Noorjehan Safia Niaz
Ashoka Fellow since 2014   |   India

Noorjehan Safia Niaz

Bharitiya Muslim Mahila Andolan
Noorjehan is organizing Muslim women in India for the first time to collectively overcome sociocultural limitations that prevent them from exercising their citizenship. By using rights of women under…
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This description of Noorjehan Safia Niaz's work was prepared when Noorjehan Safia Niaz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Noorjehan is organizing Muslim women in India for the first time to collectively overcome sociocultural limitations that prevent them from exercising their citizenship. By using rights of women under personal laws as a reference point, she is creating a national platform for women to play a critical role in influencing their future.

The New Idea

Noorjehan is building a network of empowered Muslim women across several States in India. She is enhancing their leadership capacity and providing them a platform from which they can voice and solve their own problems, including human rights violations and lack of access to education and government benefits.

Despite efforts to educate and economically empower women, Noor recognizes that Muslim women in India continue to be disenfranchised from a systemic source that impacts them directly and significantly – personal law. Marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody issues continue to be dictated by patriarchal systems in which they have no voice. Noor has built a participatory movement from the grassroots that can question existing practices and advocate for an equitable, if eventual, universal code. Seeing the process of getting there as equally important to, if not more than, the goal, she is creating a space for women to break silence and articulate alternate solutions. The issue of codification also provides a framework for debate that engages Muslim women, men, academics, lawyers and religious leaders for the first time. Alongside advocating for the long-term goal of codification, which could spare women the ordeals of oral/unilateral divorce, polygamy, lack of maintenance, and child marriage, and clarify practices for adoption, child custody, and inheritance, Noor is leveraging the network to test alternate solutions and raise awareness around issues.

By using codification of personal law as a framework, Noor is taking women through a transformative journey that prepares them for the future. Her highly decentralized network is becoming a strong movement of Muslim women who are becoming aware of their rights and acquiring leadership skills to advocate for their issues.

The Problem

Muslim women in India continue to be severely marginalized and disenfranchised. 59% of Muslim women in India have never attended school and less than 10% of them have completed schooling. The majority of Muslim girls are married off by the age of 16, with some being as young as 13. Less than 15% of Muslim women report themselves to be working, and 2/3rd of them are self-employed, often in the informal sector. In more than a majority of cases, Muslim women need their husband’s permission to engage in any activity outside the household. With low levels of work participation, education, mobility and skills, the Muslim woman has little to no agency in her own life. Increasingly she faces uncertain marriages, abandonment, and destitution.

Despite the visibility of her cause, the Muslim woman remains invisible as a citizen, her concerns and rights often articulated by third party agents or not at all. Although the secular women’s movement in India has taken up several issues facing Muslim women, it has not addressed the implications that religion has on the lives of these women. Religion continues to play a central role in determining her rights, especially in the personal/familial space, and these issues have never been voiced, except in glaring individual cases.

The reason religion is so central to a Muslim woman’s rights in India is that there is no universal code for Muslim personal law, that which relates to marriage, divorce, maintenance, inheritance, and custody. While there are separate laws applied through due process and jurisdiction of courts for Hindus, Christians and Parsees, Muslim personal law in India continues to remain in the domain of the religious clerks. Two laws, the Shariat Act of 1937 and the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill (1986), ensure that Muslim women do not fall under civil law in matters related to marriage, but remain under Islamic law, as interpreted and administered by the Muslim clergy.

The history of codification in India has been a contentious one and has never been addressed formally by the citizen sector or government. A communally and politically sensitive issue, it is hard for any non-religious / secular group or the Government to take it up without being perceived as disrespectful of Muslims. As a result, India continues to remain one of only few countries yet to reform the Muslim Personal Law. By 1961, Pakistan reformed its Muslim Law, and one of the reforms introduced in Pakistan was on polygamy and divorce through arbitration. Similarly reforms in Tunisia and Turkey have led to the abolishment of polygamy in those countries. Iran, South Yemen and Singapore reformed their Muslim laws in the 1970s.

As a result of this lack of codification in India, Muslim Personal Law, as ordained in the Sharia, is often positioned as divine, and thereby untouchable by humans. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which was set up to prevent government intervention in Muslim Personal laws, comprises mostly male clergy and continues to reinforce patriarchal interpretations of the Quran. Polygamy is accepted and it is permissible for women to be divorced with the triple talaaq proclaimed by a man, orally and unilaterally (including through SMS). The maintenance amount is often meagre, often as low as Rs.786 per annum. Another practice, called ‘halala’, illustrates how detrimental some of these customs can be. When a man divorces his wife, he can take her back only after she marries another man, consummates such a marriage, waits for three months to ensure that she is not pregnant and then gets a divorce from him. The ease by which these instruments can be used, have terrible repercussions on the economic, social and psychological status of women.

