Quran does not discriminate against women. Wherever Quran talks of establishing prayer, it addresses both men and women. At 59 places, Quran asks men and women to establish prayer. The Prophet instructed men not to stop women from going to mosques. Quran says prayer can be offered in private but it can only be established (and perfected) in a group, in a congregation. The situation at the ground level in our country is totally different.
Mosques have been reduced to a male monopoly. It stems both from lack of understanding of Islamic principles and well-entrenched patriarchal forces. Indian men forget that when the azaan (prayer call) is pronounced from mosque, both men and women are invited. How can you turn down somebody after extending an invitation? And when it comes to Hadiths (record of Prophet’s sayings and traditions), they pick and choose according to their convenience. The men remind women that the best prayer for them is offered at home, but forget that the Prophet never stopped women from going to a mosque for prayers.
There is no contradiction. No commentator of Quran, be it Abul Ala Mawdudi, or Israr Ahmed, or contemporaries like Yasir Qadhi and Nouman Ali Khan have ever asked women not to go to a mosque. In fact, in Delhi, at the headquarters of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, founded by Mawdudi, there is a separate section for women. Every Friday, one can see women going for prayer there.
The problem lies with the local maulanas who understand little of Quran. In fact, most Indian Muslims do not understand Quran in Arabic and do not read the translation. In Kerala where more Muslims know Arabic than in north India things are different. Hundreds of mosques make provision for women in Kerala.
Historical trajectory of Muslim women’s rights in India
The condition of Muslim women was much better in medieval India. During the Sultanate age there were hundreds of madrassas where girls were educated. Even many slave girls had become Quran haafiz – one who had memorised Quran.
In the Mughal age we have evidence of women building madrassas and mosques. At the time of nikaah, many women put terms and conditions in the nikaahnama. Like the marriage won’t end via instant triple talaq and the husband won’t marry again without her permission. In post-Independence India, religion has become a monopoly of men. There are much fewer Islamic seminaries for women. Triple talaq came to be accepted and women began to be kept out of mosques. No longer do we see women dictating nikaahnamas.
I see this huge dichotomy between what Islam preached and what many of our maulanas and other men practised. For instance, when a Muslim man goes for Hajj or Umrah, he takes his wife, mother or daughter along. They perform the pilgrimage together in Mecca. They go to the Prophet’s mosque in Medina where both men and women have clearly marked halls. They worship together at the same time. But when the same man comes back to India, he leaves his wife and mother behind at home when he goes to a local mosque for prayer. What is applicable to mosques across West Asia is applicable here too.
Islam was a reformation of Arab society.
When the Prophet came, the girl child used to be buried alive in the Arab world, much like we have female infanticide in the form of termination of the female child in the womb. Similarly, men used to have endless number of wives and divorces at that time. Islam put an end to it by limiting the number of divorces to three, the third one being irrevocable. It also put the ceiling at four wives with clear terms and conditions. It does not mean that every man has to have four wives. The permission granted came with a rider: be equitable and just between them. That is a tall order for any man.
What prevents Muslim community from making more space for women?
The problem is more structural. The mosques are designed by men, for men. When mosques are built, women do not figure in the scheme of things. At some places, where women do come for prayers, the section is well removed from the main hall, often with faulty audio system. It has zero provision for ablution, etc. Fortunately, women, who had been indoctrinated for long, are beginning to speak up. We have the case of woman scholar Farhat Hashmi giving her own independent commentary of Quran. Initially, she was criticised by maulanas. As she gained her voice, they fell silent!
The fact is women have not been denied by religion. Who are men to deny? If the court takes a decision based on Quran, the women will be on a sound footing. If it takes it with the Constitution in mind, they will still be well placed. I do not foresee any stalemate.