x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Indian protest at muftis' ban on women at work

Largest Islamic seminary in India rules that it is unlawful for women to work or interact with men if they do not wear veils.

Shakeela Begum, a fruit seller in Kolkata, says like her, most working Muslim women will ignore the fatwa.
Shakeela Begum, a fruit seller in Kolkata, says like her, most working Muslim women will ignore the fatwa.

KOLKATA // Indian Muslim leaders have united with working women and female students in opposition to a fatwa demanding they stay away from work, where men are around, if they cannot wear a veil.

In an unprecedented display of solidarity, many Muslim community leaders are joining hands with women and women's organisations across India to oppose the fatwa, claiming it is detrimental to the social and economic development of Muslim society. Shakeela Begum, who sells fruits and vegetable on a pavement in Kolkata, called the fatwa "ridiculous" and said that working-class Muslim women would "trash" the fatwa. "They are issuing such senseless fatwas without caring for the reality of most Muslims on the ground."

A journalist and expert on Muslim issues, Hasan Kamaal, attacked the clerics from the Deoband seminary saying that the anti-work fatwa had no place in India, where many Muslims are poor. Mr Kamaal, the editor of the Urdu daily Sahafat in Mumbai, said: "Muslims should ignore this fatwa and let the community females study and work like their counterparts are doing in developed societies elsewhere. A community can never develop if its women remain backward."

The fatwa was issued after someone who gave her name only as Ms Kaosar posted a query in March on the website of Darul-Ifta, which is the house of fatwas at the Darul Uloom Deoband Islamic seminary, asking: "Can Muslim women in India do government or private jobs? Will their salary be halal or haram?" A bench comprising three clerics, including Habib-ur-Rehman, the chief mufti of Darul Uloom Deoband, the country's largest Islamic seminary, replied on April 4: "It is unlawful for Muslim women to do jobs in government or private institutions where men and women work together and women have to talk with men frankly and without veil. Allah knows best."

Elaborating on the ruling, the clerics suggested that women working in any government or private institution create the potential for evil with men around so they should stop working outside their homes if they cannot wear a veil. The Deoband clerics have since said that they gave only an opinion on the issue and not a fatwa. "We had only given an opinion based on Sharia that women need to be properly covered in government and private offices," said Maulana Adnan Munshi, a spokesman for the Darul Uloom Deoband, a day after the fatwa became public.

Established in 1867, the Deoband seminary teaches from the conservative Hanafi school of thought, the dominant among the four Sunni schools of Islamic thought. Darul Uloom Deoband is often described as the most powerful and influential Islamic seminary in South Asia. But as soon as the fatwa became public last week, Muslim scholars, community leaders, female students and working women protested against it.

Mr Kamaal said the fatwa will be "completely ignored" by Indian Muslim women. Muslim girls are, in increasing numbers, looking for a modern education and nearly all of them dream of working in government offices, corporate houses, call centres and the like. In the past one or two decades, many of them have even begun working as professionals, contributing to the development of the community, which has long been known as poor and backward, Mr Kamaal said.

"This fatwa, as it appears, is directed to shackle these ambitious young Muslim women and keep the Muslims as a backward community. Muslims should fight this fatwa with utmost might as it would be the real fight for the cause of Islam." Some female Muslim leaders claimed that the fatwa reflected "male chauvinism in a new form". Shaista Ambar, the president of the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board in Lucknow, said: "After years of struggle, women have won 33 per cent reservation in India's parliament and assemblies. Muslim women are also going to share this reservation. "Talks are also going on to provide reservation for Muslims in government jobs. Obviously this fatwa is a conspiracy on the part of some [Muslim] men to deprive Muslim women from the benefits of these welcome changes.

Since the clerics cannot provide "a day's square meal for tens of thousands of destitute women and their families, they should not trouble them more by issuing a fatwa which tries to block the families' means of livelihood". Shakeela, the fruit seller, who dropped out of school at the age of 13 when her father could no longer afford the fees, said: "By pulling a rickshaw, my husband earns 3,000 rupees [Dh238] a month. I earn almost the equal amount and we spend more than 2,000 rupees to pay for the school fees and private tuition of our two daughters and one son. If I stop working, somehow we can manage our life, but the children have to drop out.

"For a better future of our children, I have to keep working. I cannot care for this fatwa: it is impossible for me to wear a veil in this business." The All India Milli Council, Raza Academy and All India Sunni Jamaitul Ulema, all religious Muslim organisations, supported the Darul Uloom fatwa to some degree. Moonisa Bushra Abedi of the Milli Council said: "It is unlawful to speak to male strangers without a veil. We all know how a woman is harassed at workplaces where men are present. If the women cover themselves well with a veil, risks of such untoward incidents will be minimised."

Tanuja Begum, a doctor in Calcutta Medical College and Hospital, said that by conforming to a hospital's dress code she cannot wear a veil, yet she thinks she is a good Muslim. "If I have a proper education of Islam, even being unable to wear a veil, I can confidently keep myself away from those potential evils the Darul Uloom clerics are talking about," Ms Begum said. @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae