India's largest English Islamic magazine's woman editor

She isn't the stereotypical "Muslim woman", draped in a burqa or kept confined to her home, that the "mainstream" media portrays Muslim women as and as traditionalist Muslim clerics would like them to be. Nigar Ataulla is the editor of India's largest-selling English-language Islamic magazine, Islamic Voice, based in Bangalore. She enjoys the enviable distinction of being one of the few women editors of any major religious periodical in the country.
"Both my parents were academics", the soft-spoken Ataualla tells me, "and they insisted that all their children-we three sisters- should be well-educated and stand on our own feet". After taking a degree in journalism, Ataulla worked for several years with an advertising agency, till she decided that making commercial advertisements was not really what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. "I had an irrepressible urge within to communicate to a wider audience and that is how I entered the field of journalism", she explains. She began by publishing letters in various newspapers, and then did a short stint with "Meantime", a Muslim-owned monthly, till three years ago when she was appointed as editor of Islamic Voice.
A woman heading an Islamic magazine, Ataulla says, may not raise many eyebrows in many other countries, but in India it certainly is a major challenge. Although her appointment as the editor of Islamic Voice did not stir any controversy, she says that some people might have balked at the idea of a woman editor when other, and what they thought of as equally capable, men were available for the job. Managing an Islamic magazine, Attaulla says, is no easy task. "We have to be constantly cautious of how even a minor remark or statement would be received, because some people might get affronted as raise a hue and cry". Since Islamic Voice aims at a broad Muslim audience, unlike many other Islamic magazines that cater to particular Muslim sects, an innocuous article on any issue might be construed as an attack on a particular sect or its beliefs and practices. Attaulla cites an example. "I wanted to write a lead article on the popular practices associated with the celebration of the Prophet's birthday, the processions that are taken out in the streets, the bursting of crackers, feasting and so on. I wanted to say that all this is unnecessary and is not taught in the Quran, but I was not able to do so for fear that it would anger a particular Muslim sect that believes these practices are all allowed for in Islam.
Another major problem that bedevils the Muslim media in India, Attaulla says, is the paucity of people who can write on social issues. "Very few of our contributors are willing to do any field-work or investigative stories that entail travelling to the field. They would prefer to sit in the comfort of their homes or libraries and simply quote from the Qur'an or the sayings of the Prophet on this or that issue, thinking that in this way all our problems will be solved". This simplistic approach, she says, informs Muslim publishing in general in India. "Muslim publishing houses specialise in producing books on Islamic theology and law, and very few of them have published anything on actually existing Muslim communities and their real-world social problems and concerns. They seem to imagine that preaching about Islam is a substitute for actually engaging in understanding and working to change society". Likewise, she says, in the madrasas, where the ulama or Muslim clerics, are trained, students are, in general, kept ignorant of contemporary social reality, because of which they are unable to write on anything other than strictly religious issues. Similarly, few Muslim bookshops stock anything other than religious books. Even fewer sell books by liberal Muslim thinkers." For these sorts of books", Attaulla tells me, "I inevitably have to go to non-Muslim bookshops. I think this really tells a lot about the level of intellectual discourse in our community".
Attaulla pleads for Muslim journalists and publishing houses to think beyond simply religious issues narrowly defined. "It's as if they believe that confronting the real world, which is far from the ideal world that they aspire to, might weaken their own faith. This has to change if Muslim journalism is to be responsive to people's lived realities", she insists. An "obsessive concern" for religious issues, and ignoring other aspects of life, she says, is a dominant feature of much of the Muslim press. "Muslims, as a rule, respond only to religious issues or issues that concern them alone", she says. "We need to think also of the wider society, and of issues other than those strictly religious as well. How else can we expect others to take an interest in our issues and problems?", she asks.
