In an attempt to understand the pulse of how educated Indian Muslim women are dealing with the “rising extremism rhetoric”, The Sunday Guardian approached some Muslim women entrepreneurs to know their success stories in the backdrop of “stereotypes” and their take on present day “Islamophobia”.
Talat Ansari, a Delhi-based entrepreneur who started her luxury beauty salon chain “Donna” 18 years ago, said, “There are some typical challenges that almost every Muslim woman in India must have come across when she tries to give some serious thought to a career. There is an unending conflict between what your religion experts tell you to be and what you want to be. Since India is a country of vast cultures, Muslims have adopted certain practices that have become so normal for us that we cannot relate any longer to Muslim women in Saudi Arabia. This has resulted in serious choice crises between an ideal image of Muslim women as per the Shariah and an Indian Muslim woman in reality.”
“Islam apparently does not favour beautification. Getting your eyebrows trimmed or make-up etc. are often said to be wrong practices that Muslim women should avoid as is preached by mosques. But here I am running a beauty parlour. I have never had any encounter with a priest who has tried to preach me on the subject but I know that some people find it wrong. I don’t cover my head but I know that Shariah says that we should cover our heads, but the conflict is that we have been brought up in a society where hijab was never seen as a mandatory practice. This also leads to guilt that we are not doing something that our religion tells us to do,” said Talat Ansari.
Dr Iram Siraj, a Delhi-NCR based pediatrician who runs her own clinic and is a mother of two sons, said, “Here in India, Muslims often find themselves caught between two extremes. We are neither absolute followers of the Shariah nor have we given up on it. We have subconsciously gone cherry-picking; adopting practices that we feel must be done and delaying those which seem inconvenient. But one thing on which most would agree is that the reason behind our backwardness is not Islam, but our lack of understanding the Quran, lack of modern education to the poorest of the poor and misinterpretation of Islamic texts.”
Dr Siraj said: “Both my mother and father were university professors. I have a sister who studied MBA and worked in a multinational company. I married a doctor. The reason why none of us sisters ever had to fight to pursue our careers is because our parents always prioritised our education. People have prejudices about Muslim families that they do not allow their women any freedom. But those inhibitions are placed by men, not by Allah. Allah has allowed us to cross seven oceans if we have to in order to seek knowledge. Women in Islam have been given equal freedom to get education and work as men; the only condition is that women must not compromise with their modesty.”
“For a doctor, religion, caste or class of a patient should not matter. However, with the changing global scenario, I, too, have come to realise that some people do not identify me only as a doctor, but as a Muslim doctor. This identity makes me uncomfortable because it is against the nature of my profession,” said Dr Siraj.
“When I was studying to become a doctor in Aligarh Muslim University, I had two classmates who used to cover their whole bodies except eyes. Those two girls were gold medallists of our batch. Later, they went into different jobs. If you look beyond the restrictions to guard one’s modesty, Islam does not ask women not to pursue their dreams, education, careers or knowledge.”
Dr Rafat Fatima, founder of the Aligarh-based “Shehnai Marriage Bureau” (SMB), is an entrepreneur and mother of a three-year-old daughter who thinks marriage does not necessarily mean a speed-breaker for a women’s career. She said, “I had started acting as a match-maker since I was in college. I am a nutritionist by profession and worked as one for a while. But after getting married, my husband and my mother suggested that I should make match-making a full-fledged business. That is how the ‘Shehnai Marriage Bureau’ came into existence. My strong belief is that any woman can achieve anything if she has her family’s support.”