Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

A Socio-Historical and Political Discourse on the Rights of Muslim Women: Concerns for Women's Rights or Community Identity (Special Reference to 1937 and 1939 Acts)

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

A Socio-Historical and Political Discourse on the Rights of Muslim Women: Concerns for Women's Rights or Community Identity (Special Reference to 1937 and 1939 Acts)

Article excerpt

Women's Movement and Undivided Agenda of Women's Rights

From the early 19th century, the status of women became an issue of concern for uppercaste male and upper-class Hindu reformers. Early efforts by the reformers were against certain customs such as sati and the sanctions against widow re-marriage which were detrimental to the status of women. Later, they tried to educate women and bring them into public life. However, Indian men who encouraged women's education and the formation of social organization did not like women raising their voices about the ills of patriarchy (Forbes 1998:93). The women's movement in India emerged during the 1920s. The two organizations namely: Women's Indian Organization formed in 1917 and the All India Women's Conference (henceforth AIWC) by the Indian National Congress, formed in 1927 focused on the issues specific to women and their social and legal disabilities. And thus, started demanding for women's rights to divorce inherit, and control over property. The Begum of Bhopal, in her second annual meeting of the All-India Women's Conference in Delhi in 1928, strongly appealed the women to avoid the religious divisions and urged to work in solidarity to improve the quality of women's education, and rights for women. She particularly supported the Sarda bill, then in the legislature. Despite Muslim leaders opposing the amendment of this Act (to exclude Muslims from this Act), the women's organisations tried to remained united on this issue. Muslim women members of the AIWC presented a memorial in support of the Sarda Act and told the Viceroy:

'We, speaking also on behalf of the Muslim women of India, assert that it is only a small section of Mussalman men who have been approaching your Excellency and demanding exemption from the Act. This Act affects girls and women far more than it affects men, and we deny their right to speak on our behalf (Forbes 1998:89).

In 1931, Begum Shahnawaz reiterated the need for women's unity and appealed to Hindu and Muslim women to work together for the benefit of all Indian women. Thus, the women's movement in India tried to develop a broader political, social and economic agenda in which legislative changes have been the cutting edge of induced social change. Abru Begam urged women to support the campaign to raise the age of consent for marriage in 1929. Begum Jehan Ara Shahnawaz, passed a resolution against polygamy in the session held at Lahore in 1918. She pointed out that Indian unity was only possible through its women, and in a message to south Indian women, she made an appeal that all women work together for the upliftment of Indian women.

The women's organisations categorically advocated the issues of inheritance, marriage and guardianship of children. The ultimate goal was to have a new law (Renuka Ray, AIWC Files no. 84) for all women, irrespective of caste or religion. Hence, all through the 1930s women's organisations formed committees on legal status, undertook studies of the laws, talked to lawyers, published pamphlets on women's position and encouraged various pieces of legislation to enhance women's status. However, women realized that all Assembly bills that were introduced during the 1930s, was a piecemeal approach to improving women's status. Also it became apparent that male reformers and women's organisations had differing concepts of women's legal needs. For instance, 'For Muslim reformers, considerations of women's position in the family and plans for women's education was more on household customs and rituals, of purdah, and of Islamic law as it pertained to women' (Minault,1998:6). But the women's organisations were more concerned with the rights and protection of women without being affected by other considerations. Women like Muthulakshmi, Renuka, Mrs. Damle and Hamid Ali were not satisfied with these piecemeal acts and wanted comprehensive legislation accompanied by social and economic change instead (Forbes 1998). …

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