Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

India Elections 2019: Skills give young Muslim women sense of power

Leadership-building teaches Muslim women conversational English, spreads awareness about gender equality

Aisha Khatoon, third from left, works on a video editing project at an institute in Lucknow. Jitendra Prakash for The National
Aisha Khatoon, third from left, works on a video editing project at an institute in Lucknow. Jitendra Prakash for The National

Young Muslim women in India are carving out new spaces, setting aside traditional roles and challenging gender stereotypes as they step out to open their own businesses or study further.

Inside a dilapidated building in an old quarter of the north Indian city of Lucknow, a group of girls from less privileged backgrounds have gathered to learn photography and video skills.

On the walls, black and white caricatures show girls firmly shutting the kitchen door behind them as they set out for college.

“This is not just about shooting photographs but about changing attitudes. People dismiss girls saying we don’t have technical skills for a job but as we talk, a lot of things become clear,” said Aisha Khatoon, 32, who teaches computer and videography classes.

“Society is fine if girls understand technical things inside the house. They want us to learn how to use a food mixer, a washing machine. But skills outside the house can also be part of our identity like holding a mike, a camera, making a film based on our ideas. There is a power we feel in our hands that cannot be taken away from us.”

Hameeda Khatoon teaches young Muslim women photography and video editing in the north Indian city of Lucknow. Jitendra Prakash for The National
Hameeda Khatoon teaches young Muslim women photography and video editing in the north Indian city of Lucknow. Jitendra Prakash for The National

Aspiring lawyers, judges, teachers, the girls aged 18 to 30, are part of a leadership-building programme for young Muslims where they learn conversational English and engage in discussions on women’s rights.

The group is affiliated to the Bebaak Collective or the Voice of the Fearless, a coalition of women’s organisation that began as an informal reading group six years ago in Mumbai, the country’s financial capital.

It has since spread to more than a dozen states including Uttar Pradesh where conversations about empowerment, rights within marriage, sexual harassment, domestic violence blend with discussions on equal opportunities for the minority community.

The talk veers to the need for politicians in the ongoing general elections to focus on employment and better access to education.

Ms Khatoon, 32, does not mince words when she calls for the nationalist agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to include every-day concerns.

“It is fine to talk of nationalism and say ‘Jai Bharat (Long live India)’ but what about the common issues we face about education, jobs, clean drinking water and good roads?”

The Muslim community has the highest illiteracy rate of the country patchwork of communities at 42.7 per cent – it surpasses the national average of 36.9 per cent, according to a census in 2011.

Hindus have the second highest proportion of illiteracy at 36.3 per cent.

The illiteracy rate among Muslim women is even higher at 48.1 per cent, followed by Hindu women at 44 per cent with the numbers for Christian women far lower at 28.03 per cent.

Sumbul Khan, a law student with ambitions of becoming a judge, is part of an effort to change the dismal statistics.

Tacked on the centre’s white walls, her caricature portrays a girl who dreams of studying while preparing unending meals in the family kitchen. She said her drawing represented all women.

“Girls are dominated in the Muslim community and in other communities too and pushed into household roles. Here we talk about gender perception and how there is so little equality for girls. We learn about prostitution, marital rape and our rights. I believe women should have all information available to them,” said the 22-year-old started coming to the centre to improve her computer skills.

“Girls who are not taught technology are girls who are left behind. We need to learn the basics like Excel, PowerPoint so we have a chance outside.”

The girls come from families supportive of their education and career goals.

They are keen to reverse census data that shows 13.5 per cent of Muslim women are married before they turn 15, and close to 49 per cent get married between 14 and 19 years of age.

Hameeda Khatoon, 32, is the director of the women’s centre and runs a film studio that shoots wedding videos with a twist.

The three-hour long colourful ceremony also features the bride’s take on relationships.

“In most videos, no one talks to the bride. She just looks down shy, when pictures are taken. We decided that in our films we will not just have a crying bride and a smiling groom. We ask the bride what she thinks of the ties she is entering into, what does her mother think?”

The Bebaak-affiliated centre also addresses gender-based stereotypes with documentary films such as ‘Shame’ about sexuality and ‘Kabul Hain (Do you Agree)’ about marriage.

“We speak about how uncomfortable we are talking about our desires, our body. In one film, young women discuss how the ring on your finger can become a restriction.”

The girls come in to learn media skills and are also given information on current affairs from the cow slaughter ban in many Indian states, mob lynching of Muslims suspected of eating beef or killing a cow and the triple talaq or divorce practice struck down by India’s Supreme Court.

The aim is to equip women with information when they head out to vote in the elections spread out until May 19.

“Sometimes girls just follow what their parents say. We talk to them about the power of that vote. They get a voice with their vote,” she said.

The Bebaak Collective was among the petitioners who successfully challenged the validity of triple talaq, a form of divorce that allowed Muslim men to dissolve their marriage by saying the word talaq (divorce) three times.

The practice is banned in many Muslim countries but was common in India where women have been abandoned sometimes via a text message.

India’s Supreme Court ruled last year that the triple talaq was unconstitutional.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government drafted a bill criminalising the practice and allowing for the imprisonment of men who continued to follow triple talaq.

Hasina Khan, Bebaak’s founder, said sending men to prison was not a solution. She has called political parties to look beyond the triple talaq ban and focus on women’s rights.

“We welcome the abolition of triple talaq but it will not end discrimination faced by Muslim women. We want political parties to look at protection and maintenance of divorced women. They need social security, should be entitled to property rights from their parents and their husband,” she said.

The group recently released a manifesto that framed 39-points calling for a law against mob lynching, reservation of seats for women in parliament, access to safe homes and rehabilitation of victims of domestic and other forms of violence, training and sensitization of police and state authorities in dealing with women.

“It’s important for us to have a collective voice. Politicians look at all Muslims as one vote bank. Maybe now they will realise they should talk to Muslim women separately and ask what we need,” Ms Khan said.

Updated: May 7, 2019 07:10 PM

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