KANPUR, Uttar Pradesh — How does Sofia Ahmed, a 25-year-old Sunni woman, reconcile being the new Muslim face of the Uttar Pradesh wing of the Bharatiya Janta Party; a party whose politics is largely based on demonising the Muslim community?
For Ahmed, a striking woman with blue-green eyes and brown hair with gold highlights, the answer is Triple Talaq.
“The worst day of my life was the day my husband gave me talaq, but it also turned out to be the best day,” Ahmed recalled in a recent conversation. “I realized my capabilities after the divorce. Today, I’m strong and independent. I’m achieving things.”
In a span of two years, Ahmed, a single mother divorced by the triple talaq provision of Muslim personal law, has gone from being a battered bride to a member of the Uttar Pradesh State Minorities Commission, a statutory body chosen by the state government headed by Yogi Adityanath: a man accused of inciting communal riots and addressing public rallies threatening violence against Ahmed’s community.
Her dramatic rise encapsulates a moment in India’s religious politics where the BJP’s strategy to use particularly patriarchal aspects of Muslim personal law to weaken the the clergy, has opened up space for young women like Ahmed.
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Ahmed’s choices offer an insight into how Muslim women negotiate the demands for a Uniform Civil Code, an arguably secular project now associated with the Hindu right.
“I would love to keep moving ahead, fight elections, become a leader,” Ahmed said. “Perhaps, I can be the first BJP politician for whom Muslims vote.”
Perhaps, I can be the first BJP politician for whom Muslims vote.
A different life
Ahmed grew up in a wealthy leather-trading family in Kanpur, and married a man from politically influential family with close links to the Samajwadi Party.
In her year-long marriage, Ahmed said, she was physically and emotionally abused by her husband, who – she said – also cheated on her. One night, Ahmed alleges, her husband came home drunk, said “Talaq, talaq, talaq,” and threw her out of their home in Kanpur.
INB has been unable to independently verify Ahmed’s claims.
Ahmed said she sought to preserve her marriage for the sake of her child, but said her husband was not interested.
“I had grown up without a father and I know the cruel things other children can ask. I didn’t want that for my son,” she said. “I was also afraid that one day my husband would come and take away my son and I would not be able to stop him. I have always seen the women around me so powerless.”
I have always seen the women around me so powerless.
After her husband left her, Ahmed made contact with the BJP’s campaign against triple talaq, a key component of its electoral strategy for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election in 2017, and began working with the party.
As she railed against triple talaq in the media, Ahmed became a face the BJP used to bolster its claim that it was opposing the practice on behalf of Muslim women.
While some Muslims felt she had betrayed her community, Ahmed, who is now raising her two-year-old son by herself, remains convinced that joining the BJP was the right thing to do.
“I was powerless and now I feel empowered. I have a platform to speak and people listen. What matters most is that I’m in a position to help other women,” she said. “Only when you can fight and speak for yourself, can you help others do the same.”
The 24-year-old is thrilled at having being picked by the Adityanath government for the minorities commission.
“It was a wow moment. It was unexpected especially because of my age, but to be recognized is a very big thing,” she said. “It’s a balanced post. I’ll serve as a bridge between the people and the government.”
I was powerless and now I feel empowered.
For the BJP, Ahmed is the ideal ‘Good Muslim’. She is telegenic, articulate, and has a compelling life story.
“It shows that people who think about the nation first, who put the interest of the nation first, even before religion, they are the people who join the BJP,” Chandra Mohan, BJP’s spokesperson in UP said, with a compelling lack of irony.
The BJP, Ahmed said, was the only party willing to stand up to the Muslim clergy. The Congress Party succumbed to the clergy in 1986, when the Rajiv Gandhi government passed a law to overturn a Supreme Court decision in favour of Shah Bano, a poor Muslim woman who had sought maintenance from her ex-husband to take care of her five children.
Ahmed said that she now wanted to challenge the laws that oppressed Muslim women.
“Who are mullahs to say whether I am a good Muslim or not?” she said. “I may not wear the hijab but I dress modestly. I pray five times a day. I’m a proud Muslim but there are practices which are wrong and we need to change with the times.”
Mohan, the BJP spokesperson, said Ahmed’s position at the State Minorities Commission was a consequence of her campaign against Triple Talaq.
“She is young and aggressive,” he said. “It was a government decision and she was found to be deserving.”
Who are mullahs to say whether I am a good Muslim or not?
