch with some of the key women activists included in the study. They either introduced me to these women in person or gave me their contact numbers, which helped me make appropriate contacts and carve my way into their organizations. To get familiar with other women members, I visited the general meetings of these organizations, held monthly or occasionally. Initially, building a rapport was not easy because of the general wariness of Muslims emanating from the conditions mentioned above. Some women members were suspicious of my identity. They might have taken me for someone with ulterior motives or as one of those Muslims who side with the BJP. Even my “Muslim” identity could not save me from their apprehension. They enquired about my personal details, such as my family background, place of residence, and the nature of my research work. However, I tried to overcome their circumspection by involving and engaging with them in every possible way. I was cautious about their sensibilities in terms of dress, language, and communication. For instance, I dressed myself in a salwar kameez (a loose pleated trouser worn with a long tunic) and covered my head with a dupatta (a long scarf-like cloth) in public meetings or when visiting their homes. I spoke primarily in Hindustani, a mixture of Urdu and Hindi, and took great care that my personal opinions did not affect their responses.

7A series of recorded interviews and discussions were held with 30 Muslim women activists either during organization meetings, or at their homes and offices. Here, the term “activists” includes all those women who have played active roles in their respective organizations, as co-founders, leaders, members, and beneficiaries. These women activists, in the age group of 22 to 65 years, belonged to different social classes, educational backgrounds, and occupations. While most of them were housewives, some were students, and others worked in private firms as salesperson, receptionist, and nurse. Just two of them were involved in government jobs as schoolteacher and college librarian. Such inclusivity helped capture the diverse perspectives, capacities, and expectations of Muslim women about their situations while navigating cultural and religious challenges, and also striving to reform their communities while engaging with the state, and other stakeholders. The interviews were supplemented with archival material, mostly in the form of magazines and other documents published by the above-mentioned organizations. To gather rich data, women activists were accompanied to different sites of their activities (i.e., field sites, rallies and demonstrations, press conferences), which contributed to a better understanding of their context and situation, and how these shaped their everyday experiences. To ensure transparency during data collection, the activists were informed of the broad goals and purpose of my fieldwork activities.

Muslim Women, Marriage, and Divorce: Observations from the Field

  • 5 The ruling party BJP passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019, criminal (...)

8Whenever one talks of the status of Indian Muslim women, the focus invariably falls on the Muslim Personal Law (MPL), i.e., the family law governing marriage, divorce, maintenance, and succession, among other aspects. The discriminatory aspects of MPL have long been debated in Indian public discourse. In right-wing discourse, MPL has been referred to as “an extremely regressive legal code”, and Muslim women are portrayed as victims of Muslim men from whom they must be rescued (Kazi 1999). In 2016, a Muslim woman advocate associated with the RSS-affiliated Rashtrawadi Muslim Mahila Sangh (RMMS) approached the Supreme Court of India seeking codification of MPL, especially to end practices, such as polygyny and triple talaq. Taking cognizance of the matter, the Supreme Court directed the central government to examine various issues regarding MPL—the practice of polygyny, triple talaq (talaq-i-biddat), and nikah halala, and their effect on Muslim women’s rights. In response, the government maintained that a lack of reforms in Muslim communities over six decades has rendered Muslim women “extremely vulnerable, both socially as well as financially,” and that the practices of triple talaq and polygyny deny them equal status in comparison with Muslim men and Hindu women (Shariff and Khalid 2017). Studies of family law in India, however, do not support these contrasts and suggest that issues faced by women in terms of marital problems (dowry, domestic violence) and marriage breakdown (separation, divorce, maintenance) are similar across all faiths. Also, economic dependency in marriage and economic vulnerability after divorce are a common phenomenon among Hindu and Muslim women (Jeffery 2001; Vatuk 2017). Even then, the discourse around MPL as articulated in the media helped build the perception that Muslim women were sufferers only at the hands of Muslim men, and hence, the criminalization of triple talaq became an urgent concern of the government to protect them and improve their condition.5 Socio-legal realities, however, are complex and tell different stories.

  • 6 In Islam, ajr refers to the spiritual reward that accrues from the performance of good deeds. There (...)

9Many interviewees agreed that the provision of divorce in Islam favors women in difficult marital situations. But the interviews with separated/divorced women specifically revealed the plight of separated/divorced women and how separation/divorce affected their social capital and financial condition. The absence of an independent income, the lack of support from natal kin, and the stress of raising a child or children alone are some of the challenges that they face. For arbitrary divorces, as in cases of triple talaq, some activists hold religious clerics responsible for promoting it within communities, who manipulate the situation to benefit the husbands and interpret Islamic divorce law in a biased manner. It was reported that most clerics do not condemn the cases of triple talaq practiced by male members, but rather placate the victims (women) of such divorces by telling them that they would receive ajr6 in the life hereafter. In one such case, Hiba Bano, 36, a member of AIMWPLB and mother of an eight-year-old girl, went through such an experience. A few years after her marriage, she was diagnosed with kidney failure and put on dialysis. During this period, she was subjected to “emotional abuse” by her husband and in-laws. They accused her of lying to them about her health at the time of marriage. On the other hand, Hiba Bano maintained that her husband was involved in an extra-marital affair with another woman, whom he later married. Her ill-health provided him with a legitimate reason to divorce her, and one day he handed over a piece of paper to her with “I divorce you” written three times on it. After being divorced in such an arbitrary manner, she consulted a local cleric about her marital status. She narrated the response of the cleric as follows:

  • 7 Interview with Hiba Bano (pseudonym) January 6, 2016.

