The Indian Union Muslim League is a study in contradictions on the gender question.
At one end of the spectrum is Education Minister PK Abdu Rabb, who believes girls and boys should not sit next to each other in colleges.
At the other end is Social Welfare Minister Dr MK Muneer, who is known for his progressive views.
To add to this is Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musliyar, who attempts to project himself as a progressive leader by denouncing ISIS but fails miserably on the gender equality metre by his frequent exhortations to men to lord over ‘their women’.
Musliyar is an influential Sunni leader with a wide following among Kerala’s Sunnis who form the bulk of the IUML’s support base. Leading a breakaway faction of the Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama, which is an organisation of Sunni scholars and clerics in Kerala, Kanthapuram has the clout to swing votes in a decisive manner.
The IUML learned this the hard way in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, when the IUML lost the Manjeri seat (Malappuram district) to the CPI (M) in its own backyard.
So where exactly does IUML stand vis-à-vis women and their role in building up a progressive Islamic culture in the state is the big question hovering in the air.
With a strong presence in north Kerala, the IUML is the second largest constituent in the ruling United Democratic Front in Kerala. Does its leadership ascribe to the Kanthapurams and Abdu Rabbs or is the party willing to incorporate a more meaningful role for women in the party’s march towards the assembly elections in April.
For that, one first needs to take a quick dekko at IUML’s political history in the state in the last 30 years.
The IUML currently has five serving ministers in the state cabinet, and three Members of Parliament – E Ahamed and ET Muhammed Basheer in Lok Sabha and PV Abdul in the Rajya Sabha.
Marginalised Women Issues
IUML had drawn flak for not fielding any women candidates in the 2000 assembly elections contrary to high expectations which were triggered by its sole woman candidate Qamarunnisa Anwar in the 1996 election. Incidentally, she lost.
However, the following year, the party was one of the biggest political beneficiaries of the one-third quota for women in the local body polls in Malappuram district, which is a Muslim-dominated area.
Yet, the League was one of the main opponents of the Women’s Reservation Bill when it came up for discussion in Parliament, justifying its stand with “reservation for minorities first.”
This, from a party which set up the Vanitha League – its women’s wing – to rake in the votes during elections. One wonders what the scenario would have been were it not for the Constitutional requirement of 30 percent reservation for women in panchayats.
The IUML may be the only party to have a dress code for its women elected representatives, a dubious first for the only state in India to have total literacy. Its women representatives are to wear a sari with a full-sleeve blouse and maftah, a kind of head scarf. They just stopped short of the burqa.
The League reportedly thrives on Muslim women’s votes, yet goes all out to politically marginalise their fundamental rights.
No Winds of Change
Fast-forward to November 2015 local body polls. Ahead of the elections, the IUML came in for a scathing attack from Simsarul Haq Hudavi of the Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulema (EK faction) who quoted the Quran and said that freedom for women is haram (forbidden) and against the will of Allah.
He said: “Women have no right to walk down the street as men!” This, for fielding women candidates in the local body polls.
That the women candidates were missing from the election posters as well is a different story altogether.
However, Hudavi’s remarks are not to be taken lightly as he is a member of a Sunni Scholars’ forum which has traditionally supported the IUML and can influence the community’s votes. Being in their bad books could spell doom for the League’s expanding political aspirations in the state.
IUML lost three main municipalities – Perinthalmana, Ponnani and Tirur – in its stronghold of Malappuram in the November local body polls. Losing these municipalities to the Left has made the League wonder whether it was too conservative in its socio-political approach.
The IUML has been around since the 1950s and for decades after that, conservative politics, underpinned by the sanction and support of religious leaders such as Musliyar and the Ulema, has worked for the party. While the various groups and factions of ulemas may have differences among themselves, their views differ little when it comes to women’s participation in social, cultural and political spaces.
When Abdu Rabb agreed with the management of Farooq College and said that girls and boys should not sit next to each other, not only was he roundly criticised, but he also became the butt of many jokes.
It may be difficult to gauge how strong the sentiment for change is, but it is indisputable that it exists.
The question is, how will the Muslim League respond to this?
(The writer Chintha Mary Anil writes for The News Minute.)