Jamida Beevi: First in line with a prayer on her lips

Akshaya Pillai | Updated on: Feb 16, 2018
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On Republic Day, Jamida Beevi led the Friday prayers at a mosque in Malappuram. The threats haven’t stopped since, but Beevi is not one to be cowed down

Afrin, all of 12, grabs the newspaper off the chair, picks up the unwashed tea cup from the table and withdraws behind the curtain. She is used to strangers in her house. Some come bearing recorders and questions, some tearfully with requests, and others barge in armed with knives and weapons. Afrin doesn’t understand her mother’s war, but knows she is a part of the army. And like her mother, she is prepared for the worst.

Sometimes at night, when the threat calls peak, a groggy Afrin hears her mother reason with the bullies, even telling them they could come kill her and the kids if that would make them happy.

“My daughter was barely 10 when she bit a drunk fanatic on his arm after he charged into our home wanting to kill me. For him and many like him, I am Islam’s enemy,” says Jamida Beevi, sitting in the living room of her rented house in Kozhikode, Kerala. The room is crammed with lightweight plastic furniture, the kind that can be easily piled onto a truck when one has to flee overnight.

Until the previous day, her front yard had two police officers stationed to protect the 34-year-old, who on January 26 became the first Muslim woman in India to lead Jumma prayers. “Twice last month, hired hitmen managed to get inside my house, and threatened to chop me into pieces and pull out my organs. I filed a complaint with the Koyilandi police, but now I am done with police escorts. I wouldn’t be qualified to propagate lofty principles if I behave like a coward myself. I would be happy to die for my cause,” says Beevi, stressing on each word. Having been a schoolteacher for 16 years, Beevi’s voice has a natural dramatic quality.

She isn’t new to acts of hatred. It started back in 2014, at Thiruvananthapuram, where she then lived with her two children, taught Arabic to school kids and imparted Quran lessons for free. During a session held for women, she shared that ‘Amen’ is not an Arabic word. She was branded a traitor by the orthodox members of the community for saying so. They ripped apart her scooter, pelted stones at her house and attacked her till she was forced to flee the capital city. It was then that the Khuran Sunnath Society, which works for progressive measures within the Muslim community, extended its support to Beevi. “In one of our meetings, we decided to organise a Friday prayer led by a woman. We wanted to let the world in on the fact that Islam never banned women from leading prayers. In fact, the Quran never addresses its reader’s gender, it is written for ‘the believer’.”

Beevi doesn’t recall being nervous on the morning of Friday, January 26. In Cherukode, a quiet village in Malappuram, when she stood as an Imam to lead a congregation of men, women and a line-up of news channel reporters, elsewhere, the readers of the weekly edition of Malayalam , a popular magazine, woke up to R Unni’s short story ‘ Vaang ’ (azaan). Coincidentally, the story explored a Muslim girl’s wish to call out azaan. “As a child, I never harboured the dream to lead a prayer, I wasn’t obsessed about religion either. I wanted to become a doctor, but being the youngest of 13 children, it was an impossible dream to pursue.”

Activism and anger took root later, when her curiosity and questions as a young student were met with resistance and punishment. Once, annoyed by the loudness of the azaan, Beevi asked her teacher, “Why do we have to pray so loud. Is Allah deaf?” In response, she was caned, made to run around the college as punishment, and taken to the principal and made to repeat “ La ilaha illallah ”. “It was then that I started to realise the fanaticism in religion.”

Getting married to a man 22 years older only made matters worse. It took her 13 years to get out of that unhappy marriage, and she has since wanted to empower women in her community. She believes the ‘Hadith’, the collection of sayings penned centuries after the Prophet’s death, are the main reason why women are being ill-treated in Islam today. “I found my leader in Chekannur Moulavi, a modern-age prophet who was murdered in 1993. He criticised the ‘Hadith’ and spoke at length about gender equality, family planning and changes needed in Islam.” As she speaks, Beevi’s words reverberate around the room, drowning out the bleating of goats and the mappila paatu (community songs) wafting in from the neighbouring house.

Beevi is wearing a full-sleeved t-shirt, flared maxi skirt, and a dupatta covers her head. The dupatta, she says, is a habit. “I believe the shawl over my head helps me stay an insider. I cannot renounce every aspect of my religion and initiate change,” she says. Midway through the sentence, she pulls down her dupatta, and I am struck by the smallness of her head. Suddenly, she appears vulnerable, like a stubborn yet helpless child. “I like my daughter to not cover her head, but clip pretty flowers on her hair. Afrin is also a good athlete,” the mother beams. “We have no PT Usha or PV Sindhu from our community, I will do my best to let her pursue sports.”

Across the room, two men from an online news portal wait with a tripod for their turn. In the evening, Beevi has a meeting to preside over. But all she wants is to be at the beach. When the chaos gets to her, she gets on the scooter with her kids and heads to Kappad beach. She sits there till the night and calmness fall, staring at the sea and watching her kids sprint and somersault in the sand.

Akshaya Pillai is a Thiruvananthapuram-based writer

Published on February 16, 2018

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