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Last Updated: Friday, 19 August 2005, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Women battle on with mosque plan

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu

Daud Sharifa at the site of the mosque
The site of the mosque is kept a closely guarded secret
Muslim women in a small town in southern India have come together to form a community of elders or jamat, traditionally dominated by men.

This is the first step towards their ultimate goal, building a mosque exclusively for women.

A jamat has traditionally almost always consisted of men, who meet in mosques to adjudicate on family matters.

At present women are not represented in jamats and are allowed to pray inside the mosques only on special days.

In the small town of Pudukottai in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a big revolution is underway.

In a two-storey, red-brick house, a group of Muslim women are sitting together, discussing plans to build India's first women's mosque.


Daud Sharifa is the head of Steps, a women's development organisation, and she is leading the campaign for the mosque.

An unassuming woman in her late 30s, she sits cross-legged on the floor, addressing a couple of dozen women.

Badar Sayed
We can't just separate ourselves and put the clock back 100 years
Badar Sayed

"A mosque is not just for prayer, it's also a community centre," she says.

"A Muslim woman has no space, she's confined to the kitchen, the bedroom and the delivery room. And if a woman petitions the jamat, she's not allowed to appear before it.

"The jamat calls her husband to put across his point of view, but a woman has to be represented by her father and her brother. The jamat announces its decision without even hearing her. That is not justice."

Some 20km (13 miles) away lies a one-acre barren piece of land covered in bushes, shrubs and trees.

Ms Sharifa points to a corner - that's where the proposed mosque will come up.

She is keeping the venue a closely-guarded secret for fear of attacks from those opposed to the idea of a women's mosque.

And there are many of them.

Mohammad Hidayatullah Zawahirullah is the president of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, a socio-political organisation, and believes an all-women jamat is not required.

"The jamats have only male members at the moment, but that's been a tradition. You cannot change things overnight.

"And it's wrong to think that the members of the jamat are all male chauvinists - these men also have daughters, nieces and granddaughters who may also be facing these problems," he says.

'Against Islam'

The all-women jamat has 40 members and meets once every month.

Women's jamat
The women say their jamat is already making a difference

At their meetings, they discuss issues that matter to women - domestic violence, dowry and instant divorce.

It has not gone down well with the community leaders and now Ms Sharifa's plan to build their own mosque has rattled many.

Aneesur Rahman Azami is the director of the Islamic Research and Guidance Centre.

He says the women's demand for their own mosque is against Islam.

"Islam doesn't allow women to build their own mosque. And if they do, it throws up many questions. Will they have a woman Imam?

"If yes, then there's the issue of purity - a woman can't lead the prayer when she's menstruating."

Daud Sharifa says the community elders ignored their request to reserve two seats in the jamat for women.

Now, she's adamant that at their mosque, all the office-bearers will be women.

"If men want to come into our mosque to pray, they can.

"But it will be a women's mosque, we will write its constitution, we will administer it, we will run it."

Making a difference

The plans have also run into trouble with a prominent Muslim woman.

The head of an influential Muslim body in Madras, Badar Sayed, says the campaign is a retrograde step.

"We'll sit in our own corner and pass judgments, but where do we meet? Who will play the arbitrator?

Campaign posters
The campaign has raised about $1,000 so far

"We need to fight alongside people. We can't just separate ourselves and put the clock back 100 years."

But Ms Sharifa and her followers say that in the short time that the women's jamat has been in existence, it has already begun to make a difference.

Rajita Karikudi is one of those who looked to the all-women jamat when her husband of 21 years sent her a divorce notice through the traditional men's jamat.

"He wanted to marry another woman. I refused to accept it. Then they came to my house and tried to force me to take it. I refused again.

"It was only after the women's jamat sent them a letter, they retracted."

The women have already collected $1,000 towards their project - they need close to $90,000 to construct the mosque.

But Ms Sharifa is upbeat. "Work on the project will begin soon and we'll complete it in three years."

She knows it is not going to be easy - she says she has received several death threats.

"It's Allah who knows when I'm going to die. So I don't bother about it. I don't bother about this life. I'll do this till the end of my life."

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