It is striking how, despite India’s vast Muslim population, very few Indian Muslim women there are who have made a mark in the field of Islamic scholarship and social activism. Mumbai-based Uzma Naheed is one of these rare women. I had long wished to meet her, and it was by chance that I did so at a conference recently held in Delhi. Uzma-ji was in a hurry, surrounded by a band of people eager to talk with her, but she graciously gave me some of her time.
Grand-daughter of the late Qari Muhammad Tayyeb, the widely-respected rector of the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband, probably the largest and most influential traditionalist madrasa in the world, Uzma-ji comes from a well-established family of Islamic scholars associated with the Deoband tradition. She exemplifies a strand in that tradition that, few people are aware of, positively encourages girls’ education. She attributes her remarkable educational and professional career in part to her father, Maulana Salim, head of the Waqf wing of the Dar ul-Ulum, Deoband. After completing the fazila degree in higher Islamic education for girls at the Dar ul-Ulum in Deoband, she went on to graduate from the Aligarh Muslim University. Thereafter, she married and shifted to Mumbai, where she, a mother of two, is currently based.
Uzma-ji might have remained just another house-bound housewife, despite her education, had it not been for the deadly communal riots (or, to be more exact, anti-Muslim pogroms) that tore Mumbai apart in 1992, leaving hundreds of people, mainly Muslims, dead. ‘That was when I got socially involved’, she says. She worked closely with a relief group, the Aman Committee, along with students from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Nirmala Niketan, a Christian social work centre, helping admit the injured to hospitals and collecting and distributing money and food to families devastated by the violence.
Two years later, Uzma-ji attended a meeting organized by a group of Jesuit priests where issues related to Muslim education were discussed. She proposed to arrange for Islamic education for Muslim children who were enrolled in some Christian schools in Mumbai. To her surprise—and delight—the Jesuits willingly accepted her offer. She then contacted an organization set up by a relative of hers in Chicago that specializes in modern Islamic texts for students in general schools, for help. Shortly after, she set up the Iqra Education Foundation, through which she and her team now supply Islamic texts, of a very high calibre, to some 200 schools across India which have a substantial number of Muslim students. These books, prepared by the Iqra team, are graded from the first to the tenth grade so that by the time students finish high school they also have a proper grounding in Islamic Studies as well. ‘The books teach the basics of Islamic belief and practice, free from any sectarian bias, and also such vital issues as Islamic and Muslim history and how to relate positively to people of other faiths,’ Uzma-ji explains. The Iqra curriculum, originally in English, has been translated into Hindi and Urdu as well.
In addition to supplying schools with Islamic books, Uzma-ji’s organization also trains teachers in regular schools to teach Islamic Studies and to properly use Iqra’s texts. So far, some 3000 Muslim moral science teachers have undergone the course. ‘We teach them the basics of child psychology, and talk of mercy and compassion, rather than the stick, as the right way to handle students,’ Uzma-ji elaborates.
Uzma-ji’s public life takes up much of her time. She is one of the few women members of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board. I ask her what she feels about women’s representation in the Board. ‘I think the Board needs to be more active in selecting the right women, especially women who have proper scholarly credentials,’ she answers. She tells me about her writings—in the popular Muslim press and in ‘mainstream’ newspapers—and about the series of booklets she is planning to write—on gender justice in Islam, and on such issues as polygamy, divorce and family planning. I have heard—though she doesn’t get the time to tell me, because her cell phone keeps buzzing and a string of friends insists she spare time for them—that the Assalah Foundation she runs has done remarkable work for poor women; that the women’s wing she has set up at the Saboo Siddik Polytechnic in Mumbai conducts a range of technical courses for women; and that she regularly attends women’s meetings and inter-faith conferences, in India and abroad, where she talks about women’s rights in Islam and appeals for communal harmony.
There was all this and more that I wanted to ask Uzma-ji about. But her ring of friends were getting impatient—she had to accompany them to two more meetings that evening—and, so, much was left unsaid. But the little that I learned from her in that short meeting was certainly inspiring enough. I left with some of my opinions shaken. A woman from a traditional Deobandi family—the daughter and grand-daughter of rectors of Deoband’s Dar ul-Uloom no less—could, it seemed, indeed be a remarkable social activist while still remaining true to her own traditions.