By Ishaan Menon

(Secular Perspective June 16-30, 2021)

“From its very inception in 1920 women were a presence and a power in Jamia Millia Islamia, but they never emerged as individuals, always overshadowed by men,” said Dr. Syeda Hameed, while delivering the 17th Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Lecture. Dr. Syeda is recipient of the Padmashree Award and former member of the Planning Commission of India. It was time to speak of these women, the architects of Jamia, she further said. The title of the Lecture was, “Contribution of Muslim Women to Educational Institutions: The Case of Khwateen-e-Awwal of Jamia Millia Islamia.” The Lecture was chaired by Prof. Zoya Hasan, Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies; former Dean, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

In an environment wherein the Muslim community is being targeted, particularly the women who fought bravely against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Lecture came with a fresh perspective. The accounts of Dr. Hameed and Prof. Hasan illuminated a perspective that one doesn’t often see in the national discourse on women’s rights in the Muslim community and in India at large and helped dispel many of the widespread misconceptions that have been actively distributed by mainstream media-houses.

It recalled the lives of some widely empowered and outspoken Muslim women and retold the stories of their monumental, yet often overlooked contributions to the literary, educational and women’s rights fields, to the movement for the establishment of Jamia Millia Islamia, and to civil society at large.

Memorial lectures are one of the ways the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism and the Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Advisory Committee honors and continues the legacy of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer. They are two memorial lectures every year and they cover an extensive range of topics important to the work of Dr. Engineer, from social reform movements, to public policy, to secularism, to women’s rights. Prof. Romila Thapar, Wajahat Habibulla, Prof. Rajeev Bharghava, Prof. Prabhat Patnaik are among the many eminent scholars and academicians who have delivered Memorial Lectures in the past.

One of Dr Asghar Ali Engineer’s missions was fighting for gender justice in general, and for Muslim women in particular. He spent his life fighting for equality, firmly believing that the Quran gave women irrefutable rights by supporting the equality of men and women and gender justice. To celebrate this aspect of Dr Asghar Ali Engineer’s rich legacy, renowned writer, educator, historian and social rights activist Dr. Syeda Hameed delivered a lecture on the often-unrecognised contributions of Muslim women in establishing Jamia Millia Islamia.

The 17th Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Lecture was held on 5th of June on a virtual platform. An audience of 240 people including eminent professors, academicians, and scholars from around the world attended the lecture on Zoom, which was simultaneously live-streamed on the Facebook page of the Centre where it saw an average viewership of 75 people.

Dr. Syeda started her lecture with an acknowledgement to the work of Dr. Engineer and his contribution to the fight for gender justice. She then gave the audience a quick background to the life and work of Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum, the Ruler of the Princely State of Bhopal and one of the 4 mothers that inspired her to take on the work she calls ‘The Khwateen-E-Awwal of Jamia’, the first women of Jamia. Dr. Hameed detailed the last Begum’s contributions in the fields of education, sanitation, public health, etc and her efforts in establishing Aligarh Muslim University, of which she was the founding Chancellor, and the first and only woman to have served in the position.

She said, “From its very inception in 1920 women were a presence and a power in Jamia, but they never emerged as individuals, always overshadowed by men; who were undoubtedly committed, dedicated, and passionate, but so were the women. Equally so, were the women. The strength these women brought to the cause has sadly never been recorded or acknowledged. It’s time to speak of these women, the architects of Jamia.”

Dr. Hameed then introduced the audience to the trio known as the ‘Memaar-e-Jamia’, the architects of Jamia, Zakir Husain, scholar and educationist who went on to become the President of India; Mohammad Mujeeb, who, most scholars and historians know, especially for his book on Indian Muslims; and Abid Hussein known across the world, especially in Germany, by students of philosophy and Islamic studies. But, she noted that while the names and efforts of the male trio have been recorded, there have been very few written accounts of the women of Jamia. The names of Shah Jahan Begum, wife of Zakir Husain; Asifa Mujeeb, wife of Mohammad Mujeeb; and Saliha Abid Hussain, wife of Syed Abid Hussain have been largely forgotten. Their roles have been diminished and their work remains unacknowledged in the mainstream.

