KARACHI: There exist multiple narratives when it comes to understanding the plight of Muslim women in India. This was one of the points made by Dr Nida Kirmani during her talk on the topic of ‘Questioning the Muslim Woman: Identity and Insecurity in an Urban Indian Locality’ at T2F on Tuesday evening.
Dr Kirmani, who teaches sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, did her PhD on the subject in 2007 and feels that what she was able to discover while researching in Delhi is still relevant. She made it amply clear at the start of the programme that the lecture shouldn’t be considered as an act of India-bashing because such parallels could also be drawn in Pakistani society where religious minorities live in fear.
Dr Kirmani said Muslims in India are the second-largest Muslim population in the world. When she began her research she wanted to unpack certain assumptions because Muslim women were recognised by a stifling burqa-clad image. The image has been exploited by powerful groups (for example, western democracies) as an excuse to make interventions in Muslim countries. As her research progressed she realised that she needed to move away from set assumptions and de-centre the Muslim woman to uncover how their identities worked.
Dr Kirmani chose one locality Zakir Nagar, Delhi, in the Muslim belt near Jamia Millia Islamia University to explore the diversity of Muslim women. She termed Zakir Nagar a ‘microcosm of Muslims’ because Muslims from many parts of India — Bihar, UP, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Kashmir, etc — inhabited it. Towards the back of the area (along the Jamna river) were the slums. She spent a year in Zakir Nagar and interviewed between 60 and 70 Muslim women and men. Since her family is from Lucknow and she lived in Karachi and studied in the United States, she felt both like an insider and an outsider there.
Delhi is a partition city, which means it shaped by events of the subcontinent’s partition. There are Muslim ghettos or mohallas in the city, and most Muslim majority areas in India are called ‘mini Pakistan’, which are popping up all over India. Before partition there were 33 per cent Muslims in Delhi, after partition the number was reduced to 5.7pc and now they are about 12pc. The question is: whether Muslims have chosen or enforced to live in the areas that they live in? If they’ve chosen it, the areas could be called enclaves; if enforced, they could be known as ghettos. Each mini Pakistan has a certain social composition.
Zakir Nagar narrated a sense of insecurity. But people living there couldn’t be considered as a homogenous group. There are complexities of identity construction since there are multiple narratives. The first chapter of Dr Kirmani’s book based on her thesis deals with Zakir Nagar’s residents’ narratives where they talk about the existence of ‘Muslim mahol’ (Muslim environment). If there were more Hindus, the environment would be Hindu. But then it’s different for different people because the basic issue was the issue of insecurity. Certain people laid stress upon the freedom of (religious) practice and acculturating children, however, it wasn’t a unified community as not everyone was privileged — the working class women had moved to Zakir Nagar because of work. Then there were women like Farheen who didn’t believe in religious difference.
The next chapter of her book deals with the element of fear. There’s an increasing insecurity among Muslims in India, no matter what stratum of society they come from. Essentially it’s the fear of communal violence. History, memory and insecurity have inculcated fear in them. There are partition memories which colour their choices. The Sikh massacre (1984) which suggests it could happen to them as well. The 1992 Babri Masjid riots, the most important event, shifted demographics and caused the emergence of mini Pakistans. And the Gujarat pogrom which has had a huge impact on them. In terms of gender, sexual violence that happened during communal attacks too has put fear in the hearts of Muslim women. But the fear of poor women is a bit different as what weighs on their minds is whether their jhuggis (huts) would be demolished. So it’s not just religion, but class is also at play. Housing discrimination is another issue where Muslims can’t buy or rent property. Then there’s the problem of mistrust which runs across the religious boundary and the fact that Muslims’ loyalties are constantly questioned (such as during cricket matches) has contributed to the whole situation.
The subject of pardah has varying meanings for women coming from different backgrounds. With regard to gender, patriarchy is still there and older women themselves perpetuate it. Some Muslim women feel that they are better than their mothers’ generation.
Dr Kirmani emphasised that she would like to avoid analytical closure and in order to have a better understanding of the subject, the process should be taken as ‘context-bound’. The current situation is that there’s a continuing growth of Muslim enclaves and a process of ‘forgetting the past’ has also begun. At the same time what happened in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 suggests the story is not over.
After the talk Dr Kirmani answered questions put to her by members of the audience.
Replying to a query, she said the class issue of Muslim women is interwoven in the text of her research.
She doesn’t see elite Muslim women in Zakir Nagar. It’s the middleclass women that have more space and mobility.