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Zakia Soman:‘Bilkis had to struggle.The killers have been treated leniently by the state’

Zakia on Bilkis and how the hijab keeps women down

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: Sep. 28, 2022
Updated: Oct. 28, 2022

THE rights of Muslim women are as fragile as ever before. An unsettling reminder of the challenges they face is the remission of sentences given to the rapists and killers of Bilkis Bano and her family, during the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

Zakia Soman, 57, who has been in the forefront of speaking up for Muslim women, says it is an article of faith for her and other activists of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) to oppose the remission.

But this is for them just one more long battle in the journey which began in 2007 when they sought an end to triple talaq by which Muslim men can end a marriage by saying the word talaq three times.

In 2017, the Supreme Court finally deemed triple talaq as being against the Indian Constitution. Two years later, the NDA government at the Centre passed a law banning it. But with Bilkis’ wounds now being reopened by the recent remission, it is clear that much remains to be done for Muslim women’s rights.

For Soman, the 2002 riots were a defining moment. She walked out of her marriage and left her job as a lecturer to work in relief camps and help traumatized Muslim women and their families rebuild their disrupted lives. “I was not so acutely conscious of my Muslim identity till I started working with survivors in the relief camps. I understood then the burden of being a Muslim and having a name which can play havoc in your life,” says Soman.

It was not as though she hadn’t experienced communal violence in a personal sense. “For three generations we have seen communal riots. My granny’s home was on what we call the ‘border’ in Ahmedabad — the place where the Muslim elaka ends and the Hindu area begins. Her home used to get burned down during riots.” During L.K. Advani’s Somnath rath yatra in 1990, Soman’s parents’ home was burned down too. 

But the violence of the Gujarat riots was different. Soman plunged into social activism and in 2007, with three others, founded the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), an informal grouping of volunteers, to fight for the rights of Muslim women. It spread to 15 states and attracted more than 100,000 volunteers.

The BMMA shot into the limelight for its spirited campaign against triple talaq. The women took on conservative clerics, members of the Muslim Personal Law Board and political parties keen to pick up the conservative Muslim vote. They approached the Supreme Court on a matter that till then was regarded as an internal issue of the Muslim community to be settled by clerics.

But, since then the Muslim women’s movement has had to change tack. Instead of fighting for women’s rights and social reform, it has had to battle the unceasing onslaught against the community in an atmosphere of hatred and discrimination.

“Our work got disrupted during the COVID pandemic, but we are there in 10 states. New members, mostly young women, have joined. They are very active on gender justice, human rights, communalism and on building a mutually peaceful society,” says Soman, still earnest and with an unsubduable attitude.

We spoke to her on the troubling implications of the release of the men convicted in the Bilkis Bano case and the ongoing atmosphere of intimidation that the Muslim community faces.


Q: The release of the rapists and killers of Bilkis Bano and her family has been shocking. How will your organization counter this action by the state? 

This action by the state is reprehensible legally, morally and ethically. It is shocking beyond words. Remission in law is a kind of affirmative provision. It has been abused to pardon mass murderers and rapists who have committed crimes against humanity. They killed 14 people, including two infants. Apart from Bilkis they gang raped three other women — her mom and two of her sisters-in-law. This unethical and questionable move by the state has been done to facilitate the politics of polarization. We all know elections are due later this year (in Gujarat).

We immediately demanded that this remission be rescinded. Bilkis has really struggled to get justice and it came after so many years. Even though she got the verdict in her favour and she got compensation from the Supreme Court, it’s not as if her life has been easy. She has had to run around. She has been hiding, going from one place to another. Her entire life, with her children, her husband, her family, has been a life on the run.

The criminals, on the other hand, have been treated very leniently by the state. They’ve been coming out on parole off and on and that has been terrorizing not just for Bilkis and her family but the entire minority population in Randhikpur (Bilkis Bano's village in Gujarat).

As soon as the men were freed all the families left the village and migrated. That’s the kind of fear there is because there has been a lot of coercion, pressure and open support from political quarters.

So, it’s a dark day for Indian democracy. And it happened on August 15. The prime minister talked about nari shakti and the rapists were pardoned.


Q: In such an extreme situation what happens to an organization like yours. How do you speak for your constituency?

