Laden Activism
Vahida Nainar
MUSLIM WOMEN’S QUEST FOR JUSTICE: GENDER, LAW AND ACTIVISM IN INDIA by Mengia Hong Tschalaer Cambridge Studies in Law and Society, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 272 pp., $110.00, Rs.570
February 2019, volume 43, No 2

With Muslim Women’s Quest for Justice, Mengia Hong Tschalaer  enters the complex world of rights of Muslim women guided by very pertinent research questions. She examines this world through the lens of three leaders of women’s organizations in Lucknow. For Muslim women, it is a world fraught with hostility in family and community on questions of rights within marriage, and its breakdown. The most accessible justice forum for women is religious, i.e., the Darul Qaza which, among other things, upholds men’s unilateral right to divorce and polygamy, focuses on the act of sexual intercourse in rape, and reduces alimony to the minimum three month period of iddat.

For a researcher, it is a terrain strewn with inconsistencies and contradictions. For instance, the leaders of women’s organizations converge their views on modesty in dress and conduct with the clergy in order to gain respectability; they simultaneously diverge from the same clergy’s conservative views on rights of women. Or, the rejection of religious forum of justice—the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and Darul Qazas—as anti-women and lacking in legitimacy, while creating similar set-ups in All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board, All India Shia Personal Law Board or the Shariat courts according more rights to women while observing similar codes of modesty in conduct. Or the assertion of secular rights while speaking of the all-encapsulating nature of the Quran to include constitutional rights.

Tschalaer adeptly makes sense of it all using several analytical concepts: the leaders conforming to the codes of modesty is Deniz Kandiyoti’s ‘Bargaining with Patriarchy’, women’s use of different forums to maximize the possibility of justice is Gopika Solanki’s ‘Forum-Shopping’, activists enabling access to interpretative possibilities in religious laws to ordinary Muslim women at community level is Sally Merry’s ‘Vernacularization’, coexistence of diverse dispute-resolution avenues is Solanki’s ‘Shared Adjudication Model’, and the inevitable cross-links between secular and religious laws is De Sousa Santos’s ‘Interlegality’. In the process, the leaders are variously described as ‘comfort-providers’, ‘access-enablers’, ‘knowledge-brokers’, and ‘justice-dispensers’. The leaders distance themselves from the label of feminists and self-identify as activists.

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