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08/02/2018 11:50 AM IST | Updated 08/02/2018 11:55 AM IST

Why A Woman Leading Friday Prayers In Kerala Is A Great Development For India

When religious practices change, then subsequently everything can change.

Fayaz Kabli / Reuters
A Kashmiri Muslim woman prays on seeing the relic (not in the frame) of Prophet Mohammed during concluding celebrations for "Meeraj-un-Nabi" at the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar August 17, 2007.

A few days ago, I came across a headline, which really got me interested. In the Indian state of Kerala, a Muslim woman named Jamida led the weekly Friday prayers in the predominantly orthodox Muslim town of Malappuram. Her step is remarkable given the fact that she is, in reality, a religious and practicing Muslim who also works for a religious organization. This also marks the first time that an Indian Muslim woman has led prayers in an orthodox setting. In the past, some women have done it in the western countries where threats of violent backlash are relatively minute.

In this case, she has taken a huge risk, as violent backlash is a real possibility. In fact, after leading the prayer, she has constantly been receiving death threats from fundamentalist elements.

However, she is not deterred by the backlash and in a subsequent interview has stated that she believes in Quran, which teaches equality between men and women. She has emphasized that discrimination against women is man made and imposed by the male clergy.

I could not help but marvel at her courage and conviction. Here is a devout and a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, who is challenging gender stereotypes by actually using religious justifications. Her act is not based on some Western ideals, but on her interpretation of Islam.

Now, of course, there are many who disagree with her. After reading that story, I visited social media where there was a heated debate on whether this act was allowed in Islam or not. I also saw videos, where conservative clergies were heatedly arguing that this act was not allowed in Islam as it compromised her "modesty"!

I am not a religious scholar but I would like to point out that there are many practices on which there is room for debate within Islamic traditions. What eventually really matters is the interpretation of religion. For example, there has been a debate whether a woman can be head of the state in a Muslim country.

According to some conservative scholars, it is not allowed whereas some relatively liberal scholars think that it is permissible. Despite opposition of hardline elements, we have seen several female heads of state in recent times such as Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Sheikh Haseena Wajid (Bangladesh), Khalida Zia (Bangladesh) and Megawati Sukarnoputri (Indonesia). Eventually what transpires depends on which interpretation is more acceptable for mainstream Muslims.

Until last year, Saudi clergymen had been giving religious arguments against women's right to drive and today it has become acceptable. The point, which I am trying to make, is that religious interpretations can be heterogeneous and always have room to evolve. Since for Muslims religion is an extremely important aspect of their lives and they want it to be in the legal code and customs, therefore it is extremely critical that liberal interpretations become more pervasive.

If this happens, it will bode well for improving human rights and gender balance in the Muslim countries. In one of my previous articles, I wrote as to how gender imbalance is a systemic issue in the Muslim world. I gave an example of World Economic Forum's annual gender gap index, which ranks countries with respect to gender parity. In 2016, a total of 144 countries were ranked and not a single Muslim majority country was in the top 50. Furthermore, the last 15 countries (130-144) were all Muslim majority countries. Pakistan ranked at 143rd with only the war-torn Yemen below it.

In 2017, things hardly improved and apart from Bangladesh, (which improved its position from 72nd in 2016 to 47th in 2017), all other Muslim countries remained at the bottom with Pakistan retaining its second last position.

In fact, the strongest predictor of a country's place in the above ranking is whether it is a Muslim country or not. If we take two countries with similar socioeconomic characteristics, but one is Muslim and the other is not, there is a strong probability that the Muslim majority country will have a much greater gender imbalance. In other words, even if we control for other factors, the fact that a country is Muslim, is apparently the most significant factor in predicting the gender imbalance.

What makes Muslim countries so gender imbalanced? In my opinion, it is the prevalent religious orthodoxy in legal code as well as customs, which in turn has led to a situation that is discordant with modern times. Gender balance cannot be improved without fracturing of the religious orthodoxy and for that, we need reform from within religion.

The most significant reformation would take place when religious practices start to change by accommodating women in leading roles also. When religious practices change, then subsequently everything can change.

It is in this context that this recent episode of a woman leading a prayer becomes important. It has generated much-needed debate about the role, which women can play in Islamic religious rituals. I am happy to see that in India, many women are coming to her defense, passionately arguing that Islam does not forbid a woman to lead the prayers. They are reiterating that Islam is a progressive religion as it challenged the patriarchal system in Arab by giving women proper inheritance rights and improving their legal status. I fully agree with them as I believe that Islam has that progressive spirit. We need to emphasize on that so that we come out of the current time trapped situation.

I hope that the debate, which this brave act of Jamida Bibi has started, continues. Only be debating these issues, can we move forward in the right direction.

Good luck to her and all the other valiant women who are supporting her!

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