IOS Kolkata Chapter organises Panel Discussion on “Economic Empowerment of Muslim Women: Issues and Opportunities”
This panel discussion organised by the Institute of Objective Studies, Kolkata Chapter, on October 30, 2021, looked into the need of Muslim women to be economically empowered. The panelists, mostly women of repute, representing different walks of life and society, spoke freely on the hurdles before the society towards economically empowering Muslim women. Ms. Madiha Ahmed, a socio-cognitive development specialist, emphasised that women must be empowered from within their family first. This point were reiterated by all other panelists with substantial experiences from their personal lives. The panelists spoke on others issues like the hurdle of social norms of dominant patriarchy and that from the religious perspective. Mrs. Rukhshi Elias, founder of Taajira-The Businesswomen, laid emphasis on the importance of identifying skills and connecting women to each other and groups through social media platforms. The panelists shared their opinions on the opportunities for women in the 21st century. The following is the report of the proceedings.
Moderator: Mr. Abdul Basit Ismail, Coordinator, IOS Kolkata Chapter
TEDx Speaker, Entrepreneur,
Podcaster at The Edu Doctor
Jibreel International School (JIS),
|Prof Ghazala Yasmin
Assistant Professor at the Department of
Journalism and Mass Communication,
Secretary, West Bengal Urdu Academy, Kolkata
Chief Reporter, Sahara Samay News
|Prof Shabina Nishat Omar
Officer on Special Duty (OSD)
Education Directorate, Dept. of Higher Education,
Govt. of West Bengal
Professor and Head, Department of English at
A.J.C Bose College
|Saira Shah Halim
Social and Peace Activist, TedX Speaker
An educator, a writer, a theatre personality, Image and brand consultant
Mohammed Safi Shamsi
A digital creator and content writer
An educator and a motivational speaker
|Dr Noorus Sabah Ismail
Member, Madrasah Service Commission, Govt. of West Bengal
Director, Jibreel International School, Kolkata
A scholar, an educator and a columnist
Abdul Basit Ismail
In his opening remarks, Mr. Abdul Basit Ismail underlined the context and background of economic empowerment of Muslim women in India. He outlined the shape of the discussion because of the sensitive nature of the topic. There have been talks globally on the empowerment of women in general but the when it comes to Muslim women, this has seldom been brought to discussions in the public domain. He clearly emphasised on the need of such a discussion at this hour and this discussion shall pave the way for several others in the time to come.
Initiating the discussion, Ms. Ahmed spoke about the role of family in empowering women, substantiating it with references from her personal life. She emphasized on the word ‘ma’ and pointed out the significance of this particular word in an individual’s life and the role that a mother plays in shaping the lives of her children. According to Ms. Ahmed, empowerment amongst women comes from this very figure.
During the course of her discussion on personal experiences and how she has risen above all to achieve where she presently is, Ms. Ahmed stressed on the point that before looking for external resources and factors that could lead us to empower women, one must consider two very important internal factors. First, the search for an identity, which should be seconded by mothers taking the challenge for change.
After a befitting prologue to the discussion, Mr. Shahjahan anchored the discussion further with his perspective. He began with a famous quote from Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, and redirected the discussion to it roots, stating the it is here where the ‘pride’ lies and so does the ‘prejudice’. He drew the panelists to imagine ‘a single woman’ in possession of a ‘good fortune’ and emphasised how a shift in thought is essentially important for the empowerment of women.
Drawing references from the World Development Report 2012 by World Bank Group, he presented the grim reality of gender biasness and how gender equality is inextricably linked with economic development. Referring to another work by World Bank Group ‘Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity’, he brought out the nature of constraints women continue to face globally and how this could give a clear picture of a more tragic state for Muslim women. He described Muslim women from the social perspective and how this calls for a stringent adherence to social norms by the women. He mentioned that these norms derive their stimulus from the religious constraints and this is the reason why talks on economic empowerment of Muslim women by so-called liberals meet strong criticisms from the more orthodox groups, and as a result they never materialise.
