Women’s rights issues have become a conflict of loyalties for Muslims when they can be used as an excuse for repression by a government in these polarized times. Blanket generalisations about patriarchy are not helpful when many cultural and economic issues are entwined.
Instant Triple Talaq is the practice in which a husband can divorce a woman by merely repeating the word ‘Talaq’, meaning ‘I divorce you’, three times, even by email or text message.
In many Muslim countries it is banned, but it was only in 2017 that the Supreme Court in India declared it unconstitutional after a long struggle by campaigners.
It has remained a contentious issue, especially after the Indian Parliament went further and criminalized this type of divorce in July 2019.
“Holy Rights”, directed by Farha Khatun is a documentary showing the panorama of reactions, in the context of campaigning for women’s rights.
Muslims are a minority in India, and the demand for women’s rights is entangled with resistance to discrimination against Islam by the political majority. Many see the Koran as sufficient protection and view this new law as an attack on Islam.
Farha answered questions from The Prisma, after the film was shown at Visions du Reel online this year. She talks about her view of activist film-making; the way that class impacts on women’s rights; and especially about the way women are beginning to speak for themselves instead of being spoken about by men.
Your previous films (“I am Bonnie”, 2016, and “If you Dare Desire”, 2017) have focused on gender issues in India. Are you a film-maker or an activist first?
I have never thought of them as mutually exclusive categories.
I believe filmmaking is a political act and speaking about social issues is as political as choosing to not talk about them. For me, both these identities are intrinsically linked. My lived experiences shape both my politics and filmmaking.
In Europe, Indian cinema is seen (with important exceptions) as mainly soap opera, with traditional plots and stereotyped characters. What is it like to make radical films in India, and where are they shown?
Indian cinema is much more than Bollywood although even commercial filmmaking in India has changed a lot. There are regional films (20+ languages), independent cinema, people’s cinema. India has a long history of radical films both commercial and independent non-commercial films. Radical filmmaking draws heavily from that history of resistance films. A culture of film societies, clubs, collectives have historically shouldered the responsibility of making such films accessible to the public. These films are shown in national, international, regional film festivals, community screenings, universities, protest sites.
You point out that Islam varies a great deal between cultures. Why is it so repressive of sexual freedom in India?
Patriarchy runs deep in all institutions and all organized religions have been repressive of sexual freedom. A major tool of institutionalising oppression has been control of women’s sexuality. Hinduism and Christianity have been equally oppressive. However, it is usually Islam that is singled out, with Muslim women being mostly made subjects of rescue missions either by imperialists or communal mindsets. Regressive patriarchal practices in Islam have controlled sexual freedom throughout history, but there has also been resistance from Muslim women, and queer persons against such dogma. Only recently these resistances have become more visible in global media, and Muslim women have been able to speak, rather than being spoken about.
Do upper class (or caste) women who are better educated suffer in the same way?
Oppression works insidiously, so class, caste oppression gets embedded in religious practices, in the ways that religion speaks to women.
Education has been an important liberation for many, offering possibilities of mobility and autonomy, but caste, class privileges have not worked so simplistically. Upper class/ caste women have often been more controlled as they have had to depend more on family, marriage and in return to submit themselves to these institutional controls. Working class women have often had to fend for themselves, for food, for money which in turn has offered them mobility, autonomy. Blanket generalisation about patriarchy is problematic.
There is a moment in the film when a man is strongly challenging Safia to quote The Koran to prove that instant divorce is not allowed in Islam. This seems to show that parliament can make laws, but religion is more important.
In India, apart from the constitutional laws applicable to all, there are also personal laws, customary laws that are community-specific dealing with issues of marriage, property, family and for Muslims, Sharia law dictates on these issues. There have been demands for a universal civil code, but it is a contested issue as it is often feared that it would subsume multifarious identities, customs to suit the interests of the dominant class.
At the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) meeting male speakers were shouting that they would cut off the hands of anyone who defiles Islam, yet they are supposed to be defending women.
This needs to be seen in the current context in India. Throughout the film different signs of the changing times and what it means for minority rights, run as a commentary.
One comes across news of lynching of Muslims, attacks on minorities, so much so that their very citizenship rights are threatened.
AIMPLB’s pledge to defend Islam, no matter what, needs to be understood as a desperate attempt by a marginalised community to hold on to whatever shreds of identity, power that they have left. Vanguards of the religion become more desperate to protect their identities at all cost, sometimes making women shoulder the brunt of it.
A group of mostly younger women refused to talk to your interviewers, they seemed afraid.
It is social conditioning as well as fear. They have mostly been spoken about, their own opinions have hardly been asked for. Men speaking for them, is normal for them.
Can you say more about the Indian Women’s Film Festival?
The International Association of Women in Radio and Television (Iawrt), India chapter is one of their largest chapters with close to 70 members from radio and television. The festival is a celebration of women reflected through creativity, linguistic and cultural diversity under a multiplicity of themes. Focused on screening of films produced by women of Asian origin only, the festival invites filmmakers from all over Asia but puts together a special package on one particular country each year.
Modi’s Hindu extremist government was first elected in 2014, but wasn’t mentioned in the film.
We did not think it to be relevant as we chose to focus on Safia’s journey and the journey of the movement against instant triple talaq. However, the changing times under the current regime is an overbearing presence throughout the film.
Was the Supreme Court decision viewed by some Hindus as a way of showing Islam as an inferior religion, where women suffer prejudice?
A ban on instant triple talaq has been a long-standing demand of the feminist movement in India, especially Muslim women, ever since the Shah Bano case mentioned in the film. Right wing governments have time and again attempted to appropriate the movement and hijack these voices. I believe the Supreme Court verdict was declared under immense pressure from these movements resisting appropriation. However, several Muslim women’s organisations, feminist, queer groups have notified their dissent on the verdict which says nothing about issues like maintenance, yet goes on to further criminalise the community.
Any other comments?
Muslim women have mostly been seen as subjects of rescue/ reform missions. T
hey have been the Hindu/ white man’s burden who needed ‘saving’ either through western imperialist forces, or Hindutva forces here.
I hope this film will debunk those stereotypical images of Muslim women by providing them a voice to speak for themselves and begin dialogue both within and outside the community.