Fellow Since 2006
This profile was prepared when Mohammadi Siddiqui was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
Mohammadi Siddiqui believes religion can and should be the foundation of women’s liberation instead of the institution of their oppression. She is ensuring the rights of Muslim women by helping their Maulanas, or religious leaders and teachers, to become champions of their cause. An expert on Islam, Mohammadi translated the Koran into the local language to educate others Muslims and the larger society about its openness, tolerance and justice.
The New Idea
Mohammadi is bridging the perception gaps within Nepal’s small Muslim community and between that community and the rest of society by educating and preparing role model Maulanas and women leaders. Instead of fighting the system from the outside, she is transforming it from within. Mohammadi is organizing Muslim women’s groups to educate and make other women aware of their rights in order to advocate for the practice of “actual” Islamic law, ensuring social justice for women. She intends to change the generally held opinion in Islam that women are inferior to men. To ensure the whole community and Muslim women in particular, are able to understand for themselves what is written in the Koran, she makes it available in their language. Such access will create an awareness about women being educated and that violence against women is forbidden. Mohammadi believes that the appropriate way to decrease violence against all Nepalese women is by harnessing the religious teachings of the Koran. With her organization, Fatima Foundation, she choose to first address issues in her Muslim community, but her board, women’s groups, services and advocacy programs are not confined to Muslims. Fatima Foundation welcomes all religions, castes, and ethnic groups. Mohammadi’s work has started a powerful ripple effect with the potential to spread from her home region to West Nepal and the rest of the country; including the larger, more conservative Muslim communities in India.
Despite the advent of democracy and massive social changes in Nepal, Muslim women are still one of the most disadvantaged and least represented groups in the country. According to the 2001 census, the literacy rate among Muslims was approximately 22 percent, with Muslim women at a significantly lower level. A study conducted by Ministry of Education in 2003 indicated that in spite of the progress in education nationally, a large percentage of the population from social, economic, and religious minorities remained disadvantaged with particular attention to Muslim communities. The plight of Muslim women in Nepal is part of the critical condition that all Nepali women must endure. A large number of Nepali girls are taken out of school for religious reasons, keeping them isolated and ill-informed. They are not taught to be independent and have minimal access to resources throughout their lives. Women are denied rights over their matrimonial and original homes. This lack of education and power keeps most women trapped in a severe state of poverty. Although it is hidden, domestic violence appears to be on the rise. Nepal’s civil and criminal laws are supposed to be universal and the personal laws that address marriage, dowry, divorce, inheritance, custody, and guardianship have been liberalized. Unfortunately, the actual implementation of these laws are still being determined by religious and social forces. Cultural beliefs and biases further hinder the ability of women to become full citizens. Nepalese society is naturally paternalistic, with men having authority and control over women. Women are rarely assertive. The common interpretation of Islam in Nepal is that the male leads, that the husband “owns” the wife, and a father or husband has the right to treat a woman as he sees fit. Traditional norms and the religious leaders that regulate Muslim society in Nepal create an environment in which women are extremely dependent upon men for economic support. Employment and educational opportunities for Muslim women, which are often already severely limited by the impoverished conditions in which many live, are further restricted by community traditions.There are no laws specific to religious doctrine and religious law is not recognized by the state. However, some of the most restrictive customs such as Triple Talaq, which is the tradition of unilateral divorce by saying the word “talaq” three times in a row, and the denial of alimony are still commonly practiced within the Muslim community. Successive Nepalese governments have done little to protect women’s rights beyond the drafting of unenforceable laws. The state has avoided taking a position these Muslim practices, but justifies this as non-interference with the cultural identity of minorities. This passivity reveals a lack of commitment to women's rights as guaranteed in the Nepal Constitution. In addition to the state’s disregard, many Muslim women are uneducated and unaware of the rights provided them by the Holy Koran. Since the Koran has traditionally only been available in Arabic or Urdu, its meaning can be interpreted and expressed only by the Maulanas. This leads to some communities being exposed to a very narrow view of the teachings. A large number of Maulanas—many of whom come from India where societal norms are even more conservative than in Nepal—may have a limited education.
