The following is an email interview conducted in January 2021 with Sania Mariam, one of the founders of the Muslim Women’s Study Circle, a Kolkata based Muslim women’s collective who have organised themselves to discuss issues such as social science, research, political concerns, economic changes, their faith and activism. They divide their meetings into Social Science Halqa and Deeni Halqa. After the pandemic struck, they took their Circle online, opening it up to many more women across the country and beyond to discuss their lives, issues and concerns with each other in the privacy that such a group offered.
Q1: Tell us a little bit about Muslim Women’s Study Circle, and how it started?
We are a diverse group of Muslim Women from different backgrounds who come together in the virtual space to understand what it is to be Muslim and to be women in contemporary India. We create a safe space for women to engage with each other through discussions, debates, and consensus-building. All of the women are uniquely different with varied vantage points and social backgrounds. What unites us is our identity of belonging to a religious minority community that is increasingly facing marginalisation because of rising Islamophobia in India and globally and the other, of being brown women of South Asian heritage.
We as Muslim women are trying to find and negotiate our spaces in the public and private spheres. We are constantly negotiating the traditional and the modern; the community and the society at large. The very idea of this group is to enable each other in acquiring agency and being better Muslimahs. To share resources and celebrate what it is to be a Muslim Woman in contemporary India. We take our inspiration from women from the times of our Beloved Prophet (PBUH), scholars of faith, and women’s movements throughout the globe.
We started as a hyper-local group of few women, mostly in and around Metiabruz, a suburb of Kolkata who would come together to understand the Qu’ran, Hadith, and Seerah in April 2019. We would sit in a circle and engage with traditional religious texts and contemporary news to make sense of the history happening around us. The growing hate crimes against Muslims disturbed us. As we participated in the CAA-NRC protests, we felt the need for a wider group of Muslim women from across India. After about a year, when the pandemic struck, we decided to shift our base to online platforms giving us that opportunity for wider engagement. We started systematically recording, archiving, and posting our sessions on social media platforms. The best part about this whole initiative is that we continue to meet amazing womfen each day!
Q2. Who are the founders of the collective, and how much has it grown now? How many women engage with the Study Circle on a regular basis?
Initially, we started as a group of eight women at Metiabruz. Now our Facebook group has around 1000 members. Around 50 women engage in each session per week, while our recorded videos on YouTube are viewed by many. There are two chapters of MWSC – Delhi and Kolkata. Additionally, we have in-person meetings in both cities.
My idea was to create a space, which was not purely academic/activist or professional. Just an attempt by ordinary Muslim women to understand and be able to engage with simple concepts and social issues in languages that are not necessarily full of jargon or with people who have not grown up with a social science vocabulary. A method and manner so simple that our mothers and aunts can sit with us and engage. It started as an informal support group which later I concretized over the years with the assistance of several determined women.
The study circle is purely run by a team of volunteers who are passionate about the cause and driven by it. We have women like Nafisa Islam who is a school teacher in Kolkata and takes care of the weekly poster-content creation, there is Sana Fatima, professionally an endodontist, who manages the social media handles of MWSC, Ghousia Anjum who is currently studying Economics at Presidency University and manages communication and outreach, Aqueleema Hassan, a journalist based in Jharkhand who is currently working on creating a functional website for MWSC and many others. There are also teams within the group that support each other in different ways like facilitation of the sessions, development, and delivery of content, coordination, video editing, and brainstorming ideas which we run through our mentors Saira Manzoor, a social worker and Talat Parveen, an Arabic teacher.
Q3: In your introductory video, you had mentioned two sets of terms as being relevant – deen, samaj aur siyasat; and hikmat, hamdardi and khudayi hidayat. What made you establish the Study Circle on the basis of these beliefs and priorities?
Our method resonates with what has been defined as Sacred Activism – a kind of activism that is spiritual and marked by self-awareness along with having social and political consciousness. Activism that is rooted in divine truth, wisdom, and compassion along with being practical and pragmatic. This is a reiterative process. We continue to define, redefine, learn and unlearn.
The reason we chose this was our experiences in activist spaces which seemed to exclude the fundamental consciousness of God in belief and practise. Similarly, in spaces of religious learning like that of traditional ijtemas, what we found missing was an informed discussion on different kinds of social issues and approaches to combat it. So here we are, trying to carve out this space for ourselves which is accessible. We motivate women to speak, read, understand and decide for themselves.
Q4. How do you see the need for collectivity/ijtemaiyat among Muslims and Muslim women in particular?
We understand the importance of being able to come together and hear each other. We don’t see disagreements among us as an issue which needs to be hammered into a specific uniform shape. We cherish the diversity within us of sects, fiqh, views and see it as the only means of meaningful engagement. It is a very conscious effort to not fit us into kinds of labels ranging from modernists, progressive, liberal, orthodox, conservatives, traditional. Our solidarity lies in being kind to each other, aware of the shared struggles we as Muslim Women have faced and fought.