This situation is worsened by the fact that interpretations vary significantly between clerics across the country. With no appeal systems or precedents, rights accorded to a woman in one State are often different from the other and from case to case. This results in significant ambiguity and confusion about one’s rights and duties. The hands of Courts are also tied, as they are obliged to rely on personal law in the absence of codified law. For instance, although child marriage is otherwise prohibited in India, Delhi High Court had to validate a 15 year old Muslim girl’s marriage, as personal law applied.

Although the lack of codification has affected Muslim women for decades, the sensitivity of the issue coupled with lack of voice and leadership among Muslim women has resulted in this issue not being addressed. In the context of increasing persecution and negativity associated with the religion, there is a growing desire in the community to be seen as relevant and legitimate in today’s global economy. Taking this step, codifying Muslim law, and ensuring that it is fair to all members of the community, is a significant way forward in changing the myriad stereotypes associated with Muslim communities.

The Strategy

Noorjehan believes that a Muslim woman’s legal concerns cannot be seen in isolation: unless she is socially empowered she will not be able to address her legal concerns. She believes that Muslim women need to be organized, given an identity and a voice.

Towards this, Noorjehan founded the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) in 2007 as a national platform for Muslim women to present an alternative progressive voice that not only addresses their legal problems but also takes steps to ameliorate their social conditions. BMMA consolidated and built on the power of small women’s groups (Mahila Mandals, Nyaya Panchayats and SHGs) that emerged after the 2002 communal riots. The BMMA leverages such grassroots organizations and individuals to present a strong voice for Muslim women in India. Through this platform, Noorjehan constantly engages with Muslim women, enabling them to articulate their concerns, build negotiating power and assume a leadership role in their communities.

Over the last seven years, BMMA has grown to a network of around 30,000 individual members across 60 districts in 13 states. Women are organized at the village, taluk, district and state level. Muslim women who are state and district leaders prioritize local issues and coordinate the activities in their particular regions. The women meet regularly and are given a space to share and articulate their issues. Women are also trained with the knowledge and skill to address issues. With the support of district and state leaders, they confront issues of education, entitlements, health, and employment. Among other things, they help provide scholarships for girl students, lobby with government officials for pensions and ration cards, and organize health camps. They have worked on the implementation of the Sachar Committee Report that studied and articulated suggestions to include and mainstream Indian Muslims. They have become a source of advice, income, and support not just for other women but as leaders for the whole community. For example, women have successfully campaigned with the local authorities to reinstate a subsidy for cooking gas, remove a telephone tower from the slum where it was causing health issues, and repairing roads. State and District leaders attend the National Council meetings annually, in which ground realities are identified and policy decisions are taken.

While building leadership and participation, Noorjehan realized that a large number of cases being handled at local levels related back to the rights of women under personal law. Alongside firefighting individual cases, she has been focused on the need to address the issue at a systemic level. She is leveraging the opportunity to use the framework of personal law to get communities to reflect on the rights of women and advocate for an alternate, more equitable legal framework.

Over the last two years, Noor has created a draft of Muslim personal law on the basis of two critical principles. First, it positions women as key stakeholders in the process of designing and advocating for it. Second, the draft draws from equitable values embedded in the Quran itself. The multiple consultations with women not only allowed them to reflect and debate on their rights for the first time, but also threw open interesting solutions women saw. For instance, rather than fixing an amount in law, women sought that the maintenance amount be indexed to 100% of the man’s annual income. This allows for maintenance to be in proportion to the contexts of different parties. Further, to be accepted by the extended community, Noorjehan highlights that values of equality and justice are endemic to Islam and throws light on how the Quran and other texts provide for several safeguards for women which have been ignored or interpreted to suit the patriarchal context of the time.

Building on this, she is articulating a common goal with a range of stakeholders – Muslim and non-Muslim women and men, religious leaders, the Islamic clergy, lawyers, and academicians – towards changing the way religious diktats are perceived and followed. A first round of consultations was organised with Muslim women across the country, across eight states. Following this, multiple rounds of consultations were organised with lawyers, both Muslim and Non-Muslim. With the support of several highly influential people and legal experts, she has been able to guide these consultations in a productive manner. She is beginning to engage with members of religious groups, who have attended her public consultations, and is also exploring different governmental spaces in which to introduce the law. She has also been engaging with academicians who have their own version of the draft law, exploring possibilities to collaborate and merge these efforts. Noorjehan has opened up her network beyond experts to a wide variety of members, both from within and outside the community, of all genders, and is proactively engaging with groups of other marginalised people.

