Talk

Lifting the ugly veil

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on January 16, 2018
Turning point: It was a women’s conference in Patna that compelled Sharifa Khanum, a translator from Tamil Nadu, to devote her life to improving the lot of Muslim women. Photo: M Moorthy

Turning point: It was a women’s conference in Patna that compelled Sharifa Khanum, a translator from Tamil Nadu, to devote her life to improving the lot of Muslim women. Photo: M Moorthy   -  The Hindu

Flying colours: Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist, abandoned the veil after taking to it at the age of 16

Flying colours: Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist, abandoned the veil after taking to it at the age of 16

Urvashi Butalia

Urvashi Butalia   -  BusinessLine

A feminist seeks strength in numbers while another, from another continent, uses words to script her struggles against religious patriarchy

This week I met two unusual women. One from Egypt, the other from Tamil Nadu. Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist, does not mince words. With her bright-red-with-a-touch-of-purple hair, she sets public platforms aflame by declaring proudly that she’s a Muslim woman who wants to f*** patriarchy. She uses the f word a lot, peppering her speech with powerful punches to men, to patriarchy in general, to the army in Egypt, to el-Sisi, the country’s current ruler, to Hosni Mubarak, its erstwhile ruler and indeed to Donald Trump. “The American election is obsessed with sex,” she told me, “it’s all they ever talk about, sex and women’s bodies. This election is filled with misogyny.”

Growing up in Egypt and the UK, where her doctor parents worked, Eltahawy moved to Saudi Arabia at the age of 15 with her family. She found the experience traumatic. Her mother, a qualified doctor who had been the family’s breadwinner while in England, now could not go out alone, or do anything in the public sphere without the husband’s permission. “It was hard,” Eltahawy says, but it turned her into a feminist: “As a woman in Saudi Arabia, you have one of two options. You either lose your mind — which happened to me at first, as I fell into deep depression. Or you become a feminist.”

The feminist Eltahawy, however, took a while to emerge. As feminism made its painful way into her heart and head, the Egyptian struggled with her identity — who was she? Was she what she saw in the world around her or was she different? At 16, Eltahawy took to the veil, thinking that would establish who she was. It didn’t, but because by that time many women were wearing it, it wasn’t that easy to give up. But she abandoned the veil eventually. One day, a Muslim cleric she was interviewing, told a veilless Eltahawy: “You are standing naked before me.”

In time, Eltahawy became a journalist, a writer, a commentator and a political activist — not necessarily in that order. In 2011, during the Egyptian revolution, she was violently and sexually assaulted by the Egyptian Riot Police. Undeterred, she tweeted her condition to the world to keep people informed.

Sharifa Khanum’s story is different. In the late ’80s, as a young woman of 24, this Pudukkottai resident was the translator at a women’s conference in Patna. “The conference was a turning point in my life,” she says. “I was overwhelmed by the stories I heard at Patna, the courage of the women, the pain they had suffered, the battles they had fought, and the ways in which they were able to sit and talk about these things, frankly and with trust.”

Khanum came home and decided to set up an organisation — STEPS. If the realities of women’s lives she had learnt of in Patna were anything to go by, what must life be like for her sisters in Tamil Nadu, she wondered. In order to answer this question, STEPS undertook a survey of about 1,000 Muslim households.

The results shocked Khanum despite her awareness of the oppression of women in Muslim families. She was quite unprepared for the rampant violence, the continuing injustice, the many instances of child marriage, the use of the triple talaq and so much more.

That’s when STEPS began its battle for the rights of Muslim women, for the removal of the triple talaq from Islamic law in India, and later, for a women’s mosque. The battle continues even today. “I discovered how few women actually knew what the Quran says — the relationship between Allah and mortals in Islam is a direct one, with no mediation. How had all these men appointed themselves the interpreters of a book that belongs to all of us?” asks Khanum.

Khanum was in Delhi this week for the screening of a film on the work of the women’s jamaats — bodies that she and her comrades have set up to help women secure their rights. Taking patriarchy, and more specifically religious patriarchy (in which Muslim and Hindu men often find themselves on the same side), squarely by the horns, the women’s jamaats have formed parallel community systems. The membership is over 25,000 and counting.

Khanum doesn’t use the f word, but her work — like Eltahawy’s — challenges patriarchy. For Eltahawy, her words are her weapons; Khanum’s weapons are her sisters.

Eltahawy and Khanum, both Muslims; red hair, black hair, flowered skirt, printed sari, the trappings are different, the cultural backgrounds are different, languages are different, but beyond all that there’s courage, and strength and commitment to make the change that they themselves have become.

Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan

Published on October 14, 2016

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