NOORJEHAN SAFIA NIAZ, 48 Founder, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan
Four years after she founded the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) with Zakia Soman to encourage women to fight for their rights, Noorjehan Safia Niaz and a few other members of the BMMA visited the Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai in 2011. The women entered the inner sanctum of the centuries-old shrine built off the coast in the Arabian Sea, prayed and left. However, a year later, when they went again, they were stopped from going inside. A new rule barred their entry into the inner sanctum. Niaz, a PhD from the Yashwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University and an Ashoka fellow, tried reasoning with the trustees, but could not convince them. “They said, that according to the Sharia, women aren’t allowed and we had made a mistake all these years by allowing entry inside,” she says. Shocked by this gender-based discrimination, Niaz led the BMMA to approach the state government’s minority affairs ministry and women’s commission. Not making any headway, she decided to go to court. “It was a violation of the Right to Equality as laid down in our Constitution,” she says. Lawyers were difficult to find; while some refused to take up a religious matter, others accepted and then backed out. After meeting a dozen lawyers, Niaz found someone to represent them in court. After multiple hearings, the court finally ruled in their favour, striking down the ban as unconstitutional, and directing the dargah trust to open its doors to women.
The two-year journey was full of challenges. “People ridiculed us, some called us unIslamic, some said we were set up by the RSS and funded by right-wing parties. But all we wanted was to get equal rights in a place of worship,” she says. Niaz was surprised to find even some feminist groups refusing to support them. “Some people said menstruating women are impure,” she says.
The court’s verdict, she says, has helped other women’s groups to challenge discrimination in religion. “Religion is not the domain of men; women are equal before god. For long, religion has been thought of as a monopoly of men and a certain section of society as being the only ones who can interpret religious texts. We are only demanding equal rights within this religious framework,” says Niaz who has been working with marginalised sections of Muslim women for over a decade. With members in more than 15 states, the BMMA is fighting against triple talaq and polygamy and for the need of a Muslim family law that ends gender discrimination.