Since Independence, India has achieved significant growth and development. It has also been successful in reducing poverty and improving crucial human development indicators such as levels of literacy, education and health. There are indications, however, that not all religious community and social groups (henceforth socio-religious communities – SRCs) have shared equally the benefits of the growth process. Among these, the Muslims, the largest minority community in the country, constituting 13.4 per cent of the population, is seriously lagging behind in terms of most of the human development indicators. However, one cannot explain the development of Muslims from the prism of homogenization. Indian Muslim community is very much heterogeneous and divided along the caste, class, and sectoral line. This essay will focus on the socio-economic condition of the Muslim women, who constitutes 48.35 percent of total Muslim population.
In Indian context, the question of Muslim women has been largely moves around the issues of marriage, triple talak, and maintenance aftermath. The obsessive focus on select cases of Muslim women passionately discussed in the media results in identifying the Islam as the sole locus of gender injustice in the Community. Consequently, the civil society and the State locate Muslim women’s deprivation not in terms of the ‘objective’ reality of societal discrimination and faulty development policies, but in the religious-community space. This allows the State to shift the blame to the Community and to absolve itself of neglect. Consequently, an oblivious silence over the real issues like employment, health, education, security has been maintained by all the political and social actors.
Recently, Sachar Committee report draws our attention towards the deplorable condition of Muslims in general and women in particular. At the educational level, the literacy rate among rural Muslim women is 43 percent, which is below the national average of 46 percent, whereas, in urban area, Muslim women are 10 percent behind the national average of 73 percent. The major external factors, as pointed out by Sachar Committee, are poverty, lack of schools and educational institutions in the Muslims majority areas. This, in effect, produces bleak job opportunities for women in regular salaried jobs or high paid private jobs.
Against the stereotype notion that Muslim women are confined to their household following Islamic injunction - which is anyway nothing to do with it - 25.2 percent of all Muslim women population age group between 15-64 years are involved in various types of works in 2004-05. Out of that 50.7 percent women are involved in agriculture, hunting and related service activities, 11.9 percent are employed in tobacco industry, 9.9 percent and 4.7 percent Muslim women are further employed in textile and apparel industries respectively. Their work conditions are characterized by low income, poor work conditions, absence of toilet and crèche facilities, lack of social security benefits like health insurance and the absence of bargaining power. In several states, home-based industry has virtually collapsed due to the negative impact of economic reform, leaving poor Muslim women spiraling downwards to penury. The distinct pattern of Muslim women’s employment in home-based work is in part due to discrimination in formal employment. In part, it is due to the vicious cycle of poverty, lack of education and technical skills, leading to low-skilled, low income work, and back again to poverty. Muslim women are unable to bargain for better work conditions because much of the work they do is sub-contracted. This restriction of mobility (based on social and cultural factors) restricts their employment opportunities and wages. They do not have independent access to credit facilities, opportunities for skill up-gradation, or access to markets. There is active discrimination in giving Muslim women credit facilities it was pointed out. The increasing ghettoisation of poor Muslims leads to the seclusion of home-based female workers, cutting them off from channels of communication and hindering their ability to organize into collectives. Many home-based workers are so low down in the assembly line of production that they operate entirely through middlemen and do not even know who their employer is. Muslim women have minimal participation in Government micro-finance programmes such as Self Help Groups (SHGs), Watershed Programmes and Panchayati Raj.
On the issue of health too, Muslim women have not done well. As reported by Sachar Committee about the encouraging record on sex-ratio, Muslim women have nothing to be proud of. Their problems of health is directly linked to poverty and the absence of basic services like clean drinking water and sanitation - leading to malnutrition, anemia, a variety of diseases and poor life expectancy. In conflict prone areas there is alarming evidence of a host of psychosocial problems, including stress, depression, and post-traumatic disorders among women. At some places, higher than average incidence of TB was reported amongst the Muslim women. This was partly due to the nature of their work but largely owing to poor sanitation. TB amongst Muslim women affects the entire family as there is no awareness amongst them regarding the disease. Lack of any other facilities in Muslims’ ghettoisation, government and local authorities have shown little or no interest in providing health services too.
On the hand, they face violence within their community by their male counterpart, on the other side, always targeted by offenders during communal riots. Latest instance was the Gujarat riot, where women were consciously targeted to terrorize and abuse the honour of the Muslims.
While concluding this essay, I can suggest that the multiple approaches should be applied to discuss the factor/s responsible for bad condition of Muslim women. Social, cultural, religious, legal, economic and political reasons are broad areas, which are generally talked about. But, far more vital is the analysis of those areas and emerging trends which can be worked out in providing more choices, freedom of action and operational space to Indian women in general and Muslim women in particular. Muslim women are not the exclusive agent; they share operational space with all other sections of Indian society. They should be taken as part of Indian women folk, who have multiple roles to play in different capacities as economic, social, cultural and political actor. She is participant in all processes and suffers of all ills. She is to be taken beyond marriage, divorce and guardianship syndrome.
By Manzoor Ali
(Manzoor Ali is doing his research study in Jawaharlal Nehru Universiy, New Delhi. His research topic is around the same issue tackled in this article)