Islamic Feminism in India: Indian Muslim Women Activists and the Reform of Muslim Personal Law
journal contributionposted on 2013-03-01, 00:00 authored by Sylvia Vatuk
I describe here a nascent ‘Islamic feminist’ movement in India, dedicated to the goal of achieving gender equity under Muslim Personal Law. In justifying their demands, these women activists refer neither to the Indian Constitution nor to the universalistic human rights principles that guide secular feminists campaigning for passage of a gender-neutral uniform civil code of personal law, but rather to the authority of the Qur’an—which, they claim, grants Muslim women numerous rights that in practice are routinely denied them. They accuse the male ‘ulama of foisting ‘patriarchal’ interpretations of the Qur’an on the unlettered Muslim masses and assert their right to read the Qur’an for themselves and interpret it in a woman-friendly way. Their activities reflect an increasing ‘fragmentation of religious authority’ in the globalizing Muslim world, associated with the spread of mass education, new forms of media and transport and a mobile labour force, in which clerical claims to exclusive authoritative knowledge are being questioned by a wide variety of new voices, women’s among them. Whether it can ultimately succeed is an open question but the movement is clearly having an impact, even on the clerical establishment itself, insofar as the legal issues it considers most pressing for women are concerned.