Ijtemaiyat also means not leaving anyone behind. The group discussion and talks are in Hindi-Urdu/Hindustani so that it is accessible for most. This is not strictly designed as an academic group, just a space to understand and be able to engage with simple concepts in languages which are not necessarily full of jargon.
Q5. Your sessions are divided into a week of a halqa and the other week around debates in social science. Why this format?
It’s true. Every alternate week we either organise group discussions/talk on Islamic themes (Qu’ran, Hadith, Seerah) or Social Science themes (where we discuss socio-political issues in depth) on Zoom. We call the former “Deeni Halqa” and the latter “Social Science Halqa.” We don’t believe in strict compartmentalisation, however, due to paucity of time, we divide the themes alternatively each week. We don’t want to fall into the modernist segregation of religion and politics, however until we find a better method of going about it, we continue with this. It’s for a closed group and its sessions are not recorded. We avoid matters of fiqh and tend to focus on the basics.
In the Social Science Halqa, we invite speakers who are academic experts or grounded in the field to interact on social issues or topics that require deeper understanding. This is followed by an extensive group discussion where we are free to agree, disagree, appreciate and put forward our own understanding. For both the Halqas, we start in the name of Allah and end it all with a collective dua.
Q6. What are some of the major challenges being faced by Muslim women in this country, from your personal experiences?
Muslim women have largely been misrepresented, and in the few cases where they have been in mainstream media and popular culture, it is loaded with stereotypes. There are two sets of challenges. One, the Muslim female body has been exoticised and fetishised. We see the repercussion in sites of communal violence, where the Muslim female body is specifically targeted and violated.
Second, Muslim women are seen as voiceless, helpless creatures with no agency of their own. This is also how we experience gendered Islamophobia. We are reduced to television debates on triple talaq, polygamy and purdah. Even the mainstream feminist movement is guilty of this urge to emancipate Muslim women and other neo-orientalist tendencies.
This is not to deny that we Muslim women don’t have issues of our own. There are few common issues of literacy, gender discrimination and health which we share with women of other communities and specific issues related to the community. However, we believe that change has to come from within the fold of the community rather than being imposed by Islamophobic governments and parties.
Q7. Saba Mahmood has spoken about the politics of piety with which many Egyptian Muslim women engaged with the mosque movements. What has been your understanding of the function of the mosque for the community and for women in particular, and how does lack of access to it affect access to knowledge and community building?
The Prophet (ﷺ) clearly commanded us to ensure that we do not prevent women from coming to the masjid. However the limited attendance of women (and men) in today’s masajid (mosques) is actually the sign of a deeper and more fundamental problem – a problem we must all confront.
The Prophet (ﷺ)’s masjid was not just a place of prayer for both men and women, but one that served as a place for the homeless and hungry, with the needy expecting and receiving help as guests of Muslims. It served the wounded, with a tent set up in the masjid to care for the injured. It also served as a legal centre for court hearings and judgements, and even a venue for conducting the affairs of the Islamic government, such as managing the treasury and strategic planning. It was a place where the companions of the Prophet (ﷺ) would play games, where the Prophet (ﷺ) would talk with them, and where the poorest of his companions would actually reside in designated quarters. It served as the town hall and public square combined, with the call to prayer (adhān) summoning Muslims to the masjid, be led in prayer, receive important or urgent community sermons and news from the Prophet (ﷺ), or to gather and consult the people in order to reach consensus on particular issues.
We learn through early and later historical narrations that, per Islamic legal rulings (that men should not forbid attendance – discussed above) there were numerous cases of women’s presence in the masājid as a norm with a long history of practise from the time of the
We need to remember the Prophet’s (ﷺ) clear commands to us and ensure that we do not prevent women from coming to the masjid. If there is no women’s section, then we should endeavour to create a women’s section to allow them to attend. We should also remember that just because the Prophet (ﷺ) recommended women to pray at home, it does not negate the fact the women have a right to not be prevented from going to the masjid if they so choose.
We also started an initiative towards this end for visiblising women and reclaiming spaces in mosques. So we asked women to send us a picture of them inside a mosque whenever they visit it along with documenting their experience. We would post that on our page along with the name of the mosque.
Q8. How do you think growing Islamophobia affects Muslim women in particular ways, and what are good strategies to cope with and fight against it?
Yes, it does as explained above. Muslim women owning their narratives is the way to go ahead. In one of our lectures, we realised the importance of having a sense of history and reclaiming the narrative by first and foremost becoming conscious of it ourselves. To understand the socio-political and economic realities of the times we are living in. Second, the importance of voicing, archiving and recording information. Documenting incidents of Islamophobia and articulating it. Third, creating the way forward through dialogue and discussions among Muslim women, with the men in the community and the society at large. This would include organising and mobilising by leveraging social media.