The central concern of this paper is to understand the processes through which community identities have been created 1 in modern India, the manner in which gender and community intersect with each other and the way in which these two elements interact with government policy. It highlights the mutual complementarity of the government and religious leadership in reinforcing community identity and the effect of this mutualism on legal reform. The paper explores these questions in relation to the debates about personal law and legal reform generated by the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case, its meaning and strategic importance for minority identity, women's equality and secularism.
The main argument that emerges is that religious ideology and leadership do more than legitimise patriarchal practices; they play a vital role in the construction of "Muslim identity", projected as a codifiable phenomenon with specific doctrinal commitments of personal law, that distinguish Muslims from others. This misdescription and misconception of community identity constitutes a specific legal and political commitment to the "unity of Islam" and is designed to hegemonise the Muslim community through a set of common religious symbols. What is more this narrow construction of community identity is strengthened by government policies which continually reaffirm support for practices and institutions that see identity as a code of principles. From the standpoint of women the difficulty lies in the constant emphasis on the unity of community identity, defined in terms of family codes, which restricts the articulation of gender interests within the terms of reference set by a specific identity discourse; whatever rights they might have achieved are thus sacrificed at the altar of "Muslim identity".