When my husband divorced me, I asked a cleric if this kind of divorce is recognized under shari´ah. He replied in the affirmative. I then inquired, what would happen to me in this case? What position would I hold in society (as a divorcee)? To which he replied that I would be rewarded in heaven for this wrongdoing. Does it mean that to get rewarded in heaven, a woman must die first because she holds no value until then?7

10While Islam allows both men and women to seek divorce and theoretically gives each the same rights, in practice divorce is regarded as taboo, especially for women. In India, there is cultural, religious, and social stigma attached to divorce. The failure of marriage is seen as resulting from the “woman’s fault and a reflection of her character, morals, or [lack of] child-bearing ability” (Hornbeck et al. 2007:277). After divorce, staying at her natal home is not a decent option for a woman as she might “no longer receive the love, honor and respect that she enjoyed there earlier” (Greenberg 2003:837). Looked on as a liability, such women face resentment from brothers and their wives that leads to compromise and tension (Kishwar 1999). Reflecting on her experience of being a divorcee, Hiba Bano said:

In our society, a woman’s divorce is viewed negatively. Although Islam gives the right to a widow or a divorced woman to remarry, people in general disapprove of it. My sister-in-law (brother’s wife) keeps a check on me and forbids me from wearing nice clothes. She keeps telling me that since I am divorced, I should stick to a particular kind of dress code suited to divorced women. She objects even if I put bangles on. Such restrictions make me feel bad about myself.

11In India, especially among Hindus, divorced women and widows in particular are looked down upon because they are considered inauspicious. Several restrictions are placed on them relating to their diet and socio-religious life. They are discouraged from remarrying and expected to leave aside their colorful clothes, and they are often excluded from social and religious activities (Jensen 2005). Sociologists and anthropologists have documented the persistence of such Hindu beliefs and practices among Indian Muslims too. For instance, while dealing with kinship and marriage patterns among Indian Muslims, Ahmad (1976) concluded that Muslim familial life exhibits an amalgamation of Islamic and Hindu traditions. The customs and rituals observed by Muslim communities in marriage are adaptations of customs and rituals observed by Hindus within the region or the continuation of those practices after conversion to Islam generations ago (see Mulla 2013). In another case, Farzana Khatoon, along with her two children, a son and a daughter, aged 8 and 10, shifted to the house of her parents, who supported her with all means, even in filing a court case for maintenance and divorce, after repeated failed attempts at reconciliation with her husband. However, after their deaths, she not only faced financial hardships, but was also left at odds with her three brothers and their wives. She narrated her hardships while staying at her parents’ house:

  • 8 Interview with Farzana Khatoon (pseudonym) July 10, 2016.

When my case happened, I had the support of my parents. But when they died, I found myself in a difficult situation. Though my brothers initially supported me, when they got married, they had their own families to look after. Over time, they and their wives vented their displeasure at my staying in the same house. Due to that, we often indulge in disputes. Living in such an environment has been tough for me and my children. I would say one cannot rely on brothers for long-term support.8

12Finally, to support her everyday expenses, including the money incurred in court case proceedings, and to take care of her children, she worked in a beauty salon while staying in the same house, although in a separate section.

13It was reported that during the divorce process or after divorce, children stayed with mothers, while husbands abdicated the responsibility of paying for their maintenance. In the case of Hiba Bano, her husband refused to financially support her and his daughter, Naima, after which she filed a civil case to demand monthly maintenance from her husband. The court, on assessment of his income, granted Rs. 500 in interim maintenance. But even after the court’s direction, he did not pay maintenance regularly. In another case, Tasneem, 31, who works in a private nursing center, filed for a civil divorce. It was found that her application for interim maintenance under Section 125 Cr.P.C. has remained pending before the court for three years now. During this period, she moved successive applications for enforcement orders from time to time. Besides, those women who approached a civil court to seek justice also expressed their dissatisfaction with the functioning of state courts with respect to costs and long delays in legal proceedings (see Rasheed and Sharma 2021). Recent empirical studies on the subject also reveal Muslim women’s reluctance to resort to formal courts and their frequent requests to extra-judicial bodies to negotiate their marital disputes, including divorce pleas (Lemons 2019; Tschalaer 2017; Vatuk 2017; Dutta 2021). Redding (2020) reported how, in certain situations, Muslim women attempt tactical maneuvering by pressurizing their unwilling husbands to pronounce talaq (the traditional Muslim unilateral divorce), an easier exit route from marriage than seeking divorce under the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, 1939. She demonstrated that though Muslim women do not prioritize the formal legal arena to end marriage, they often pursue the state’s criminal law system as a means to intimidate their husbands and thereby effectuate an extra-judicial divorce. In this study, it was apparent in interviews with distressed women that the onus of making the marriage work ultimately falls on women, who resort to women-run mediation centers to achieve reconciliation. Muslim women in distress routinely seek counseling services from prominent women activists to resolve their familial/marital disputes. However, the outcome of mediation depends mainly on the nature of the case and the willingness of the parties to find a solution to their conflict. Since mediation is a voluntary process, disputants’ intentions to reach a settlement is of prime importance.

