With the victory of Tabassum Hasan in Kairana, are we looking at a watershed moment for Muslim women in national politics?
Only two days before this woman made contemporary history, an exhibition was held by Muslim Women’s Forum (MWF) titled Pathbreakers: The Twentieth Century Muslim Women of India. It featured 21 women, whose major work was in post-Independence India, and who became fellow architects in building a new nation which rose from the destruction and devastation of Partition.
The MWF came into existence in 2000 as a leadership training and advocacy group . Its first president was Begum Saeeda Khurshid, who was among the 21 women selected. Among them were were Muslim women who became MPs and MLAs in the first three elections.
Sharifa Hamid Ali, born in Surat, sat in the Constituent Assembly. She went to the UN Commission on Status of Women as India’s representative and prepared a model nikahnama. Mofida Ahmed was an MLA from Jorhat in Assam, Aziza Imam, Anis Kidwai and Qudsia Aizaz Rasool were members of Parliament. Some of the participants were writers, poets and chroniclers of their time. Surayya Tyabji designed the Indian flag at the behest of Jawaharlal Nehru using the Ashoka Chakra at the centre instead of the charkha.
The MWF decided thus to break the stereotype of Muslim women as cloistered victims of triple talaq, polygamy, burqa and halala.
Freedom brought with it two nation states and a dawn which was bloody and violent. Thousands of refugees were thrown across the border on both sides. The woman who tended to the Hindu sharnarthis in the camps was 28-year-old Anis Kidwai whose husband, a district commissioner, was murdered in Dehradun by mobs because he was Muslim and tried to stop their killing spree. Along with Subhadra Joshi and Mridula Sarabhai, she worked day and night in refugee camps. Being Indian was her only identity.
As we delved into research, stories came tumbling out from every corner of the country. Having opened a door, I hoped others would take it further. At the colloquium, which accompanied the exhibition, questions were raised about why only elite women have been featured. One speaker, who works with weavers in UP, spoke about path-breakers in his village. Why mark them as Muslims, some asked? Why not ‘women’ without the Muslim tag? We had opened up a new vista.
I am the last generation to have had personal with some of these women and many others who are outside this cohort. It was providence that the day after these women emerged from decades of oblivion, a woman got elected to Parliament from UP by a huge margin. What does this signal for Muslim women? That they have returned to the fray? That despite the global atmosphere of antipathy to Muslims, there is one woman who has turned the myth on its head?
Syeda Hameed is an educationist, women’s rights activist, and a former member of the Planning Commission of India
The views expressed are personal