UP’s 38.4 million Muslims, over 19 percent of India’s most populous state, did not have a single representative in the Lok Sabha until the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s (RLD) candidate, Tabassum Khan, was elected in the Kairana by-poll last month. Muslim representation decreased from 17.1 percent in 2012 to 5.9 percent in the UP Assembly after the 2017 state election.
While campaigning for the polls, last year, Ahmed said triple talaq mattered to her more than BJP’s openly communal election campaign. Her moment of vindication came last August, when the Supreme Court banned the practice.
But as Hindutva hardliners continue to set the BJP agenda, the young woman must confront her own delicate position as someone who claims to disagree with her party’s the majoritarian ideology.
Ahmed describes herself as “secular.” Her boss and the chief minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath holds the word in contempt.
In March, Adityanath declared that he was a devout Hindu who does not celebrate Eid. Ahmed says she celebrates all festivals and pays her respects at temples, mosques, churches and gurdwaras.
“I suppose that is his point of view, but these things should not be said publicly because you might hurt someone’s religion. India is known for its secularism. I’m not a vote bank politician. I’m here to serve people. I’m here to help them,” she said.
India is known for its secularism. I’m not a vote bank politician.
Ahmed valiantly defends the BJP’s stand on a host of issues ranging from the Babri Masjid-Ram Temple dispute to the beef ban, but she concedes that Muslims today feel like second class citizens in their own country.
“There is a feeling that Muslims are one level lower than everyone else. The truth is that India isn’t going to be just for Hindus,” she said. “Just because someone says that Muslims should go to Pakistan doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. To be successful, one has to govern for everyone.”
There is a feeling that Muslims are one level lower than everyone else.
Credit Sofia Ahmed
When opportunity knocks
For Naish Hasan, a women’s rights activist in Lucknow, who has devoted her life to ending triple talaq, any Muslim joining the BJP is doing it to further one’s own ambition rather than a cause.
It was Hasan whom Ahmed had approached for advice in the aftermath of her divorce. Recalling her meetings with Ahmed, Hasan said, “It was clear that she was ambitious and that she wanted to make her mark in the politics.”
“From what I remember, she had planned to join the BJP quite early on. If I had any concerns, I kept them to myself. It is after all her choice,” she said.
If anyone can identify with the dilemma of being a Muslim woman seeking an end to triple talaq, and seen to be supporting the BJP, it is Hasan.
Despite her reservations about the BJP and its motives, Hasan was delighted when the Modi government gave a political platform to decades of activism.
“I ignored the people who called me a ‘BJP supporter’ because all that to mattered to me was was ending triple talaq,” she said. “No other political party had ever had the guts to take on the mullahs for fearing of losing the Muslim vote.”
I ignored the people who called me a ‘BJP supporter’ because all that to mattered to me was was ending triple talaq.
Now, however, BJP’s professed sympathies appear hollow to Hasan. The women’s rights activist said that she had submitted letters to the Ministry of Women and Child Development about Muslim women in need of support from the state, but has not received any response.
Even the religious minorities commission in UP, which Ahmed was appointed to in February, Hasan said, had done nothing of note. “It has been three or four months now. What has it done for minorities?” she asked.
Minorities commissions, both at the state and national level, have no constitutional authority, and are widely regarded as toothless. The minorities commission in UP, for instance, did almost no work when the Samajwadi Party was in power.
Hasan believes Ahmed would have wanted to contest the 2017 Assembly election if she had been over 25 at the time. “I don’t know if she has formed her own ideology or knows about the ideology of that of the party she has joined,” she said. “I think she was looking for a platform and she found it.”
The Muslim clergy
Ahmed appears aware that the BJP’s campaign against triple talaq was not motivated by feminist impulses.
BJP critics have viewed it partly as an image-building exercise by the Modi government to allay the fears of the liberal-minded Hindu voters, and partly informed by a long-standing desire to implement a uniform civil code in India.
For Ahmed, however, the Muslim clergy poses a far greater threat to her freedom and happiness than the BJP and its agenda of Hindu nationalism.
“There is no greater threat to Muslim women than Muslim men,” she said. “There are many mullahs and maulvis who say I am not Muslim because I speak against triple talaq.”
There is no greater threat to Muslim women than Muslim men.
Ahmed’s anger at “Muslim society” has roots deeper than her own unhappy marriage and divorce. Her mother and her elder sister both suffered under Muslim personal law, she said — her mother had fought for her inheritance when Ahmed’s father died in a road accident, and her sister who was also divorced by triple talaq.
INB couldn’t independently verify these claims.
