Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Claiming Their Space: Muslim Women-Led Networks and the Women's Movement in India

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Claiming Their Space: Muslim Women-Led Networks and the Women's Movement in India

Article excerpt


The Shah Bano case of the 1980s was a landmark in the discourse on 'Muslim women's rights' in India. At this time, however, few Muslim women actually participated in the debates, which were dominated by male religious leaders and politicians or by 'secular' women's groups, which had scant Muslim representation. Since the 1980s several Muslim-women led organisations have emerged in urban areas across the country, some of which have formed networks to advocate for Muslim women's rights. This article looks at the emergence of two networks in particular, the Muslim Women's Rights Network (MWRN) and the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), both of which were established during the last ten years. These networks have different but overlapping ideological bases, priorities and strategies. They both aim to challenge the authority of the Muslim religious leadership, represented by institutions such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. They also offer a critique of the mainstream women's movement, either from within the movement or from outside, as not having given sufficient space to the perspectives of women from marginalised communities. Both networks are engaged in struggles to reformulate power relations at the local and national levels, thus challenging the dominant conception of Muslim women as a passive, homogenous group with a common set of interests. Rather, the MWRN and the BMMA demonstrate new forms of political agency and are creating a space for a conceptualisation of identities that complicates the dichotomy between religious and gender-based interests and aims to reconcile the two in a manner that protects and promotes women's rights without denying the importance of religious identity.

Key Words: Muslim women, Indian women's movement, Muslim women's rights.


The rights of Muslim women have increasingly been highlighted by the media, politicians, and various interest groups, both internationally and in individual countries, in the post-9/11 context. 'Muslim women', as a constructed category, have been used symbolically as pawns in the global war on terror (see Hirchkind and Mahmood 2002; Abu-Lughod 2002; Cooke 2008) as well as in national disputes between groups vying for political power. This is no less true in India, where the history of the discursive manipulation of the category 'Muslim women' stretches further back into the colonial period and through to the rise of Hindu right-wing parties in more recent times (Kirmani 2009). However, despite the symbolic import that 'Muslim women' have come to hold, until recently, it has been rare that the actual voices of Muslim women themselves are heard in debates about their own supposed oppression. However, the voices of Indian Muslim women, which are in no way uniform, are increasingly being raised individually and collectively, often alongside Muslim men and non-Muslim women, as part of organisations and networks in response to global and local challenges. These voices are reconstructing the category of 'Muslim women' on their own, often in competing and sometimes contradictory terms.

In India, what is known as 'the contemporary women's movement' (2) has been struggling for women's rights since the mid-70s and has organised around issues related to violence against women, employment, and political participation. In many cases the women's movement has come up against religious groups in their struggle to ensure gender equality, the most notable instance being during the Shah Bano case during the 1980s. (3) This case highlighted the difficulties of attempting to represent 'women' in a diverse and highly stratified society in which religious minorities were increasingly becoming the targets of political and physical assaults at the hands of the Hindu Right. (4) Furthermore, the Shah Bano case called into question the women's movement's own secular strategy as the nation became increasingly polarised along religious lines. …

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