Interview with Noorjehan Safia Niaz of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) #MustRead #AgamiInterviews

Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan: BMMA is an autonomous, secular, rights-based mass organization led by Muslim women which fights for the citizenship rights of the Muslims in India. BMMA strives for the formulation of a codified Muslim law and focuses on other key issues such as education, health, livelihood, and security.

BMMA has been shortlisted as a candidate for the prestigious Agami Prize.

Link: www.bmmaindia.com

1. Please introduce yourself to our readers.

My name is Noorjehan Safia Niaz and I am the founder member of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA).

2. What does BMMA  do, and how?

BMMA is a Muslim women’s national organization, and the purpose of starting it is to provide an alternate space within the Muslim community for Muslim women to say and talk about their issues and about their concerns.

We work on 5 issues of education, health, livelihood, security, and law reform.  We also believe in the Constitutional rights, and that as a citizen of this country, Muslim women must have access to all fundamental rights. Furthermore, as a Muslim woman whatever religious right she has been given in the Quran that should also be accessible to her.

We have programs on all the five issues mentioned and programs are largely to do with implementing government schemes, doing advocacy and demanding better implementation of government scheme and policy.

For instance in Bombay we have a community volunteers keeping a check on the Public Distribution shops (PDS) so that ration is available to the poor within the community.

We also provide assistance to public hospitals and public health clinic so that basic facilities are available.

We also carry out studies to ascertain what is happening with regards to issues of education and health and specifically on the issue of Law Reform; awareness, capacity building, informing women about their rights, doing studies regarding rights of women, and doing advocacy with the state government are part of our work.

3. What led to the establishment of BMMA?

Even after so many years of Independence having passed, the largest minority (Muslims) and within that the women as a minority did not really have the space to talk about her issues. Therefore, time itself was a big factor which led to its establishment.

We felt we needed to specifically focus on codified Muslim family law as there are discriminatory practices happening within the community such as oral divorce, underage marriage, and practices such as halala persisting in society was the reason for starting at BMMA with a vision for providing the Muslim community and especially Muslim Women an alternative structure for voicing that concerns.

4. Your objectives include propagation of a liberal interpretation of religion. Can you tell us more about BMMA’s liberal interpretation of religion and what it entails?

There are a certain religious practices, especially in Muslim family law, there are a lot of practices that we see within the community such as underage  marriage, unilateral divorce or looking at polygamy as an unbridled right of the man, or not having equal inheritance rights to women, are all discriminatory practices that are justified in the name of religion.

So all these decades we have been told that this is what is being said in the Quran or this is what the Islamic law when we started and Muslim women have been misguided and misinformed.

When we started working on these issues, we read the Quran and multiple translations and interpretations of the religious texts, we realised that a lot of these practices are not even acknowledged or mentioned in the Quran.

So we felt as Muslim women we must read our own Holy text from our own perspective, a feminist perspective, and so on the basis of such understanding and interpretation we have been able to challenge a lot of things that have been happening in the community.

5. How has BMMA’s journey been till now?

When we started off we got a very good response as Muslim women were ready to organise themselves and take up their issues. After 11 years we are more than more than 100000 members across across 15 States, we have been able to get lots of support from Muslim women outside India and also by men, who have assisted us in our struggle.

The challenge is from conservative groups who have not been very happy because you have changed their interpretation of the religion , and our strategy has always been to reach out to the State, because a citizen of the country it is the duty of the State responsible to ensure that the citizen gets is fundamental rights to the law and a right to end of discrimination is the right of every Muslim women.

So because of the work that we have done we were able to get an ordinance against triple Talaq last month earlier this year in September.

6.A. How far have you come in achieving your desired outcomes vis-à-vis your decided goals?

This Ordinance against the Triple Talaq has been a big achievement because it’s a one step towards a demand of codified Muslim family laws.

We have been demanding that, like the various other codes and laws such as those for Hindus, Parsis, or Christians, there must be a codified Muslim law which is passed by the parliament of the country which ensures justice and equality to Muslim women within the family.

This Ordinance against triple Talaq has been the first step towards codification and the struggle for a comprehensive, codified law will continue till such gets passed.

Furthermore, the Haji Ali PIL that we filed few years back, regarding women being denied entry into the inner sanctum, and we fought this in the High Court and Supreme Court stating that nobody can be barred from entering the sanctum especially on the basis of gender. That has been one of our achievements.

We have also trained 15 women for the position of Qazi.

Plus, we have 3 Auraton Ki Sharia Adalat where Muslim women and other women come with their cases and family law issues and we are able to help them legally and socially.

6.B. What have some of the most successful projects been till now and what do you think contributed to their success?

There were several factors, but most importantly, the time had come for such change. We started our work 60 years ago, and throughout a significant section of the community has been suppressed and discriminated, so the sheer amount of time that has passed is itself a big factor.

Secondly, the organising and mobilizing of Muslim women has been happening for many years and all of us have been working on that in our states and cities. So a national platform was the next logical step.