"Most Muslim publishing houses and organisations are ideologically driven", Attaulla explains. "They are associated with one or the other Muslim sect and see their mission as promoting that particular sectarian view in the name of Islam". Consequently, alternate views are frowned upon and are often sought to be suppressed. She cites the instance of a function organised recently in Bangalore by a certain Islamic organisation that included a book exhibition. "The organisers sent out a list to the different groups setting up bookstalls at the event mentioning the titles of the books that could be advertised or sold. Many of the groups protested at this attempt at moral policing and refused to participate in the function. Unless we are able to openly express diverse views and engage in dialogue, rather than branding each other as enemies how can we progress?", she asks, explaining that Islamic Voice seeks to rise above sectarian differences and thereby help promote a climate conducive to dialogue within the community as also between Muslims and Hindus.
Our conversation turns to the issue of Muslim women and their portrayal in the media. Attaulla admits that the "mainstream" Indian media does have a tendency to sensationalise the marginalisation of Muslim women and thereby portray Islam as "obscurantist". "Mainstream" papers rarely publish any positive stories about Muslim women, thereby reinforcing the stereotypical image of Muslim women as oppressed and pathetic creatures. At the same time, Ataulla argues, deeply-entrenched patriarchal structures and prejudices within the community cannot be ignored and must also be challenged. Yet, she adds, patriarchy and women's oppression, she says, is a universal phenomenon and one that is by no means specific to Muslims alone. Hence, she says, Muslim women must also work with their sisters in other communities to critique patriarchy and struggle for their rights. Ataulla believes many secular women's groups are seriously committed to Muslim women's issues, and she herself has worked with them on numerous occasions. She tells me, with approval, of the Muslim women who regularly approach a secular women's group in Bangalore for counselling or who visit the family court located in the Police commissioner's office for help. "If the ulema or Muslim organisations are unable to provide them the support and comfort they need, it is but right that these women should look for other sources of help. After all, these other groups are not engaged in any anti-Islamic conspiracy, as is sometimes alleged by some Muslims", she says.
Attaulla describes herself as a believing and practising Muslim. She does not see Islam, as she understands it, as sanctioning gender inequality. "I believe that every woman must be educated and must also be economically independent, even after marriage", she insists. She sees nothing "un-Islamic" about this, and argues that the opinion of the conservative ulema that women must remained confined to their homes is not strictly Quranic. "The argument that women must always be accompanied by men every time they step out of their homes is completely wrong", she says. "Why should women be controlled in this way? Islam preaches freedom, so it is not Islamically legitimate to oppose a woman's basic freedom, provided she abides by basic moral virtues. The same holds true in the case of a man, although, unfortunately, this issue is hardly ever raised.
Rethinking traditional rulings on a range of issues, including women, Ataulla argues, is imperative in order to develop a relevant understanding of Islam for today. The conservative ulema who insist on women being kept cloistered in their homes have mistaken medieval Muslim jurisprudence or fiqh for the divine law or shariah, she explains, and says that this has led to the growing irrelevance of many of their pronouncements on women which few educated Muslim women would willingly assent to. Medieval fiqh texts, she says, continues to be taught in the madrasas unmodified and are presented as the normative shariah, valid for all time. Since the corpus of medieval fiqh developed in a hierarchal and patriarchal society, it naturally reflects patriarchal biases. "The task before Muslim intellectuals today", Attaulla insists, "is to go back to the Quran for inspiration, instead of blindly following what the medieval scholars said and wrote". The distinction between the letter and the spirit of the shariah must also be kept in mind, she argues, in order to interpret the shariah in consonance with modern concerns and sensibilities. In Attaulla's Quran-centric vision of Islam, women and men have equal rights to education and work outside the home, although, she adds, they must both observe proper decorum and modesty.
Getting across this message of Quranically-mandated gender equality is no easy task, Ataulla admits. The conservative ulema, particularly of the older generation, she says, have been trained in a patriarchal tradition. She places her hopes in the younger generation of ulema coming out of somewhat more progressive madrasas like the Nadwat ul-Ulema in Lucknow, who recognise the importance of women's education and empowerment. She cites an instance of a madrasa near Mysore she recently visited, many of whose students are from the Nadwat ul-Ulema. She was the first woman to speak at the madrasa, and the students, she says, were "very open" to the idea of being lectured to for the first time in their lives by a woman.
