On Sept 4, 2005, when rigid Muslim conservatives decided to capitalise on tennis star Sania Mirza’s surging fame by issuing diktats against her ‘un-Islamic attire’, many voices rose in outraged protest. Of all these, the decisive stand taken by the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat Committee (TNMWJC), Pudukottai, was the most significant. A well knit network of 15,000 women spread across Tamil Nadu’s 26 districts, the TNMWJC consists of a veritable mix of Muslim women, rural and urban, burkha-clad and non-burkha clad, all on a simple mission – reclaiming their own destinies.
"If Islamic law says a woman is not supposed to wear such clothes then they should know the same law also forbids dowry, alcoholism and incest," Daud Sharifa Khanam, founder and committee member of TNMWJC, was quick to respond. In a bold public stand that cost them many anxious moments in the weeks that followed, this feisty group of Muslim women refused to cave in. Their stance raised some fundamental issues vis-à-vis the plight of Muslim women. The same male jamaat, so keen to lay down the law as far as women’s clothing is concerned, has repeatedly turned a blind eye to gross injustices against women.
"…These (local-level) jamaats promote dowry and even use force to ensure a share in it. Why don’t they stop these practices first if they’re concerned about living according to Islamic law? They’re not even concerned that this young girl (Sania) has become a symbol of national pride," Sharifa added. "Jamaats are worried less about Muslim women seeking alms in front of mosques and dargahs than about whether they beg with or without the purdah on."
Independent of the Sania Mirza issue, the TNMWJC had planned a protest meet/hunger strike in Tuticorin, Thuthukudi district, on September 23, 2005, to address issues concerning tsunami victims. Using the TNMWJC’s stand on Mirza as a convenient excuse, the local Theraspuram Mazidthe Muhathaas jamaat and allied organisations tried to disrupt the protest through threats, intimidation, slanderous speeches and posters. Earlier that month, the male-dominated jamaat and its supporters had also attempted to stop a meeting held jointly by STEPS – a sister organisation – and the TNMWJC, to discuss the ongoing plight of about 500 Muslim women victims of the tsunami. Police help was sought to ensure that the meeting proceeded as scheduled although it took several determined efforts before the police registered a complaint.
In the wake of the tsunami in December last year, STEPS and the TNMWJC received a number of petitions from Thuthukudi, one of Tamil Nadu’s most populous coastal districts, alleging various inadequacies and dehumanising aspects in the jamaat’s tsunami relief and rehabilitation measures. STEPS selected a member of the TNMWJC, Zubaida Begum of Theraspuram, Thuthukudi, to verify these claims. A STEPS team also visited the district to monitor the complaints and a public hearing of the victims and the destitute was arranged. As part of a long-term strategy to empower the women of these communities, a day-long hunger fast was planned for September 23 to draw attention to the lacunae in relief and rehabilitation work.
This is not the first time that the women’s group have ruffled the feathers of a status quo-ist and conservative male community leadership. Threatening posters, announcements and a vicious media campaign preceded the TNMWJC’s third state-level meeting at Dindigul near Madurai in June 2005. Significantly, though Tamil Nadu is home to many secular progressive organisations and groups, many of these have maintained a careful distance from the TNMWJC and its brave effort, barely offering them any support.
Members of the Theraspuram male jamaat attempted to disrupt the hunger fast programme from the outset, refusing to let ‘their people’ participate in the event, and started off by tearing down posters pasted all over the district, dubbing the hunger fast ‘un-Islamic’. They even attempted to physically threaten and intimidate Zubaida Begum, phoning her home to warn of serious consequences if she continued her work, and later sending her hate mail, warning of suspension from the jamaat if she persisted with her plans.
On September 21 and 22, the jamaat used the loudspeakers of the local Jamia mosque to declare