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Noorjehan Safia Niaz (in yellow), founder Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan with fellow members, at their office in Kherwadi, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Noorjehan Safia Niaz (in yellow), founder Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan with fellow members, at their office in Kherwadi, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Women’s Day spotlight: Noorjehan Safia Niaz

How the co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan is amplifying voices of Muslim women, ignored by both the state and their community

The gate to Noorjehan Safia Niaz’s home is open. A pile of newspapers sits untouched on a swing in the courtyard, surrounded by potted plants and creepers. The large wooden door to the house is open too, and inside is the daily thrum of life. Niaz, co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a national human rights platform that has consistently raised concerns of Muslim women since it was set up in 2007, sits on her bed sifting through papers. When it’s time for the interview, she leads us into the large, well-lit living room. In a bright red kurta and cotton pyjamas, hair tucked back, she smiles warmly. Niaz, 46, has lived through the 1992-93 riots in what was then Bombay, shortly after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

She was 23 then, and had graduated with a master’s in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Tiss). After a short stint with a state government organization for the economic empowerment of women that Niaz found uninspiring—“There was no work for the months that I was there"—she joined a group called YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action), which worked to mobilize poor urban communities on matters that affected them. She joined them exactly eight days after the mosque was demolished.

In order to escape the mob which congregated outside their building, her family, which lived on the third floor of a building in Dadar—the other occupants included a Christian family, and Hindu families—moved out in January for six months. “Our neighbours were very supportive, and tried to shield us. But in the January phase of the riots, when middle-class Muslim families were targeted, our society told us that if a mob of 100 comes then we may not be able to protect you. One night, which I thought would be our last night, there were people standing below our building ready to come up. But our neighbours told them that our house was empty."

“I often say, I became a Muslim on 6 December 1992," says Niaz.

While her initial days at Yuva were spent doing relief and rehabilitation work for those affected by the riots, Niaz’s subsequent work—amplifying the voices of Muslim women to create a gender-just society which foregrounded their rights—seemed almost fated. Niaz worked in Jogeshwari (East), a neighbourhood in Mumbai that is home to lower-middle-class and working-class Muslims. There, she began to understand the concerns of the women of the community more deeply. “I was a middle-class Muslim woman who began working with a Muslim community that was so marginalized, and also at a time when it was most vulnerable. For me, it was an eye-opener. This is the community I belonged to, (and I saw) this is how they stayed."

In 2007, Niaz co-founded the BMMA with Zakia Soman, an activist who fought for justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Today, their nationwide network of non-governmental organizations and activists has more than 70,000 members and operates in 13 states. Their latest initiative—the Darul Uloom Niswaan (DUN), a centre for Islamic learning and theology, which began training a batch of women qazis in February—follows a host of interventions that regularly hit national headlines, as they seek to address issues, such as triple talaq (divorce), livelihood, education, health and law reform.

The year-long qazi training offers a study of the Quran, the Sharia, rituals like filling up a nikahnama (marriage contract), besides dwelling on the Constitution, Islamic feminism and the BMMA’s draft Muslim family law that Soman and Niaz drafted after nearly seven years of national consultations with Muslim women from poor backgrounds, lawyers and other stakeholders in the community. The draft seeks to outlaw polygamy and “triple talaq", raise the age of marriage of women to 18 and asks that daughters receive an equal share in property, through wills or gift-deeds, among other things. A copy of the draft has been sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi and law minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda.

The draft seeks to fill a gap: the absence of comprehensive state-sanctioned personal laws. What exist are a handful of Acts and Supreme Court judgements, starting with the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, which stipulates that Muslims in India are entitled to resolve issues of family law, such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony and child support, according to the Sharia, the moral and religious code described in the Quran.

In 2013, the BMMA inaugurated an all-women Sharia court that sought to interpret the Sharia in a manner that was fair towards women. “We read the Quran, which doesn’t even talk about oral divorce and triple talaq. A lot of discrimination that is happening to Muslim women is happening in the name of religion," she says. “So many years of experience with the Muslim family law taught us (that either) we could spend years firefighting or take a step further and as a movement, fill the gaps," says Niaz.

“We have a political approach of questioning hegemony within the community and in the larger society. There is a vacuum in the leadership of the community, and we as Muslim women have to fill it, otherwise Muslim women’s issues won’t get addressed," says Niaz.

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