14Hence, multiple mechanisms shape family life and hinder women’s ability to control outcomes in marriage and divorce regardless of the religion to which they belong, making it difficult for them to achieve gender equality in marriage and family relations. These include: the burden of poverty, customary traditions, societal pressures, and existing loopholes in the legal system. That is to say that the challenges that Indian Muslim women face in their marriages are not necessarily related to their religious identity, but are embedded in structural divisions and socio-cultural contexts (Vatuk 2017). Many gender-based discriminations and inequalities emanate from “multiple and overlapping patriarchies” arranged at local, community, and state levels, and work on women of other religious communities as well (Sangari 1999:21). Despite this common reality, Muslim women are still portrayed as most vulnerable, deprived of agency, and in need of external help to be liberated from repressive religious family laws.

Muslim women activists and their role in reforming communities

Reviewing interpretations of Islamic scriptures

15In the Islamic tradition, the interpretation of the religious texts has been the arena of those who have “legitimate authority” or are “schooled in various Quranic sciences” (Sardar 2011:31). In that way, male religious clerics alone have had the authority to interpret religious scriptures. In India, too, women are not encouraged to engage in an interpretative understanding of the Quran and, as a result, they are denied religious rights due to misinterpretations of the Islamic texts by male clerics. The women activists in the study attributed such discrimination to the existence of the patriarchy, flawed educational structure, and lack of learning resources for women in Muslim-dominated neighborhoods. Critics have argued that the majority of Indian madrasas (literally a “place of instruction,” especially instruction in Islamic theology and religious law) follow a traditionalist teaching style comprising the memorization and recitation of the Quran, Islamic history and culture, and oppose the idea of modern education (Bandyopadhyay 2002; Jhingran 2006). In the same vein, Sikand (2008) maintained that traditional ulema discourage logical reflection, questioning, and inquiry into Islamic theology and jurisprudence as this would undermine their power to speak authoritatively for Islam. On the contrary, some scholars have highlighted the rich and multifaceted tradition of madrasa learning in South Asia, particularly India. They opined that Muslim jurists, in fact, undergo rigorous training in Islamic sciences and are deeply conversant with the Hanafi tradition of Islamic law (Alam 2011; Zaman 2007). Even some highly regarded madrasas, such as Dar-ul-`Uloom Nadwatul Ulama, which since its inception has aimed “to combine full madrasa training with Western- style education” (Metcalf 2007:93). However, the lack of infrastructural and institutional facilities for women remains a fact. The majority of Islamic seminaries have traditionally been reserved for males and do not have provisions to admit female students to train in Islamic jurisprudence. In this regard Afsana Lateef, 48, a member of BeK stated:

  • 9 Interview with Afsana Lateef (pseudonym) October 13, 2015.

There are, in fact, few institutions meant for the Islamic education of Muslim women. We have reputed institutions like Nadwa and Deoband. But they are meant only for boys. Therefore, only boys could be muftis and qazis. There are no courses for women in these institutions, except for a few madrasas imparting basic knowledge on religion. I agree that to be a mufti, one has to slog a lot. Yet, it is not true that girls cannot do such courses, it is just that it is assumed to be unimportant for women to be a qazi or mufti.9

16In the Indian subcontinent, the culture of separate madrasas for women is only of recent origin, and most of them are “subsidiary units of organizations run by men” (Mushtaq 2010:12). Owing to this, they have certain limitations in interpreting religious texts in a gender-neutral manner. Another major issue is the difference in the formal curriculum taught in boys and girls madrasas, where there is little similarity at the level of religious subjects. Winkelmann (2005) in her ethnographic work on a girls’ madrasa in Delhi, observed that while boys undergo rigorous training to excel in all the branches of religious science, girls are either left out entirely or partially introduced to the fields of Islamic law, logic, and philosophy. Their curriculum is designed or cut short by the men in charge of the madrasa based on what they consider important for girls to know. Such differentiation results in women being handicapped when it comes to understanding religious texts and holding positions of religious authority. Though male qazis have been the norm (Smith 1995), efforts are being made in several Muslim majority countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Tunisia, and Egypt (Munezza 2014), along with Muslim minority countries, such as Sri Lanka and India (Ramzy and Ghavifekr 2019; Tschalaer 2017) towards the inclusion and representation of women qazis in the Islamic legal system. In 2016, BMMA initiated a training program called Dar-ul-`Uloom-i-Niswan, a program focused on imparting training to women in Islamic theology and history, schools of jurisprudence, and the Indian Constitution. It also aimed to acquaint the trainees with the core ideas of Islamic feminism, i.e., a global feminist movement that evokes the Quran and hadiths to seek rights and justice for women (Badran 2006). The formal training legitimizes women’s position as counselors and mediators for parties in dispute regarding marriage, family, and other matters within communities (Jones 2019). Ethnographic works of Dutta (2022) and Jones (2019) in women’s shariah courts run by BMMA in Mumbai show that, while assisting Muslim women in resolving marital conflicts, the women qazis not only make up for the existing patriarchy in both state and non-state dispute resolution forums, but also provide an effective alternative to the marginalized sections who are hesitant to approach formal legal institutions to seek help.

