Saturday, 8 January 2011
In India, a struggle for moderation as a young Muslim woman quietly battles extremism
AHMEDABAD, INDIA -- Rubina Sandhi had settled in for a night of homework when panic swept through the narrow, congested alleys of her neighborhood.
It was Sept. 11, 2001. Television sets in the mosques, tea shops and market were beaming images of the World Trade Center engulfed in flames in New York. Five months later, Rubina's house was burning as Hindu mobs torched Muslim areas of her city, leaving thousands of people homeless. She remembers smoke hovering over Ahmedabad just as it had over New York.
With their few remaining possessions, Rubina's family members took refuge in a squalid relief camp and, several weeks later, moved into ramshackle housing on the edge of the city - where only Muslims lived and worked. "We felt like ghosts," recalled Rubina, who was then 12.
The rioting was among India's worst sectarian violence in decades, hardening divisions between the Hindu majority and the country's 140 million Muslims as hard-liners on both sides sought to exploit the tensions. Soon after the rioting, many young Muslims in Rubina's neighborhood started following stricter forms of Islam as imams fanned out into the region's poorest Muslim areas, some bringing with them Wahhabism, the fundamentalist form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.
Some Indian Muslims even sought training in Pakistan to carry out acts of revenge in India, their version of violent jihad. For her part, Rubina chose a different struggle, determined to be a good Muslim and daughter as the community around her became more radicalized. She fought for the right to make decisions for herself, and she tried to find a way to voice her beliefs as a woman, as others around her were being silenced.
Her decisions would mirror those of many other young Muslim women in her city who entered adulthood in the aftermath of religious violence and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She would be asked to compromise her dreams, and her commitment to Islam would be questioned.
Ahmedabad, a 600-year-old city in the state of Gujarat, has long been a vibrant historical center where religions aspired to coexist. It was the headquarters for Mahatma Gandhi's ashram and his peaceful freedom struggle and is celebrated for its Indo-Islamic architecture. Of the city's 5 million people, 11 percent are Muslim.
Before the riots, many Muslims in Rubina's neighborhood celebrated Hindu traditions. Yet tensions between Hindus and Muslims here often rose to the surface.
The violence in 2002 erupted after 59 Hindus were burned to death on a train as they were returning home from a pilgrimage site. Muslim extremists were blamed for the blaze, but the cause of the fire remains in dispute. In 2004, a government-appointed panel ruled that the train fire was an accident and not caused by Muslims.
Soon after the anti-Muslim riots, extremist imams started to gain more clout. Among them was a firebrand televangelist named Zakir Naik, whose weekly sermons are broadcast from Mumbai and Saudi Arabia. Thousands of young Muslims have been drawn to his powerful slogans, including his declaration that to defend Islam, "every Muslim should be a terrorist."
This more conservative brand of Islam became more acceptable, and it seemed to empower Muslim men in India. But it had the opposite effect on Muslim women. The imams and mullahs warned young women to stay indoors, to forgo higher education and to become dutiful mothers of as many children as God would give them. The children, they said, would replace the Muslims killed during the riots.
"The Hindu mobs who attacked us called us all terrorists. Then the mullahs wanted to take away our freedoms," Rubina said, adding: "Everyone felt confused."
Rubina's father, Mohammed Sandhi, had an eighth-grade education and a job selling incense sticks to Hindu temples. When he was a young boy, his grandparents had told him haunting stories about Muslim-Hindu tensions in the 1930s and rioting in the southern city of Hyderabad that forced the family to migrate to Ahmedabad.
Mohammed believed in the aspirations of a rising India. He had saved for years to move the family into a comfortable two-room home, and he hoped that his two children - Rubina and her older brother, Irfan - would be the first in their family to attend college.
But after the riots, Mohammed began to believe that his ambitions were naive, at least for Indian Muslims. "We thought that was the past, over, just our history. But after the 2002 riots, we worry every day that the violence could happen again," he said.
In the street just outside the family's housing complex, 69 people, mostly Muslims, were burned alive during the riots, the first and largest single massacre during the crisis, a federal investigation later found.
From there, fighting spread. Over the next two months, more than 200 mosques and hundreds of Muslim shrines were burned down, and 17 ancient Hindu temples were attacked, according to police and human rights workers.
Everything in Rubina's home was destroyed: childhood photographs, birth certificates, school records and land deeds.
The family left behind the charred ruins of their home for a relief camp, one of more than 100 that housed 150,000 Muslims after the riots.
The city slowly calmed, but acts of violence on both sides continued and people remained fearful.
Watching their parents weep, Rubina and Irfan grew angrier and more confused. "We never thought this could happen here," said Rubina's mother, Mumtaz Sandhi. "We thought we are Muslims. But we are also Indians."
Silencing women's voices
After several weeks in the camps, Rubina's family settled in Juhapura, a poor area on the western outskirts of the city where many Muslims moved from Hindu-dominated localities.
The neighborhood has some middle-class areas but is largely poor, and activists have fought for basic government services, including paved roads, a sewage treatment system and garbage collection.
During her teenage years, Rubina started to notice that her brother, like many young Muslim men, was growing more observant of Islam, more conservative, introverted. They had always been close, and tragedy had strengthened their bond. But their paths began to diverge as Irfan sought comfort and sanctuary in the strictures of Islam.
