Muslim Women in Politics
A good number of the new Members of Iranian Majlis (Parliament) are women. Kuwait has finally yielded to allow women to vote, a right American women received around 1925. Nearly one-third of Jordanian MPs are from the fairer sex. Bangladesh reserves and nominates 30 (10 per cent) seats for women in its Sansad (Parliament) besides those women who manage to get elected in the general elections. According to UNDP Report 1997, women constitute 5.1 per cent and 3.4 per cent jobs in Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively against 2.3 per cent in India. Even in conservative United Arab Emirates, efforts are afoot to accord women representation in handpicked consultative council. Iran's index of women's development, viz gender empowerment measure (GEM) is higher than India and Pakistan's GEM. Islamic Iran has thrown up a lot of women journalists, envoys and even film makers. Tahira Shirin Al-Kheli is now a member of the US diplomatic corps.
All these only serve as a pointer towards the winds of change blowing across the Muslim world. Daughters of Islam, albeit in Hijab, are claiming a larger role in public life in the Muslim world, shattering the myth of purdah being a roadblock in their progress-spiritual, material and intellectual. Travel across the US, the UK or any part of the Western world, women in Hijab, are omnipresent. What it essentially means is that given the opportunity, Muslim women could contribute to development even while fulfilling the Islamic urges of Hijab, segregation of sexes and upbringing of family.
Muslim women in India cannot remain immune from the changes that are occurring to the general women folk. The nation is at the threshold of reserving one-third of Lok Sabha seats for the women and it is feared that if such large chunk of seats is reserved without specifying the more under-privileged sections among the women, they will fall in the hands of uppercastes who are socially and educationally forward. So the uppercastes will square up their losses in terms of representation due to the Mandal effect. This will not only reverse the process of social transformation but will also tighten the strangehold of the exploitative manuvadi forces.
In this perspective, there cannot be two opinion on sub-reservation for Muslim, OBC and Dalit women under the broader category of 33 per cent women. But let it be understood that the Muslim demand for sub-reservation could be rejected in the first attempt. Muslims would do well to prepare a contingency plan by identifying and grooming potential women leaders in the community for possible induction into the electoral arena. There is all likelihood of Muslim dominated constituencies being reserved for women. After all gerrymandering (manipulating by adding and cutting) of such constituencies has remained a favourite pastime of uppercaste bureaucrats in order to lend the advantage to the socially privileged castes. The only way to maintain the current representation would be to keep Muslim women ready in battlegear and groom them through local bodies and Assembly elections.
But electoral politics requires a whole lot of paraphernalia. Awareness, education, training, public relations, social work and high visibility precede the arrival on the political stage. One wonders if Muslim women could measure upto all this. Given the Muslim mindset of confining the women to homes and banishing them from public life, the odds will be formidable. Polluting character of politics in India too restricts the flow of ideal human material into the public life.
A natural question that would be raised: "Why hurl women into an arena that even the goodmen dislike to tread." But choices are limited. Refusal to understand the rule of the game would seriously undermine Muslim representation and over all interest. A good section of saffronised elite is sure that status quoists among Muslims would ultimately help them by keeping the Muslim women away from politics and public life. Choices that stare into our face are: keep the women out and risk further erosion of Muslim representation in law and decision-making bodies, and bring the women out and risk dilution of identity.
The way out of the dilemma is to groom and train Muslim women for a public life without scarifying the essential attributes of Muslim identity, i.e., modesty with public contact; integrity with concern for popular welfare; purity of character with availability for people one represents. Do we have a programme to proceed on a path like this?