20 Jul 2015

Great Women of India #6: Daud Sharifa Khanam

Daud Sharifa Khanam is the founder of STEPS. She was one of ten children, and was bought up by a single mother. At the age of 22 she accompanied a conference for women’s rights in India as an interpreter from Hindi to Tamil. She listened to stories of hurt, pain and humiliation that women went through. However, she also heard stories of resistance and courage and was inspired to work for women who faced discrimination and violence. She gathered a group of men and women who agreed with her and started STEPS. Initially STEPS offered girls self defence courses but it became more than that as the organisation grew.


Sharifa Khanam felt that Muslim women faced double discrimination. She argued that the Quran gives great respect to women, but the men who interpreted Islam used it to make women subservient. A prime example Sharifa quoted was of dowry. There is no practise of dowry written within Islamic laws, yet dowry abuse is rampant within the Muslim community. She also felt that a conventional Jamaat did not represent women.


A Jamaat is usually attached to a mosque and is a committee made up of elders who are men. The Jamaat arbitrates community disputes and provides solutions to problems. The word of Jamaat is usually law within Islam. Sharifa felt that Jamaat took biased decisions in favour of men and did not provide justice to women. She argued that the fathers and brothers who spoke on behalf of women did not understand their opinions or feelings. Consequentially she established the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat.


The Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat now has more than 10,000 registered members spread over the whole state. The Women’s Jamaat meets once every month and listens to the issues of Muslim women. When a woman has not been given justice by her Mosque they write a letter to the Jamaaat which initially dealt with the case. They threaten legal action against the offenders and ensure the woman’s voice is heard. The world’s first women’s Jamaat has enabled many Muslim women to get justice in India.


In 2003 Daud Sharifa Khanam conceived another dream. As Jamaat is usually attached to a mosque she wanted to create a women only mosque, complete with a female head. Sharifa visualised the mosque as a community centre for women where they could pray, think, learn, bond and laugh together. She also hopes the mosque will be a centre for Islamic feminism. Her dream of a mosque resulted in being given death threats. She also faced accusations of wanting to open a brothel and was maligned in many ways.


Daud Sharifa Khanam’s dream of a women’s only mosque is currently on hold due to a lack of funding. Sharifa has vowed that somehow she will complete the mosque in her lifetime. In response to the death threats she said “I will have to die some time. If I die tomorrow, so be it. Today I want to make my contribution to the next generation.”




This Blog is part of The Burning Bride series. “The Burning Bride” is a novel which highlights violence against women in India. 10% of the money generated by sales of this e-book will fund projects to end violence against women. It is available on Kindle and Paperback. (For more information email theburningbride@gmail.com)


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