Rubina, like other young Muslim women, feared she would lose her freedom under those strictures. She resisted calls from increasingly conservative imams to wear a traditional black garment that covers the body and sometimes the face.
In Gujarat, more and more women suddenly started dressing more conservatively, often as a show of Muslim pride but also to ward off sexual advances and potential sexual violence.
Rubina's mother began covering her hair, and Rubina said Irfan soon told her that he preferred to marry a woman who dressed conservatively.
Around this time, Rubina met a social worker named Jamila Khan at a meeting for Muslim women concerned about the living conditions in Juhapura and profiling of Muslim men as terrorists. But Khan also spoke out against Muslim leaders intent on reeling in Muslim women, curbing the liberties enshrined in India's secular constitution. She described herself as an "Islamic feminist."
"It doesn't matter what our women were wearing," Khan told Rubina and her friends. "What is important is still having a voice. Islamic rigidity is silencing our most dynamic Muslim female minds."
Many of Rubina's peers were giving up on having a career and were marrying and starting families earlier. Instead of going to college to study business or medicine, many were taking up courses at nearby mosques that taught them to be good Muslim wives.
But as Rubina entered young adulthood, she said, she became aware of the hypocrisy among many of the imams. Although they preached that Muslim women should be homemakers, they sent their daughters to private schools and universities in Britain, Canada and the United States.
During her first and only year at college, a Hindu extremist group circulating on campus began warning Hindus against having friendships or romantic relationships with Muslims. Rubina said some Hindu students started calling the places where Muslim students gathered "the Gaza Strip" or "Pakistan."
"But I am Indian, too," Rubina said she wanted to tell them. She felt ashamed. Betrayed. Silenced.
Fighting for change
At home, religion had started to drive a wedge in Rubina's family. Irfan, when he talked to her at all, often chided her for not covering her hair. He wanted her to quit school and marry a man whose version of Islam was as strict as his. With her father's support, she refused.
"We don't really talk that much right now," Rubina said of her brother, who declined to be interviewed for this article.
Her father arranged for her to marry a moderate Muslim, a man who had a promising job as a hotel manager and to whom Rubina felt attracted. Still, his family insisted that she withdraw from college to start preparing for her nuptials. With her brother and father pushing for the marriage, she agreed.
She gave up her dreams of an English-language degree, a steppingstone for working-class Indians seeking better jobs in the country's booming call centers and outsourcing industries.
The trajectory of her life suddenly seemed predictable, she thought, from fiancee to wife to mother and, as is tradition in many Muslim families, caretaker of her husband's home and family. But she still refused to cover her hair.
Not long after she was engaged, 10 gunmen - young Muslims suspected to be part of a Pakistani jihadi group - crossed the Arabian Sea and came ashore in Mumbai, India's financial and cultural capital. During a three-day siege of the city, the assailants killed 166 people and injured scores - including Muslims - in part as retribution for atrocities in Gujarat, according to recordings of their cellphone conversations, which the Indian government later released.
It was a turning point for India's Muslim community. For the first time in anyone's memory, many Muslim leaders came together to express anger against Pakistan, where the attackers were said to have been trained. Muslims in Mumbai even refused to bury the gunmen, nine of whom died in the attacks. The backlash was also directed at extremists within the Muslim community.
"Many Muslims were very worried that we would be attacked after the siege of Mumbai," Rubina said. "We stayed at home, closed our shops. But after watching the Muslims of Mumbai protest in the streets, some here found the courage to protest against the terrorists and explain where we stood."
The anti-extremist movement spread to other Indian cities with large Muslim populations, including Ahmedabad. Rubina and other women in her neighborhood saw it as an opportunity to speak out against extremism at a time when fatwas, or religious decrees, against women were on the rise.
"Why do Muslim woman have to be so docile and submissive?" asked Khan, the social worker, who opened a chapter of a national Muslim women's group just down the street from Rubina's house. "Everyone is complaining about terrorists. This is the moment for Muslim women to speak up about our rights, too."
The women's group filed, and later won, a lawsuit against the city accusing it of failing to provide electricity, water, and sewage and trash services in Muslim communities.
Emboldened by that success, Rubina soon began studying health issues as part of a government campaign to help young mothers in the neighborhood care for sick children, offering health tips and medicine.
"Many families here still think it's not safe for a girl to be out in offices or on the roads," she said one recent day, braiding her long hair and loading her briefcase with notes about neighbors in need.
She walked past the mosque where her brother prayed. Nearby, children played hopscotch over open sewers clogged with plastic bags and crushed soda cans. She paused and tried to remember what her life had been like, how safe she had felt before the riots. Now 22, she wondered whether her life would have been different.
"Would we have a better life?" she asked. "Would Muslims have a better life?"
Just weeks ago, Rubina married the hotel manager. "My husband and his family will let me work. That is what's important," she said. "I don't want to sit home. There is a lot of work to do in the community. We are still recovering."
Her brother attended the wedding ceremony and praised her work as a health activist, one of the few times he has let on that he was proud of her.
Rubina glowed in a red sari, her hands stained with henna. She danced with the women in a midnight celebration at her home. And her father and brother danced in a nearby room.