  • 10 Hadiths are the primary source of Islamic jurisprudence. The authorities on hadith literature asser (...)

17Besides, Muslim women activists have devised their own methods of ijtihad, i.e., the application of critical personal reasoning in the interpretation of Islamic law (Kamali 1996). Mujtahids (those who engage in ijtihad), during each successive phase of Islam, strove towards the progressive growth of shariah, however, contemporary Islamic scholars discourage this practice and have agreed to “closing the gate of ijtihad” (Hallaq 1984:3). They stress taqlid (conformity to legal precedent) over ijtihad, convincing Muslims to accept traditional religious knowledge and practices unquestioningly. This restriction limited the role of human reasoning (Sardar 2011), which has led to a saturation of Islamic literature with a “patriarchal perspective” on women’s rights (Al-Hibri 2000:51). Conversely, Muslim women activists have reclaimed ijtihad, and argue that there is no final authoritative human interpretation of the Quranic text and that each interpretation is an effort to understand God’s will. This assertion is based on the Islamic feminist philosophy that regards interpretation as “ijtihad of individuals” rather than an “objective” reading of the Quranic text (Al-Hibri 2000:51). During interviews, it was noted that women activists have adopted a unique method for arriving at certain conclusions regarding socio-religious matters affecting women. For instance, they see every verse (ayah) of the Quran through the prism of “gender equality” as a constitutive element of the “Quranic notion of equality of all insan (human beings)” (Badran 2006:para 2). For them, while judging the righteousness of hadiths,10 they keep the Quran as a reference point, one of the accepted methods in Islamic jurisprudence for checking the validity of hadith content (Damanhuri 2018). In Islam, hadiths cover various aspects, including the rights and protection of women. Mernissi (1991) discovered many misogynous hadiths which have been contrived by men to keep women acquiescent to their whims. To break with such hadiths, women activists accept only those which are consistent with Quranic injunctions. They first read hadiths and try to match and synchronize them with Quranic principles. They consequently assert that any hadith or interpretation violative of gender equality must be repudiated. On this point, Shaista Amber, the founder and president of AIMWPLB, stated:

  • 11 Interview with Shaista Amber February 6, 2016.

When you read the Qur´an, you understand the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. The Qur´an emphasizes equality and justice. But if these two virtues are absent, it means that Qur´anic values are being flouted. Everyone must read the last sermon of Prophet Mohammad. He clearly told, after his death, to consider only those hadiths which are consistent with the Qur´an. God has given us a mind to apply. We match the Qur´anic verses with the hadiths of Prophet Mohammad to reach a reasonable outcome.11

  • 12 A tafsir is an explanatory commentary on the Qur´an.

18Firdaus Hashmi, 43, a college librarian, asserted that women have to work hard in this regard. They must brainstorm and engage with Islamic textual sources. It is an arduous method, but there is no other way to verify the authenticity of the provisions of the hadiths which, along with the Quran, are the basics of Islamic law. She also explained that any single interpretation reflects only the opinion and intention of a particular individual and therefore, cannot be relied upon blindly. The ability to interpret is a matter of personal integrity, which cannot always be verified. She blamed gender bias in interpretation on those who do not read tafsirs12 and just blindly repudiate them all. She emphasized the need to become accustomed to the existing tafsirs first and then proceed to the secondary strategy to review the interpretations. She stated:

  • 13 Interview with Firdaus Hashmi (pseudonym) December 20, 2015.

When we don’t read, why do we complain? Women and young girls flip the pages of fashion magazines, but they are not interested in reading and knowing about their rights. There is a need to search for the truth, and the onus is on us. We cannot just blame clerics for our situation. Some women only go through one tafsir and derive a conclusion. They blame all scholars for being biased. But they don’t understand that engaging with the Qur´an is a continuous process and that they must be careful while selecting tafsirs.13

  • 14 During fieldwork, women activists showed me tafsirs written by Islamic scholars who, in their opini (...)