He expressed “it’s time to talk about men and women together” and emphasised on the need for our religious leaders to talk in public and invalidate the supposedly rigid socio-religious norms mandated upon women and concluded that if achieved, it would be a strong step towards a progressive society with economically empowered women.
Prof. Ghazala Yasmin
Prof. Yasmin led the panel to an insightful discourse when she spoke about the policies of the central government, and compared the plight of Indian women to their counterparts in foreign countries where they hold a greater population in different fields and are able to show their skills and prove how economically empowered they are. Heading as challenging a department as Journalism in higher education, she is well aware of the inhibitions, myths and notions of girls taking up this field and the social disapproval that comes with it. She, however, felt encouraged by the fact that there has been a considerable change in the perspective, and with a discussion of this nature, it will further advance the community towards a more rational approach when it comes to giving choices to women in terms of making a career.
She stressed upon the need to value our own resources and opined that one must look for the resources and opportunities oneself. The community must rise above the perceived notions and stereotypes. She stressed on giving up the victim-feeling and rise to the occasion in search of an empowered identity.
Rukshi Kadiri Ilyas
Speaking on the opportunities for women in the 21st century, Mrs Ilyas, stressed on the fact that women need to identify a skill within themselves. The skill could as simple as being able to cook a delicious food, or being good at local art & craft work or anything of the like. One of the gifts that the 21st century world has placed at the disposal of people is the power of social media, and this can be a great opportunity to use it as a platform to connect people to the skills women possess. This, in turn, can be monetized to empower the women on the economic front. Citing instances from her initiative ‘Taajira-The Businesswoman’, she presented how an idea of this sort can foster success stories for many because this is exactly what she has been experiencing at Taajira.
According to her, there are three kinds of people in the society, viz. thinkers who promulgate the idea, people with solutions-the scholars and researchers, and those like Mrs. Ilyas who work for the solutions. It’s time that the thinkers join hands with those who have solutions who, in turn, must unite to strengthen those who work on the solutions. This calls for local-level social groups who could help create awareness and take women in progressive and protective folds to help them achieve financial independence.
Prof. Shabina N. Omar
Empowerment must start from villages or from the backward class of the society. This significant statement by Prof. Omar added a new perspective to the discussion. It is the rural areas that need our attention because it is here where there is a lack of education and awareness and where economic empowerment is mostly felt and needed. She shared her personal struggle with the society on the socio-religious front to infer three significant things that factors for the oppression on women – adversity, patriarchy and the lack of self-confidence. She opined that one must “recognise the adversities and negotiate with them, smash the patriarchal belief and develop self confidence in order to become economically empowered”.
Lending her agreement to Mrs. Ilyas, Prof. Omar advanced it further by laying emphasis on the idea of creating opportunities and connecting skills to empower women. This, she stressed, could be achieved not by education alone but by following it up with a vocational training. Only after one can strengthen the cause, further help, support and show solidarity, which could be on the lines of ‘each one help one’.
She felt strongly disappointed at the community’s approach of being judgmental and recommended a change in attitude, which is more sensitive and understanding and where one is led to stop judging and start thinking. The change in attitude is needed in both men and women to bring a harmonious living in a progressive community where one feels proud to say “Beside every successful man and woman, there’s a woman and a man respectively.”
Mohammed Safi Shamsi
‘As a journalist, it is a great opportunity for me to speak as I am always on the listening side,’ started Mr. Shamsi. In his opinion, economic empowerment of women cannot be thought of as an isolated entity. It has to be discussed in the context of the societal situations. He seconded Prof. Omar’s view on the patriarchal orientation of society, and added that this alone is not the only issue but there are psychological issues as well. There’s rigidity against views that seek reform, as a result of which, a change in perspective cannot be envisaged so easily.
