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Defying Diktats

Hasina Faras’ modus operandi is quite straightforward- when life presents you with fascist fatwas, you don’t let them stand in your way.  She made history on 8 December 2016, by becoming the first Muslim woman to bag the position of the mayor of Kolhapur. To realize how daunting this task actually was, all one needs to do is take a look at a certain fatwa. This fatwa quoted the Sharia and two other collections of laws sacred to Islam to warn the women in the community against contesting in the election.  It was issued by  issued on September 23, by the Majlis-e-Shoora-Ulama-e-Shahar Kolhapur- a committee of roughly fifty local clerics.

A large number of members of the community jumped to the close-minded clerics’ defense, and said that this order wasn’t meant to do harm or place restrictions on women in any way. One member of the committee even went to the extent of stating “We’re not targeting Muslim women. This order has been released as part of a fairly old practice of ours to update the community on regular religious behavior.”

This nonchalant response makes one want to employ a Sherlock Holmes stand–in to figure out what else the intent of an order so prohibiting and constricting  could be. It begs the question- why is holding back motivated women, who are willing to work hard for a cause they are dedicated to, seen as a ‘regular update on religious behavior’ in the first place?

The Hilal Committee- a group of religious leaders responsible for moon sighting- stepped in, calling the diktat ‘unconstitutional’ and asking the local community to dismiss it, hence encouraging women to continue to file for candidacy according to their prior plans. Remarkably, despite the fatwa, 19 of the 20 women that had originally planned to contest the elections continued on their path, steadfast, and filed for candidacy. Five women out of these ended up becoming part of the legislation, four becoming corporation members, and the fifth, Hasina Faras- the mayor.

As it turns out, Faras’ family has had its fair share of tribulations and strife, having been associated with politics for years. Hasina Faras kept the ball rolling and came out shining in spite of the new and sudden religious challenges introduced in her path. “The fatwa went against the democratic values of the country. Kolhapur has the great legacy of Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj. We are obliged to carry forward effective governance. None of us paid much heed to the fatwa and went forward to contest the elections,” she remarked. On being asked about her stance on the orthodox mind-set of the prominent clerics, she said, “Society has changed and it is about time we accept the changes. Muslim women have entered every sphere of life. I will stand against extrajudicial elements in the future as well, if similar fatwas are issued.”

The Indian subcontinent has been well ahead of the rest of the world, in terms of women being in power. The United States of America has been a democracy for 228 years, and has had 43 presidents, none of whom have been women. In fact, women didn’t even have the right to vote until 1920. That happened nearly 30 presidents and 132 years into democracy. Meanwhile, Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister of India in 1966, and managed to retain her position till 1977, only to return in 1980 to stay for five more years. That amounts to her being in power for nearly sixteen years.

One might argue that leaders like Indira Gandhi, Sheikh Hasina, and Benazir Bhutto had an unfair familial advantage that caused them to be in positions of power, but what must be considered is that there is a reason why these politicians were voted back in- they were competent, ambitious, and steadfast in their command of the country, hence winning the popular vote again.This in itself negates the image of female politicians that is often conjured, focusing more on their character and personal life than their strategies and abilities. This tendency made itself evident when Hillary Clinton announced that she would run for presidency, in early 2015.

Mere minutes after her announcement, twitter sprang to life with the trending hashtag- #WhyImNotVotingForHillary, where the common public listed reasons like ‘because I don’t want feminist rallies in front of Starbucks’ and ‘because women in politics are trash’. Most tweets were derogatory towards Clinton and blatantly targeted her gender. One of them featured a picture of Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton’s former mistress, captioned- ‘Monica 2016 – I got the “job” done when Hillary couldn’t’.

Picture accompanying an article titled ‘Hillary Breaks Out the Ugliest Outfit in Human History’.

Constant hounding of female leaders in media in matters of no significance-from claiming Sarah Palin has a shrill and nagging tone, to having entire TV segments dedicated to discussing  Clinton’s outfits- is one of the reasons why willing women have had such a hard time acquiring positions of authority, not because they’re not good enough.

In Asia, Taiwan is setting the pace with the recent election of Tsai Ing-Wen, the country’s first female president. Indonesia boasts Megawati Sukarnoputri as an early pioneer. Initially, female leaders were met with scoffs and raised eyebrows, due to the general public spending generations in a male dominated power structure. Women were seen as belonging at home, and politics was seen as something far beyond their capabilities. This has begun to steadily improve, with India’s several successful female politicians paving the way for the rest of the world.

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have been the heads of state in Bangladesh, on and off, for 23 of the last 50 years. Sri Lanka made a mark in history by voting in the world’s first ever female prime minister in 1960. Ameenah Fakeem became the President of Mauritius in 2015. In the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East and the Gulf- where no woman has even dared to run for the position of Head of State- geo-cultural religious postulates, and reassertions of out-dated and misinterpreted restricting verses from sacred texts have held back women from aiming to hold power and express authority.

Middle Eastern women have been severely disadvantaged in the areas of family law and inheritance, where women are accorded fewer rights than men and are subordinated to male authority. But women who are struggling to stay afloat in these disturbed waters are now coming to terms with the fact that they’ll have to be their own saviors- that there is no one to vouch for them, but themselves.

All around the world, the sphere of expertise of women, who were earlier seen as seemingly ‘simple-minded’ and ‘obtuse’ has now begun to expand, with women like Faras making their own path and working to achieve what they want. If defying a bunch of orthodox clerics is the way to do it, then so be it. Hasina Faras, her face lit with a victorious smile,  proves to everyone, once and for all, that women will no longer be content with watching from the sidelines.

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