Islamic Movements and Women’s Role: A Conversation with Syed Sadatullah Hussaini, President, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind
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Category : COVER STORY
Author : Shayma S
Shayma S:

Assalamu alaikum to all Aura readers and followers. We are very honoured to be in conversation with Syed Sadatullah Hussaini, President, Jamaat e Islami Hind, and an author and columnist of repute. Our previous guests in the Conversation series have addressed questions as diverse as women’s rights, financial literacy and human rights violations across the world. Today, we hope to have a fruitful conversation around the question of women’s participation in social movements and public life, as well as what our plans should be for the coming year 2022.
We welcome you and thank you for joining us.

We are having this discussion at the end of a rather tumultuous year, 2021. There has been upheaval in every sense in our country, whether in terms of human rights, the continuing pandemic, the economic situation and so on. Would you like to comment and reflect upon this?

Ans. Yes I agree that this was a very turbulent year and the whole country faced many problems. The biggest problem was related to the pandemic and how it was handled. The pandemic has created havoc across the globe, but the way it was handled in India created a lot of problems particularly for the people in the lower strata of social and economic backgrounds. The economic growth – the GDP growth – has come down to the lowest level, a level not seen in post-independence India. The main victims of this lower growth were the poor and economically deprived classes. Education was also a major victim of the pandemic. So more than the pandemic itself, it was the way it was handled in India that caused great difficulties for people. Apart from that, human rights violation and crimes against minorities, Dalits and other deprived classes continued this year also. Kisan Andolan was the defining feature of the year. The unprecedented mobilization of the farmers’ struggle across the country was a major aspect – how they fought it out against the unjust laws that were enforced and made the government to surrender, I think this inspired all activists working for human rights and the rights of deprived sections. I hope the success of the Kisan Andolan will pave the way in the coming year for more such struggles.

As the president of a major Islamic organization and movement, you must have a vision for what our society ought to look like at a broader level. But particularly, in terms of gender justice and women’s participation, what does that vision encompass? What role do women play in Jamaat e Islami Hind and in the larger society?

Ans. I have been writing on this topic. I think the kind of position Islam took on women and gender, it is the most perfect and moderate position. It has given women dignity, respect and full rights as human beings. In addition to that, there are provisions for her safety and security and for her well-being, considering her feminine character. I think this is the major crisis and dilemma that humanity has faced so far – whether to prefer freedom or safety and security; whether to prefer the rights of women as human beings merely, or by keeping in mind her feminine character. This dilemma has created deviations and problems. Islam has given a set of rules and principles that creates a perfect balance between these two demands – security and rights. I think that position has to be practically implemented.

Unfortunately, even Muslim society is far away from this principled position. And our society has fallen prey to the pressures of tradition and traditional societies across the world and they have also forgotten Islamic principles. So the main challenge regarding women is to uphold those principles and to practically implement them in Muslim society. So if we are successful in implementing those principles, it will be a testimony to the position of Islam and it will be a major attraction for other societies as well. So we need to work on both these fronts. We need to work primarily on Muslim society and try to bring back and implement practically the principled Islamic position. And secondly, we need to work for gender justice and restoring the rights of women in contemporary societies. We need to strive on both fronts – we cannot neglect Muslim society or contemporary society.

On the same note, how important do you think women’s leadership is to Islamic movements and organisations especially in today’s social environment? What is being done to encourage/improve the level of women’s representation in Jamaat in leadership roles?

Ans. So, Jamaat wants to bring awareness among women. In the Islamic vision, women and men are partners and both are responsible for the betterment of society. So, in our struggle for the social reformation and reforming the whole of humanity, women are important partners. Women and men are both important for this task – that is what the Qur’an has laid down. Active participation of women in all social activities, in all reform activities, is very crucial. When women start participating, obviously, they will get leadership roles. In Jamaat also, it is totally free – women can take up any role. Now that role is gradually increasing. In all our state shuras, women are being elected. In our Central Representative Council, there is reservation for women already and a good number of women have already been elected. In our central shura as well, we have members. Here, we have established a full-fledged women’s department. Two secretaries are looking after it. So, apart from playing the role of leadership among women, women are contributing to the mainstream movement also. They are playing vital roles that are related to men as well. So I think in the future, that role will definitely increase. Now, educated girls and very well-qualified and well-versed women scholars are joining Jamaat. So I am confident and sure that in the future, their role will be much more effective and prominent than what we are seeing today.

Since you spoke about the increasing participation of women, how do women in the tehreek balance their movemental commitments and family commitments? Is the responsibility of this balance on women themselves or if not, how should society help women achieve this balance? Is there any orientation being done for men in this regard to help make this possible?

