Soul Sis­ter­hood

NOOR­JE­HAN SAFIA NIAZ, 48 Founder, Bharatiya Mus­lim Mahila An­dolan

India Today - - COVER STORY - —Aditi Pai

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.

Noor­je­han Safia Niaz

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