AFTER becoming the first woman in India to lead Friday prayers for a mixed congregation, 34-year-old Jamida Beevi has received death threats for her defiance of established Islamic practice.
On Jan 26, the teacher led the Friday prayer of Jumu’ah Namaz in Malappuram, Kerala, becoming the first woman to lead the ritualistic prayer for a group of both genders. Traditionally, a male imam leads the prayer, unless it is an all-woman congregation. Jamida also delivered a sermon on gender justice.
Despite backlash from people she calls “extremists,” Jamida remains defiant and says she will continue on her path for equality.
“I have been criticised a lot by elders of various factions for taking this step. There are men who will not like women taking these positions and being empowered,” she told NDTV. “But the Qu’ran is clear – there is no discrimination between man and woman. They have equal rights.”
Belonging to a small sect called the Qur’an Sunnat Society, Jamida believes only in the Qur’an, not in the hadith – the statements made by the prophet on a variety of subjects and written down by his followers after his death. Most orthodox Muslims believe in both.
“The Qur’an says all human beings are equal and anyone can lead prayers. The Qur’an is the basis of Islam, not the hadith, which were created by men after the prophet’s death. For 1,400 years, men have decided things, only men have made decisions. It is time for all that to change now,” she told The Guardian.
This is not the first time Jamida’s convictions have landed her in hot water with the Muslim community in Kerala. A few years ago, she was boycotted for her strong opinions and her questioning of existing practices in her religion. It was reported in local media that she received death threats and had to leave her home of Thiruvananthapuram. Circumstances changed, however, when she was invited by the Qu’ran Sunnat Society for a session. Today, she is the general secretary of the society and leads prayers in their offices.
Jamida believes that inequality in Islam is “manmade” and imposed only by male clerics, and not by the religious teachings of the Qu’ran.
But several leaders of the Muslim community in Kerala do not agree with her actions on Friday.
Abdul Rahman, the secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, which manages about 500 mosques in the southern state, said Beevi’s action was an “arranged drama”, and a “gimmick to acquire cheap popularity” while distracting the Muslim community from real issues.
“By tradition, men lead the prayers because women are busy in the household and have their limitations,” Rahman told The Guardian. “This division of duties between men and women is not discrimination, it’s a question of what best suits men and what best suits women.”
Jamida remains undeterred, however, and has vowed to continue leading Friday prayers: “If need be I will ask for police protection but I will continue. How can India as country develop if we don’t change all the things that are holding women back?”