We held demonstrations in different cities. We are part of ongoing efforts by civil society groups called Justice for Bilkis. We know that it’s not actions by one or two groups that will yield results. Pressure has to be maintained on a sustained basis. Wherever we have a presence we are participating and leading with local civil society groups.

For us this is a matter of our core commitment. We are a Muslim women’s organization and justice for Bilkis and her family is a core objective and a lived struggle we are all part of.


Q: During every election the BJP tries to woo the Muslim women’s vote. They passed legislation banning triple talaq too. What has been its impact?

The law is still very new. Even if it’s not the best of laws, it is a kind of measure. It was brought about in a hurry, without consultation, really. It’s early days. Laws, to have an effect on the ground, take much longer in our country.

Our experience is that in most places the police is not yet aware of the law although the incidence of triple talaq has gone down drastically.  That’s thanks to the judgment of the Supreme Court which declared triple talaq null and void and also equally due to the campaign against triple talaq. The women made fellow Muslims aware of the fact that the Koran nowhere sanctions this kind of triple talaq. That huge community education was done by ordinary women.

I need to say this: conservative clergy failed to bring out this basic truth all these decades, that divorce has to happen in a just and fair manner and that instant unilateral triple talaq is nowhere sanctioned in the Koran. This education was done by ordinary women and not by the clerics or the so-called Muslim Personal Law Board. It has had a huge impact within the community. We meet so many Muslim men who say I don’t want to commit this gunah, jo Allah ne hi ijaazat nahin di.


Q: Has it led to the liberation of Muslim women?

I don’t agree with this whole pitch of liberation of Muslim women. Liberation comes from within, when a person stands up, empowers herself, raises her voice and fights for her rights. Liberation can’t be imposed from outside.

Nevertheless, any elected government is duty-bound to uphold the constitutional principles of gender justice and gender equality which, to be very fair, the Centre did by filing an affidavit supporting the abolition of triple talaq. The logic given was that instant triple talaq is not legal in almost 25 Muslim countries and suggesting that it is not an essential practice of Islam. It was a good affidavit and it really helped in the abolition of triple talaq as far as the Supreme Court was concerned.

Beyond that it is all politics. We know that no political party, unfortunately, is a champion of women’s rights. They are all patriarchal, misogynist, full of stereotypes and their mindsets are anti-women.

It is laughable, this talk of emancipation of Muslim women. Muslim personal law reform is just one of the issues faced by Muslim women. They are also part of the family and the community. At a time when there is so much religious polarization and hate, how can you pick triple talaq? It’s pathetic.


Q: How has this overall atmosphere of intimidation affected women?

I’d like to qualify that we have always had incidents of communalism and communal riots in different parts of the country and under various Congress regimes as well.

We have also always had marginalization in education, lack of jobs in the government, in the army, in the formal sector. We are economically marginalized. These are figures from evidence put forward by the Sachar Committee, appointed by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It has always been more about politics than engagement in general welfare.

But now the kind of hate and ideologically driven onslaught on the Muslim community we face in broad daylight with impunity by those affiliated with the party in power is unprecedented.

The so-called love jihad law criminalizes two persons from different faiths marrying. If the man is Muslim, invariably he is immediately arrested, his family is harassed and so is his wife or fiancée. Then, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).  Our Constitution gives equal rights to all irrespective of caste, faith, religion or geography. There is now a kind of official backing given to the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims. And that has led to almost near total disenfranchisement of the Muslim community socially, economically, and politically.

When no tickets are given to Muslim candidates for Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, we are sending out a message that our own people, our own citizens are the hated other. We are demonizing our own people.

Under the circumstances it is very difficult to raise core personal law related issues. When we were working against triple talaq from 2010 onwards, the run-up years from 2012 onwards were very important. A lot of Muslim women took part and hundreds spoke out about what they had gone through due to triple talaq. Women from other faiths and even men supported them.

All that is not possible now. Even if a woman is facing injustice, she will not come out to speak because she knows the kind of onslaught her community is facing right now. So, it’s a huge setback in that sense.


Q: There have also been strident protests against the hijab in Karnataka. What is your perception?

