Most Indians today may not be aware that the national flag was designed by a Muslim woman, Surayya Tayabji, an active member of the Indian National Congress. Jawaharlal Nehru assigned this task to Tayabji, and it was her idea to replace the symbol of the charkha used and popularised by Mahatma Gandhi with that of Ashoka Chakra at the centre of the flag. Tayabji felt that the charkha, a symbol of the Congress party, might appear partisan.
Narratives like this – often forgotten or lost in public memory – were the central theme of a colloquium that was organised by the Muslim Women’s Forum (MWF), an organisation engaged in the advocacy of Muslim women’s rights. Titled ‘Pathbreakers: The Twentieth Century Muslim Women of India’, the colloquium held in partnership with UN Women showcased the achievements of 21 Muslim women in various spheres of public life during and after the independence struggle.
Other women who featured in the exhibition included Saeeda Khurshid, Hamida Habibullah, Aziza Fatima Imam, Qudsia Zaidi, Mofida Ahmed, Zehra Ali Yavar Jung, Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Tyaba Khedive Jung, Atiya Fyzee, Sharifa Hamid Ali, Fathema Ismail, Masuma Hosain Ali Khan, Anis Kidwai, Hajrah Begum, Qudsia Aizaz Rasul, Mumtaz Jahan Haider, Siddiqa Kidwai, Attia Hosain, Saliha Abid Hussain and Safia Jan Nisar Akhtar.
The speakers participating in the discussion talked about the need to reclaim the lost narratives of Muslim women and take control of their representation.
Speaking on the occasion, Seema Mustafa, an Indian print and television journalist, pointed out that these women would not fit even the current stereotypical representation of hijab-clad, oppressed and orthodox Muslim women, who need a messiah to rescue them. Mustafa, in her keynote address, said that these women had broken barriers and challenged patriarchal order in their time; they followed Islam in its liberal spirit, refusing to be shackled by societal norms. Most of them abandoned the purdah system, she said.
Stereotypes in modern India
The speakers insisted that the reality was and still is that Muslim women, just like women belonging to any other socio-cultural group in India, do not constitute a monolithic, homogenous entity. They come from diverse backgrounds and subscribe to varying ideologies. Muslim women have been and still are writers, teachers, artists, scientists, lawyers, educators, political workers, legislators in parliament and in assemblies. The speakers said clubbing them under the generic rubric of backwardness was a misrepresentation.
As the regular use of terms like triple talaq, halala and purdah has come to demonstrate subjugation of Muslim women, Islam has acquired the status of the most oppressive religion for women, the speakers said. Muslim women have become an object of pity.
Commenting on Islam and feminism, Farida Khan, former dean of education at Jamia Millia Islamia and former member of the National Commission for Minorities, pointed out that gender oppression is common to all religions. “Why should Islam have the burden of taking on feminism?” asked Khan. She further explained that Islam should be perceived and understood in the social and historical context of the day. Every religion has to and does evolve with time.
Referring to the exhibition, Khan said, “It makes me sad to think that you need to have an exhibition and you need to project these women in a country where they should be well known, where they should be part of the mainstream, where everybody should know their names and know the work they have done.”
Gargi Chakravartty, former associate professor of history in Maitreyi College and author, said, “Muslim women’s political and social contributions in the pre-independence period during the major Gandhian movements or in the field of spreading education, or in the sphere of literary activities, cannot be erased from history.” She shared many anecdotes that came up in her own research about largely unknown Muslim women who have extensively worked among the poor throughout the 20th century and still continue to do so.
An eminent speaker at the colloquium, Rakshanda Jalil, recently wrote a book A Rebel and Her Cause on the life of Rashid Jahan. Jalil spoke of the inspiring life of Jahan, who was a doctor, writer, political activist and member of the Communist Party of India.
Farah Naqvi, member of the Post-Sachar Evaluation Committee (Kundu Committee) 2013-2014, summed up the purpose of the colloquium and the exhibition. “This colloquium is a response. There is a nostalgia about it. But it is not just about the nostalgic nawabi Muslim. It has a political purpose, the colloquium, which is that you cannot allow any one strand of history to be obliterated from this country. Any strand. It could be Muslim women today. It could be someone else tomorrow,” Naqvi said.
Questioning if Muslim women needed to be forced into a separate constituency, Naqvi said it was indeed a tragedy that these women’s contributions were not a part of mainstream knowledge – and that reflected failure on the part of Indian historiography.
Naqvi also pointed out that the undercurrent of the entire exhibition was nation-building because they were “also responding to a moment when Muslims are repeatedly being told that they are ‘anti-national’”. She further explained that against such a background, the Muslim community in general should not take the bait of proving that they are ‘good’ nationalists. Instead they should take pride in the achievements they have made in their respective spheres of work – especially for those who stayed on in India after the Partition.
Wajahat Habibullah, India’s first chief information commissioner and the son of Hamida Habibullah, one of the 21 women featured in the exhibition, talked about Partition and how it divided his family. He said, “It is necessary to remember and nurture the memories of all those Muslim women who then very consciously, despite family pressure and contradictions within the family, opted clearly to be a part of India”.
Contribution to literature, politics and education
The exhibition showed how extensively Muslim women have contributed in the spheres of politics, literature, education and social work.
Many like Saeeda Khurshid, founder of the Muslim Women’s Forum, actively campaigned for the Congress party. Hamida Habibullah was the the president of the Mahila Congress. Few like Aziza Fatima Imam, Fathom Ismail, Anis Kidwai, Siddiqa Kidwai and Qudsia Aizaz Rasul were members of the parliament and legislative assemblies for years.
Rasul was also the only Muslim woman member of the constituent assembly.
Sharifa Hamid Ali founded the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), with the likes of Sarojini Naidu, Rani Rajwade and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and was involved in its work alongside others like Masuma Hosain Ali Khan and Hajrah Begum – who also founded the National Federation of Indian Women.
These women actively worked with the poor and marginalised sections of society, trying to improve their access to health and education.
Zehra Ali Yavar Jung, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1973, worked to improve the condition of women detainees in Hyderabad’s prisons and presided over a women’s workshop that trained and provided employment to destitute women. Fathom Ismail helped in opening rehabilitation clinics for children suffering from polio. Anis Kidwai worked tirelessly in refugee camps after Partition.
Mumtaz Jahan Haider, who was appointed the principal of the Aligarh Women’s College in 1937, worked for women’s education her entire life.
Sharifa propagated legal reforms for Muslim women, including raising the age of marriage and drafting a model marriage contract ‘nikahnama‘.
In the field of literature and arts, these women won multiple awards. Razia Sajjad Zaheer, the recipient of the Nehru Award and Uttar Pradesh State Sahitya Academy Award, wrote novels like Sar-e-Sham, Kante and Suman. Anis Kidwai recieved the Sahitya Kala Parishad Award.
Attia Hossain used to write for Pioneer, Statesman and Atlantic monthly and wrote several novels, most notably Sunlight on a Broken Column and a short story collection Phoenix Fled. Aliya Fyzee wrote Indian Music (1914), The Music of India (1925) and Sangeet of India (1942) with her husband.
Qudsia Zaidi wrote and translated books for children, with Chacha Chakkan ke Draamae among the most loved ones. She also founded Hindustani Theatre in 1954, the first urban professional theatre company in independent India.
Khushboo Kumari has a BTech in information technology and is pursuing an MBA in marketing from MICA, Ahmedabad. She is an intern at The Wire.