Whether or not Shazia will be “allowed” to work after marriage is a secondary concern. What is crucial to consider is that she was unable to contribute financially and become economically independent in her own household. If Shazia would be empowered and supported, not only would this encourage other women in her community to take a stand and contribute economically but also break common misconceptions Muslim Women in India encounter. The key question we ask here is: Why was Shazia, an academically driven and competent woman not able to take a stand for herself? Evidently, she was not forced into marriage if she engaged with the tasks at hand dutifully. If she was not happy committing to marriage at that point in her life or ever, why was she unable to speak for herself and decline the proposal? Why did she let those degrees be taken down right in front of her eyes? There is one key reason for this: the lack of support structures in India as a whole. This includes but is not limited to educational structures, public spaces, and the media.
The first aspect is the educational structures. A recent article by the Wire highlighted appalling numbers that brought to light the reason behind these poor structures 42.7% of Muslims in India are illiterate which is the highest illiteracy rate for a single religious community in India. These numbers are further exacerbated by the urban-rural divide where urban areas consisted of 34.4% of the illiterate Muslim population. These numbers if compared to the overall illiterate population in urban India are far higher than 25.5%. Most significantly, 48.11% (4.03 crore) Muslim Indian women cannot write or read their own names. In the forthcoming years, these numbers will only grow if educational structures do not recognize the importance and potential impact if 4.03 crore Muslim women gain basic literacy skills. The availability of scholarships is one such pathway for Muslim Women to access literacy. Scholarships that are available are not accessible with little to no knowledge dissemination. The lack of supporting structures also hints towards outreach to adolescent Muslim women where information about scholarships is not easily disseminated due to limited access to technology. Those that do know about these scholarships do not have the guidance on applying for these scholarships and receiving them successfully.
Another key consideration is public spaces. While prayer rooms and ablution are not necessarily the only type of support structure, they do represent a significant aspect of Muslim identity. An Economic Times article titled “How India Inc's workplaces are accommodating employees' religious and cultural needs'' stated the need for diversity at workplaces in India while highlighting issues that employees face. For instance, “The company HR team solved it by providing him a prayer room in the office and in return asking him to be more tolerant of others. In another case, an employee, victimized by a boss because of his religion and who was forced to quit, was re-employed by the company after the boss himself resigned”. If such issues are encountered by employees, they only exacerbate when an intersectional identity of a Muslim and a woman comes into play. Structures don't just mean ablution facilities but also people, their behavior and interactions. People constitute the majority of the structures and their behaviors and interactions not only form the structures but are a consequence of it. Transforming educational structures to improve accessibility to Muslim women is rarely at the forefront of discussion due to the aforementioned problems. However, accessibility and empowerment are stereotypically linked with drastic policy changes and revamping entire systems. This is not necessarily the case as shifts in Islamophobic perceptions attitudes, interactions and behaviors can be made through minor policy changes. One such example is meeting timings. By not hosting meetings or events during important prayer hours such as Friday afternoons, creates an inclusive and culturally sensitive space hence contributing to a transformative structure in the long run.
Lastly, it is crucial to note that the media can make or break support structures by molding perceptions and stereotypes of Muslim women. Feminism In India published an article on the 16th of October 2019 titled “Looking Beyond The Stereotypes: Muslim Women In India”. The article clarifies misconceptions of Muslim women being restrained from acquiring education and being forced into marriage. The article clearly states that “Islam stresses the need for acquisition of knowledge and critical thinking”. It also highlights the importance of consent of both parties in marriage stating that “Islam was the first to establish a legal contract between a man and a woman”. These misconceptions prevent women from seeking education and employment largely because employees might not be aware of the correct information throughout the recruitment process and women themselves do not have the tool to defend and debunk misconceptions. Salwa Mansuri is studying Politics and International Relations at University College London, this is her second in a three-part series
The views expressed by the author are personal