Her name is Noor Zaheer. She is a writer, researcher and social activist, recipient of the Times Fellowship, and the Senior Fellowship from the Department of Culture. She received her doctorate for the research carried out on the paintings on the Buddhist monasteries in Himachal Pradesh. In her own words, she was "Brought up in a communist family that had originally been Muslim, religionlessness had been systematically ingrained and inculcated in me". She considers herself an atheist who follows Buddha Dhamma and Sufi philosophy.
Zaheer published her novel, 'My God is a Woman' in 2008, based on an incident which happened more than two decades ago. I read the book again, after hearing of the tragic incident in Delhi two months ago, when a young girl was brutalized and murdered. We are also 'celebrating' International Women's Day' two days from now.
The Supreme Court of India granted maintenance of the princely sum of Rs. 179.20 for a month, to the 62 year old muslim woman Shah Bano begum on April 23rd, 1985. She had been thrown out of the house by her advocate husband in 1978. But under pressure, Rajiv Gandhi's government passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986, "diluting" the Supreme Court judgment, limiting the maintenance for only three months. As a journalist for 'The Patriot' in the 90s, Noor Zaheer had several long discussions with Shah Bano's lawyer, Daniel Latifi, and she was able to weave this story about the oppressed women on earth. The book has since been translated into Hindi, Marati and Gujarati, and will soon be translated into Sinhala.
She has dedicated the novel to "Ammi in gratitude for bringing me up human". 'Human', I felt is the keyword, because today most of us are 'human' only in name. Noor Zaheer's 'Ammi' symbolizes the 'Mother Goddess' and Mother Earth, with love for all life on earth. Sri Lankans are not the only children who use the term 'Ammi' to address our mothers, and in Nepal they call her 'Amma'.
'My God is a Woman' is the story of Safia Abbas Jafri, daughter of Syed Murtuza Mehdi. She was 'given' in marriage to Abbas Jafri, son of high court judge Sir Safdar Ali Jaffri. But Abbas is a very active member of the Communist Party of India, who is expelled from the committee and the party by the party leaders, because he was writing about the liberation of Muslim women. A fatwa was declared and he is killed. Safia flees to Delhi with her infant daughter, and continues the fight begun by her husband. Here she learns of the fate of Shah Bano, and decides to take up the cause.
"She (Safia) had been confined to purdah from the age of nine, when she had committed the crime of writing a short story for Ghuncha, a magazine for children. The editor had published the story and had also written a note of encouragement, This was enough for her grandfather to order purdah because she was receiving letters from unknown men." (page 1).
When her father mentioned the marriage of Safia to Abbas, a friend had burst out, "That infidel! that heathen! Do you know his book is not allowed in any respectable household?" Father had replied, "You don't know my Safia. She is mature and sensible. ...her knowledge and understanding of the holy scripture is perfect. She shall bring him back to God's true faith". (Page 2). Instead her maturity and sensibility made her accept her husbands views.
In Lady Zeenat Jafri, wife of the High Court judge, the author reminds us that it is only the poor and the helpless women who suffer under patriarchal rule and not the rich and the powerful. In such elite families, it is the 'woman of the house' who is all powerful, who takes all decisions. Even though the husband is a High Court Judge, his wife's word is final. She has the power to encourage the Fatwa against her own son and daughter-in-law and to get her husband's mistress murdered, to stop the birth of an illegitimate child into the Jafri family.
Safia rises against all this injustice but she can only win a few battles, retreat and fight again. She could never win the war. She does not get the support of even her own daughter and her closest friend, until it is too late.
Zaheer shows us how the socialist, progressive parties, and even feminist movements shied away from the Sha Bano issue, because for all of them survival in the world of politics was more important than democracy, equality and the well-being of all humanity. Zaheer wrote 'My God is a Woman' to try to open the eyes of people around the world. In all societies the woman is the second class citizen and in most countries the woman suffers in silence. Even today most people in India admire the meek suffering of Sita as her chastity is doubted by Rama, and considers Rama as the Purushottam. They do not even have an equivalent female term for Purushottam.
'My God is a Woman' is the story of womankind, from the day the Mother Goddess was pushed off her pedestal by man, and installed a god in his own image, build up a patriarchal polytheistic culture where man took control of the world, and inequality continues to breed inequality.
The greater relevance of this novel today is because of the ever increasing number of reports in the media about rape and violation of women and young girls, specially in our part of the world. One reason could be the woman has been objectified in our media, in films and in advertising. She is depicted as a marketable commodity, a disposable commodity. All this exposure has made us forget that our mothers, our sisters, our wives and our daughters also happen to be women.