In the family court in Kanpur, where she and her husband attended counselling sessions to try to save their marriage, Ahmed said she encountered similar stories. The Maulvis conducting the counselling, Ahmed said, invariably sought reconciliation — even if it put women in danger.
When this reporter pointed out that women from other religious communities are similarly plagued, Ahmed said, “That is true but I’m acting against the injustices in my community, the society I live in.”
Now, Ahmed wants more than just a ban on triple talaq.
“We must also bring an end to polygamy and Nikah Halala. I will do everything in my power to do so,” she said, referring to the law that requires a Muslim woman to sleep with another man in order to return to her first husband, if he has divorced her twice already.
Adnan Abidi / Reuters
Triple talaq today
There is no good quality data on the prevalence of triple talaq in Indian society. An online survey conducted by the New Delhi-based Centre for Research and Debates in Development Policy (CRDDP) found that incidents of triple talaq constituted 1 in 100 cases of divorce – 0.3 percent – among Muslims. But the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Morcha survey found triple talaq constituted 59 percent of divorce cases.
But even the staunchest critics of triple talaq feel the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017, drafted by the Modi government, is a disaster.
“I had fought so hard and for so long, but in the end the bill was so disappointing,” said Hasan, the activist, “We wanted to get justice for women, we did not want to get Muslim men chucked into prison.
“The irony is that after the bill was made public, people asked me ‘Is this why you supported the BJP?’ and I had no answer to give them.”
We wanted to get justice for women, we did not want to get Muslim men chucked into prison.
The proposed law makes triple talaq a cognizable and non-bailable offence, with a three year prison term. The police can arrest a man without a warrant, and even if his wife has not filed a complaint. The bill provides for “subsistence maintenance” for the wife, but it does not say who will pay it if the husband is incarcerated.
“Behind this hasty move is the formulation that the Muslim woman must invariably be projected as devoid of rights and lacking agency, and the Muslim male as premodern, lustful, polygamous, and barbaric,” human rights lawyer, Flavia Agnes, wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly.
The bill is currently stuck in the Rajya Sabha.
The criminalization of triple talaq has both, supporters and detractors, amongst Muslim women.
Shaista Ambar, who heads the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board, believes the proposed law needs penal provisions alongside reconciliatory steps that are mentioned in Muslim Personal Law.
“It is the government’s responsibility how to do combine both,” Ambar said.
Nida Khan, a triple talaq survivor, who voted for the BJP in the 2017 Assembly election, feels the bill did not go far enough.
“The BJP started the fire of the triple talaq but it never turned into a flame,” she said. “It has failed to fulfil its promise (of criminalizing triple talaq).”
Khan believes triple talaq should be an offence punishable with a seven-year prison term. “Otherwise, nothing will change,” she said.
The BJP started the fire of the triple talaq but it never turned into a flame.
Credit Sofia Ahmed
Rights versus Hindutva
“How do you talk about your rights without falling into the Hindutva trap?” asked Nida Kirmani, a professor of sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, and author of “Questioning the ‘Muslim Woman’: Identity and Insecurity in an Urban Indian Locality.”
The Hindu right has advanced the narrative of oppressed Muslim women who need saving from Muslim men, for decades, Kirmani said. Organiser, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) mouthpiece, had carried articles about how Muslim women suffered in their community, since the Partition in 1947.
The BJP had turned this narrative into a political project.
“Muslim women are used by the Hindu-right to showcase the backwardness of Muslims and the need for reform through the politics of Hindutva,” she said. “What gets lost is the voice of Muslim women.”
Muslim women are used by the Hindu-right to showcase the backwardness of Muslims and the need for reform through the politics of Hindutva.
Zakia Soman, founder of the Mumbai-based Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, said the efforts of Muslim women, not the BJP, resulted in the Supreme Court banning triple talaq.
If the BJP had co-opted triple talaq, Soman said, it was because self-avowed secular parties like the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the All India Trinamool Congress had ceded the ground.
“If you are secular, does that mean that you cannot speak against the patriarchy suffered by Muslim women. Is this some either or kind of situation?” she asked. “If the BJP managed to take credit, it is the hypocrisy of the secular parties and, to an extent, of the liberals that is to blame.”
If the BJP managed to take credit, it is the hypocrisy of the secular parties and, to an extent, of the liberals that is to blame.
Ahmed’s belief that —Muslim men were the worst threat to Muslim women — Kirmani said, was an instance of one’s life experiences inform their point-of-view, like in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Sudanese born Dutch-American activist, who suffered female genital mutilation as a child.
Ali’s critique of the practice and of Islam, Kirmani said, had been co-opted by the American right-wing and used to feed Islamophobia.