To reinforce that idea, Dr. Hameed brings in a quote from Saliha Abid Hussain’s speech on Jamia’s Foundation Day in the mid-eighties where she said, “I want to speak of (the) women of Jamia. Who were like Mughal era Raj majdoors behind Emperor Shah Jahan and the Royal Architects who built the Taj Mahal and never, ever thought of etching their names anywhere on the marble”?

Among the many such individuals, Dr. Hameed starts with Saliha Abid Hussain and Gerda Philipsborn. Two people, who, as she puts it, were “as different from each other as one can imagine”. She goes on to describe, with vivid details, the lives they led and the interactions they had with the people around them, Gerda or the ‘German Appa-Jaan’ of Jamia, as she was called, and Saliha.

Dr. Hameed talked of the jalsas they organised, and their journey from attending events behind the pardah to firmly holding their ground and being in “high demand” at traditionally-male dominated intellectual and literary gatherings and their outspokenness in speaking about the rights of women in Islam. Dr. Hameed talked of the unfinished works of Saliha and the final resting place of Gerda and of Professor Sughra Medhi who wrote extensively on the two women and on Jamia and on the need for their works to be made accessible to more people and in more languages.

Dr. Hameed went on to detail Turkish Poet & Activist, Halide Edib Adivar’s series of lectures in Jamia in 1935, and of the early days of Jamia’s move to Okhla, the basic environment, the lack of electricity, of running water, of roads, and of sidewalks. “By the banks of river Jamuna, houses were built, modest houses. Very limited incomes, but plenty of enthusiasm, and lots of spirit and a desire to live together as a human family in which women were the binding force.”

She then narrated some more anecdotes about Shah Jahan Begum. Her majestic personality, her love for animals, and her symbolic sarees. Dr. Hameed introduced another revolutionary, Begum Asifa, who while coming from a well-to-do family, chose to live within the means afforded by the newly moved Jamia. Dr. Hameed recalled having the privilege of reading one of Begum Asifa’s books that were still in handwritten-manuscript form.

The last in Dr. Hameed’s short-list of architects were Shafiqa Kidwai and Begum Syeda Khursheed. Shafiqa Kidwai who established the Balak Mathia Mahal, Delhi, for the education of girls; sat on many apex committees of Jamia; served as a member of the Rajya Sabha; was the wife of Shafiqur Rahman Kidwai, the Minister of Education, and of whom Saliha had written as being dressed in khaddar sari, beautiful, inspiring many girls to take to wearing only khaddar saris or khaddar salwar kameez.

“And finally, Begum Syeda Khusheed, who was brought up by parents who literally birthed Jamia” and whose contributions, recounted by Saliha and her life by Sughra Mehdi in ‘Hamari Jamia’. She was also the founding president of Muslim Women’s Forum (MWF) started by Dr. Hameed.

Near the end of her address, Dr. Hameed quoted a line from ‘Chup ki Daad’ by Maulana Hali, which goes,

 “ai māʾo bahno beṭiyo! dunyā kī zīnat tum se hai

mulkoñ kī bastī ho tumhīñ qaumoñ kī ʿizzat tum se hai”

(‘oh mothers, sisters, daughters, you are ornaments of the world, you are the life of nations, the dignity of civilizations.’)

Dr. Hameed noted that it was these very lines that inspired the Muslim Women’s Forum to launch an exhibition called ‘Pathbreakers: The 20th century Muslim women of India’, which featured 22 women, to, in Dr. Syeda’s words, “break the stereotyping of Muslim women as victims of their own societies” and to illuminate the Muslim women who, during the freedom movement, “shed the purdah and became partners in the project to build a new India” and post Independence, tended to refugees, educated generations of girls, cleaned slums and basthis.

The installation included women like Anis Kidwai, who in her book ‘Azaadi ki Chhaon Mein’ (now translated to ‘In Freedom’s Shade’ by her granddaughter), wrote of her partition trauma. There was Shareefa Hamid Ali who had the distinction of representing India in the United Nations, Atiya Fyzee, writer and artist, who gate-crashed at the Jubilee Celebrations of the Mohammedan Educational Conference in 1925 when it had excluded women, Begum Hamida Habibullah, contemporary of Saliha and the Jamia women who ran for election in UP, won, and went on to hold important political offices, Surayya Tyabji, who designed the Indian flag and her daughter Laila Tyabji, foremost in the crafts world today. The Muslim Women’s Forum has plans for a second instalment to the ‘Pathbreaker’ series.

