Brilliant Book About Muslim Women in the Wake of Targeted Violence by Hindu Fundamentalists

Published on May 23, 2018 by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos

Filed under: India

← Back to Articles

Rupture, Loss and Living – Minority Women Speak about Post-Conflict Life, K. Lalita, Deepa Dhanraj, 434 pp. 2017, Orient BlackSwan Press.

Since the arrival as prime minister in 2014 of Narendra Modi, head of the Bharatiya Janata (BJP) Hindu fundamentalist party in India, there have been continued reports of violence against the minority Muslim community. Out of a total population of over one billion mostly Hindus, Muslims number roughly 200 million.

The most recent case, which has made world news, consisted of a rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in the Muslim-majority Himilayan state of Jammu and Kashmir.

However, this targeting of Muslims in India by fundamentalist Hindus, some of them politicians and police, has a long history.

It goes back to 1992/93 in Mumbai, the 1980s and 1990s in Hyderabad, and most viciously in 2002 in Gujarat where Hindu mobs on trumped up charges, killed more than 2,000 Muslims. At the time, Narendra Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister of a BJP- led government.

While researching the Self-Employed Women’s Organization in Gujarat for my book on microcredit called Saris on Scooters – How Microcredit has Changed Village India, I was by chance in Ahmedabad in 2002 during the violence. I visited refugee camps filled with terrified survivors and wrote about their experiences for a Canadian newspaper.

Now comes a brilliant and timely book by K. Lalita and Deepa Dhanraj, two well-known Indian feminists and writers, which looks at the way poor Muslim women in particular have forged a place in their communities in the aftermath of the violence.

K.Lalita, the head of the Anveshi Research Centre for Women's Studies at Osmania University in Hyderabad, wrote We Were Making History - Life Stories of Women in the Telangana People's Struggle. She is also co-editor of a magnificent two-volume compilation of Indian women’s writing from 600 B.C. to the present.

Deepa Dhanraj is a documentary filmmaker and feminist researcher and writer.

Together they have crafted a book based on the experiences of seventy-five Muslim women survivors of communal violence. They have focused upon nineteen of them under the themes of I Began to See the World for What it is, Loss and Trauma, Negotiating Survival and Livelihood, and Claiming Accountability, Seeking Justice.

What I found most poignant in the stories told by the women is the way violence and dislocation forced many poor Muslim women into assuming new family and community roles that have led to empowerment.

In Gujarat, for example, Sabah, in her early twenties, with two young children, lost her home and her husband because of the violence. Her husband ran a garment making unit and she never left the house. However, after the violence, living in a relief colony, she made money first as a dishwasher, and then learned sewing skills and became a piecework entrepreneur training others.

“I wish to expand my business and make it as big as what my husband used to have,” she said. She intends to teach “up to fifty” women how to do the work, “but only those who are widowed like me.” In doing that, she says she and the women will be able to feed and educate their children.

However, this took place against a backdrop of rape, murder, and the wholesale destruction of Muslim homes and businesses wrought by Hindu mobs, including next-door neighbours, with the collaboration of police and the state government. In the aftermath came tented relief camps and concrete rehabilitation centres, some of which still exist.

An example of a woman in Mumbai successfully moving into a new role after finding herself alone is Nadira. During the anti-Muslim violence in 1993, Nadira’s husband and her brother-in-law disappeared, supposedly killed, but Nadira repairs bags to make a living, takes loans, and has made sure her sons will have a future. One is studying to become a doctor and the other still in school also intends to go into medicine.

”I never imagined I would be able to work and earn money,” she said in an interview. ”I didn’t know how to sit out in the open or talk to customers. I had no experience.”

What is also interesting is how before the riots some middle class secular Muslim women were non-practicing and living in mixed neigbourhoods. However, as a result of the violence they were forced into identifying first and foremost as Muslim and living in Muslim areas.

For example, Sophia Khan is a lawyer and social activist in Ahmedabad who had been working on women’s issues but without concern for caste or religion.

After the 2002 riots, she said, “although I had become a feminist, in the end I was only a Muslim. I mean I was reminded I am a Muslim . . . that’s why I had to change my house . . . why I had to change my office . . . why my office staff left me. I am a Muslim and that’s why after 2002 I took a conscious decision that I should work with Muslim women.”

Although the book has its share of women who have risen to become leaders in different ways, or have at least found ways to make a living and provide for their children, some of the women interviewed are barely hanging on, mainly because they are poor.

Such is the story of Zainab Begum in Hyderabad, a woman with nine children, living in a squatter settlement. Her husband was stabbed to death during 1990 violence. However, in her case, it was Hindus in her community who came to her aid after the killing.

“When my husband died, the Hindus in our basti really helped us .. really helped with everything. Even our own people didn’t help as much as the Hindus did.”

Rupture, Loss and Living – Minority Women Speak about Post-Conflict Life, K. Lalita, Deepa Dhanraj, 434 pp. 2017, Orient BlackSwan Press.