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Curtained lives and stifled voices

Curtained lives and stifled voices

Pamela Philipose
The Indian Express
April 18, 2000
Title: Curtained lives and stifled voices
Author: Pamela Philipose
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: April 18, 2000

The purdah works both ways. It locks lives in, it locks lives out. Muslimwomen are truly the twice-forgotten, the minority within the minority. Whilestereotypes often based on prejudice proliferate, there is very littleaccurate knowledge about a community of women that number some 60 million.What are the specific problems they face? How do they cope with them? Whatare the safeguards provided by the law with regard to these women? Howeffectively are these laws being implemented?

It is to seek answers to these questions that the National Commission forWomen held special hearings with Muslim women from all over the country. Incities like Tezpur and Thiruvanathapuram, Chennai and Aligarh 13 venues inall meeting were held over a period of two and a half years. A reportbased on these hearings, `Voice of the Voiceless', was released a few daysago. While it is by no means a definitive account on the status of Muslimwomen in the country, it provides valuable clues to the reality of theselives.

The first aspect that came through was the overwhelming poverty that thesewomen had to contend with. The great majority of women who participated inthese hearings lived in crowded mohallas and fetid bastis. This is nosurprise, seeing that income levels among Muslims, as a community, was farlower than those in other religious communities. According to the IndiaHuman Development Report 1999, quoted in this document, the per capitaincome of Muslims in rural India was around Rs 3,678 as compared to Rs 4,514for Hindus.

What was also equally apparent in most human development surveys is therelatively lower participation of Muslim women in the workforce (around 16per cent as compared to 31 per cent for Hindu women). Literacy remainselusive for the great majority of Muslim girl children, whose lives continueto be dominated, not by the 3 `R's but by the 3 `C's: choola, chaadar andchaardeewari (the stove, the purdah and the four walls).

These already fragile lives were made even more insecure by the regularoutbreaks of communal violence. Women in Chennai and Ahmedabad narrated howthey were often the targets of communal frenzy victimised by both therioters and the police. Often, in their experience, police personnel bargedinto homes and took away male members of the family without bothering toeven produce an arrest warrant. And when the men were taken away, sources ofincome for the family also quickly dried up.

Ultimately, it is the women who bear the backlash of communal disturbances.For instance, women in the Hyderabad slum of Hafiz Baba Nagar complained howthe observance of purdah have become much stricter after the fall of BabriMasjid. Sociologists have pointed out that women especially women ofminority communities were invariably the symbolic repository of groupidentities. Therefore in moments when group identities came under threat, itwas the women who were required to live even more strictly according to thenorms laid down by the community at large.

Then there was the persecution from within the family. Listen to the voiceof Lateefa, speaking in Chennai last December: ``I live in a kabristan(graveyard). My husband has left. My children work.I received no mehr, nomaintenance. He has remarried.'' Or to that of Imdaad Bibi speaking at theAhmedabad hearing two months ago: ``It is difficult to have the courage totalk. But our men have led us to a point when we must break the silence. Iam from Bareilly. I was given talaq after three years of my marriage...''Interestingly, although dowry was never a cultural practice in thecommunity, it has now become common enough.

The `Voice of the Voiceless' Report notes: ``Postal talaq and triple verbaltalaq was widespread...Dowry is a growing menace; one of its saddest fallouts was the growing incidence of teenage girls being married to old menfrom the Gulf in exchange for lumpsum payment to their destitute families.''(Tomorrow: Does the future hold change?)

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