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HERALD, c.1997


"Forging Idnetities

Forging Identities:
Community, State and Muslim Woman

Edited by Zoya Hasan
Published by Oxford University Press,
Price Rs. 260

There are three types of religious identities: chosen, forced and forged. If you pray, fast or observe a religious code in your private and public life, then it is an identity you have "chosen". On the contrary, if a riot erupts in your city and a militant from the other side rushes upon you with a raised sword, he will not stop and ask you whether you are a practicing Muslim or not - he will just bring his sword down, because he has already "forced" an identity upon you.

The third type is a different issue altogether. If you are the leader of a community which is very much caught up in its own contradictions and you are suddenly faced with a threat from another community, you will perhaps try to "forge" an identity so that you can meet the other in a multi-religious parliament with a bigger ego.

The 12 well-chosen essays in the book under review represent the case of secular India against the Muslim community: the men, especially the religious leaders, are "forging" a fictitious Muslim identity by "forcing" upon their women a set of out-dated personal laws which discriminate against women and reduce them to second class citizens.

The editor explains in the introduction "... Although newly published studies .. have questioned Jinnah's assertion that the Indian Muslims constituted a 'nation', the myth of a structured and homogenized Muslim community remains firmly ensconced in much of South Asian social science literature...

However, some scholars challenged the view that Muslims adhered to the basic tenets of Islam embodied in the shariat..." (p.ix)

The 12 essays have been well sequenced to first, re-cap the emergence of a Muslim identity in the colonial era (Metcalf, Devji), second, present the conflict between this identity and the secular state mainly over the question of women (Lateef, Hasan, Chachhi, Sindh) and third take a look at Muslim women in the real world through case studies from a town Aligarh (Mann) and Palitpur, a village (Ahmed Ghosh). Finally, the essays analyse the representation of Muslim women in print and cinema (Bachetta, Kazmi, Kesavan).

The collection is a testimony to the superior skills of the editor: none of the essays could have conveyed all the meaning that they do in this collection if read individually. This is editing as an art form, and Zoya Hasan's compilation is one of the best examples I have come across in a long time.

What is significant, however, is the absence of the voices of the Muslim women themselves. Except for the interviews with lower-class, semi-educated women in the two case studies and a brief mention of Rokeya Hossain's literary writings, especially Sultana's Dream, the book analyses the works of Muslim and Hindu men about Muslim women.

The political drama which preoccupies the five central writers in the group also features men as the main actors. If the implication is that Muslim women have no voice, it is a far-fetched one. Ismat Chughtai, Quratulain Hyder and their like have always been there and one wonders why they have not been included in the latter part of the book which deals with the cultural representation of women.

Related to this is the issue of "the chosen identity". The editor begins by raising a number of questions, such as "what are the conditions under which women begin to define themselves primarily on the basis of a religious identity?" (p.8). The book does not answer this question, except by remaining silent on it. Even the case study on Palitpur does not go all the way - it shows us how some of the women living at the sustenance level dream of becoming wealthier so that they can afford to observe such Islamic tenets as purdah, which are ironically more Hindu than Islamic. But what about that inner freeling of an individual which makes the choice of religion a different kind of experience from, for example, purchasing groceries from the market? The book could have gone ahead to open up a dialogue with women who have the same intellectual / class status as Zoya Hasan and Huma Ahmed-Ghose but who live up to a traditional religious (be it "fundamentalist") world view. That is the aspect one misses in this collection. As it is, it is a one-sided picture of affairs even though excellently crafted, immaculately executed (without any typographical errors!) and very intelligently presented. From the secular women's point of view the book gives a kaleidoscopic view of Muslim India. It cannot be, and should not be, missed by anyone who is interested in learning how human behaviour affects history.

The quality of the articles included in the collection is outstanding. Metcalf and Davji trace the roots of the identity problem into the colonial past. The early, religious scholars (like Ashraf Ali Thanvi) and social reformers (like Imtiaz Ali, Rokeya Hossain and Ameer Ali) focused their efforts on educating lower middle class women and, given the constraints of their historical times, their attitude was quite enlightened. It was not until the appearance of the Islamists (with Maududi at the helm) that a campaign of hatred was launched against the educated, modernized Muslim woman. This hypothesis of Metcalf is supplemented by the theories of Devji: the orthodox nobility was consolidated into Muslim India as a reaction against the pressures of the colonial onslaught. While the legal (Shariat) culture in older times had glorified the public space and the mystic (Sufi) culture the private, the new orthodox nobility found itself restricted to the private space only - the public sphere had become entirely dominated by the amoral, secular agencies of colonial rule. Consequently, the private space and its inhabitants (chiefly women) became the symbols of identity in the minds of the Muslim community - hence the need for Maulana Maududi's retrogressive campaign against educated Muslim women.

"As if through a steady process of regression, (the) independent selfhood (of the community) has been folded back from the public domain to the interior space of the household, then further pushed back into the hidden depths of an inviolate, chaste, pure female body." Amrita Chacchi quotes from a paper by T. Sarkar (p. 94).