The hijab issue is an important part of our work. I’m very clear about this — that the hijab is a patriarchal imposition. It is not mandatory for Muslim women. If that were the case, then all the Muslim women in the world would be in hijab. Even now, when the hijab fashion is at its peak, hardly 30 to 40 percent of our women are in hijab. The fact is our grandmothers did not wear the hijab. They used to cover their heads with a dupatta or a sari during religious occasions like ziyarat or a funeral or dua. Some elderly women used to cover their heads permanently. But not with the hijab.

This has come to India about 15 to 20 years ago. The veil is an Arab import. It is not part of our culture. It has been imposed.

But it is equally wrong and discriminatory to single out girls in hijab and not allow them to enter the classroom. So many MPs sit in Parliament in bhagua (saffron). A chief minister wears saffron to his office. He is celebrated. You have no shikayat against them.

So why do you have a problem with a girl going to school or college with her head covered? You are singling out the girls and denying them the right to education which is a fundamental right. The uniform can never be more important than education. That is a flimsy, technical argument. I’m sure it will not stand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court. 

Muslim girls too need to think why this insistence on hijab. It’s a matter of choice. I respect it but I'm sure as more  girls get educated, economically independent and empowered they will ask these questions.

Post the Gujarat riots a lot of our volunteers were in the burkha and today none of them wears a burkha. It is a journey for a woman to discover herself, empower herself, discover her strengths. Then her own choices come to the fore. I am hoping that will happen.


Q: Is it preventing girls from going to school or college?

Definitely.  In Udupi and nearby districts of Karnataka a lot of girls have dropped out en masse. Girls who turned up in hijab to write their exams were denied entry into the hall.  Some girls agreed to remove the hijab. But some girls who perhaps came from very conservative backgrounds where it is unthinkable to remove the hijab in public, chose to skip the exams. A crucial exam like Class 10 or 12 was missed.

As it is, the dropout rate is very high in the Muslim community in Class 10 or 12 as per the Sachar Committee report. Conservative parents in the mohalla who are not able to withstand social pressure remove the girl from school and then get her married two or three years later. It’s a huge disservice being done by the Karnataka state government to the education of Indian girls and their future. It is a violation of the spirit of the Constitution.


Q: Is it because of parental pressure that girls wear the hijab or is it that the girls feel more comfortable with it on, or is it a form of identity for them?

Actually, it’s very nuanced. Lots of girls say they are comfortable with it. But look, there are little girls going to kindergarten, three or four years old, covered head to toe in the Arabian style, dressed in a hijab. Little girls should be running around, playing and cycling. But she isn’t given a chance and is bound like this from such a young age. She doesn’t then know the comfort of wearing a salwar-kurta without external covering.

This is a backward community which has been denied opportunities, educationally, economically and socially. It is a very conservative community which has been ghettoized.  If eight or 10 girls in the mohalla don’t wear the hijab, they will say your girls are roaming around with their heads uncovered, you’ve given them a lot of azadi. This is how social pressure works.  I’m sure this is how it works in every community.

There is also great dominance of the conservative ulema, those who read the namaz or are qazis. They are not scholars. They are usually people who don’t have a formal education or a worldview which is based on an understanding of human rights or gender equality.

 They may not have the correct understanding of Islam too. Islam relies hugely on interpretations to make itself understood and misinterpretations can also occur. Due to the realities around us, invariably interpretations tend to become misogynist and conservative and that’s why the incidence of hijab has gone up in the past 15 to 20 years.


Q: And it becomes entrenched?

Yes. Imagine you are living in a small town, say, in Udupi, and you are living in the Muslim mohalla. I don’t think there would be a single parent who could think of going against what is the widely accepted norm. When a girl attains puberty, she is expected to cover her head.

After the Gujarat riots, I was doing relief work in Ahmedabad. The displaced families were living in far-off places, so some girls were not able to go to school. We requested donors to donate bicycles for the girls. In the first week itself, when the girls started going to school on their cycles, the people in the makeshift mosque that had been set up created a huge hungama. Riots have taken place and you have given girls so much freedom to roam around on cycles, they said. Sharam nahin aati. Those mothers literally pulled the girls out of school. We had to fight with those people and counsel them.

Some families even thought of moving their homes again because they were stigmatized so much. The freedom of girls is so stigmatized in our community. You have to live in those mohallas and galis to realize what kind of pressure it can create on girls and their parents. This kind of politics has done long-term damage to the girls.


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