Name of the Book: Questioning the Muslim Woman: Identity and Insecurity in an Urban Indian Locality
Author: Nida Kirmani
Publisher: Routledge, New Delhi
Price: Rs. 695
Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand
Few subjects have been as fiercely debated as ‘the Muslim woman’. Literally thousands of books, by polemicists, journalists and academics, have been penned on the subject, many of them shedding more heat than light.
This remarkable book marks a major departure from much of the existing writing on Muslim women by interrogating the very category of ‘the Muslim woman’ itself. Muslim women, like everyone else, Kirmani points out, have multiple identities, and they do not, unlike what is often assumed, identify themselves in religious terms alone. This being the case, the very notion of ‘the Muslim woman’ is misleading, being too broad a term to merit serious consideration.
Based on an intensive study of women in a single Muslim-majority locality in northern India, Kirmani seeks to explore how Indian Muslim women construct and negotiate their multiple identities—of religion, gender, class, language, educational background, regional origins, minority status and so on—privileging some over the others, depending on the context, but, yet, not allowing these to overwhelm their self-definitions. Using an anthropological approach, Kirmani spent several months in Zakir Nagar, a predominantly Muslim settlement in New Delhi, trying to fathom how the Muslim women she interacted with expressed their sense of self in diverse ways. Contrary to commonly-held assumptions, she discovered (not quite unsurprisingly) that religion for them was only one of several identity markers, and not necessarily the most important one always.
What identity markers assumed salience for these women and when depended on a whole host of factors, Kirman tells us. How the women, who were markedly diverse in terms of socio-economic and ethnic background, experienced and interpreted what it meant to be both Muslim and women varied enormously. Much depended on their background, of course, but also on their personal experiences. ‘Educated’, middle-class women, for instance, might negotiate their multiple identities very differently from ‘uneducated’ women, living in nearby slums. The notion of a pan-Islamic umbrella identity might be more important for some ‘educated’ women than women who worked as daily-wage labourers. Similarly, how the women understood Islam and its teachings about women and norms governing relations between the genders were also diverse. Diverse, too, were their levels of interest in, and commitment to, Islam. Likewise, their perceptions of people of other faiths varied enormously. This had much to do with their class, educational and occupational background, which influenced their chances of having social relations with non-Muslims in the first place. Negative stereotypes about other Muslims—such, as for instance, many ‘educated’ Muslim women’s perceptions of ‘poor’ and ‘illiterate’ fellow Muslims and Muslims from certain ‘backward’ parts of India—further fractured the notion of a monolithic Muslim community and of ‘the Muslim woman’, Kirmani shows. Neither were these women uniformly ‘oppressed’, as hardened Islamophobes but also many uninformed non-Muslims who may not necessarily be viscerally anti-Muslim would argue. Nor, too, were the women uniformly ‘privileged’ and ‘protected’, as Islamist ideologues and apologists for Muslim patriarchy might want us to believe.
How the Muslim women of Zakir Nagar understood the locality they inhabited and their relation to it was also, Kirmani relates, a key ingredient in the diverse ways in which they identified themselves. Almost all of them saw Zakir Nagar as a specifically Muslim locality. With Muslims being in an overwhelming majority in the area, and with its scores of mosques and madrasas and other visibly ‘Islamic’ structures, Zakir Nagar exuded a distinctly ‘Muslim’ flavor. Kirmani discusses in great detail how the women she met responded to their locality’s distinct Muslim-ness, and how, in different ways, this shaped their worldviews and identities.
Was it that the Muslims of Zakir Nagar, women included, willingly and voluntarily chose to live in an almost entirely Muslim locality, one that, in contrast to many Hindu-majority localities nearby, was noisy, dirty, congested and lacked many civic facilities? Did they prefer to live among their co-religionists and in a culturally-familiar milieu, rather than with others, even if this meant having to face various forms of deprivation? Or, did they feel compelled to do so, to live in Zakir Nagar against their will—because non-Muslim landlords elsewhere might refuse to rent out to Muslims or for fear of being attacked in anti-Muslim violence? Was it ‘pull’ or ‘push’ factors that brought together Muslims of diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds to share the common space that they inhabited? Put differently, Kirmani asks, was Zakir Nagar a Muslim ‘ethnic enclave’ or a Muslim ‘ghetto’?
