Quick question: Can you name one pan-India woman Muslim leader? If you can’t, that’s because the male community has forever been at the forefront of representing Muslim voices, even when it concerned women’s issues, and have done a shoddy job of it. Whether it’s the Babri Masjid Action Committee, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind or the few Muslim politicians we know of, they have all been pied pipers who have led the Muslim community to a ditch.
In an article in 2019, I had argued that Indian Muslims are in dire need of a leader, someone as malleable as Congress’ Shashi Tharoor – a devout Hindu and an Oxford dictionary sputtering progressive statesman. A leader who is secular but not necessarily a Muslim since India aspires to be a secular nation.
But it’s fairly clear now that, driven by the general lack of trust in the country’s justice system and the laws being brought in to subdue their sense of liberty and equality, Muslims can only trust one of their own. And the recent years have shown why only a modern, vocal and woke Muslim woman should take the leadership mantle.
Owaisi is not the answer
Currently, the most popular Muslim leader is AIMIM president and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi. And he is not the answer to the community’s leadership question. His attempts at benefitting the BJP by being a “vote-cutter” for opposition parties are now for everyone to see. And the community has called out his bluff, albeit after several years of getting riled up by him. Even the supposed “assassination attempt” on his life being played out ad nauseam on news channels could barely move the Muslim community because the playbook of the ‘56-inch type’ virile bravado sounds all too familiar.
The most emotive issue in the last three decades was the Ayodhya dispute. The Muslim voice in the matter was entirely dominated and represented by male members. The All India Babri Masjid Action Committee had the following men at the helm of affairs representing the ‘Muslim cause’ – former diplomat and politician Syed Shahabuddin, former Rajya Sabha member Obaidullah Khan Azmi, Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid Ahmed Bukhari, Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan and senior advocate Zafaryab Jilani. Besides scoring political brownie points, they achieved nothing.
But more than describing the leaders we don’t need, it’s time to assess what Muslims in India need from a leader because the intensity and toxicity with which their issues have been discussed and pursued since Narendra Modi-led BJP came to power in 2014 has been unprecedented.
Why a woman leader matters
When the issue of instant triple talaq (divorce) became a matter of polarising debate, it was largely Muslim men who spoke against the law banning the practice. The problem was that Muslim men speaking for each other took the focus away from the fact that the government’s move to criminalise the act after the Supreme Court had held the practice null and void was purely communal. A muslim female leader raising this would have effectively made others see the bias inherent in the government’s move behind bringing the triple talaq law.
The recent hijab row was another issue where the liberty of a Muslim woman to wear what she wants was lost in the cacophony of courts discussing whether the attire was an essential practice in Islam. A woman Muslim leader being at the forefront would have not only helped define the goalpost in the hijab row but also unmasked the hindrance that the BJP’s political motive of turning Karnataka into South India’s model Hindutva state is causing to young Muslim women and their education. The BJP’s hypocrisy in claiming to ‘protect’ Muslim women would have been all too clear for everyone to see.
The protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) showed how India’s Muslim women can take the lead in being the community’s voice. What we need now is a modern Muslim woman leader — one who floats from English to Urdu, who is culturally Islamic but doesn’t necessarily dress the part, who speaks of the community’s economic decay fuelled by boycott and restrictions imposed on street vendors, and who talks of education and healthcare. India’s Muslim community doesn’t need a rabble-rouser. We need a hustler.
The author is a political observer who tweets @zainabsikander. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)