Lying on the hospital bed, surviving a suicide attempt following her husband Wasim’s second marriage, Shehnaz resolves to get a divorce and informs him that she is going to court. When Wasim pensively replies that he hasn’t done anything illegal, Shehnaz tells him that she will fight to overturn the law of polygamy, and tells Wasim with a reflective resolve,
“Main sirf Musalman nahin, I am also a citizen of this country,
Humari bhi kuch haq hone chahiye.”
( I am not only a Muslim, I am also a citizen of this country,
We should also have some rights.”)
Through these words, Shehnaz in Episode 7 (The Warrior Princess) joins the diverse subset of powerful women in the series Made in Heaven, who refuse to accept their secondary status prescribed by patriarchy entrenched in skin color, caste hierarchies, heteronormativity, and ageism.
Yet unlike any other woman in the series, Shehnaz’s refusal stands out.
Women Against Patriarchy
Confronted with the obsession with skin color, domestic abuse, extramarital affair, insecure men, casteist, heteronormative, and ageist ideas of marriage, the women in the series wrestle with societal expectations, conventions, and traditions entrusted to preserve patriarchy.
Shehnaz, however, is the only woman who isn’t fighting society. In raising her voice against polygamy, she is fighting Islam and its inherent patriarchal impetus.
She isn’t simply refusing the insensitivity displayed by Wasim, who went ahead with his second marriage despite being informed of Shehnaz’s suicide attempt. Her refusal of being treated poorly by her husband then isn’t only her refusal of patriarchy that blinds the man towards receiving her agony or being cognisant of her pain.
Her demand to be treated with respect or dignity as a woman seeks equality before the law since it is denied to her as a Muslim woman. Her refusal of patriarchy is her refusal of the unequal, anti-women, oppressive Islam. But how else does one narrate stories of Muslim women, without rendering them as prisoners of religion?
Narrating Muslim Women As Suffering Subjects of Islam
While Made in Heaven brings us a feisty Dalit activist who celebrates her caste identity, a resolute lesbian teacher determined to commit to her lover, and an independent Christian woman who boldly vows to love herself, their narration of the Muslim woman remains an anthropological portrait frozen in time.
Moving around the big bungalow in a gharara covering her head with downcast eyes and, a feeble voice, playing the host offering demure ‘aadabs’, Shehnaz embodies the pathos of the forgotten wife, whose melancholic poise bears an uncanny resemblance with the long-suffering begums of philandering nawabs of the 18th century.
Unable to voice her hurt and disapproval of her husband’s second marriage and fearful of seeking a divorce without losing the custody of her children, Shehnaz is lonely in her despair.
Unlike other women in the series who have mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and friends, Shehnaz has no one. Except for a son, who shares with her his reluctance to attend his father’s wedding and apprehension about having half-siblings, and a mother-in-law who reminds her about the permissible polygamy in Islam, Shehnaz almost lives a solitary life without any community or familial bonds. Why is Shehnaz’s world so empty?
Bereft of any support system, the empathy of the wedding planner, Karan is crucial to Shehnaz. Sharing her admiration for his courage in fighting for his rights as a gay man, Shehnaz follows his earnest request to fight for herself as well. He doesn’t only rescue her from death but lends her the vocabulary of "standing up for herself.”
It's a deeply moving scene since it’s the only time anyone expresses any concern for Shehnaz and speaks to her as a person.
His concern has a profound impact on her and for the first time in the episode, we hear her speak decisively about what she wants. It feels like an arrival. Shehnaz doesn’t need to stay with a man who renders her invisible! But the story isn’t simply about Shehnaz finding her voice.
It’s about her finding her voice to say that unlike Islam which gives her no rights, she seeks her rights in being a citizen.
In a series where all minority women – caste, sexuality, and religion – are women of grit and joy, nuance and jubilance, confidence and mirth, the Muslim woman is portrayed essentially as the silent suffering subject, whose despair is attributed to the evils of Islamic patriarchy.
Of course, there is Faiza Naqvi – the artist, the complicated sensitive woman, who is released from any markers of religion, and defined only through her class. Muslim women are either free of their religion or imprisoned in it.
Instances Abound in Muslim Women Breaking Free
With Muslim women leading the anti-CAA protests as well as fighting for their constitutional rights to wear the hijab in educational institutions, there is ample evidence of their courage and resistance in present-day India.
One wonders why stories about Muslim women fail to capture their indomitable spirit or narrate the struggles that lay eclipsed in them.
Muslim women, like most women, lead rich, complex, layered lives. Their wedding stories are also stories of resistance and defiance.
Some are of fighting to get married to someone they love who the family doesn’t approve because of caste (Pasmanda), sect (Shia-Sunni), or religion (Hindu, Christian, Sikh), some stories are of fighting against the pressure to have lavish weddings, dowry demands, living with in-laws, working after marriage.
Several Muslim women make the painful choice of letting their families go in the process of standing up for themselves. I know many who turn down marriage proposals because their prospective Muslim in-laws didn’t understand their desire to wear the hijab. These women choose their right to be pious subjects rather than succumbing to the demand to look like ‘progressive Muslims.’
Why can’t we have stories about Muslim women navigating the world, its insurmountable demands, and finding their joys, not necessarily in secular possibilities?
Following the stereotypical trope of the oppressed Muslim woman, the writers not only define Shehnaz through her subjection but also make her a 'Good Muslim’ woman who chooses nation over religion.
While the Dalit woman embraces her caste, and the Christian woman shapes her own wedding ceremony, the Muslim woman must move away from her religion and find the vocabulary of her freedom in the legal discourse.
Liberating Muslim Women?
The otherwise pronounced differences between the Hindu right and the secular liberals blur on the question of liberating Muslim women from the shackles of Islam and the violence of its men.
While the right-wing liberates them from cunning Muslim men by banning triple talaq, the secular liberal relentlessly urges them to choose education over hijab, freeing them from regressive Islamic practices.
Having a Muslim woman address her agony by seeking her rights as a citizen otherwise denied to her in Islam, the show not only reiterates the widespread conviction across ideologies that Islam oppresses Muslim women but also posits law as their saviour.
It’s ironic for the writers to resort to legal imagery especially when the purported court that is meant to extend Muslim women's rights not only released the rapists of Bilkis Bano but is consistently delaying hearing an appeal challenging the acquittal.
Does the law only 'protect’ Muslim women from the violence of ‘Muslim men’? It certainly doesn’t protect them from being repeatedly invoked as targets of rape in hate speeches by Hindu monks and vigilantes in huge processions attended by Hindu men who raise their swords and vow to rape Muslim women. Nor does the law protect them from being auctioned online.
The point, of course, is not to pursue a comparative tirade between agents of violence deciding who is the bigger oppressor. There is no denying of violence against Muslim women within the community, just as there is no denying the violence against them outside the community.
The burgeoning right-wing calls for violence against them in the name of jingoistic nationalism however is particularly alarming given the multiple fronts at which it is carried out from social media to political rallies. Yet, the frame of violence for Muslim women continues to be Islamic.
Despite the inability of the right-wing and the unwillingness of the secular liberals to admit that Islam accords a woman several rights, especially of seeking a divorce, without forfeiting the custody of her children (where did the writers get that from!), by pitting Islam vs citizenship, particularly in the context of women’s rights the writers underscore their tacit support to the universal application of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC).
For all its progressive claims and radical politics, when it comes to representing Muslim lives, namely Muslim women, the show sadly reflects the secular liberal justification of BJP’s 2024 campaign promise.
(Zehra Mehdi is a psychoanalytic therapist and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University at the Department of Religion. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)