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Beyond veil: Am I not a normal Muslim girl?

Sweta Ramanujan

Posted: Jul 16, 2004 at 1248 hrs IST

They have got their degrees. Now these women are going back to Islam for answers to life’s questions.

They are among the lucky few who could fulfil their dreams.

They did not have to fight conservative in-laws to attend college or battle social pressures when they said they wanted to opt for higher studies.

But even as they were studying to become doctors and researchers, they found themselves going back to their religion for simple answers to complex questions.

Like the ones Sadiya Chaudhary, a 19-year-old student of English Literature from Bombay Central, had after 9/11.

‘‘I started questioning my beliefs,’’ a chubby Sadiya says, adjusting her hijab. ‘‘I kept wondering why my religion is not compatible with the world.’’

Sadiya registered herself with the Dongri-based Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) run by Islamic scholar Zakir Naik. ‘‘I had to go to a place that gave me the right answers,’’ she says.

At the IRF, women from all walks of life—housewives, doctors, students, researchers who speak chaste English—form the Ladies’ Wing. The wing hosts seminars, lectures and workshops for women.

On any given afternoon, there are nearly a dozen women discussing religion or reading books on Islam and other religions in the office. Weekend workshops on preparing for marriage draw dozens of shy, young girls from Byculla to Bombay Central.

Farhat Naik, Zakir Naik’s wife, heads the wing. ‘‘When I came here before marriage, I noticed there were no facilities for women,’’ Naik, a resident of Pune and holder of a masters degree in Philosophy, recollects.

The wing was established in 1992. It works around the objective of the IRF— to dispel misconceptions about Islam. ‘‘Here people learn exactly what our religion stands for,’’ Naik says.

Today, the Ladies’ Wing has 10 core group decision-makers, 13 active associates, 40 senior associates and hundreds of junior associates.

Muznah Kapdi, a final-year student of medicine from Grant Medical College, Byculla, takes time out to participate in the wing’s activities. ‘‘I had a choice between living life like any other teenager—watching movies, partying, having fun—and spirituality. I chose the latter,’’ she says.

Nikhat Shaikh (27), a PhD student researching ‘the Hindu perception of Islam in modern times’, joined seven years ago. ‘‘I don’t think education is only about a good job and salary; it should transform one’s personality,’’ she says.

Daughters of businessmen and professionals, these women firmly believe in the power of knowledge, especially for women. But they are aware of the conservative mindset of many members of their community, who believe pursuing mainstream education takes one away from Islam.

‘‘The Holy Quran says ‘iqra bisme’ which means ‘read in the name of Lord’. Unfortunately, Muslims today look at iqra and bisme as two extremes,’’ says Naik.

The bubbly and outgoing Sadiya, who comes from a ‘culturally Islamic’ family, hopes her community will become more progressive. ‘‘People often tell me I am not a normal Muslim girl,’’ she says, ‘‘But I tell them this is what a normal Muslim girl is like—she is like me.’’

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