Lucknow’s Muslim Women Speak Out


For Tehmina Kazmi, life has taken an interesting turn. Working as an usher for a small event management company in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh’s state capital, this 19-year-old has braved all odds to step out of the traditional confines of her orthodox Muslim home and carve a niche for herself as a career woman.

Living in Chowk, a locality nestled in the old part of the city, Kazmi faces ostracism at all levels when she leaves for work dressed in smart crisp executive trousers and shirt. But her determination to succeed is written all over her face. Says Kazmi, “When my father passed away, our family was reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence. I had to leave school and so did my brother. Our mother is not educated and could not find a job. That’s when I decided that I will support my family and began to look out for jobs that didn’t need very high educational qualifications but could help pay the bills. When I finally found this job as an usher, I told my mother that it would fetch Rs 800 (US$1=Rs 45.2) per day. She was supportive. However, my brother, who is younger to me, refused to accept the fact that I would now have to wear western clothes to work. He even beat me up when I made up my mind to take up this job. But today, almost a year on, I am still working. I have even bought him a mobile phone!”

Confident and in control, Kazmi may be seen to represent the new age Muslim woman. However, the reality is far more complex. The fact is that it is access to education that is key to employment and while Muslim women from the upper echelons of Lucknow society have been able to make meaningful careers for themselves precisely because they were educated, those who don’t have education either work in low paying, menial jobs or not at all.

A generation ago, Dr Qamar Rehman, presently the dean of Research Science & Technology at Amity University, Lucknow, as well as Adjunct Professor at Hamdard University, New Delhi, fought her own battle for independence. Says the 62-year-old, “Achieving what I have achieved was not easy. I came from a very traditional family of Shahjahanpur and was the first working woman in my family. But my mother was always in favour of educating girls and so I got a lot of support from her. Although I was married early, I insisted on completing my B.Sc. examinations. Then I went on to get a M.Sc. degree when my daughter was few months old, with my mother agreeing to look after my children. Now, after all these years, I have realised that at every stage a woman has to work harder than a man. In the male-dominated Muslim community, for a woman to make an independent career for herself is extremely difficult. But I never accepted defeat and that has kept me going.”

Dr Rehman’s journey has witnessed many prestigious laurels coming her way, including the UP Ratna Award in 2003 and an honorary doctoral degree from Rostock University, Germany, in 2009. Today, she is among the few experts in the field of toxicology, owing to her path-breaking research into the toxicity of fibres, particles and nano particles and their impact on the environment and population. She has also published 150 papers in internationally reputed journals.

Another well-established professional is Fauzia Zareen Abbas, associate professor, Christian College, Lucknow. Better known in some circles as the mother of film personality Roshan Abbas, she has been a working woman all her life. Her life story also testifies to the centrality of education in a meaningful career. Although she married young, Abbas was fortunate that her husband’s family encouraged her to educate herself. “Once I got married and came to my husband’s home, the world opened up for me,” she says. There were already many role models of women’s empowerment at home, like Fatima Begum, her husband’s grandmother, who had come from Iran and was fiercely opposed to the ‘purdah’. “In fact, the only time she wore the ‘burqa’ (veil) was to go out in the dead of night to put up anti-British posters on the city walls,” recalls Abbas.

But the life experiences of Rehman and Abbas represent an entirely different universe to that of the average Muslim woman. In the book, ‘Unequal Citizens: A Study of Muslim Women in India’, based on the first ever national survey of 10,000 Muslim and Hindu women in India, Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon had pointed out that the constitutional goal of eight years of schooling remains a dream for Muslim girls in northern India. They get barely 2.7 years of schooling compared to 3.8 years of a Hindu girl. About 59 per cent never get into school and less than 10 per cent complete it. In higher education, according to their data, Muslim women in India have an abysmal share at 3.56 per cent, even lower than Dalit women (4.25).

Given this reality, Dr Shabistan Gaffar, Chairperson, Committee On Girls Education, Government of India, believes that for Muslim women to come into their own in the field of employment, they must first have access to education, “The social tradition and misunderstanding that prevailed within the community regarding education has prevented many girls from being educated. Poverty is a huge additional deterrent.”

Gaffar’s argument is borne out by the ‘Unequal Citizens: A Study of Muslim Women in India’ study, which noted that in conservative and patriarchal areas like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, only very poor women or those from high income groups go out to work. It also cited National Sample Survey data to show that while women’s employment went up through the 1990s, the figures for Muslim women remained stagnant.

So what is the way out? Gaffar argues that accessibility to education and improving educational infrastructure is the need of the hour. She also believes that there is a case to be made for strengthening the madarsa system in India, since these age-old institutions of learning have continued to serve as the last hope for Muslim girls to access an elementary education and break free from orthodox control. She says, “Madarsas are very misunderstood. I understand that there are apprehensions in the present scenario but we must not negate the fact that in areas where there is no infrastructure for basic education, it is these madarsas that are imparting at least some primary education to girls. There are many ulemas who have very modern attitude and they could be assisted to modernise the education they impart to their community, keeping Islamic traditions in mind as well. After all, we must not forget that our presidents like Dr Rajendra Prasad and A.P.J. Kalam got their elementary education in madarsas.”

The point to be noted here is that despite the occasional regressive fatwa against educating girls and women’s employment that comes from seminaries, Islam itself has always encouraged women’s education from time immemorial and progressive clerics have always argued in favour of women’s education. As the revered Lucknow-based Maulana Kalbe Sadiq puts it, “No society where women are subjugated and not allowed access to education can be called civilised. The educational empowerment of Muslim women can potentially work as a catalyst to modernise the entire community in India. But this can happen only if they are empowered by education and new thinking to confront the traditional barriers set for them.”

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the website.