Through various observations that he shared on the floor, he tried to establish that we have created layers within the society on the basis of language and the background women come from. Absence of awareness with regards to policies related to gender equality is another hindrance towards women empowerment. He tried to hint at both the policies of the government as well as those that are essentially religious which are often misread and misinformed. He strongly called for a gender neutral ecosystem, use of technology and general guidelines for women which are integral towards fostering a community with economically empowered women. However, he mentioned that the entire effort could still be proved futile in its realisation in the absence of a vision. He explained that a mere thought on economic empowerment would not have a lasting and far-reaching impact unless we know where exactly do we want to take the economically empowered women.
He continued that there must be a vision for opportunities, and that one must not rush after jobs but explore the opportunities well. He also stressed on the fact that we must draw parallels before women so that they may have choice over a role model for themselves. His concluding remarks drew references from the findings of World Development Report, 2012, which recognises the expanding of women’s ability to make decisions and take advantage of opportunities as the key to improving their lives as well as the world we all share.
Being a civil servant, with a wide range of experiences that she has gathered by virtue of several postings in her tenure, Mrs. Zainab was very candid in her opinion. She shared her experiences of working with bidi workers in South 24 Parganas and stated that it was mostly women at work rather than men but the problem was that they did not have any role in deciding where their hard-earned money should go, which was entirely decided by the men at home. So, it not only important to connect women to work to financially empower them but also empower them in matters of taking decisions without which this whole discussion on empowerment is meaningless.
He referred to Prof. Omar’s view on thinking of empowerment from rural lines, where it is mostly needed. Of course, the task would not be an easy one as there are various fronts on which the work has to be done, but she was of the opinion that this should be an important component of the objectives of empowering women on the economic front. She also suggested if the spectrum of the discussion could be broadened further to include the experiences of women from the non-Muslim community to draw parallel and analyse what could more feasibly be planned to realise the objective of the discussion.
Ms. Shabana’s personal story of the struggle and hardship and the consequent success in journalism, surfaces the social disapproval of a girl’s choice of a career for herself, particularly that of a Muslim girl. Change in the mindset from irrational to one that is broad, accommodative, and rational is what, according to her, a fundamental aspect in the economic empowerment of Muslim women. She described how the community still engages itself in all-men night-long ‘jalsas’ without any reformative outcome. It is time the nature and content of such ‘jalsas’ are transformed or they are quashed altogether.
She stressed on creating awareness in localities through local groups. She is of belief that traditions and customs are passed down through generations in ghettoised localities, hence, it is important to create awareness at this level. She proposed that measures should be adopted in creating groups at local levels with the sole motive of creating awareness among women on their civil rights, religious rights and the opportunities before them that they can utilise to empower themselves.
Saira Shah Halim
From the discussions and opinions shared by most of the panelist, it was clear that patriarchy is a major roadblock in developing a progressive mindset but Mrs. Halim added a twist when she said, “Patriarchy is deep rooted and it’s not only men but also women who practice it”. Patriarchy as a social norm has been in practice for so long that it is practiced inadvertently by women too. Under the circumstances, the purging will involve seriously patient efforts and could span over years. The community in general must rise above their thoughts about women, which centre around marriage as the only mega event in the life of a girl and then washing hands off from the rest of her life thereafter.
According to her, economic empowerment can be achieved if one is self-empowered and self-reliant. She also emphasized on being politically conscious of one’s rights. Political consciousness and the ability to take sides for an ideology is being self-empowered in her opinion. She referred to the life of our prophet’s beloved wife, Khadija (RA) as an embodiment of empowerment and tried to establish how a woman’s self-reliance can lead to her economic independence.
Dr. N. Sabah Ismail
Towards the end, through the opinions expressed by panelists, it was evident that religion has been another major deterrent in the progress of the Muslim community, particularly when it comes to the status of women. Dr. Ismail stated, at the very beginning, that the Almighty has created men and women to complement each other, and that by certain misinterpretation of the scriptures and under the impact of patriarchy, women have been pushed behind, obscured and oppressed for centuries. As a result, the community has rendered itself crippled which otherwise would have felt strengthened by the presence of women in the society. As a scholar, he vehemently expressed that nowhere does the Quran mention that women cannot adopt measures for her financial independence. There are, however, references that no financial responsibility has been laid upon them but that shouldn’t by any means be understood as women cannot be economically empowered and that their financial independence cannot be envisaged.