Being hidden in the household, a Muslim woman is seen as the individual who can easily become responsible for keeping alive Muslim personal law, which "became a symbol that was used by the Muslim political elite to bargain with the state, in the same way that ... the cow was used to symbolize Hindu identity." (p. 63). Muslim personal law is seen by most of the writers in this volume as out-of-date and inadequate to protect the rights of the weak in the secular state that is modern India. If Muslim men defer to it, they would lose out against their Hindu competitors who would strike a better bargain by resorting to secular law. Hence Muslim men have to live by double standards - they have to deal in interest and other forms of transaction forbidden in Islam. The Muslim woman, whose interaction is restricted to her closest relatives, is a different case. If she is the loser in a particular case it doesn't matter, since the winner would be a male (Muslim) relative. Therefore, the community looks up to the woman to preserve a system of law that is its collective identity, and that the men in the community cannot practically live by.

"Men state they cannot live by an asserted Islamic code because they must function in a society which does not accept that code as the dominant ethos," Elizabeth Mann writes in her case study of Aligarh." Women, however, by virtue of their apparent uninvolvement with "men's matters," i.e., the urban industrial economy, are expected to live by that code; thus their their behaviour sets a standard whereby the community as a whole may be judged." (p. 134)

No other event of our times could explain this point more clearly than the reaction of the "fundamentalists" against the old, destitute Muslim divorcee who secured her maintenance from her husband through a secular court in the mid 1980's. Incidentally, the Shah Bano controversy is mentioned by five of the writers in some detail. Through the Muslim Women's Bill (1986) which resulted out of this controversy, "the Muslim women were relegated to the status of second class citizens denying them the option to avail of redress under (the mainstream law of the state)... the government disregarded the views of many Muslim politicians, intellectuals and women's organizations who opposed the Bill, thus according legitimacy to a small fundamentalist section as sole representatives of the community," writes Zoya Hasan (p. 66-7)

The five essays by Shahida Lateef, Zoya Hasan, Amrita Chaachi, Kirti Singh and Maintrayee Mukhopadhyay outline the development of legal systems in India (1775 - 1986), and reinforce the idea that the problems of Muslim women should be reviewed in the socio-economic and political context. "The fact that the Bill uses the community as the mediator is not just due to political expediency, but reflects the tension within the Indian State between its avowal of an inherently contradictory notion of secularism, the rhetoric of equal rights for women, the demands of a developing capitalist economy and the pressures of Hindu nationalism." (Amrita Chaachi, p. 94). The arugment can be taken even further: it is not just the existing socio-political scene which affects the lives of the women through legislation but also the other way round. "The process has led to the production of Muslim male and female identities as distinct from and in 'otherness' to the Hindu, and has taken place at the expense of women's material interests." This statement by Elizabeth Mann (p. 125) seems to be directly linked with the assertion of Amrita Chaachi: "This existing patriarchal / communal legal system forms the context in which the recent upsurge in communalism, the emergence of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh fundamentalist groups and the significance of women and the family as markers of identity, can be located." (p. 83)

There is yet another layer to the discourse of identity: the representation of Muslim women in mainstream Hindi cinema (discussed by Mukul Kesavan), the "Muslim social" genre of the cinema (Fareed Kazmi) and in the anti Muslim literature of "India's most extensive non-party Hindu nationalist orgabnisation, the Rashtriya Swayansevak Sangh", or RSS (Paola Bacchetta).

"For the RSS, the mosque is a phallic symbol which colonises the Hindu Mother (land)" ... Bacchetta writes to demonstrate the connection between the RSS literature and the sexual violence against the Muslim women in the communal riots." The restoration of Hindu male virility, and symbolic Hindu feminine purity, requires the demolition of the mosque, that is, the symbolic castration of the Muslim male. The Hindu nationalist cannot further retaliate by desecrating equivalent Muslim feminine symbols because there aren't any, and so he desecrates the real, material woman."

All three articles in this part of the book are compulsory reading for those who are particularly interested in the interpretation of cultural artifact.

And, the last question - the solution to the problems. Must the Indian Muslims renounce their religious identity if they want to prosper in a nationalistic India and if their women have to get fair treatment? The answer, according to Zoya Hasan, seems to be a resounding yes: "Readiness (on part of the Muslim leadership) by overcoming their acute defensiveness about community women's rights and strengthen the forces of secularism, modernity and the uniqueness of India's pluralism."

Amrita Chaachi points towards another direction "...a sustained South Asian alliance and the dissemination of a South Asian perspective... are essential since the issues of democratization, decentralization and women's rights are integrally linked in the region, even as communalism, fundamentalism and militarism in each country are enhanced by similar trends in the neighbouring ones. The construction of a South Asian identity night well overcome the present chauvinist, xenophobic bias of national and communal identities."

The collection is a testimony to the superior skills of the editor: none of the essays could have conveyed all the meaning that they do in this collection if read individually. This is editing as an art form...

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