Inside a busy seminary at Srinagar’s Baghat area, young Kashmiri girls are being groomed on modern lines. With usual schooling and theology lessons, they pick different skill sets with the sense of ‘serving the society’.
At the helm of affairs is a woman, who does not betray the fact that she lately featured in “The World’s 500 most influential Muslims, 2019”.
But the scholar-educationist Dr. Mubeena Ramzan carries no halo of the prestigious ranking—that came from her years of labour of love. The pardah-clad Sopore woman had to pass through the proverbial litmus test in life, before coming to age.
Now in her thirties, there were moments, she says, when she had to face the forthright family, stern society and even fierce forces for her activism. But her passion for women welfare, she says, always helped her to brave different challenges in life.
Years later, this past October, the Jordan-based Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre affiliated with the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought recognised the same fact about her by inducting her as the first Kashmiri Muslim woman and second Kashmiri after Mirwaiz Umar Farooq in the ‘500 influential Muslims of the world’ list.
“Dr Mubeena Ramzan educates women in Kashmir. She runs the Jamia Islamia Mahdul Muslimat, based in Sopore and in Srinagar and also heads a socio-religious organization, Ansar-un-Nissa. The former institute graduates Aalimahs, religious scholars, whilst the latter provides a helping hand to the needy, would-be brides, widows, orphans, and also establishes vocational training centres,” her profile as top 500 influential Muslims reads.
But beyond this short bio, her journey—that even span her participation in many international conferences—and women-centric works, set her apart in a society grappling with many societal issues.
In a candid conversation with Free Press Kashmir, Dr. Mubeena Ramzan mapped her activism as an academic, talked about myriad women-related issues and spoke about her welfare works in the strife-ridden society.
It seems this global recognition has come as a shot in the arm for you?
Hmm, not exactly! I believe that real action and delight comes from helping your people grow. But yes, if your welfare activism is being recognised in any way, it does boost you.
In backdrop of your ‘big fame’, how do you recall your journey?
Quite happening and hectic, I should say. As a proud Soporian, born in 1974, I was bold and outspoken right from my childhood. I grew up learning the essence of community welfare as a student of Islamia High School, Sopore. In that reputed school, they taught us Islamiyat, Arabic and Hindi, which broadened our thought process…
Does that mean that comparative learning helped you to become what you are today?
Absolutely! It laid the right foundation for the right mindset. Later, when I joined Women’s College Sopore, I chose Islamic Studies, Education, Political Science and Philosophy.
Back then, we were only 8 students of Islamic Studies. But as a no non-sense college-goer, I was quite instrumental in keeping the campus a busy place. Then I joined Kashmir University for my Masters in Islamic Studies. Later, from the same campus, I researched on Islamic Law, Social Evils, Orientalism and Shah-i-Hamdan Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (RA).
Simultaneously, I volunteered for women-centric activism.
So activism and academics were going hand in hand?
Yes. I would keep a close tab on injustices around me and speak up about it. At times, I would even raise my voice against the erring religious organizations. Like I said, I was quite fearless right from the beginning. And, I believe, one has to be so, if one intends to bring any change in the society.
I remember as a Class 9 student, I barged into a room at my home packed with men who were there for a religious gathering. I bluntly asked them, why aren’t women part of such gatherings. It irked my father, but I also created quite a buzz that day.
That moment of revolt at least taught me that without taking a stand, one can’t do or achieve anything substantial in life. With the same bent of mind, I later worked with DeM till 2004. But I quit the camp over some differences, and started Academic activism among women folk.
And then, your journey with Jamia Islami Mahdul Muslimat and Ansar-un-Nissa began. What sparked that?
Well, as a scholar, my research on Kashmiri society and its social evils had made me realise that I must play a part in mitigating the crisis. The very idea motivated me to quit lectureship in a B.Ed college in Kupwara.
I later started Mahdul Muslimat in 2002, from a rented building in Sopore. The objective was to inculcate Islamic education and impart skills among women.
It took us eight years to purchase a land and built a proper seminary-cum-skill school there.
Then in 2008, we started another branch in Srinagar. And recently, we opened another campus at Sumbal.
But how exactly are you grooming women in your institution?
Like I said, we empower them through education and skills, which boosts their confidence to face different realities of life.
I believe, training a girl on these parameters was not possible by mere religious sermons, debates, seminars, etc. We had to upgrade our syllabus on modern lines to make our girl students relevant to the contemporary society.
What about orphans and widows in your institutions? How are you taking care of them?
See, we believe in natural upbringing. We understand it well that apart from education and shelter, orphans also need motherly love and care. While we try to provide that, we also counsel and guide them, besides catering to women who are suffering.
I remember, in 2013, I called a meet of different women—around 100 of them—in Sopore. I told them that we lack resources but our spirits are high for welfare works. They agreed to join hands with me. And with the result, in March 2014, we floated Ansar-un-Nissa—the women welfare body.
What exactly you do under Ansar-un- Nissa banner?
We conduct religious gatherings for women in different parts of valley in order to make them aware about their rights and duties as women, and their role in the society. We also provide a helping hand to the needy, would-be brides, widows, orphans and provide them vocational training for their sustenance.
Today, around 600 women are directly or indirectly part of our growing caravan.
