New Delhi- In her seminal work, Lila Abu Lughod produces a compelling critique of the question ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?’ In India, where Muslim Women’s expressions of identity have been met with the curtailment of fundamental rights to education across different states, what is the answer to this question? Narratives of ‘saviourism’ trigger a deeply patriarchal complex, disregarding agency of the community and their own visions for liberation from oppressive situations. Further, the experiences, choices, and beliefs of Muslim women vary greatly - they are not a monolith. It is critical to recognise this, centring their perspectives, hopes and fears for the future. This article focuses on amplifying the views of a sample of young lower-middle class women who live, work and study in New Delhi and Lucknow. Oriented around such a sample, we recognise our piece cannot cover the many experiences across the country. We, therefore, see this work as a contribution to a broader conversation on the need to understand Indian Muslim Women’s lived experiences of agency, their visions of probable and desirable futures, and amplify their calls for action.
Sadia, who currently works in a NGO, sees, “agency as the power and azaadi (freedom) through which we can pursue our chahat (desires) and ishq (love).” Aisha, a student at a public college, believes agency is the capacity to “make decisions - whether this be financial or educational, about marriage, how we dress, what we eat, who we are friends with and the life we lead - without being answerable to people for the choices we make.” In our conversations, there emerged a collective wish among the women to not give ‘jawaab-dehi’ or be answerable to anyone when making such decisions, this includes family, which sometimes emerges as a barrier in pursuit of their own dreams.
The challenges posed to Muslim women’s agency in India today are multi-layered. For Saba, a grassroots organiser, the predominant concern is the threat to “safety and security”, this “impacts the choices we make - is the way we dress going to lead to harassment in the workplace? Will our language choices (using Urdu vocabulary) reveal our community affiliations? Do we always have to prove our worth because we are a minority?” As Asima, a programme manager at a feminist organisation, told us, being the recipients of “explicit content including death and rape threats and hateful messages” after articulating views on social media leads to an internal battle: “do we stick with our principles or take decisions to safeguard ourselves?” There is a particular fear for the safety of Muslim men. As Faza, a community worker with adolescent girls, says “ghar ke mardon ko bahar bhejna” (sending the men outside the city) has become an “everyday difficulty”. This is amplified by a low level of trust in the legal system, struggles in the workplace, difficulty buying property and fear of homes being demolished.
For Aisha, wearing the hijab is an “empowering choice”. Yet, she is met with hatred and misogyny when she shares photos of herself having fun with friends – “there are anonymous men on social media platforms telling me what I should or should not do, their misogyny tries to fit me into boxes – people victimise you to another level, they turn on a saviour complex”. Zeenat, a digital educator notes the same, highlighting “uncomfortable gazes” when wearing a hijab or niqab in public; from “looks while taking a rickshaw” to being given “unclean water in restaurants”, she is made to experience feelings of “chua-chhutt”. As Aisha remarked, “what was once curious stares are now hateful – they are enough to make you want to hide”. It is as though there is a need to be resilient amid discrimination, “I am learning to be stronger though I should not need to be”.
While in previous years Sidra, a teacher, and her neighbours would “always mark Eid, Holi and Diwali together”, now, as she told us “they don’t even converse with me”, there is “no relationship anymore - our children are left without friendship bracelets in school.” Given all of this, what feels most likely to happen in the future?
“I can’t see myself in the future," said Zeenat, a quote capturing a collective sense among our interviewees that the probable future marks a downward spiral and entrance into darker territory.
We heard fears of greater restrictions on mobility, loss of voting rights, reduction in government jobs, fewer judicial and political positions, the crushing of dissent, and the emergence of more unchecked mobs. What happens if such a future, defined by a loss of life, agency, and dignity comes into fruition? Aisha believes young Indian Muslims will be “more inclined to leave the country.” The primary “motive”, however, would not be “work or study opportunities” but a need to “feel safe”. India would “miss out on its own talent” because it discriminates against them. However, only a privileged few could entertain this idea.
Sadia believes that the probable future is “hazy” - it will be about “hiding our face and our views”, with all preferences being judged – including a Muslim woman’s choice of “wearing a bindi or a hijab”. Sidra concurred, noting “Muslim women will lose their agency to dress the way they want and live life on their own terms”. Building on contemporary trends across different states, Faza, Tasneem and Sidra believe that the central government may impose a mutually exclusive choice on parents, girls going to school or wearing a hijab. In such a situation, there will be those who reject this binary as an attack on agency and constitutional rights, as well as conservative voices in the community who will use it for their agenda and claim “dekha, is liye ladkiyon ko padhana nahin chahiye’” (see, it is for this reason that girls should not be educated).