19Women activists adopt a collaborative approach and acknowledge the contribution of male clerics who have explicated women’s rights in detail. They distinguish between the unjust behavior on the part of some ulema and the just provision of the scriptures properly put forward by some other justice-oriented ulema. Hence, they choose to be selective in this matter. They have recognized a set of tafsirs by various celebrated Muslim scholars which they consider not hostile to women’s interests.14 Thus, women activists take a milder route and distinguish between moderate and extreme interpretations with respect to women’s rights. They root their struggle against unjust interpretations in a more liberal way and try to build upon those already existing interpretations, which are more justice oriented.

The promotion of reading the Qur´an in native languages and linguistic activism through institutional means

20Language has a potential impact on women’s rights discourse (Wanitzek 2002). This section explains how Muslim women activists contest patriarchal norms and respond to gender bias by employing linguistic practices to promote equality. Traditionally, the Quran and other Islamic texts were read in Arabic. In India, the Tablighi Jamaat, a revivalist movement which dates from the 1920s, played a key role in translating Islamic texts into vernacular languages, primarily Urdu, to impart correct religious practice to a larger number of Muslims (Metcalf 1993). Urdu holds social and religious significance for Muslims in India, and more so in North India, for two main reasons. First, Urdu was the main language of reformist Muslim discourse in the 19th century, resulting from the socio-political impact of colonial rule (Oesterheld 2017). The reform oriented Muslim male, and female writers, who hailed from an upper caste and class, assumed the leadership of various movements and sought transformation within Muslim communities in different spheres of life. The rich literature produced primarily by male social reformers promoted and encouraged women’s education. Such emphasis was based on the notion that women as household managers play an important role in the socialization of children and the preservation of family values. Therefore, women’s education was an essential requirement for the reformation of Muslim social, cultural, and religious life (Minault 1988). Literature ranged from guidebooks for Muslim women on religious teachings and the proper conduct of their everyday lives, such as Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanavi’s Bihishti Zewar (Jewel of Paradise 1905), to novels which focused on the lives of women who might represent alternative female role models, such as Khwajah Altaf Husain Hali’s Chup ki Dad (Homage to the Silent 1905) and Deputy Nazir Ahmad’s Mirat-ul-`Uroos (The Bride’s Mirror 1869). Female magazines and periodicals dedicated to the cause of reform included Syed Mumtaz Ali and his wife Muhammadi Begum’s Tehzeeb-e-Niswan (Women’s Etiquette 1898) and Shaikh Abdullah and his wife Waheed Jahan Begum’s Khaatoon (Woman 1904). The literature written by women focused specifically on female sexuality, religious orthodoxy, and traditional social mores (Pietrangelo 2004). These include: Nazar Sajjad Haider’s Ah-e Mazluman (The Sigh of the Oppressed 1913), Rasheed Jahan’s contributions to Angaarey (Burning Coals 1932), and Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf (The Quilt 1942) to name a few. This way, Urdu facilitated the literary revolution and became synonymous with social change.

21Second, Urdu serves as a bridge vis-a-vis understanding the Islamic textual sources, i.e., the Quran and hadiths which are originally in the Arabic language. Being aware of the lack of knowledge of Arabic, women activists emphasize reading and reviewing Islamic texts in local languages translated by eminent Islamic scholars. They consider reading the tarjumah (translation) of the Quran to be a working and more practical strategy for young Muslim girls and women attempting to be aware of their rights, hitherto camouflaged under the drape of the Arabic language, which has been used to reinforce male dominance over women. This approach seemed to be effective as one of the interviewees, Mehjabi Naaz, 42, a housewife who dropped out of school in fifth grade, acknowledged that she could not possibly have known about women’s rights without reading Quranic tafsir in Urdu. She said:

  • 15 Sipara is one of thirty parts of varying lengths into which the Qur´an in divided.
  • 16 Interview with Mehjabi Naaz (pseudonym) October 28, 2016.

In my childhood, I used to go to a madrasa located in a nearby mosque to read sipara15 and Urdu. Since our financial situation was not good enough, I used to do chikankari (hand embroidery) to earn money. My parents got me married quite early. Till then, I was ignorant about women’s rights. But, due to my involvement with the AIMWPLB, I engaged in reading tafsir which instilled in me an awareness concerning women’s rights in the Qur´an. Today, I am very supportive of my daughters. My elder daughter has a private job, and the younger one is in college. Some people think that I have given them undue freedom. But I don’t care. I know that I am on the right path.16

22Mehjabi Naaz lives in a low-income neighborhood with people having no access to adequate resources and with a lack of knowledge of alternatives. Being aware of women’s rights in the Quran, she disseminates the same in her neighborhood to bring about a change in the attitude towards women. She also helps couples with their familial/marital issues by advising and counseling them.

  • 17 A woman religious scholar is known as an alimah.

