|In TN, a mosque for women run by women |
29 Jun 2008, 0306 hrs IST, Meenakshi Sinha,TNN
NEW DELHI: She's credited with forming the world's first all-women jamaat, a body of elders who decide on domestic disputes and religious matters. Now, 43-year-old Daud Sharifa Khanam hopes to create another first — a mosque for women and managed by women.
"Women can't laugh, weep, love or write. There's still a large section of women in this country who're dominated by men and society," says Khanam, who nurtured a dream of fighting gender discrimination. Outraged at the patriarchal order and brutalities meted out to her ilk, Khanam impatiently outgrew her adolescence to become an audacious adult. But this transformation was slow and hard.
Raised in a conservative lower middle class Muslim family by a single mother who was a teacher, Khanam was the 10th child; she has five brothers and four sisters. As a seven-year-old, her dreams centred around learning to cycle. But she wasn't allowed to step out of house in Puddukottai in Trichy district of Tamil Nadu. "Then, freedom meant learning to cycle," she says. Today, this feisty woman has cycled a long way.
Having completed a diploma in secretarial course from AMU, it wasn't long before the first sparks of rebellion showed up as she took to teaching. This way she tried to ward off many marriage proposals. "I didn't want to lead the life led by my mother and many others like her," she says.
Her first chance to break the shackles came as a Hindi translator for the All India Women's Conference in Patna in 1988. "For the first time, I heard women speak about discrimination and violence against them. I realized how violence comes naturally to men and was restless to do something about it." The result was the formation of STEPS, a women's development organization in 1991.
With the slogan 'Respect is the First Step of Women's Liberation', STEPS took up issues related to martial dispute, desertion, dowry harassment, sexual abuse, cheating and physical and psychological torture. Besides providing temporary shelter to battered women, STEPS also helped women get livelihood, free legal aid and counselling.
Gradually, Khanam realised how misconceptions pertaining to Islam were perpetuated by male clerics in matters relating to dowry, talaq and personal law. Dowry, though prohibited under Islam, was widely prevalent and went up to Rs 50,000, whereas meher (given by the man in lieu of marriage) was restricted to a mere Rs 500, she says. Similarly, the triple talaq has been used casually by men who use either the phone, letters, Khaji (a body of elders who decide on domestic disputes and religious matters) or internet to end a marriage.
When women approached the police for help, they were referred to the jamaat, saying it came under the purview of personal law. But the jamaat functioned inside mosques where women weren't allowed to enter. "So women can't give their side of the story or hear judgments involving them," says Khanam.
This is when she formed an all-women's jamaat — the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women's Jamaat Committee (TNMWJC) — in 2003. It started with 40 members from 13 districts. Today, it boasts of 25,000 members. It has since been in the process of defining a philosophy of liberation and rights, drawing equally from the Quran and India's Constitution.
But Khanam realised this alone wasn't enough. The mosque-jamaat axis is a power centre controlling the community. "When women are refused representation in a jamaat as it's attached to a mosque, where we can't enter, we have to build our own mosque," she reasons.
She led by example. She donated a piece of land for the mosque and laid the foundation stone. "I spent close to Rs 6 lakh on it and aim to collect Rs 100 each from all STEPS members and international women's organizations to complete it," she says resolutely.
She envisions the mosque developing into a place where women can pray, talk, laugh and share their joys and sorrows.
Where they can seek justice and disseminate issues like health care, education and talaq. Khanam welcomes men into the mosque, but all aspects will be managed by women, including having a woman moulvi well-versed in the Quran.
Meanwhile, she faces many roadblocks from traditional clerics and male members of the community, including death threats and ridicule. But an International Labour Organization recognition and listing among the world's 100 heroines by the US-based 100 Heroines Project, have given Khanam a pan-India appeal.
And when she isn't doing this meaningful work, she chills out listening to old Hindi songs with an understanding husband and an 18-month-old adopted daughter.