Ans. Yes, obviously, we address everybody. We are trying to educate men also that they should help women to become active participants and active partners in the Islamic movement. This problem is not confined to women. Family is the responsibility of women and men both. Men also have a role in the family – grooming and tarbiyah is the responsibility of both father and women. The father is equally responsible for the tarbiyah and grooming of his children. So, everyone has to maintain the balance between different roles. Apart from tehreek, we have our economic and business activities, we need to maintain our relations with different people – our friends, our colleagues, our relatives. So everybody, they have different roles and they need to maintain it. This is not something expected only of women, but something equally expected from men.

So, the actual driving force is their vision – what vision do they have? Islamic movement or activism for Islam is not something alienated from other areas of life. Islamic life is a holistic life and revolves around a holistic vision. If that vision is clear, you will naturally keep balance between all your roles. One role will strengthen the other. If you groom your children in a good manner, they will be helpful for Islamic activism also. And if you are in the movement, if you get a good education here, if you influence society, definitely, that will also influence your family. So if you have a comprehensive, holistic vision of the change you are visualizing, automatically, a balance is created.

So, apart from playing the role of leadership among women, women are contributing to the mainstream movement also. They are playing vital roles that are related to men as well.

Unfortunately, this is the thing that is misunderstood – that if women come out and start playing an active role in social activities, their house will get affected. But if there is a proper understanding between men and women, that will not happen. Everyone will do work according to the different settings and compulsions in different areas of life. Education regarding this has to be given to both men and women, which we are doing

You spoke of misconceptions. One major complaint that Muslim women have is the superimposition of culture and cultural assumptions over the real tenets of our faith. This works into many aspects of life – marriage, public engagement, even organizational life. Marriage for instance is done evaluating everything but the piety of the potential spouse – wealth, caste, social status, physical appearances. How do you feel we can tackle this? How can Islamic movements permeate into the innermost aspects of our personal lives positively?

Ans. I think that is the main agenda of the Islamic movement. That is the main point around which this movement was launched, that we want to reform society as per Islamic values. For that we have been and we need to fight the cultural forces. The deviations and deviated traditions, these have been the major obstacles in the proper implementation of Islamic values. When you wish to reform society in the light of Islamic values, the main obstacle will be cultural forces. So all cultural traditions that are in variance with Islamic values, you have to fight it out. That is what Islamic movements and activities are targeting in India and every society.

So, I agree with you that especially regarding women and gender issues, cultural forces are very strong and even today in Muslim society and even among practicing Muslim families, culture is the main defining force in shaping their family lives, or values. Apart from the problem that you specified, there are many other problems. The main problem is that of inheritance. Even today, ladies and girls are not given their proper share. Financial rights of women are not achieved and even working women who earn are not given their rightful share. I came across a doctor, a medical practitioner with a postgraduate degree whose entire salary is snatched by her mother in law and she does not have any right over her own income. This is because of cultural pressures, and we have to fight it out through proper Islamic education and through proper social reform activities. This is not just a concern of the Islamic movement but the main target and main goal of our organization that we want to bring reform according to Islam and we want to fight out all that cultural forces that are creating obstacles in this path.

Unfortunately, this is the thing that is misunderstood – that if women come out and start playing an active role in social activities, their house will get affected. But if there is a proper understanding between men and women, that will not happen

Finally – one of the major issues that has creeped into Muslim society as well is the dynamic between there being some elements of misogyny or sexism, and an overwhelming number of women getting attracted to feminism. How do we address this issue, when even some so called representatives of Muslim society too have contributed to women’s spiritual and intellectual frustration?

Ans. Yes, I agree with you – this is a very important challenge that we are facing as far as women’s issues are concerned. I have written in several books and articles that women are targets of two kinds of exploitation – one from the side of traditions and traditional societies, and on the other side, modernity. The modern imperialist forces have also exploited women and that is equally worrisome and equally problematic as that of the former. So we need to save women from both these exploitations. Modern forces and organizations try save women from the exploitation of traditions but they forget the exploitation that is happening in offices, industries, factories and in the name of women’s freedom – the way she has been exploited, made into a ‘sex symbol’, the way she has been commodified. This kind of exploitation, they tend to forget. On the other hand, the traditionalists, the peculiar kind of religious reformists, try to save women from modernist and imperialist exploitation, but they tend to forget the kind of exploitation that happens in traditional societies and due to traditions. So Islamic movement should visualize to save women from both kinds of exploitations. This is what I think the Islamic feminist discourse should aim at. For that we need to have an alternative feminist discourse. Recently, in Kerala I said this in a speech that although in many areas we differ from feminists, but the real feminist ideals, they can be achieved only through Islam. The ideals that feminism is aiming at, they are dear to us also. Feminists envision equal status and dignity for women, they want women to become equal partners in all arenas of life and they want the full potential of women to be used for the betterment of society and humanity. So all these ideals are dear to us. I think the Islamic scheme perfectly and in a very balanced manner provides that background, infrastructure and value system which can be helpful in achieving these ideals.

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