Aisha believes there will be more stories like those of her friend’s parents who had to change their identity for fear of being visibly Muslim - “this should not be happening in a secular democracy” she said. She recalled the story of her cousin in second standard who felt alienated when Islam was excluded in a class on major global religions – such stories will become “commonplace” in a likely future. Tasneem fears that the future will be dominated by discourses to the effect of “don’t do this, otherwise this will happen”. In such an environment, Saba believes that while they “will be high on political power and fed hateful propaganda, GenZ from the majority community will also be struck by poverty and unemployment”. Indeed, in a future of no accountability, everyone will suffer.
In such a future, Asima believes resistance will require “intersectional feminist movements”. Cutting across caste, class, religious and geographical divides, minority communities will come together and build coalitions of solidarity for direct action as well as local safe spaces for conversations on lived experiences. Yet, in a future where Muslims are systematically targeted and isolated and “few in the majority community stand up in vocal support for our rights”, Aisha believes the community will have “no choice” but to try and provide for itself at all levels, “including education, work, healthcare and housing.” In such a scenario, Asima believes “the doors of once close friends will close on us.” In search of a hopeful future, where do we begin?
Saba emphasises that there is a lot that is desirable but difficult to explore, given the preoccupation with the current circumstances in the country. Nonetheless, the women we spoke with persist in creating space for their imaginations to roam freely. It is revealing, however, that often at the forefront of their minds is the desire for the bare minimum, a future which does not violate their fundamental rights.
Nevertheless, Aisha maintains a dream of one-day establishing a political party with her friends, involving Muslim leaders, fostering a more inclusive society, and providing representation for minority communities. Saba expresses her desire for a world where her mind is not perpetually preoccupied with politics, where she can travel without the constant fear of something going wrong, and where she can be at peace, assured that her family and friends will remain safe. “This ideal world would allow us to breathe freely, speak Urdu without judgement, fear, and bias,” she adds.
In this desirable future, the goal is to live in a land where fear does not inhibit the exploration of personal interests. For many of the Muslim women we spoke to, that was an environment they had lived in the years gone by, but it is now lost, yet the fabric of their lives is woven so tightly to it that they cannot afford to lose any more. They dream of a future where women can walk freely on the streets, visit sunflower fields, have tea in public spaces, and not be subjected to unwarranted stares.
Saba envisions a country where she can engage in all the activities she enjoys, whether it is being with artisans who promote beautiful art, making pottery, having open-air baths, or pursuing a career of her choice. Furthermore, Saba envisions a world where accountability is a crucial aspect in the lives of citizens and the way the government operates. For Aisha, a hopeful future would be one where the media questions those in power about laws and policies. In summary, we learned about visions of a world where everything aligns with one's own choices – a place where everyone can wear colourful clothes, live life on their own terms, shared aspirations for solidarity, and a future that does not cast doubt on the identity of Muslim women.
In light of the insights drawn from explorations of probable and desirable futures of Muslim women’s agency in India, we invited our interviewees to share their reflections and questions for the present-day. They noted that those who spread hateful propaganda today have “forgotten their own dreams and aspirations in life”, it prevents their questioning of the “government's inability to provide them with support and jobs” and willingness to demand “equal access to safety, security, education and health”. Reflecting on personal agency, we heard calls for the “freedom to choose my partner” and explore one's own sexuality, as interviewees asked, “Why the nosiness? Why do we want to police women’s bodies?” That these questions need asking is a cause for frustration, navigating oppression takes up mental space and disrupts dreams of leisure - as Saba mentioned, “Why can’t we all have fun and just chill?”.
Ultimately, our conversations with young lower-middle class Muslim Women in New Delhi and Lucknow reveals great variety in visions of agency across different future scenarios. This study would be further enriched by speaking with Muslim women living, working and studying in different regions of India, including rural areas, as well as greater exploration of how caste and class dynamics shape their lived experiences. Understandings of agency continue to evolve, as women navigate oppression in their context and collectively generate new ways towards liberation in line with their values and visions, with no requirement for external ‘saviourism’. Indeed, to transform society, Aisha calls for action against the “constant attack” affecting Muslim women in and beyond the community. Everyone expressed a need for “continued grassroots feminist movements” and “affecting change through education”. Taking inspiration from the women of Shaheen Bagh who opposed the discriminatory citizenship amendment act, Asima called for “collective power”. As Zeenat remarked “individually we cannot do it, but together we can”. Tasneem and Sidra call for “taking to the streets”, such mobilisation and solidarity among marginalised groups in society will generate “hope”, says Asima. While India promises to be a constitutional republic home to unity in diversity, the stories of Muslim women prove that this is a vision yet to be realised.
- Kushal Sohal & Fatima Juned
About the Authors- Kushal Sohal is a futures literacy designer who works with intergovernmental agencies, civil society, and universities on the future of themes such as gender and education. Fatima Juned is a researcher, writer and photographer who has been working on the themes of gender, livelihood, and human rights.
Disclaimer: This article is based on interviews conducted by the authors, and they are solely responsible for the content and perspectives presented.Names of interviewees have been changed to protect the identity of individuals involved