Teacher Jamitha’s dare to lead the prayer is a body blow to the Muslim clergy’s patriarchal supremacy in Kerala
Jamitha, who made headlines by leading men in prayer at a mosque in Malappuram in Kerala is not the first Muslim woman in the world to do so.
In March 2005, Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University, in the United States led a mixed gender prayer, the first ever in recorded history.
More recently in August 2016, a mosque in Copenhagen saw a Danish born woman by the name Saliha Marie Fetteh take the role of an Imam.
But what sets Jamitha apart from these two women is the punch that her act has landed on the face of a staunchly patriarchal clergy in one of the most conservative areas of the Muslim community in India.
Though the attacks on her house last week, twice over three days, does not provide enough evidence that it was masterminded by a section of the clergy, the growing discomfort among them is evident.
Mohiyudeen Nadukkandiyil Karassery, better known in the literary world as MN Karassery, is one of Kerala’s well known Muslim writers and activists based out of Calicut.
Karassery thinks that the attack on Jamitha shows that the path-breaking reform she has dared to attempt in a highly conservative and male centric community, has hit the bull’s eye.
“No doubt what Jamitha did is a protest against the discrimination faced by women in the Muslim community for years. The attack on her comes out of the fear that she would break this accepted norm,’’ Karassery told The Lede.
But Karassery goes on to ask – “Why do you think no Muslim organisation has uttered a word against this? They are scared that if one were to respond to such actions, inadvertently they will end up creating a space for such noises to echo inside the community. The more you oppose Jamitha the more acceptance she will get among the community’s womenfolk which will break the patriarchal set-up the men had enjoyed for years. So best is to ignore and discredit the person,’’ Karassersy told The Lede.
Karassery’s words have been substantiated by the response that The Lede gathered over the last few days from various Muslim religious heads in Calicut and Malappuram, where Kerala’s Muslim community is concentrated in large numbers.
While most of them were tightlipped and some commenting off-the-record, a big section were of the opinion that any word of protest against Jamitha would only give her unwanted publicity.
“I don’t have anything much to say on this matter. Whatever she has done is not per the rules of Islam or the Quran. There are a lot of other issues affecting Muslim women. This is not the real empowerment of women as she claims. She is just a pawn in someone else’s hand out to malign Islam,’’ TP Abdullah Koya Madhani, State President of the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen, a powerful Islamic organisation that preaches the ultra-conservative Salafism told The Lede.
The propaganda to discredit Jamitha also labels her an agent of the Sangh Parivar. Her association with the Hindu Aikya Vedi, a saffron fringe group has also not made it easy for Jamitha.
“See we are very clear about this. Jamitha does not even deserve an acknowledgment from the community leaders here. Doing something which has not happened for 1500 years ever since the time of the Prophet, it is just an attempt to mock at Islam. Some BJP members are involved in this. Why should we respond to such gimmicks?’’ asks Sathar Panthaloor, General Secretary of Samstha Kerala Sunni Students Federation (SKSSF), another powerful organisation that has a strong presence in the community especially amongst youngsters.
Jamitha however says that this was expected and her resolve has only got more powerful by the silence of the big wigs.
“These people will not respond to my challenges simply because they know what I am doing is right. For years they have been neglecting the real teachings of the Quran and have been going after Hadith which is nothing but hearsay so that they can interpret Quranic verses in such a manner that they can keep the women always under their grip. Nowhere in Quran there is any differentiation between man and woman in any matter. Now they are saying I am an agent of the Sangh Parivar. See when my house was attacked and I was physically threatened it was the Hindu Aikya Vedi that came to my help, not a single Muslim organisation,’’ Jamitha Beevi told The Lede.
Beginning Of A New Reform Effort?
Jamitha told The Lede that the decision to lead in prayer was not a spur of the moment decision but a well planned one.
It all started with the debates that she had been having with a number of community leaders on the issue of Triple Talaq in the past few months where again she was continuously attacked on social media for her stand.
“There was a need to ignite a spark among at least a small section of the believers that it is the hegemony of these male preachers which is not letting the women realise her potential inside the community. When we discussed it as a group, I thought why not lead a prayer, something which had never been done in this part of the world. I was sure it will send out a message to all,’’ Jamitha told The Lede.
Jamitha may received brickbats – threats, taunts and insults – for her stand, but she has certainly sparked off a debate about the woman’s position in Islam, something that conservative north Kerala has always considered a taboo to speak openly about.
An example is a Facebook post by VP Rajeena, a prominent journalist in response to what Jamitha did.
Rajeena’s post which is in Malayalam when translated reads roughly as – “I may not want to lead any prayer. But I have one wish that before I die I may be allowed to visit the graves of my dear ones in the mosque, sit there for sometime, grieve for them and spend time with them alone.’’
Islam does not permit or rather the clergy has strictly revoked women from visiting the graves adjoining mosques. Women are not even allowed entry during cremation time or to accompany the dead bodies of their dear ones.
“This is the kind of catalyst that Jamitha’s action is likely to bring among the Muslim community here especially among the women who will now think about their rights. See for centuries Islam has been a male-centered society because all the teachings of the Hadith which is what interprets the holy book has been interpreted by male members only. So it was always done to suit them and their domination. It is this mentality that has to break,’’ Hameed Chennamangaloor, one of Kerala’s well social critics told The Lede.
This is exactly what Jamitha claims she has been trying to do at the Khuraan Sunnath Society (KSS) founded by the followers of Chekannur Maulavi, one of Islam’s well known social reformer from the Malabar region.
Maulavi who had been a firebrand when it came to pointing out discriminatory and dogmatic practices in Islam, was believed to be murdered by hardliners after he disappeared in 1993. A CBI court even handed out life imprisonment to one VV Hamsa in 2010 for Maulavi’s murder.
When asked whether she has the fear of meeting the same fate as Maulavi, Jamitha laughs it off saying such thoughts do not deter her. “I am not afraid of getting killed by these people. I am only afraid of not being able to speak the truth. The Quran has always taught me to speak the truth and raise questions which I will do till my last breath,’’ added the single mother of two young children.
But not everyone is convinced about the social reform and the influence that KSS or Jamitha can bring to the Muslim community in Kerala.
Ashraf Kadakkal is a well known historian at the Kerala University and a writer of a number of books on the influence of Salafism among the community. He questions the inability of the KSS to make an impact over the last two decades of its existence among the Muslims in the state.
“See the problem is such organisations and its people fail to understand what the real problem in Islam or among the women in the community is at the practical level. Here you are arguing whether the Hadith is right or the Quran is right, whether you should depend on the Hadith to interpret the holy book or not. These are all issues at the scholarly level fit for arguments and debates. But they have very little role in actually changing the life of a Muslim woman in today’s world,’’ Kadakkal told The Lede.
The words of Kadakkal were also echoed by a number of Muslim women who spoke to The Lede in confidence.
But while signing off Jamitha also told the Lede that ‘another bomb’ similar to leading the prayer is round the corner to give yet another shock treatment to the clergy in north Kerala.