23Muslim women activists also find it easy to communicate portions of the Quran and convey the parts that relate to women’s rights in local languages, mostly Urdu and Hindi. The verbal communication in these two languages facilitates the dissemination of knowledge provided in the Quran, and helps women deal with any infringement upon their rights in their families and daily lives. Women activists associate the acceptance of biased interpretations of the Quran among women with the lack of knowledge of the Urdu language among them (or any other native language that could mediate or act as a catalyst for Muslim women to learn the provisions of the Quran and hadiths). To remedy this situation, women activists have recourse to linguistic activism through institutional means, viz., establishing madrasas. Some women activists have established their own madrasas. One of these is Fariya Rehman, 40, an alimah,17 who founded a madrasa near her house where she provides Urdu learning along with other religious education to Muslim girls till the fifth standard. The madrasa is named Taaleem-e-nisa (Education of women). She also provides the facility of hifz (memorization of the Quran) in her madrasa. She envisions opening an institute on a larger scale; however, due to a lack of resources, she has not yet been able to expand her madrasa. She complained about the financial crunch, as women are hardly entrusted with funds for such activities. Likewise, Furqana Jameel, 28, a housewife and an educator, completed her Adeeb-e-Kamil (an Honors degree) in Urdu, and wanted to enroll in Adeeb-e-Fazil, i.e., Post Honors. Due to limited funds and space, she instead converted a portion of her house into a maktab, an elementary school for teaching children Islamic subjects, with a limited teaching staff. Her maktab admits both boys and girls since the segregation of the sexes at such a young age is not an issue under Islamic law (Alam 2011). The maktab runs in the evenings, making it easier for children who attend school in the morning. Establishing madrasas has another objective, viz., to socialize and sensitize children ab initio. Women activists believe that when children are taught Islamic values in their local or mother tongue, they will cultivate shaoor (sensibility), a virtue supposedly not well grounded in the secular education system. They would internalize the norms of proper behavior and grow up as responsible individuals and citizens. Children educated in this type of system would have respect for all genders, and a cordial social system based on gender equality would be established.

Empowerment through education, knowledge and awareness

24Muslim women activists endeavor to promote women’s empowerment through education and knowledge, and by raising awareness of issues like women’s rights in Islam, and also on issues specific to Indian society. Many meetings, workshops, and conferences are organized to make women aware not only of their socio-legal rights, but also of their duties as homemakers and community reformers. Activists believe that education has great potential to bring about social change within Muslim communities. But, due to financial constraints, poor Muslims generally fail to send their children to school. Naish Hasan, 45, the original co-founder of the BMMA, who is now associated with the Muslim Women League, has worked for the educational and social upliftment of women in poor, chiefly Muslim neighborhoods for many years. She informed me that the majority of the slum dwellers that she worked with were Muslims belonging to the lower strata of class and caste. Due to poverty and a lack of awareness, many parents fail to send their children to school. But, through her constant efforts and years of hard work, she succeeded in persuading some of the parents to educate their children for a better future. Eventually, she managed to send 59 children, both girls and boys, to a nearby school. She managed to cover their school fees, books, and school uniforms thanks to money collected through public funds and individual donations. She also connected a few girls with different NGOs and funding agencies and assisted them financially to pursue higher education. Gudiya, 23, a student who received an educational scholarship from one such agency, narrated:

  • 18 Interview with Gudiya (pseudonym) November 27, 2016.

Girls in this area go to school because of Naish madam. She used to come to the basti (slum) to talk to people about several issues. Most people in this area are poor and illiterate; hence, they do not value education. Initially, she faced resentment, but over time, she gathered a few women and convinced them to send their children to school. I could go to college and obtain my bachelor’s degree with her help. I now want to pursue law.18

25Prominent women activists like Naish Hasan are well aware of the structural inequalities that Indian Muslims face and reiterate the findings of the Indian government’s high-level Committee, popularly known as the Sachar Committee Report (2006), to reflect upon their social, economic, political, and educational backwardness. They view Muslim women as members of the wider Muslim minority and, hence, link their inferior situation to the poor socio-economic condition of Muslims in general. Activists thus proactively demand the reservation of quotas for Muslims, both men and women, in education and government employment. Besides, women activists also focus on the need to empower Muslim women by strengthening their economic base, critically assessing their own situation, and shaping their lives without having to depend on others. They attempt, for instance, to build or establish income-generating activities for poor and vulnerable women, collaborate with government departments and institutions, such as the Labor Department and NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development), and disseminate information on the various schemes of state and central government agencies available to both men and women. In addition, in order to make women independent and increase their power in household decisions as well as in public affairs, women activists help women open personal bank accounts and obtain their ration, Aadhaar, and voter identity cards. Women activists also encourage the political participation of women (e.g., voting in elections, contesting elections, and campaigning), as this would allow their voices to be heard by the government, which would in turn improve the social conditions, and municipal services for Muslim women and children.