In our institutions, around 60 students have already graduated after completing their different courses, which mostly extend upto 5 years.
But there are already many such trusts, doing similar kind of work in Kashmir. What sets you apart and ended up giving you global fame?
It’s true that there’re many welfare organizations working in Kashmir, but ours is exclusively by the women, of the women and for the women and that too with Islamic integration.
All of the affairs are handled by women.
Our primary objective is educational and intellectual reformation of women. I believe that is what has worked in our favour.
But many say that it’s contradictory for someone like you to teach Dars-e-Nizami of Deoband School of Thought in your institutions, when you make no bones about your inspiration—the revivalists of modern Islamic thought—Maryam Jameela and Zainab Al Ghazali?
No, I don’t think there’s any contradiction. When we study history of Orientalism, we see after 11th or 12th century our literature was translated into English and some other languages.
Many interpretations spread at the same time. Youth got deviated. Murtaza Mutahhiri says if there were good water resources, we would not have taken polluted water. For Islamic thought, literature is of utmost importance.
Islam shows us the way of Aitedal [Quality of being moderate]. So when I started, I had a middle path in mind. I had also Allama Iqbal’s thought under consideration, “Interpret Quran in modern thought and he will be a mujadid of times.” The case of Maryam Jameela is very fitting in this regard. She was brought up in a modern society without ever getting influenced by it. Later, she was able to influence and inspire people with her thought.
Having said that, we did consult other syllabus of Dar Ul Ulooms and reformed it to meet the challenges of modern period.
At last, we went for traditional sources and interpret them for present times, like they do in many Muslim countries. Besides stressing on Quran and Hadith, we cannot ignore the history and development of these sciences without having knowledge of exegesis and interpretation of Ulemas and Fuqahas who worked on these sciences from time to time.
Since you mainly focus on women, what’re your programs for their empowerment?
Real woman empowerment, I believe, comes from education and skills. Through education, we make women aware of their status and rights. Besides, we impart computer training, cutting, tailoring and designing as skills. We’re planning to market our products under the banner of Ansar-un-Nissa soon, Insha-Allah.
But when it comes to women empowerment, many see it through the western-peddled construct called Feminism. How do you see it?
As a recent phenomenon, Feminism is being celebrated as woman emancipation concept—with the aid of media campaigns. It has taken precedence over everything else, when it comes to women rights in the society. Those who are batting for it won’t tell you how Islam has already given a dignified status and empowerment to women long back.
As a Muslim, I believe, my rights, duties and status are justified. I don’t need any westerner or any ragtag activist to tell me my rights as a woman. That’s why I am saying, those who are rallying behind it are knowingly and unknowingly attempting to overlook the dignified status and rights given to women by their religion.
But, is there any compatibility between feminism and Islam?
Firstly, Islam invites you to a mission based on obedience to Allah which western thoughts will never accept. Islam addresses person’s spirit, emotions, belief, etc, which western ideas lack.
Now, if West is dragging women from homes, it’s only for to fulfil economic and materialistic objectives. It’s intended to commercialize things but Islam gives dignity and status while addressing the soul.
In Islam, there’s the status for mother but in west you see old-age homes. The whole activity based on feminism is materialism—intended to collapse the institution of family.
Lately, the MeToo campaign entered Kashmir. How do you see it in evading sexual harassment?
I believe, this campaign should’ve been started when episodes like Kunan Poshpora or Asiya-Neelofar incident took place in Kashmir. Had we been vocal and protesting about it then, this menace—which is now plaguing our workplaces and other social spaces—would’ve stopped.
There’ve been reports of women facing sexual harassment at work places, overloaded buses, etc. How to do away with this?
We’ve to educate people and carry on awareness campaigns to do away with this menace permanently. Above all, women have to be resistant in such cases and nobody should take them for granted.
I want to use this occasion to ask, is patriarchy a curse or a blessing?
Man is called qawwam in Quran, which means head/protector/sustainer of a family. However, this status has been misused by some, by enslaving women.
However, in our society there’re families where the female is dominant and has misused her position. We call it ifraat o tafreet.
So, the need is to have a very balanced approach where woman and man both would take care of their roles. Men and Women are equal, but not similar.
Also, in our society, the discourse is still prevalent whether women should do every such job which a man does? How do you see it?
I believe, there’re some jobs in the field of Education and Health and other suitable fields, where women have a primary role.
However, in choosing any job, her home should be her preference. Her family should not suffer at the cost of earning. People in Kashmir now-a-days prefer earnings over other things which needs to be discouraged.
Amid the ‘onslaught of West’ on Muslim identity and growing Islamophobia, some Muslim women term Pardah as their choice. Is it choice or obligation?
Pardah is an obligation. It is Farz. They probably interpret “choice” as something which they do by their will. If they say it is choice which means to practice the obligation they do with their will and not compulsion.
On a parting note, how do you sum up your activism in the backdrop of your recent fame?
Well, like I said, it was full of hurdles, but worth living. At times, both family pressure and societal perceptions did seem to derail my women welfare works.
I was even accused of charging women to rebel against men. I was even called pagal, awara, and what not. Initially there was also a pressure from Indian agencies. They used to question and interrogate me for my activism. But all this became a tolerable affair for the greater cause.
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