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Film Review

Shifting Prophecy

Thursday, December 03, 2009 09:38:10 PM, Yoginder Sikand

Listen To The Muslim Woman’s Voice:

India’s largest minority population lives in poverty and socio-economic exclusion even after 62 years of Independence. Muslims live in ghettos across the country with a persistent feeling of fear and insecurity.....Read Full

Countering the stereotypical image of Muslim women as silent victims of patriarchy, the award-winning film ‘Shifting Prophecy’ highlights the struggle launched by a group of Tamil Muslim women, led by the charismatic Daud Shareefa Khanum, to have their muffled voices heard and to fight misogyny in the name of Islam.


The film traces the origins of STEPS, a women’s group based in the town of Puddukotai in Tamil Nadu, and goes on to detail its remarkable efforts in mobilizing Muslim women for their rights. It focuses in particular on Khanum and her own story—the daughter of a Tamil Muslim couple who got separated soon after her birth, who, defying all odds, went on to study at the Aligarh Muslim University and then, on her return to Tamil Nadu, immersed herself wholeheartedly in seeking to redress and protest against the grievances of her fellow Muslim women.


Footage of public rallies bringing together large numbers of these women, burkha-clad or demurely dressed in dupattas wound round their heads, depict the traumas that many of them have undergone. Breaking the veil of silence that has been sought to be imposed on them and defying deeply-rooted patriarchal customs, these women boldly relate their heart-rending tales—of being married off to drunkards, drug-addicts, womanizers and even, in one case, a murderer, against their will, of suffering beatings, demands for exorbitant dowries and brutal torture, and off being cast away by the mere pronouncement of the word talaq—now, thanks to new technology, even through email and SMS. A common theme runs through their tragic stories—the total indifference to their plight, simply on account of them being women, of jamaat committees, consisting entirely of males and based in local mosques, that generally arbitrate in cases of marital dispute. 


The film then shifts to outlining the story of the origins of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat, led by the redoubtable Khanum, who has received numerous awards for her work. Khanum describes how the failure of the mosque-based jamaat committees to sensitively respond to women’s issues forced her and her colleagues to set up their own all-women’s jamaat some years ago.  Their jamaat meets once a month, where women collectively study the Quran themselves (free from patriarchal misinterpretations), and deal with cases of marital disputes and other such problems that women face. So far, Khanum and her colleagues have taken up some 10,000 petitions, trying to solve them through mutual consultation or, if that fails, through the police and the courts.


To galvanise their work, Khanum and her team are now in the process of setting up their own women’s mosque, where they can pray (in contrast to other mosques, where, contrary to the practice at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, women are generally debarred from worshipping), and discuss their own issues and problems. At the same time, the group carries on with its demand that existing mosque jamaat committees should also have women’s representatives, something that is totally absent today.


Accused by traditionalist clerics (some of who appear in the film) of being ‘anti-Islamic’, Khanum repeatedly clarifies that she and her colleagues are all acting within the Islamic framework, demanding the rights that Islam has given women but which Muslim men, impelled by a distorted interpretation of the faith, have snatched from them. ‘Many Muslim women are even denied the right to their own identity, the freedom to express themselves, their self-respect, all this based on wrong interpretations of Islam,’ she stresses. Dowry, forced marriage, arbitrary divorce, wife-beating and denying women the right to worship in mosques—all of these, she points out, have no sanction in Islam. The film reinforces this claim with a short interview with the noted Mumbai-based Islamic scholar, Asghar Ali Engineer, who expresses his solidarity with Khanum and her group.


Since her group’s demands are all perfectly Islamically-legitimate, Khanum insists, the issue is not a religious one, unlike what her detractors argue, Khanum insists. ‘Its simply about power’, she claims—some men, who have for long misused Islam for their own power, just don’t fancy the idea of power slipping out of their hands. That, in short, is the crux of this extremely inspiring film.





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