A Muslim woman in the southern Indian state of Kerala has received death threats after leading prayers for a mixed congregation in an act of defiance against established Islamic practice.
Jamida Beevi is thought to be the first woman to lead Friday prayers in India for both male and female worshippers, doing so at Wandoor Cherukod village in Malappuram last week. She also delivered a sermon on gender justice.
“I believe in the Qur’an and the Qur’an teaches equality between the sexes. All this discrimination against women is manmade, imposed by the male clergy and I want to change it,” said Beevi, 34, speaking to the Guardian by phone on Tuesday.
Traditionally a male imam leads prayers, except when the congregation is all female.
Beevi said she believed the Qur’an contains no injunction that says only men can lead prayers. She belongs to a small sect called the Qur’an Sunnat Society; it believes only in the Qur’an, not in the hadith – the statements made by the prophet on a variety of subjects and written down by his followers after his death. Most orthodox Muslims believe in both the Qur’an and the hadith.
“The Qur’an says all human beings are equal and anyone can lead prayers. The Qur’an is the basis of Islam, not the hadith, which were created by men after the prophet’s death. For 1,400 years, men have decided things, only men have made decisions. It is time for all that to change now,” said Beevi, who is divorced and a mother of two children.
She led the prayers not in a mosque, but in the office of the Qur’an Sunnat Society, where she works full time. Her act has provoked a backlash, with local media reporting that members of Muslim organisations have threatened to kill her.
“These are extremists who cannot tolerate any reform. I have had threats on WhatsApp, on YouTube, on Facebook, but I am not scared,” she says.
Abdul Rahman, the secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, which manages about 500 mosques in Kerala, said Beevi’s action was an “arranged drama”, and a “gimmick to acquire cheap popularity” while distracting the Muslim community from real issues.
“By tradition, men lead the prayers because women are busy in the household and have their limitations,” said Rahman. “This division of duties between men and women is not discrimination, it’s a question of what best suits men and what best suits women.”
Muslim women in India have recently been leading the charge in reforming ancient practices they believe are discriminatory. A recent victory was the August 2017 ruling by the Indian supreme court that struck down the practice of ‘triple talaq’, under which a Muslim husband could utter the word talaq three times in succession to instantly divorce his wife.
The campaign to ban triple talaq was led by the women’s rights group, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA).
The BMMA has also been training Muslim women to become a kazi or Islamic judge, who adjudicates in marriage, polygamy, divorce and custody disputes. The job has always been held by men and is usually passed from father to son. Last July, in Jaipur, the first group of women to finish a two-year training course began to work as qualified kazis.
Asked about Beevi’s actions, Nishat Hussain, the head of the BMMA in Jaipur, said: “I support the idea of equality but in the Qur’an, it is said that a woman can lead other women in prayers but can’t lead men, and if she goes against these tenets of the faith, it will be hard for people to support her.”
Beevi said she planned to continue leading prayers: “If need be I will ask for police protection but I will continue. How can India as country develop if we don’t change all the things that are holding women back?”
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