Mohammadi established the Fatima Foundation in 2003 to ensure Muslim women's rights on two related fronts: the personal daily struggle of women against discrimination and the social and legal practices that influence their independence and access to basic rights. She believes the cause of this discrimination is that the fundamental Islamic teachings on justice and rights in the Koran are unknown to a large part of the community. She feels that unless women are aware of their rights, they cannot take their rightful place in the family or society. Through the Fatima Foundation, Mohammadi has published books on women and Islam. She has ensured access to the primary source by translating the Koran from Arabic into the local Nepali languages. She then organizes women into study groups so that they can relate Islam to their own reality. Their spouses are invited to join the discussions as well. The Maulanas are central to Mohammadi’s strategy. She shares the dias with them at public meetings, although some of them still choose to leave when she speaks. She also works individually with the leaders to prepare religious teachings. She has already had success in mobilizing a few of them to challenge or rectify anti-women attitudes and behavior, proclaiming it anti-Islam. Mohammadi now has several Maulanas supporting her efforts. They are becoming champions of her cause and her main mechanism to spread the empowerment of women. Mohammadi knows that lasting and fundamental social and cultural change takes time. Therefore, Fatima Foundation provides services to the victims of domestic violence and other women suffering from injustices. These services include legal support and reconciliation or dialogue with family members. Training and skill-building courses provide women with new economic opportunities and encourage a new assertiveness among women. Mohammadi finds that peer groups are an important and safe way to reach out to all women in the community. These groups meet regularly to give women the opportunity to be out in society, to share experiences, to help and care for one another, and to discuss and debate critical women’s issues. Mohammadi has decided to focus her advocacy work on the Triple Talaq system to place the spotlight on the plight of Muslim women in Nepal. Nepalese law does not recognize this practice of unilateral divorce through oral recitation of the word Talaq. However, the law cannot be mobilized to protect women because marriages are seldom officially registered in Nepal. It is therefore difficult to prove marriage existed in the eye of the law. Mohammadi has begun to tackle this problem with a campaign to ensure marriages are registered and has already gained the cooperation of local authorities. The impact of this work is evident in the Banke district, where women are going to court against husbands who have divorced them in order to gain the women’s rights to property and alimony endorsed by law. Few Muslim wives had ever filed cases against their husbands in the district’s court. But today there are 20 property cases and 10 divorce cases awaiting hearing at the Banke District Court. Mohammadi insists, “We have to spread this movement all over the nation and not just confine it to Muslim women. The process of divorce should be according to law, not misinterpreted religious values.” Documenting this important work, Fatima Foundation also engages social and legal consultants to conduct, publish, and disseminate research on contemporary social problems facing Muslim women. Working in two districts of the mid-western plains of Nepal, Mohammadi is gaining the attention and support of national Muslim leaders, the local community and people of other religious faiths. Her strategy to advocate and explain the embodied words in religious manuscripts that guarantee equal rights to women is indeed a unique way to address this issue without offending religious sentiments. She has been invited by Muslim and other women groups to spread her work to other districts of the central plains of Nepal and into bordering towns in India. She has conducted regional workshops with human rights groups and Maulanas from India and the model is finding resonance regionally in South Asia. Mohammadi plans to empower and train other women and then help them to set up semi-independent branches of Fatima Foundation with the eventual goal of becoming independent organizations. She believes her basic model of non-confrontational approach within religious structures may be adapted to fit many cultural and religious structures.
Due to the death of all their previous children, Mohammadi’s parents rejoiced when she was born. Her father, an open-minded Islamic scholar, had to point out to his mother that the Prophet Mohammed had daughters and that well raised daughters, also opened the gates to heaven. Mohammadi was a curious child and insisted on going to school when she was 3 years old, but the Madrassa made her wait another year. Three years later, she learned Urdu and began her lifelong reading and studying of the Koran. Mohammadi dreamed of becoming a doctor, unfortunately, the 12 year old girl’s education and dreams were cut short by a marriage proposal by a 14 year old boy. She insisted on studying and chose not to take up sewing and cooking. She married a few years later. Mohammadi spent most of her first 18 years of marriage at home, dressed in a burka. But with encouragement from her husband, she participated in a few meetings with him after he won the municipal elections in her district. She decided she wanted to be more directly involved in community service—deeply conscious of injustices in society, especially to women—she believed women needed to be encouraged and assisted to become independent both socially and economically. Her husband was very supportive of her passion and asked her to accompany him to his political activities. Slowly she was able to speak in front of crowds, although from within her purdah. After the death of her husband, Mohammadi was more determined to help change the lives of women who she felt were socially, economically and politically marginalized. Fortunately, her mother-in-law supported her cause and eventually she went won a seat as a municipality member of Nepalgunj and became the first and only woman officer among 17 other male members; not all of whom were in favor of her work.Although Muslim women were rarely expected to leave the house, Mohammadi decided to take a course on sewing and knitting at the Women’s Development Centre in her district so that she could start earning some income and teach others to do the same. Together with like-minded housewives, she founded a social organization, ‘Narikalyan samaj’ and served as the Secretary. With her friend Padma Bhatarai, Mohammadi also formed the Amnesty International Work Group.Mohammadi started hearing about more and more cases of violence against women and realized that victims had almost no support from the community. Local women started approaching her for help with their cases. Her involvement with these women led to the creation of Fatima Foundation in 2003. Her concentration on Islam developed as she grappled with the problem of finding an appropriate approach to the women's problems through religious teachings. Mohammadi eventually came to the conclusion that religious teachings would help to open the dialogue about women’s rights and bring to light cases of oppression and violence.