Plus we have a very strong and committed band of Muslim women volunteers who are completely committed to the cause and they are able to see the problems directly as we are based in the community.

Women come to our centres with their problems. We are the community. We are able to see firsthand what the community goes through which fuels us to continue with our work.

The commitment, zeal, and passion of Muslim women is something which helps us, which we have been able to garner, organise and bring to such a level.  So all credit for our success goes to the Muslim women themselves, who have been able to voice their concerns and organise themselves

6.C. What have been the failures/challenges, and how do you plan to overcome them?

Challenges have largely to do with resources.

We don’t have enough funds to do a lot of the activities and a majority of the activities that are carried out are completely voluntary, based purely on community support and the enthusiasm of the women.

Therefore, resources are undoubtedly something that we are constantly in need of as the more funds we have, the more that can be done.

The other challenge has been the conservative groups who have branded us as ‘Western people’, as ‘RSS people’ as ‘people who belong to the BJP’, or who are propped up by the government.

Such allegations have been made against us despite the fact that we have been doing our work for many decades and have maintained our commitment to the constitutional and Quranic values.

Surprisingly, there has been a lack of support from the feminist groups. We were hoping that feminist groups would come forward and support us, but because of their own political interest and lack of understanding of Muslim women’s issues.

As they don’t work with Muslim women and are not grounded with these women, they do not know the daily realities these women face. The feminists have really disappointed in holding back their support in our demands for legal justice.

Other than that, the politics involved with Muslim law reform.

For 70 years a lot of cases like Shah Bano, Shehnaz Sheikh to Saira Banu, there has been so much politics involved in Muslim law reform.

Nearly all parties have played politics on this issue and even after 71 years of Independence, we don’t have the protection of the law. So whether you are ruling or an opposition you continue to play politics and deny women their rights.

The State, in general, has failed in its constitution responsibility of protecting Muslim women within the family and that is what we are constantly struggling for. Thus, our demands are only to be bestowed the same protection that has been done with other communities, and such is something for which we continue to struggle.

7. In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles facing India in its quest to create a secular society?

As a nation, we have several laws meant for the protection of citizens, but these are so shabbily implemented. We neither have a sensitive police nor do we have a Judiciary that works fast.

Women or people in general fear to go to court because of resources the resources that are involved.  Furthermore, all the processes are so cumbersome and long drawn. All these things affect the rights of citizens.

Our challenges also involve answering questions such as how does one protect the rights of the marginalized, or do you ensure that politics is not played on the basis of caste and religion.

It is important to see how we ensure secularism as defined and protected by the Constitution percolates down to every citizen and every citizen is able to access quality education and healthcare, basic needs that everyone is entitled to but it is denied because of a political system and governance that has really failed us.

8. Which incidents or events have inspired you the most to continue your work in your current field?

Women who come to us with their issues are themselves so willing to fight it out. All women, especially marginalized women, especially Muslim women, are such fighters.

The strength of a movement is the strength of these women associated with us and each and every story has inspired me.

There are too many of them and in fact, I continue to get inspired by all women, not just Muslim women, struggling to lead a dignified life.

9. Please tell us about your team.

Zakia Soman and I are founder members.

We have a National Council which comprise of 10 state leaders and we have a small National working committee out of these 12 members.

Each state has its own State Committee which works in the respective district. It is a very loose and informal structure.

Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan
Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan

10. How can law students and young lawyers contribute to your initiative? 

We have our Auraton ke Sharia Adalat, which is Legal Aid centre where a lot of women, not just Muslim women, come for legal aid.

Such is a community-based organization wherein we negotiate with the family within the larger structure.

This is an Out-of-Court settlement method with which law students and lawyers can help.

11. What does the future road-map for BMMA look like?

We will continue to fight for the Muslim women’s legal rights. We are aiming to get a codified Muslim law family law in the near future, and that is what will be working for.

Furthermore, ensuring the larger participation of Muslim women within the community, better education, better livelihood opportunities and more dignified and more confident Muslim women is for what we are working.

12. Your advice/message for future entrepreneurs and individuals interested in a life of social service.

Whoever is interested in doing any kind of social reform work must base themselves in the community, amongst the people. If you want to work for the tribal community then you should be living there.

Don’t sit in far-off cities where you don’t get to meet the people for whom you work.

This is why all our centers are in the community.

You must be closer to the people as you get to know what are the daily needs and problems and your policies, strategies, activities, and programs are in consonance with what the community wants. Basing yourself amongst people is what I would advise.

 

Interview by Maitreya Ghorpade. He is a final year student at Hidayatullah National Law University.

He says: “For an individual motivated to commit themselves to a life of social service, I cherish encounters such as those with Ms. Safia Niaz as they reaffirm my convictions in the value of working for the betterment of the downtrodden and marginalized. Her ideas and ideals are not only what inspire individuals like myself, but essentially maintain the sanctity of our society.”

 

Agami PrizeThe Agami Prize will be awarded to innovations and entrepreneurial initiatives that can exponentially increase quality, effectiveness, access, and inclusion in and around law and justice. Read more here.

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