“Any man can be abusive. There is nothing particularly abusive about Muslim men,” she said.
Any man can be abusive. There is nothing particularly abusive about Muslim men.
Soman, who became an activist after the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, said that she did not buy into BJP’s professed concern for Muslim women.
“I belong to Gujarat and I know very well the politics of the BJP. There is no place for Muslims,” she said. “What is to be done? With the BJP in power, with the BJP out of power, there never seems to be a right time for Muslim women.”
Soman added, “But this is not about who is in power. It is about righting a wrong.”
With the BJP in power, with the BJP out of power, there never seems to be a right time for Muslim women.
Credit Sofia Ahmed
No need to justify
When INB spoke with Ahmed during the Uttar Pradesh election campaign in 2017, Ahmed dismissed Hindutva firebrands such as Adityanath and Sangeet Som as fringe elements. Modi and his promise of “sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas” (inclusive governance), she said, were the true face of the BJP.
When Modi appointed Adityanath as the chief minister, Ahmed said she was “shocked and a little disappointed” to see a Hindutva hardliner appointed the CM, but was willing to give him a chance.
Adityanath kicked off his tenure with the “anti-Romeo squads”, brought cattle smuggling under the purview for the National Security Act, renamed Mughalsarai Junction as Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction, and only this week, one of his MLAs asked for the Taj Mahal to be renamed the Krishna Mahal.
Referring to the remarks of one BJP lawmaker who claimed the Taj Mahal was originally a temple, Ahmed said that she won’t support “something that is wrong”.
“Both Hindus and Muslims have constructed the Taj Mahal. Today, when a temple is constructed, there are Muslims workers who help build it. When a mosque is constructed, Hindus help build it,” Ahmed said.
“I heard a line recently which went like this – if you keep the Gita and the Koran in the same room, there is no fighting. So why is there fighting when a Hindu and Muslim are in the same room?”
Both Hindus and Muslims have constructed the Taj Mahal.
There is resentment in sections of the Muslim community who feel betrayed by women like Ahmed and Ishrat Jehan, one of the five petitioners in the triple talaq case, who joined the BJP in January. A few days later, Jehan’s lawyer, Nazia Elahi Khan, also joined the BJP.
M. Shakeel Ahmed, a law professor at the Aligarh Muslim University, described triple talaq as an “excuse” to further personal ambition. “The BJP is a communal, anti-Muslim party. Any Muslim who joins the party has to give a justification just to save face,” he said.
Citing examples like Ahmed and Jehan, BJP continues to claim that it has made inroads into the Muslim community. In fact, there was not a single constituency where the BJP’s vote share exceeded that of the Hindu population of that constituency in the UP Assembly election.
In her own circle of Muslim women, Ahmed has not observed any significant shift in loyalties towards the BJP, but she feels no need to justifying her decision to remain in the BJP.
To those who say that the BJP has used her to promote its campaign against triple talaq, Ahmed counters that she has used the BJP.
“It won’t work if the BJP keep using me. It’s vice versa. If me being a Muslim is a plus for the BJP then I’m getting a platform from the BJP. If you take something from me then I take something from you too,” she said. “Give and take – isn’t that what life is all about?”
If me being a Muslim is a plus for the BJP then I’m getting a platform from the BJP.
Credit Sofia Ahmed
Member Minority Commission
Earlier this year, Ahmed’s profile photo on Whatsapp read, “Leadership is not a position or a title, it is action and example.” It is signed – “Member of Minority Commission, Uttar Pradesh Government.”
In her personal capacity, Ahmed explained that she could use her own resources to help a handful of Muslim women for a finite amount of time. As a member of the Minority Commission, the BJP member believes she can recommend a school be built in a Muslim-dominated area and the government might act on it.
Ahmed is unfazed by the reputation minorities commissions have for being ineffectual bodies ignored by the governments that set them up. Ahmed said that her priority is adult education and skill development for Muslim women.
“Today, they are at the mercy of the mullahs who tell them to keep producing children. When they can’t support the children, the mullahs will say ‘Allah ki dain hai.’ It is sick. Women need to be counselled to think for themselves,” she said.
Women need to be counselled to think for themselves.
At some point in the near future, Ahmed wants to meet with chief minister Adityanath to discuss her ideas and plans.
Her ambition is boundless.
“If I do become an important leader in the future, people will find something very different in me,” she said. “I will make every effort to change negative thinking within the BJP and how people think about the BJP.”
If I do become an important leader in the future, people will find something very different in me.
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