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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 11, 2007

India's new untouchables

By Asra Q. Nomani

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Sharifa Khanam's effort to build a women's mosque in India is part of a struggle by Indian Muslims to create an identity beyond the influence of extremism.

Photo courtesy Asra Q. Nomani

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Percent of Muslim men in India who are unemployed


Percent of Muslim women who are unemployed


Percent of Muslims older than 46 who can't read or write


Percent of the prison population who are Muslim, though they make up only 11 percent of the population

SOURCE: Sachar Committee report

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Ninety-one percent of Muslim women are unemployed, compared with 77 percent from the dalit "untouchables" caste.

Associated Press library photo

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THANDEESWARA, India Sharifa Khanam stood on a plot of land near a flooded rice paddy in this tiny village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, staring at the skeletal outline of a mosque on the ground before her. It was 10 bricks high, with concrete rods jutting expectantly toward the sky. Bags of cement lay unused nearby.

In late 2003, Khanam had made international headlines with the announcement that she intended to build a women's mosque in a country where women are banned from most Muslim places of worship. Now she sighed at the tall weeds poking out of the halted construction.

"I feel as though we are in a boat with waves crashing against it," the activist, 41, said as the sun set behind her. "We may just drown."

The frustrated effort to build a women's mosque exposes the Achilles' heel of India's highly touted secular democracy: the abysmal socioeconomic status of Muslims.

This became quickly clear to me when I went to Mumbai late last year on a reporting fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association to chronicle the "progressive jihad," or struggle for progress by Muslims in India. The week I landed, the Indian government released the so-called Sachar Committee report, a 404-page document that revealed it all: Muslims are disenfranchised, poor, jobless and uneducated. Their conditions are worse than those of the dalit, the caste commonly called "untouchables." To me, the sad truth was evident: Muslims are India's new untouchables.

Consider these figures: Fifty-two percent of Muslim men are unemployed, compared with 47 percent of dalit men. Unemployment among Muslim women is 91 percent, compared with 77 percent among dalit women. Forty-eight percent of Muslims older than 46 can't read or write. Though they make up 11 percent of the population, Muslims account for 40 percent of the prison population. They hold only 4.9 percent of government jobs and only 3.2 percent of the jobs in the country's security agencies.

You wouldn't know any of this from the news about India that appears in the Western media. Here, it's "Incredible India," as a global ad campaign by the Indian government proclaims. Or it's "India Inc.," the headline on a Time magazine cover story. In an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal this year, former defense secretary William Cohen, whose Cohen Group consults frequently on the country, said that the United States and India are "perfect partners" because of their "multiethnic and secular democracies."

But if we don't pay attention, that could all change. Unless something is done to improve the socioeconomic condition of Muslims in India, it may be only a matter of time before extremist Islamic ideology takes root.


Indian Muslims' ability to prosper and progress is a test of the country's democracy and of its hopes for becoming a First World economic power. Though India's nearly 150 million Muslims are a minority at home, they represent the second-largest Muslim population in the world, behind Indonesia (190 million) and just ahead of Pakistan (about 140 million). Their group is larger than the entire population of Arab Muslims (about 140 million).

I was born in Mumbai in 1965 and lived the first four years of my life in my paternal grandparents' home in Hyderabad. My father left India for Piscataway, N.J., to earn his Ph.D. at Rutgers University, with the angry words of a Hindu man whom he had considered a friend ringing in his ears: "Why don't you just leave for Pakistan?" We are the immigrant success story; my father became a professor and my mother a boutique owner. I took my 4-year-old son, Shibli, with me when I flew back to India last year for the fellowship, eager to share my ancestral country with him.

I had spent comfortable summers vacationing with my relatively affluent extended family in India. Many of my family members are in business, and they still live in Mumbai high-rises. But I could see that their living standard had deteriorated in the 30 years since my childhood: Their cars were now run-down, and paint peeled from water-stained walls. An uncle told me that he lies to some customers of his clothing business and claims to be Hindu to avoid being blackballed.

In Panchgani, a town outside Mumbai, my son surprised a friend of the family, a Muslim girl, on her 15th birthday with a gift from the United States: a dream catcher, a handmade web of thread and beads. Her nightmares would escape through the beads, I explained. The web would catch her dreams.

"What do you dream for yourself?" I asked.

She stared at me blankly. Her eyes downcast, she answered, "I don't have a dream."


The effort to build a women's mosque in that village in Tamil Nadu was an attempt to help the Muslim world's poorest demographic: its women. After announcing her plans to build the mosque, Khanam drew up a detailed budget proposal, estimating $110,000 for construction and an annual budget of about $75,000 to cover operating costs for the mosque and a women's shelter, including a salary for a female imam. She decided to name the mosque Halima Pengal Pallivasal, or "Halima's Women's Mosque," after her mother, Halima, whose name means "gentle" in Arabic. Khanam sold pieces of jewelry to raise money to buy the land.

She designed a path to the mosque that would be covered by a canopy of roses and jasmine. She and her supporters gathered petitions from women who oppose the all-male rulings they must live by. She went village to village, gathering donations. Together with her staff, she spent countless hours writing a funding proposal to the New York-based Global Fund for Women. It turned her down. A spokeswoman told me that the mosque plan didn't fit its "human rights" agenda.

But the lives of Muslim women in India are certainly a human rights issue. Many of the members of STEPS, the women's rights organization that Khanam founded, are former dalits, who converted to Islam because it doesn't have a caste system. When the government introduced an affirmative action program for the dalit class in recent years, these women found themselves barred from it. And they face the additional problem of having to live with sexist interpretations of Muslim law, which India allows to govern family matters.


Khanam's effort is part of a wider struggle by Indian Muslims to create an identity beyond the influence of extremism. But they are fighting against a tide of pessimism that offers an opening to conservative and radical clerics. In a crowded two-room office on the second floor of a dilapidated building in Mumbai, an aging Muslim scholar named Asghar Ali Engineer lamented the difficulties facing him and other progressive leaders in the Muslim community. "We are the minority within the minority," he said.

Late last year, conservative Muslim men in the village of Gingee in Tamil Nadu stormed the gates of a vocational school for Muslim girls not far from the construction site of the women's mosque. Saeed Amanullah, a native son of Chennai, had built the school after retiring from his 25-year career as a structural engineer for Los Angeles County. "The Muslim problem stands in the way of India being the power that people think it can be," said Amanullah's Hollywood-born son, Shahed, who was in India during the controversy. "These unresolved socioeconomic issues are going to be like chains on the country's legs. We won't be able to move forward."

Meanwhile, Khanam strives to keep her hope for a women's mosque alive. She wants the Sachar Committee report to result in political reforms such as affirmative action programs, but so far there hasn't been much movement in the status quo.

Last year, she paid her own travel expenses to New Delhi to testify at a meeting of the committee, which promised to reimburse her. Months later, she was still waiting for the check as she sat in the sunset watching wild peacocks wander where congregants should have been gathering in the mosque of her dreams.

Asra Q. Nomani teaches investigative journalism at Georgetown University and is the author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam." This commentary was written for The Washington Post.