26Shehnaz Sidrat was exposed to social activism and national politics early in her life. Her nana (maternal grandfather) was the first elected chairman of the Moradabad city council. His assassination was allegedly planned and executed by the Muslim League because of his pro Congress-Gandhian standpoint. The Muslim League did not want a Muslim to represent Gandhian or Congress ideology. This was something detrimental to their politics of polarization, where they wanted Muslims, especially in Muslim populated areas, to consider them an undisputed representative of Muslims interests. Shehnaz Sidrat’s mother was an ardent Gandhian too. Besides, her father-in-law, Hayatullah Ansari, was a prominent writer and a well-known Congress leader. In 2009, Shehnaz Sidrat contested elections as an independent candidate from the Lucknow parliamentary constituency along with five other women candidates. She was the only woman to represent the Muslim woman’s body. In an interview, Shehnaz Sidrat highlighted the lack of Muslim women’s representation in politics and expressed her concern over the limitations of contemporary party politics in India. According to her, most political parties have so far ignored Muslim women’s issues and problems at the grassroots level. Peeved by the present political and social set-up, she expressed:

  • 19 Interview with Shehnaz Sidrat December 28, 2015.

I think women’s political participation is extremely necessary. I had not contested the election for my personal interest. I fought it because I felt it was the need of the hour. From my own personal experience of thirty years, I have realized that irrespective of how much hard work I do, I won’t be able to do anything substantial for the weaker sections of my community unless I have political power in my hands. If I am talking about the rights of women, then I should have a strong and free voice through which I can put forth their problems and predicaments. And this is possible only through participation in general elections.19

  • 20 Fieldwork Observation

27In the wake of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh State Assembly Elections, the youth wing of BeK organized an awareness program titled “Naujawanon ki yehi pukaar. Utho chalo karo matdaan” (It is the clarion call of the youth, rise, move, and cast your vote).20 The purpose of the program was to encourage and mobilize Muslim women and young girls to raise support for their greater participation in national decision-making at the local level.


28This paper argues against the binaries in which Muslim women are often placed and looks at them as individuals with autonomy and agency, rather than as victims and passive agents in society. As is the case with other world religions, gender inequality is a real problem within Muslim communities with regard to marriage and other social institutions. This study suggests that Muslim women activists employ individual strategies and networking to bring about change in personal power relations. They resort to multiple local and pragmatic strategies based on their needs, priorities, resources, and the socio-cultural contexts within which they operate. Some of these strategies are religious, while others are based on a broader human rights perspective. They stress the need to review interpretations of the Qur’an and assess hadiths in keeping with the gender-neutral instructions of the Quran. Since much of religious knowledge is passed on within communities through male clerics, there are instances of male bias resulting in discrimination against women: women activists thus emphasize the importance of developing critical thinking and investing in exegetical analyses of the Quran to bring forward ideas of justice in matters that affect patterns of marriage and gender relations. They also highlight women-friendly aspects of Islam through practicing ijtihad, which opens possibilities for social change. Consequently, women activists promote literacy, skills (especially for income-generating activities), and education for women on human rights and women’s issues to enable them to make informed decisions and improve their role in family and society. Besides, women activists act as mediators and counselors in issues regarding marriage and divorce, thereby creating an alternative space for women in need of legal assistance. Such strategic approaches help Muslim women not only in dealing with patriarchal attitudes, but also in ensuring gender equality in matters of religious family law and civic life.

29Though similar activities can be promoted and undertaken by secular women activists, groups, and NGOs, their hesitation to engage with religious discourses (De Cordier 2009), and their lack of “cultural proximity” (Benthall 2008) may serve as a hindrance in carrying out reforms and running development programs in Muslim communities. Moreover, the involvement of “perceived outsiders” can give rise to “fear and suspicion”, particularly in relation to gender-related issues (Kirmani and Phillips 2011:90). There have been instances of resistance from sections of Muslims to interference by the state in bringing about reforms within Muslim communities, especially when they fall within the scope of personal law (Vatuk 2014). Muslim women activists thus bridge the gap of distrust by initiating a reform movement that is assumed to produce an endogenous viewpoint on issues of gender justice in contemporary Muslim contexts. They offer an important ideological foundation to anchor and articulate Muslim women’s issues with limited resentment. They engage with the state and male religious clerics—as opposed to fighting against them, to be able to act and participate effectively in all aspects of life. In addition, state intervention is sought in redressing the problem of backwardness, implementing welfare policies, and demanding separate reservations for Muslims in the education and employment sectors. They also involve men, especially male clerics, in endorsing change within communities. The effective engagement with religious authorities starts with recognizing the interpretive work of those Islamic scholars who hold up liberal interpretations of the Quran and respecting their opinions. Their support helps women activists earn trust among the Muslim public. Such alliances seemingly reinforce submission or reproduce patriarchal constraints, but within the many hegemonies Muslim women are surrounded by, they constantly choose and negotiate power for better options and outcomes for themselves and for reform within their communities.

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1 Lucknow is the state capital of Uttar Pradesh. It has a unique significance in the history of Islam in South Asia. According to Robinson (2001), ever since the 18th century, it has been a center for Persian-Islamic culture, art, and education. Lucknow served as the seat of the Nawabs of Awadh and has a rich history of cultural inclusiveness (Frietag 2015).