The press is a crucial means for promoting gender justice, Ataulla says, but laments that the Muslim press has not seriously taken up this issue. More often than not, she says, Muslim papers uncritically uphold and defend the views on women of the traditionalist ulema. If more Muslim women were to take to writing, she says, they might offer different, more progressive, understandings of Islam, including on the issue of women. As of now, few women are doing that. This owes to several factors, including low female literacy among Muslims, the small middle class among the community that can spearhead reforms and articulate new, more gender-positive understandings of Islam, and the fact that many people believe that women are not qualified enough to speak authoritatively about their religion. "We would love to carry more stories written by women in Islamic Voice", Attaulla says, "but we receive so few of them. Most of them are from abroad, and the stuff we get from most women in India are either poems or else quotations from the Quran and sayings of the Prophet. We get very few articles from our women contributors, and indeed from men as well, on the actual living conditions of Muslim women or on modernist understandings of Islam and gender justice that are being articulated today in some Arab and Western Muslim scholars and activists.
Attaulla has mixed feelings on the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, that imagines itself as the sole spokesman of all the Muslims of India. She says, "The Board cannot be wished away, but it certainly must be reformed". She sees it as dominated by older generation ulema, many of whom are out of touch with the times, and argues for the inclusion of younger, more open-minded ulema, particularly from south India, as well as community activists. She also stresses the need to include many more women in the Board, complaining that the few women who are presently members of the Board are not taken seriously. Having more educated and socially involved women members might force the Board to take women's issues more seriously than it has so far. Partly because of the silence of Muslim women's voices within the Board, she says, the Board has been unable or unwilling to listen to their demands for reforming Muslim Personal Law. In this regard she terms the Board's recently released "model" nikahnamah or marriage contract as failing to meet women's demands. "It does not outlaw the un-Quranic practice of triple talaq in one sitting, and nor does it insist on the need for absolute equality and justice between the wives in the case of a polygamous marriage", she complains. The exclusion of tafweez-e talaq or delegated divorce that allows for the dissolution of a marriage if the husband fails to meet certain specified conditions is equally "unfortunate", she says, although she adds that the inclusion of a clause in the nikahnamah specifying the mehr or dower received by or promised to the wife is a welcome step.
On the Board's controversial appeal to Muslims to have their marital disputes solved in dar ul-qazas or shariah courts manned by traditionalist ulema, instead of the state courts Attaulla is clearly not enthusiastic. It is likely that women may not be able to get justice from these parallel courts, she says, because the ulema who man them generally uphold the rules of medieval fiqh that militate against women's equality, and also because in their decisions the state courts would be more likely to be governed by the facts of the case than by a dogged commitment to medieval fiqh prescriptions, in contrast to the ulema. She disagrees with the argument, put forward by some members of the Board, that the state courts are not competent to try cases under Muslim Personal Law or that they might be engaged in a "conspiracy" to "destroy" Islam and Muslim identity by interpreting the shariah in a manner that, while granting women more rights, departs from traditional notions of fiqh. "Muslims do feel that their identity is threatened, especially from Hindutva chauvinists, but I think we Muslims also overdo this conspiracy theory sometimes. It is ridiculous to claim that just about everything that the government wants to do for Muslims is actually a so-called anti-Islamic conspiracy", she exclaims.
It is now prayer-time and the call of the muezzin from the mosque nearby rings out. I take my leave and, walking down the street in the scorching sun, I muse about the fallacy of stereotypes and of how the woman I have just met hardly fits the mould of the stereotypical Muslim woman that the "mainstream" media, the conservative ulema and die-hard Islamists have so sedulously colluded in constructing.