Muslim Women

Muslim women from the middle and upper classes with higher education get very good placements with handsome salaries and perks. Those from low-income groups struggle relentlessly for money and start working to compensate for the loss of family income. The plight of middle and lower-tier women is tragic. The migrant workers in the informal sector are the most disadvantaged because they lack social security apart from encountering numerous other challenges

Muslim Women

Representational photo

Indian Muslim women are practically invisible across the country. What needs to change to ensure they get their proper place in community leadership in the hierarchical ladder? Social structures have always played a role in widening economic divides between those marginalized by gender, religion, caste, and their intersections.

Muslim women, who constitute only one-tenth of the working women population in India, bore the brunt of hate campaigns, hiring biases, and state-sanctioned demolition drives. Though heavily urban, Muslims had a meagre share of the public (or any formal) jobs, school and university places, and political seats. They earned less than other groups, were more excluded from banks and other finance, spent fewer years in school and had lower literacy rates. Pitifully few entered the army or the police force.

Although fundamental rights and dignities are universal, there are ways of enshrining them without perfectly emulating a modern experience. That is not to say that Muslim women should be left alone and be allowed to choose to be repressed because freedom is their right. Still, in deeply traditional societies, women choose their battles and make distinctions between wants and needs. Treating all Muslim women’s problems as monolithically attributable to their religion is a cul-de-sac. Some vast cultural differences and influences go beyond the simplistic attentiongrabbing headlines.


Even in the diaspora, Muslims perpetuate cultural strands of religious practice, believing that engaging with communities, as opposed to some faceless spiritual body, might be more productive. Several endeavours are helping Muslim women emerge out of their shadows. Still, these are undermined and treated with increased cynicism when they are morally hijacked to underwrite even moderate idealistic campaigns.

The situation is equally dire in the second-largest demographic in India, with nearly 14 per cent of the country’s population. Here economic reforms need precedence over gender reforms. Improvement in gender conditions can automatically follow as a byproduct of economic redemption.

The biggest problems facing Muslim society today are financial, and the worst sufferers are women. These problems will not likely be solved with civil rights remedies, but they could be relieved with public and private action encouraging economic redevelopment. Poor Muslims are much poorer than poor Hindus and can easily be bracketed with the lowest Hindu castes and Dalits.

Muslims are stuck at the bottom of almost every economic or social heap. The government has been aggressively pursuing the agenda of reforms in the personal laws of Muslims. Economic backwardness is a much more complex and bitter reality for Muslims. The State can’t turn its eyes from it, mainly when training so many telescopes on the community’s social condition. It will amount to questioning the purity of the nationalism of Muslims, the same way the upper castes have questioned the purity of spiritualism of the socalled backward castes.

The Indian Development Review (IDR) has done commendable work of collating and researching, surveying and documenting the studies undertaken by socially conscious researchers whose intensive and painstaking research throws enormous light on the root cause of the malaise which Muslim women offer. A few of these studies have been analysed and examined to understand the problem.

Muslim women from the middle and upper classes with higher education get very good placements with handsome salaries and perks. Those from lowincome groups struggle relentlessly for money and start working to compensate for the loss of family income.

The plight of middle and lower-tier women is tragic. The migrant workers in the informal sector are the most disadvantaged because they lack social security apart from encountering numerous other challenges. Since 1959, several bills that would ensure essential safeguards such as fair wages, pensions, and maternity and health benefits to domestic workers have been introduced in Parliament. But none of them was passed as a law. Muslim women are significantly under-represented in the workforce. According to the 66th round of the National Sample Survey Organisation (2009–10), out of every 1,000 working women, only 101 ~ a meagre 10 per cent ~ were found to be Muslim. As per the 2011 Census data, the Indian worker population ratio of Muslims was the lowest at 32.6; Hindus and Christians had a worker population ratio of 41 and 41.9, respectively The migrant Muslim women workers also suffer from errors of omission.

According to the 2011 Census survey, 67 per cent of the migrating population is women, and an estimated 11 per cent of the women migrate with their families. This data doesn’t show that many women who migrate with their husbands and families continue to work, even if they don’t often see themselves as breadwinners. “If you ask the domestic workers, they will say, ‘We have migrated because our husbands migrated,’ but they are all working women. It is a larger question of how women’s labour is understood in our society,” says Shreya, who works for a domestic workers’ union. Non-profits believe that only the government has the resources and adequately trained workforce to undertake research at a scale in line with India’s vast and diverse geography and demography.

Shreya says, “While we work among the workers, we don’t have the resources and reach you need to conduct a comprehensive survey. It is the government’s job. Even the most innovative nonprofits can’t undertake the kind of surveys that the government officials can.” Most of the present literature on the marginalization of Muslim women focuses on personal law and constitutional frameworks rather than on their presence in the labour force.

There is also minimal conversation in the public domain about their dreams, hopes, and ambitions. Muslim women have always been caught between political considerations and personal marginalization. Internal factors, too, require systemic changes and are limited until external factors are corrected. However, certain shifts in existing structures can help create space for young Indian Muslim women.

What will it take to change this? First, their enrolment in educational institutions must increase. A report from the National Statistical Office reveals the abysmal literacy rate among Muslims and the severity of their academic marginalization in India.

According to it, Muslims have the highest proportion of youth (ages 3-35 years) who have never enrolled in formal education. The report also states that the Gross Attendance Ratio (people attending a level of education as a proportion of the population of the group) of Muslims is the lowest among various social and religious groups in India and drops to a mere 14 per cent in above-higher secondary courses. One step in the right direction would be to expand the scope of the Right to Education Act of 2009 ~ which ensures compulsory primary education – to include secondary and higher education. Muslim women face discrimination in schooling because of their religious affiliation and are less likely to enrol in school than Muslim men.

According to the report, the male literacy rate in India is 81 per cent, whereas the female literacy rate is 69 per cent. An unpublished study draws parallels between Muslim and Hindu women, stating that women from both communities tend to have lower enrolment levels than men in Indian society because of various economic and cultural factors.

Therefore, policy changes for the community to encourage Muslims, especially women, to continue their studies and eventually seek employment require rigorous and sustained efforts. Second, equal opportunities in a professional space must be ensured. Beyond the personal, psychological experience of feeling different from the majority, there are measurable consequences for being the ‘other’.

While this may not be the case for every woman in every working environment, in our male-dominated business world, it is an all too common occurrence. When women are excluded, companies lose out on their talent and remain deprived of the contribution of a vital component of the workforce. Change can only be made if organisations start to listen, understand and devise solutions to address the barriers women and other minority groups face.

Such steps will go a long way to creating a solid pipeline of diverse talent. Third, it is vital to celebrate female entrepreneurs. Celebrating women’s role models through cross-media campaigns by national and State governments can help eliminate stereotypes, build community, and celebrate the successes of Indian Muslim women. This can also be translated to the private sector through a sectoral campaign that brings female professionals and entrepreneurs into the mainstream.

This would help young Indian Muslim women identify potential mentors and empower them to continue their journey from education to employment. Fourth, it is important to build a support network of likeminded women. A platform or an informal, inclusive support network to facilitate the exchange of ideas, information, capital, and counsel between budding and successful entrepreneurs needs to be set up.

While we understand that changing this status quo may be slow and arduous, it is certainly not impossible. Neo-colonialist sensitivities run deep in Muslim societies and many a fruitful joint venture can be sabotaged due to such prickliness. Finding local partners and supporting indigenous role models can minimize this effect.

(The writer is an author, researcher and development professional. He can be reached at moinqazi123@gmail.com)