2 The AIMPLB is a non-governmental organization founded by Muslim leaders and ulema in 1973 to guarantee the continued preservation and application of MPL in India. It is frequently regarded as the de facto religious authority of the Muslim community.

3 Triple talaq is a method of divorce in which a Muslim husband can divorce his wife by pronouncing the word talaq three times. Muslim women’s rights activists have long advocated for the prohibition of triple talaq. In a 2002 decision, Shamim Ara v. State of U.P. & Anr., the Supreme Court invalidated arbitrary triple talaq and ruled that instantaneous triple talaq neither dissolves a marriage nor absolves a spouse of his obligation to pay maintenance. However, the verdict did not receive sufficient media coverage. In 2016, when the issue of triple talaq resurfaced, the organizations studied here lent their support to the state and central governments in their efforts to outlaw the practice. In the same year, BeK organized a peaceful march in opposition to the AIMPLB’s campaign in support of triple talaq. Shehnaz Sidrat, the organization head, led the protest march from the Zenana Park to the Aminabad chauraha (intersection) with 50–60 members and participants. The women held placards with messages like “Aurotoon par zulm karna band karo (Stop atrocities on women) and “Teen talaq par rajneeti band karo” (Stop politicizing triple talaq). A large banner carried another message, “Teen talaq sharai nahi fiqhi hai. Ek sath teen talaq Allah ki nahi Mullah ki baat hai” (Triple talaq is a fiqhi practice, not a part of shariah. Triple talaq is not God’s word, but rather the word of a cleric). Upon arriving at their destination, the protestors chanted slogans against the practice of triple talaq and demanded that the Indian government outlaw it. Shehnaz Sidrat handed over a memorandum to the city magistrate, who was also present at the site. Similarly, in 2017, a group of Muslim women victims of triple talaq, led by Shaista Amber and Naish Hasan, met with the Uttar Pradesh Women and Child Development Minister to demand that the practice be prohibited and that the government provide victims with justice, maintenance, compensation, and employment.

4 Halala is derived from the Arabic word “halal” which means “lawful” or “permitted by Islamic law.” In the Islamic marriage framework, when a husband divorces his wife, she becomes haram, or forbidden to him. If a husband repents and desires reconciliation with his ex-wife, she must marry another man, consummate the marriage, then divorce him prior to remarrying her former husband. The term “nikah halala” refers to this procedure. Many groups, notably Muslim women activists, have condemned and opposed halala marriages for compromising women’s dignity in the name of religious conformity.

5 The ruling party BJP passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019, criminalizing the practice of triple talaq in India. As per the law, any husband pronouncing triple talaq, whether spoken or written, can be punished with a fine and a three-year jail term. The Act has received mixed reactions from Muslim religious organizations, Indian women’s organizations, and Muslim women’s groups in particular.

6 In Islam, ajr refers to the spiritual reward that accrues from the performance of good deeds. There are several verses in the Quran (6:32, 64:15, 42:40, 29:64) that point out the transient nature of worldly life, referred to as al-Dunya, and the enduring rewards of life after death, called al-Akhira.

7 Interview with Hiba Bano (pseudonym) January 6, 2016.

8 Interview with Farzana Khatoon (pseudonym) July 10, 2016.

9 Interview with Afsana Lateef (pseudonym) October 13, 2015.

10 Hadiths are the primary source of Islamic jurisprudence. The authorities on hadith literature assert, however, that many hadiths have been falsified or corrupted over time. The fabrication of prophetic tradition began during the reign of the third Caliph, Uthman, and lasted until the Abbasid era. The fabrications were intended to tarnish the authenticity of Islamic teachings, sow discord among Muslims, and advance respective interests (Khan 2012).

11 Interview with Shaista Amber February 6, 2016.

12 A tafsir is an explanatory commentary on the Qur´an.

13 Interview with Firdaus Hashmi (pseudonym) December 20, 2015.

14 During fieldwork, women activists showed me tafsirs written by Islamic scholars who, in their opinion, are renowned for their integrity. These include: Maulana Abul Ala Maududi’s Tafhim-al-Quran, Maulana Mufti Mohammad Shafi’s Maarif-ul-Quran, Dr. Mohammad Tahirul Qadri’s Irfan-ul-Quran, and Maulana Abdul Kareem Parikh’s Tashreeh-ul-Quran. These tafsirs are available in Hindi, Urdu, and English, both online and offline.

15 Sipara is one of thirty parts of varying lengths into which the Qur´an in divided.

16 Interview with Mehjabi Naaz (pseudonym) October 28, 2016.

17 A woman religious scholar is known as an alimah.

18 Interview with Gudiya (pseudonym) November 27, 2016.

19 Interview with Shehnaz Sidrat December 28, 2015.

20 Fieldwork Observation

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Electronic reference

Qazi Sarah Rasheed, Transcending Binaries through Self-empowerment and Personal DevelopmentSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 30 | 2023, Online since 20 June 2023, connection on 05 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Qazi Sarah Rasheed

Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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