In 1981, a Muslim woman named Najma Bangi in Karnataka’s Gulbarga district defied the fatwa issued by the local clergy against watching movies by Muslim women.
For the Muslim clergy, watching movies by Muslim women was against the basic principles of the faith and was haram. Najma’s stiff resistance shocked the gender-biased social structure and the radical Muslim groups.
This incident prompted two Muslim women writers, unknown until then in the public domain, to register their dissent in an article and a letter in the then-popular Lankesh Patrike, a weekly known for critical radical views and providing spaces for unheard voices of obscure writers who belonged to the marginalised groups, including women, Dalits, and minorities.
Of the two, one was Sara Aboobacker, and the other was Bhanu Mushtaq. Both came from two different cultural milieus but wrote profusely in Kannada. It’s the beginning of the journey for Aboobacker, a late entrant to Kannada literature who created her niche within a few years by changing the narratives on Muslim women, gender stereotyping and gender oppression from within.
Her writings had a bearing on many Muslim girls, modelled after her; her writings sought gender parity in personal laws, social setups and knowledge production. She became an iconic figure and a maker of identity for the thousands of women whose voices were throttled by radical Muslims.
The Kannada literary world also supported her with the required spaces to articulate her dissenting notes even though she was a nonconformist writer, writing from the margin. For the Kannada literary world, her writings were new, both in terms of textual narratives and also the canvas of interrogation – it opened up a Pandora’s box of the way domestic violence in the name of marriage was perpetrated on Muslim women.
Until then it was unknown, unheard in the literary world. She became what Gayatri Spivak Chakravorty calls a celebrated “agency” of Muslim women of the margin amid constant threats, social boycotts and abuses. Incidentally, while privileging herself as a writer from the margin, she seldom used minoritism to claim the attended benefit, although she deployed the trajectories of Muslim women, Muslim identity, Muslim marginality in her narratives.
Aboobacker (1936-2023), a prolific writer in the Kannada language, lived in the intersectional period of the progressive movement and the ascendency of communal frenzy in Karnataka. Her first short story came out in 1969 when the coastal belt of Mangalore, wherein she lived after her marriage, was transiting between feudal social structure and modernity.
Modernity provided her with the required spaces to challenge the gender hegemony from within. Still, the feudal social network constantly challenged her without mincing any words about her position on women and faith. She made an impact when her first novel, Chandragiriya Theeradalli, which was later translated into English, Marathi, etc., came out in 1984.
It stirred a controversy, with radical Muslims opposing the way the issue of talaq was dealt with in the novel. It also dealt with the problems of objectification of Muslim women, marital rape and justification of domestic violence.
Aseema, the main character who got her divorce through the deceitful action of her father, was, in fact, not a fiction as such; instead, it was the documentation of the realistic encounters of her domestic help, Nadira.
Aboobacker was a critical insider, and her canvas was not confined to the issues of talaq, domestic violence, gender bias and gender stereotyping. She constructed the multiple identities of Muslim women through the interrogation of the text and the theology to parallel the experience of similar women of subaltern classes in India.
Paradoxically, it is true that the characteristics in her fiction, barring one or two, revolved around her Beary community, a community of Muslims who were otherwise known as ‘Mopillas’.
In her textual narratives, she found no place for the urban, metropolitan, upper, middle class and the women of the non-Beary community. They were reduced to “other”, “outside the realm of social narratives”, as discriminated against, oppressed and victimised.
Her narratives on the victimisation of women come closer to the narrative of Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi, except that Devi’s canvas enveloped tribal women, police forces and the state. Domesticated violence in the realm of private life, which was often unheard of or articulated, was Aboobacker’s primary concern than the violence of the state. But definitely, she was not like Kamala Das, a firebrand feminist writer who introduced female sexuality to Indian writings and later came to be known as ‘Surayya’.
For Aboobacker, it was not sexuality, rather gender stereotyping, gender hegemony, and gender autonomy that were the principal interrogating issues.
While encountering Islamic fundamentalism, radical Islam or even the clergy, it is intriguing that she could play the card of social harmony, expanding the liberal-secular space and tolerance simultaneously. Her position on subaltern Muslim women, articulated through her various textual narratives such as novels, call for an explanation as to whether Aboobacker can be called a Muslim feminist or an Islamic feminist or simply a progressive-liberal feminist.
Some would call her a reformist writer. Her socio-political positions in public domain, her versatile literature – both fiction and non-fiction – demonstrate her feminist ideas. She juxtaposed Muslim feminism and critical feminism with much ease; in the former case, she used theology and the text to derive a point and, in the latter case, she was critical of the gender-based social structure and its attendant suppressive nature.
In the public domain, her interrogation of the Shah Bano case of the 1980s became the starting point for demanding gender-sensitive talaq. Other issues were added as she went on to become a public intellectual. One crucial issue was polygamy. The most crucial issue was the Uniform Civil Code, which she believed would help tackle gender discrimination from within.
She posits a question: when Muslims accept criminal justice without any iota of dissent, can it not be feasible to accept a Uniform Civil Code? For her, a Uniform Civil Code would entail an equal share of the parental property. Meanwhile, she supported a reformed Personal Law, where women’s issues are dealt with from the gender perspective. It does not mean she was approving the politics of hate and increasing attacks on multi-culturalism in the disguised form of “love jihad”, “hijab”, or even in the name of food culture.
Despite her passing away, the legacy of Aboobacker would continue to persist among the new breed of Muslim women writers who would continue to challenge gender hegemony and oppression. It would add up to the narrative on “Writing from the Margin”. Aboobacker indeed succeeded in doing so amid growing intolerance, hate and gender stereotyping both from within and without.
Muzaffar Assadi is dean at the Faculty of Arts, University of Mysore.