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Published in the 16-31 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

"Islamic Feminism"!
US undiplomacy backfires in Kerala
By Mukundan C Menon

It would have otherwise been a clever politico-PRO move by US diplomats in India to woo the Muslim community. However, since their chosen venue happened to be Kozhikode, the nerve centre of Malabar Muslim politics in Kerala, the undiplomatic move was thoroughly exposed and heavily backfired.

Demonstrations in Calicut against 
the US seminar

The occasion was a workshop on "Islam and Women", better called "Islamic Feminism", organized by the Chennai-based US Consulate at Hotel Hyson Heritage, Kozhikode, on December 22. It was supposed to be under the joint sponsorship of the local Farooq College which is run by a Muslim management. However, they dissociated at the last moment following protests from Muslim bodies and intellectuals. The main speaker at the event was Prof Margot Badran, a senior fellow at the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, Washington. Claimed to be an expert in "Islamic feminism", her topic was academic: "Islam and multiple discourse of gender". However, as soon as the invitation from US consulate reached the press and selected invitees, the hidden agenda was known: a clever maneuver to counter the strong anti-American sentiments which prevail in the Muslim-dominated Malabar region, and which only multiplied after the recent Iraq events. At the best, both the chosen time and venue turned out to be undiplomatic blunders!

The lead for the protest was taken by the radical Muslim outfit, National Development Front (NDF), and its women's body, Kerala Women's Front (KWF) who staged demonstration and dharna in front of the hotel even before the workshop started. Another demonstration was staged by followers of the Sunni leader, Kanthapuram Aboobecker Musaliar, belonging to Sunni Students Federation (SSF). 

Inside the hall, NDF leader Prof P Koya, an invitee, asked Dr Badran point blank : "What is the compelling reason for the US consulate to hold this seminar on "Islamic Feminism" in Malabar when the US administration is massacring large numbers of women and children in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, which is a major issue of global concern." 

Although Farook College dissociated itself, its sociology department head, N P Hafiz Mohammed, was one of the principal organizers. Taking exceptions at the protests generated by the seminar, "which is purely academic in nature", he said : "My association to organize this seminar has not in any way diminished my strong opposition towards the US administration's foreign policies". On the other hand, Prof Koya was of the view that the US administration had been wooing opinion leaders among the Muslim community with offers of free trips to US with the ulterior motive of winning their support for its "anti-Muslim" foreign policies the world over.

Advocate Norbina Rasheed, an invitee and councillor in Kozhikode Municipal Corporation, while taking exception to Ms Badran's keen interest to link feminism to Islam and the rights of Muslim women, asked : "Why is she not concerned about the sufferings of women in Christianity and other religions?" 

Notably, the anti-US communist parties maintained a stalk silence over this undiplomatic event. Also, leading Muslim bodies, ranging from Indian Union Muslim League to Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, did not bother to register even token protest. The latter, however, sent an observer to the seminar to directly monitor the proceedings.

Ironically, the organizers chose to screen in the Seminar hall the controversial Malayalam movie, Padom Onnu: Oru Vilapam, deplicting the plight of Muslim girls who were forced to marry in childhood in some parts of Malabar. According to Shajahan Madambat, a US consultate official from Kerala, its screening was merely meant to use it as a catalyst to generate good discussion, and do not reflect their assessment of the film as an authentic portrayal of Muslim women. However, since the same film found applauds especially from Sangh Parivar, its screening at this "diplomatic exercise" was enough to raise eyebrows. 

Is there, after all, anything called "Islamic feminism"? According to Ms. Badran, who is on a tour of India under a US cultural exchange programme, Islamic feminism was a discourse grounded in Quran and not a response to the constitution of any country against its anti-woman provisions. Outlining the emergence of feminism in Egypt and the rise of Islamic feminism in post-Khomeini Iran and Malaysia, she said: "It is a movement to demand equality and justice with men that had been clearly laid down in Quran."

"Islamic feminism need to be discussed in detail for several reasons: The first Muslim was a woman. Islamic feminism is popping up in different countries now. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. More people, especially women, are converting to Islam than to any other region", she said.

Responding to IUML’s Ms Kamarunnisa Anvar, chairperson of Kerala State Women Development Corporation , as to why so many women are converting to Islam amidst all these loud talks about Muslim women being suppressed and oppressed within Islam, Dr Badran said: "Many women whom I interviewed in different parts of the world stated their decision to convert to Islam was borne out of the security that Islam offered to its followers and the discipline it inculcated among them."

Despite this setback the Chennai US consulate is reportedly planning to organize similar workshops in Malabar area to counter the anti-American sentiments which are running high in Muslim-dominated areas. NDF leader Prof Koya said: "Muslim organizations will not allow the US consulate to conduct any more workshops anywhere in Kerala. The US wants our support for its anti-Islamic policies world-wide."
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