The ways in which the women Kirmani met perceived their locality reflected clearly divergent understandings of what being Muslim woman in contemporary India were all about. Some felt more comfortable living in a culturally-familiar ‘Muslim environment’, Kirmani explains. Having Islamic institutions and shops selling distinctively Muslim-style food in the vicinity, for instance, was for them a matter of considerable importance. But it was different for some others, such as those who rued the noise, congestion and the lack of civic amenities of the locality and for whom staying among their co-religionists was not a major value in itself. These women might have preferred staying in other, non-Muslim-dominated, localities that had better amenities. Yet, it was increasingly difficult for them to do so in a climate of growing anti-Muslim sentiment, as many non-Muslim landlords refused to let out their homes to Muslims. Further, even many rich Muslims in Zakir Nagar, who might have easily afforded buying houses in non-Muslim-dominated localities, chose not to shift out, for concerns about their personal safety in the event of breakout of anti-Muslim violence. There was no knowing when this could happen.
Despite the diverse ways in which the women Kirmani met identified themselves, including in terms of gender identity and their Muslim-ness, overall, she tells us, there was a predominant feeling of being marginalized on account both of being women and Muslim. This might read like a depressing, indeed hopeless, story—which, to at least some extent, it might well be. But, then, there are always two (or more) sides to every story, no matter how tragic it may be. One wishes that Kirmani could also have highlighted cases of Muslim women in Zakir Nagar who are making practical efforts to help themselves and their sisters out of the depressing scenario that she so ably describes. Surely, there must certainly be at least some such women, whose voices, no matter how muffled, can provide a glimmer of hope in what otherwise comes across as an unrelenting narrative of despair and gloom.
Kirmani rightly questions the tendency to seek to explain Muslim women solely through the prism of religion (and a scripturalist understanding of Islam at that), bringing into the analysis other dimensions, such as class and educational background, that complicate simplistic, though commonly-held, notions of ‘the Muslim woman’. Strangely though—and perhaps inadvertently—she ignores sect (maslak, in Urdu) as a key variable, although almost all Muslims in Zakir Nagar—and elsewhere in India, too—are, in terms of religious affiliation, not just simply ‘Muslims’, but, rather Muslims who identify with one or the other competing understanding (maktab-e firk) of Islam or sect (maslak). Likewise, Kirmani devotes scant attention to caste (zaat, biraderi), although most Muslims in Zakir Nagar, as elsewhere in north India, are members of one or the other caste. Although their caste and sectarian affiliations must also impact on the ways the women Kirmani met understand themselves, these are, sadly, left quite out of the analysis, thus seriously limiting it. Another issue that the book ignores, but one of vital importance, is how these women relate to their being Indian citizens. Surely, that would be a major identity that they would need to negotiate with, one that shapes in a very major way how they understand themselves.
Given the not-so-easily-available chance to do in-depth fieldwork in the sort of locality that she chose, Kirmani could have made her amazingly interesting book even more so by trying to explore how ‘grassroots’ Muslim women, even those with little or no formal Islamic education, develop and articulate gender-sensitive and women’s-friendly understandings of Islam and what that means for the ways in which they identify themselves. In this way, she could have added to ongoing discussions about ‘Islamic feminism’, that continue to be scripture-centric, focussed mainly on alternate understandings of Islamic texts. Admittedly, Kirmani does touch on the subject of some women’s gender-friendly readings of Islam, although not in a sufficiently detailed and rigorous manner. But perhaps that requires an entire book by itself, and Kirmani might well be just the right person to do it.
All said and done, this book is definitely a major contribution to discussions about Muslim women, cautioning us to be wary here—as elsewhere—of making any generalizations about a very heterogeneous category. It also provides valuable insights into the multiple self-definitions of Indian Muslims, which often go ignored in facile, often fiercely polemical, discussions about the subject.