Alongside building consensus on the draft law that can create impact in the long term, Noorjehan is also launching campaigns and initiatives that throw light on issues and showcase alternative solutions in the short term. For instance, in 2013, she launched a campaign against oral divorce and held multiple public hearings with women from 11 states to hear their stories. Alongside engaging with the media to bring attention to the issue, BMMA is also influencing the National Minority Commission, National Women’s Commission, and National Advisory Council to ban oral divorce. Meanwhile she is moving ahead. For example, to challenge male-dominated religious courts and show that women can be equal participants in interpreting and adjudicating matters relating to personal law, Noor has also started Shariya Adalats (Shariya Courts) in four different cities. Created to be parallel to courts run by religious clergy, these courts are strategically named as “Shariya courts” to underscore their legitimacy. Here, women leaders who are trained in the Sharia laws mediate and adjudicate disputes relating to divorce, maintenance, inheritance, and custody. Communities of men and women around these courts are beginning to accept women as adjudicators. To test and build community acceptance of equitable rights for women in marriage, Noor also created a model Nikaahnama (marriage contract typically entered into by the bride and groom) that has several provisions for the protection of women, including a standardized maintenance amount and prohibition of polygamy. To date, 400 people have been married using this Nikaahnama that reflects principles of the draft code contract in contrast to the traditional Nikaahnama. For Noor, this community of men and women are critical early adopters and prove community acceptance.

Seeing that there is no credible data on how many cases of polygamy or oral divorce there are, Noor has also launched a study to build evidence on the problem. BMMA led the process of compiling and releasing 68 case studies from across India to members of the parliament. Drawing from the large membership within her network, BMMA is now collecting 500 case studies from each state. She believes this will help increase legitimacy and influence more stakeholders.

She is now beginning to see how to add other dimensions to catalyze communities. For instance, she is partnering with Men against Violence and is working to work with Muslim boys to sensitize them on gender issues.

BMMA is using the codification agenda as an end as well as a means to organize and mobilize Muslim women to raise their voices. Its rapidly increasing membership across India indicates its success.

The Person

Noorjehan comes from a liberal Muslim family based in Mumbai. A nurturing family environment ensured that she faced no religious discrimination in her growing years. She pursued her masters at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, following which she joined YUVA to work with marginalized Muslim families in Mumbai.

However, in 1992, a week after the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya, she was suddenly confronted by her identity as a Muslim woman. Muslims across the country were being targeted in what was arguably the worst communal riot in the past three decades of India’s history. Noorjehan immediately began working for the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of communal violence. She witnessed the marginalization of Muslims right in front of her and saw this being reinforced with every subsequent riot. She was directly confronted by the backwardness of the Muslim community, the sheer poverty, and the terrible socioeconomic conditions they lived in. It was at this time that Noorjehan suddenly realized what it meant to be a Muslim, a part of the minority in a country like India.

From these experiences, Noorjehan came to realize that it would be necessary to create a process of reconciliation that would be participatory and peaceful. It was this that drove her to join Anjuman-e-Islam, a religious organisation working for the development of the minority community. Here she was a project coordinator, working on scholarships for girls. In the course of her work, she came in contact with several exceptional Muslim women who were committed towards working for their own upliftment. Noorjehan realised that in the post-communal riots environment in India in 2002 where men were largely victimized, Muslim women were suddenly coming into exposure with public institutions. This showed her the power of women’s leadership and how it could transform a community.

Her experiences made her realize that at the crux of several problems lies personal law. Noorjehan realised that a large number of cases being handled by the women’s groups were around legal concerns. These reflected a strong bias in the law against women, causing tremendous suffering for Muslim women. Soon, Noorjehan realized that they were largely firefighting individual cases and there was a need to address this at a systemic level. Towards this, she hit upon the idea of looking within the frameworks of law, both Islamic and national, towards addressing this problem. Her own status in the community, as an empowered Muslim woman, gave her the insider outlook, aware of and able to talk about the concerns of the Muslim woman. At the same time, her liberal upbringing helped her to take an objective, outsider perspective, building an ability to bridge traditional boundaries and build linkages across a broad spectrum of groups. A public consultation with 400 women in 2006 gave her the initial thrust to start her engagement with the law. Forming the BMMA helped Noorjehan devote her focus towards her mission to empower women through the codification of Muslim personal law.

For Noorjehan, her work is closely linked with her own conflict of multiple identities: of a Muslim, a woman, and perhaps most fundamentally, that of an Indian. By linking the three, Noorjehan has been endeavouring to legitimise the concerns of the Muslim women, and providing them with a legal voice within both the national and religious frameworks. For her, this is as much a function of democracy within the community as aligning the rights of Muslim women to those assured under the Constitution.

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