Dr. Hameed said that the spirit of Jamia comes from all these strong and resilient women who collectively built Jamia and the Muslim women’s movement over decades. That it transcends the test of time and will continue to surface whenever there is a threat to the core values, imbibed in the idea of India, the idea of the university and the idea of Jamia.

She drafts out the 2019 protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens as prime examples of the undying spirit of Jamia and the strong, empowered women it nurtures. “The women of Jamia stood defiant in the face of oppression, it was these women who protested the unconstitutional Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, that was passed by an authoritarian state…These women were descendants in the spirit of Jamia’s Khwateen-E-Awwal and other women who we displayed in our ‘Pathbreakers’ presentation.”

In closing, Dr. Hameed quoted Wasim Barelvi, who she regards as one of the finest contemporary poets,

“जहाँ रहेगा, जहाँ रहेगा वहीं रौशनी लुटाएगा, जहाँ रहेगा वहीं रौशनी लुटाएगा, किसी चराग़ का अपना मकाँ नहीं होता”

Meaning, wherever it is placed, it will spread its light, a lamp when lit, has no house of its own.

With this she aimed to reinforce the need for young people to take up the mantle of revolution, of taking up this “uncharted territory”, of working towards a just society.

Professor Zoya Hasan, the Chair, thanked Dr. Hameed for the lecture and called it, “a fascinating excavation and account of the lives and role of some iconic women in the founding movement of Jamia Millia Islamia” and then went on to add in some observations, comments and insights on the lecture. She talked about the Turkish activist Halide Edib Adivar, who came to Jamia to deliver a series of 8 lectures titled ‘Inside India’; in which, Adivar went into great detail in her descriptions of the movement surrounding Jamia. As Prof. Hasan puts it, Adivar “greatly admired the Jamia movement, for its harmonizing intermingling of anti-imperialism and tradition, and what she found very interesting and impressive was the combination of Indian nationhood with Islamic identity.”

She noted that even though she took India “by storm”, there are no references to her lectures in the “standard account of mainstream nationalism” and added that it was then no surprise that the same happened to the women of Jamia. She goes on to note that “conventional interests and archives have left them out of sight” especially considering the public nature of their activities and of the movements at large.

Prof. Hasan then goes on to note that most of the women of Jamia worked behind the scenes, and while most of these men that they were associated with, were fairly liberal and forward-looking as far as education was concerned, and yet neither they, nor these women gave emphasis, to the question of Muslim women’s education in Jamia. Which is something she said she found interesting and which needed further interrogation and that there was a need to explore the “attitudes to social reform and women’s education in the case of Jamia women and their male patrons.”

Prof. Hasan observed that Dr. Hameed’s lecture provided “important leads into the social and cultural history” of the Muslim women of the North Indian, Middle and Upper classes; which she hoped would provide basis for future work on the role of these women and added that “the significance of Dr. Hameed’s thick description lies in her sensitivity to the historical and social situatedness of these women and the consequent disavowal of the cultural essentialism, that has for so long produced the idea of the, ‘Muslim woman’ as a discursive object.”

She ended her comments with a final insight on the role of today’s Jamia women in the protests as mentioned by Dr. Hameed. Prof. Hasan details what she believes was a role reversal in 2019-20 as compared to the 1930s and 40s. She detailed that while the women Dr. Hameed talked of, in the 1930s and 40s, were in the background, providing support behind the scenes, that the women of Jamia, in 2019-20, had “reversed the situation that existed a hundred years ago”. And that this time, “men were behind the scenes while women were up front, fighting for human rights and citizenship rights”. She believed that to be “the greatest tribute to women’s education which Jamia Millia has advanced in the past 50 years or so.”

A question answer session followed the Chair’s remarks, wherein a question of “the backwardness of the Muslim Community” was brought up, to which Prof. Hasan very eloquently replied, “the backwardness of Muslims is a matter of concern, but I think it would be perhaps not fair to generalize. There is a great deal of variation in the social and economic status of Muslims across the country. We tend to think of Muslims in terms of their status in North India and north Indian Muslims in particular dominates the imagination about Muslims. If we go to the South of the Vindhyas, for example, Kerala, Tamil, Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, the situation and status of Muslims are very, very different.”

The program then came to a close with a vote of thanks by Commander Mansoor Ali Bohra, Chairperson of the Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community.

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