He continued that awareness of the rights of women is vital for empowerment and when it comes to Muslim women, awareness in the light of the holy Quran is a must. He termed the society, where women empowerment is still a greater issue, as ‘disabled' and added that both men and women have to work together. They must know their rights and this is possible only if they know the religion well through the Quran.
Comments/Questions and Clarification from the Floor
After the panelists had presented their views, the floor was opened for a brief cross questioning.
Referring to Mrs. Saira Shah Halim’s statement that marriage seems to be the only mega even in the life of a women, Mr. Shahjahan added that we respect the sentiments of the parents in their generous and sincere planning for their daughters and that it would only be better if they had similar sincerity in planning their career. He went on to explain the discrimination is evident in the manner of upbringing of a son and a daughter. If only the discrimination could be avoided, it would make a lot of sense towards making the girls child empowered. His question as to why should a girl be left at the mercy of their in-laws or be made solely dependent for their finances on their would-be husbands called for an introspection.
The moderator, Mr. A. Basit Ismail highlighted the questions raised by Mr. Safi Shamsi on the clarity of thought in terms of the disempowerment of women. Answering this question, Dr. Shabina N. Omar said that it not where we want to go to but where we must start from, and it will begin when we stop telling our girls what to do, and start telling our boys to behave; start sensitising boys on women’s issues, respecting them, and giving them voice and agency. Concluding this, Mr. Ismail said that it is important for the present generation to set examples of parenthood to pass on for the generations to follow.
Mrs. Mehpara Sharique, Supervisor primary section at Jibreel International School, expressed that she had a lot of things to take away home from the discussion but her major takeaway was that we need to sensitise our boys and the community towards empowering women. Another guest visitor Mrs. Majda Amolya, head of the pre-primary section at Jibreel International School shared her story of how she had let her daughter feel empowered when she allowed her to take the first flight of her life all by herself and emphasised the need for parents to show the same kind of confidence in their daughters as they often show towards their sons. Adding to their remarks, Mrs. Benazir Banu, a senior teacher and a colleague to Mrs. Sharique and Mrs. Amolya, said that we all can make significant contributions towards the question raised in the panel discussion today, keeping in mind that charity begins at home.
On the behalf of the Institute of Objective Studies, Kolkata Chapter, Mr. Afnan Akhzar presented the official vote of thanks to all the panalists and guest for their generous acceptance of the invitation and contributing their precious time to helping create a consensus towards adding value to the society.
The Institute of Objective Studies, Kolkata Chapter deliberated on the issue, a rather sensitive issue, for over six months before this panel discussion actually happened. Mr. Abdul Basit Ismail mentioned that this, however, should not be understood as a rare discussion but the Chapter believes that this is a beginning to a series of discussions and is keen on taking this movement forward. The Chapter pledges to endeavour to bring this issue to the academic discourse to involve responsible people from the literary, academia, social and religious circle and political sphere to provide impetus to the consensus that this discussion has helped us arrive at, and presented the resolution as follows:
The house resolved that:
- There should be an awareness programme among the older groups in their role as parents, guardians or elderly to help them know why it is important for them to support and encourage the girls of their family.
- There should be an awareness programme for girls and women to help them know their rights and opportunities.
- There should be a series of progammes planned and conducted for men and women both on religious front to help them reconstruct their thoughts in the light of the holy Quran.
- A series of talks with responsible locals should be planned for various localities towards creating local social-help groups for easy access of women.
- Mass discussion and orientation programmes should be planned to sensitise youth over the issues of behaviour and approach towards girls/women.
- A series of academic discourses should be planned to gather adequate data so that appropriate measures can be taken to make the measures adopted towards economic empowerment of women more effective.
- To have a women’s team at IOS Kolkata Chapter to further the cause.