Student works with Muslim Women to Demand Justice

-Caroline Neilsen, MA International Relations Student

Caroline speaks to an audience in India“You can get a kilogram of apples for a lot of money, but a woman you can get cheap,” said Shehnaz, an Indian Muslim woman I interviewed, after recounting the story of how she was married at age eleven, then married and divorced by three different men by the time she was 18. Her nose was cut off by her second husband for raising protest when she found out he had taken a second wife. Today, she and her seven children are beggars. All men gave her divorce through “triple talaq”, a practice legal in India under Muslim Family Law where a man can say “I divorce you” three times in a row at any time and then his wife is summarily divorced and kicked out of the house. After a divorce, she is rarely given financial support or legal claims to joint property, unless she can afford a lengthy and expensive legal battle in the Indian courts. Muslim women are statistically one of the poorest and most uneducated populations in India. Only 10% of Muslim girls in India ever finish high school.

 I interviewed Shehnaz and 32 other women during a semester-long internship in India with the National Muslim Women’s Movement (Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan). I worked along side Muslim women activists to carry out a campaign to ban triple, unilateral talaq and reform the law to ensure fairer marriage practices for Muslim women. My experience was made possible with support from Syracuse University’s South Asia Center and the Foreign Language Area and Studies Fellowship. After studying Hindi for a year oncampus, I spent three months in India in an intensive language study program. I then stayed for an additional four months as part of Maxwell’s graduate program in International Relations.

Knowing the local language enabled me to gain a deeper understanding of complex issues which I previously knew nothing about. Under current law, Muslim women marriages alone are governed by a mainly uncodified Shariah law. This Caroline speaks to an audiance in India means that patriarchal interpretations of the Quran made by a male-religious leadership are defined as “Shariah,” while rights given to women in the Quran are quietly ignored. The main strategy of the movement I worked with was to raise the voices of Muslim women and argue that these patriarchal interpretations of “Shariah law” are against the values of Islam. The women I worked with undertook considerable personal risk for this type of activism. After one public meeting, a fatawa (religious degree) was issued against us in the local newspaper, a mob destroyed another activist’s home, yet another faced threats to her children. The women were frequently called anti-Muslim and Mullahs told them categorically that “God’s laws cannot be changed.” Another mullah pointedly said to us that anyone talking about banning triple talaq is under the influence Satan. Even so-called progressive thinkers told us that India was not yet ready for this kind of change.

Despite the opposition, every day, I met women pushing boundaries within their homes and communities–demanding change, serving as legal mediators, speaking publically, and teaching other women about their rights. As for myself, before coming to India, I honestly had not given much thought to “women’s rights” thinking things were “pretty good.” I left India with the imprint of women like Shehnaz and thousands of others on my mind and am now committed to supporting women’s rights until there truly is birabri (equality) and insaf (justice).