A Woman Imam Leads Prayers In Kerala. Here’s My Take On The Media Coverage

Posted: February 20, 2018

Recently, the news of a woman Imam leading prayers in Kerala led to the usual fatwas as well as calls for gender equality in religion. Can media coverage be more nuanced than ‘for’ or ‘against’?

Editor’s Note: Women’s Web is not in any way opposed to the questioning of religious practices; however, we publish a diversity of views as we also believe that members of various communities need spaces to discuss social change, including the opportunity to hold differing views on how such change is to be achieved. 

In our ‘secular’ society where religion should be kept out of public affairs, it is an ironic reality that religion, race and caste are the mainstay of Indian politics. If all of India turned atheist one day, political parties would be scratching their heads or they may turn to their contemporaries in the UK for advice, where already more than half of its population says they have ‘no religion’.

Our media channels, of course, are having a field day broadcasting news in their trademark sensational, hyperbolic style – be it the Padmaavat controversy, inter-religious marriages, Gau Rakshaks lynching people, Muslim women worshipping Lord Ram as their ancestor etc.

The recent news of a woman named Jamitha acting as Imam for the Friday Namaz and leading a congregation of men and women, has become a hot topic of debate on television. In a typical debate, an assortment of people were assembled – a Maulana, a liberal Muslim woman, a conservative Muslim woman, a modern Islamic scholar, a human rights activist etc. There are no prices for guessing that the Maulana gets bashed up on the debate with everyone attacking him and things soon turn personal and vicious. The so-called moderator or presenter seems to hold a strong opinion and is least interested in hearing a different view. Therefore, only those panelists are allowed to speak who are on his or her side.

Any view contrary to their own is shut down unceremoniously through shouting, insulting or labelling – what we end up hearing is a one-sided narrative which looks at this issue only through the lens of ‘gender equality’. There is no scope for discussing matters which need a nuanced understanding or need to be looked at from different angles. In this debate, either you are with someone or against them, you are either for ‘Gender Equality’ or against it. These are the only options available.

The situation in print media is no different. I am yet to come across an article which looks at this incident from multiple perspectives – perhaps they do not want to run the risk of being seen as ‘regressive’. The sole purpose of writing this article was that an alternative voice needs to be heard.

Islamic texts on woman Imams – and actual practice in India

While the Quran is silent on this issue, there are a few Hadith (traditions attributed to Prophet Muhammad) on this topic. Islamic scholars are divided over their interpretation. Some say a woman Imam can lead women-only congregations, some say a woman cannot be Imam at all, while some say a woman can lead mixed gender prayers as long as the men are from her family and a minority hold the view that a woman can lead mixed gender prayers at home and in a mosque.

In a nutshell, the Muslim community worldwide is divided on this topic.

In the Indian sub-continent, women did not become Imams for women-specific congregations also, as it was not common culture for them to go to the mosque for offering prayers. In fact, even today, many mosques do not have provision for women worshippers even though Muslim women are permitted to pray in mosques, according to Islam. Only for sake of practicality, it is stated that praying at home is ‘preferable’ and praying at a mosque is ‘not obligatory’ for a woman but the choice still remains with her.

Jamitha has chosen to question long standing traditions and the repercussions are along expected lines – beheading threats, Fatwas etc. The noise levels on TV channels and social media are deafening, polarizing and creating generalizations, making it difficult for any kind of meaningful introspection.

Religion is a matter of faith and each of us can choose to follow a cautious line on religion. It is not permissible in Islam to intimidate or force someone to follow our way. As a believer, we say that only Allah has the power to judge us on the Day of Judgment, then what is the noise about? People who are threatening Jamitha are no role model Muslims either because if they were, they would have displayed more compassion. In their eyes, Jamitha has erred, but so have they.

So what about Jamitha’s Namaz?

If one views the clipping of Jamitha leading the prayers, any practicing Muslim can discern that she did not conduct Namaz in the correct manner. In fact, there were multiple errors. Being an Imam requires one to be competent to deliver the religious duties and seeing the clipping, it seemed to me that she didn’t really satisfy that requirement. While the Muslim world may be divided on the question of woman Imams, there is near perfect consensus on the method of offering Namaz.

When some of the panelists pointed that out on news debates, the presenters either brushed this aside or trivialized this. It is totally understandable if a non-Muslim is not able to fully appreciate the enormity of the act of someone offering Namaz incorrectly (that too, someone who is an Imam) but it is certainly a big deal for a Muslim. There is a need to understand this objection in a more inclusive way.

An Imam (irrespective of gender) who is not able to offer Namaz correctly, would not garner mass support amongst both Muslim men and women. Anyone who brushes this aside as a non-issue needs to delve deeper into the nuances of Islam and then understand the sentiments behind the act of offering Namaz, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. Monotheistic religions are decidedly different in their approach towards religious practices. Understanding this aspect is very crucial before getting into any meaningful debate on any Islamic religious practice.

I am unable to fully support Jamitha because I don’t feel convinced of her abilities as an Imam. If anyone is unsupportive of Jamitha and is providing a rationale for the same in a civilized way, then that needs to be heard and understood too.

Conclusion: Reforms and Change in Muslim society

Disregarding opposing views would make reforms and changes difficult as whether we like it or not, the Islamic scholars or Maulanas are key opinion makers in the Muslim community. I can say this from personal experience, that not all of them are necessarily as orthodox or anti-woman as they are made out to be in the media. If I put on my ‘Change Management’ hat as an HR professional, I would say that they are key change agents and there is a need to engage with them in a meaningful way.

The life of a Muslim man may or may not be secure but our Government promises to secure the rights of a Muslim woman. If Muslims view the Government as increasingly interfering in matters of religion, they have partly themselves to blame. By not listening to the voices of the marginalized, organizations like All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) have outlived their utility. Most Muslims don’t even view these bodies as representing their interests.

The struggle on Muslim women empowerment needs to rise beyond symbolism. This is not to disregard the efforts of Jamitha but I personally don’t believe that the biggest issue that Muslim women face in India today is about whether they can lead prayers or not. The biggest issues are on access to education, financial empowerment and leading a better quality of life. Perhaps, similar to the issues that woman in other communities are facing. But given that Muslims feature near bottom in every development indicator, the situation of Muslim women is even more precarious.

It is true that there is an element of conservatism in Muslim society which may be acting as a barrier in allowing women to step out of the house. Bringing change organically and through consensus would definitely be long lasting. Educated Muslims need to take a lead in driving social improvement and change. And, all of this can happen well within the confines of Islam, which actively encourages men and women to prosper in worldly life too.

Image via YouTube video

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An HR professional by qualification, have worked for close to 10 years now across Pharma

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