Palestine/India: On Feminism and National Identity

The Experience of Palestinian Women in Israel and Muslim Women in India by Hoda Rouhana.
This article, by Hoda Rouhana - WLUML Programme Officer for the Middle East and North Africa, was originally published in Arabic and Hebrew by Adalah in Adalah's Review, Volume 1, Fall 1999 - Politics, Identity and Law.
A slightly amended English version has also been included in the 2003 edition of 'The Critical Half', an annual journal by Women for Women International.

The role minority women play in the national or religious project of their respective communities is rich in ambiguity and often paradoxical. The foremost difficulty these women face is the double oppression leveled against them. They are members of a minority group oppressed by the majority, and they are oppressed within their own societies. This fact presents a myriad of complicated questions for feminist movements operating within these minority communities. According to Deniz Kandyota, “It may well be argued that there is no particular reason to single women out as prisoners of the discourse they share with men. However, their gender interests may, at times, indicate their own demands and produce divided loyalties with men of their class, creed or nation. Women may choose to either openly express or to suppress such divergences of interest, which they generally do at their own cost in both cases.”

In this paper, I will address those paradoxes and ambiguities that result from this double oppression, and discuss some of the questions raised from the formation of this dichotomy, which forces women to choose between the feminist and nationalist agendas. I will also discuss the question of who formulates this dichotomy, who identifies nationalism and feminism, and who benefits from this identification. To address these topics, I will discuss two specific examples: Muslim women in India, and Palestinian women within Israel.

The experience of Muslim women in India:

The Muslim minority in India numbers 100 million, and accounts for 11.5% of India’s total population. The vast majority of the country’s population is Hindu, and contains several other smaller minority groups, such as Christians and Jews. “The decision of partition in India and the creation of the state of Pakistan in 1947 was accompanied by the worst communal riots the world has ever witnessed. Yet all over India, Hinduism was rising with an ugly, violent, revengeful and aggressive face immediately after 1947. Muslim life and property were placed in great danger. Their number had been reduced and the community had been weakened in all respect by the emigration of the Muslim professionals, bureaucrats and the wealthy, and was virtually falling prey to Hindu chauvinism.” (Ameer 1992).

Muslims in India are governed by their own personal status laws, codified by Britain in 1937 and protected by India’s constitution. However, the constitutional commitment to secularism in India does not imply, as in many western countries, a separation of religion and state. On the contrary, it has meant the co-existence of various religions under the benevolent supervision of the state.

Muslim women in India suffer from double oppression: as part of a patriarchal community in which women are discriminated against in various ways, and, as a part of a minority community subjected to discrimination by Hindu fundamentalism. As an oppressed minority population, the Muslim minority feels insecure and threatened, and thus clings more and more to its own customs and practices. These customs and traditions, in fact, have become an important symbol in the struggle of Muslim groups against the attempts of the Hindu majority to assimilate and destroy their Muslim identity.

The most serious consequence of the ghettoised existence of most Muslims in India has been that Muslim women fighting for their rights are disarmed from the beginning. Any struggle to improve their condition is not only seen by Muslim fundamentalists as undermining the community, but is actually used by the Hindu pluralists to do precisely that. (Hensman 1987). The Shahbanu case is an example that I would like to examine in order to deal with the questions mentioned in the beginning of this paper.

In 1978, Shahbanu, a 70 year-old Muslim women from India, filed an appeal to the judicial magistrate under Section 125 of the Criminal Code, demanding alimony from her wealthy husband, Mohammed Ahmed Khan, who threw her out of her home after forty-three years of marriage. While the application was pending, Shahbanu’s husband divorced her, paid her RS 3000 as mehr, and claimed that she could no longer demand anything from him. The magistrate, however, ordered him to pay RS 25 per month, and Shahbanu got his sum raised to RS 179.20 in the High Court.

Shahbanu’s husband appealed to the Supreme Court against this decision, arguing that under Muslim Personal Law, he had no responsibility to pay maintenance to his divorced wife, and therefore Section 125 did not apply to him. In April 1985, the Supreme Court issued a judgment in favor of Shahbanu.

The judgment of the Supreme Court created an incredible furor among the Muslim population. Muslim fundamentalists were disturbed by what they perceived as the Hindus’ homogenizing influence, an influence, they believed, that would eventually lead to the assimilation and destruction of Muslim identity. Muslim leaders denounced the decision as the beginning of government attempts to interfere in the personal issues of the Muslim minority. These leaders declared that “Islam is in danger,” and protests erupted throughout the country, with demonstrators demanding that Section 125 not apply to Muslim women. Shahbanu herself endorsed this demand, condemning the court’s judgment in a public letter addressed to all the Muslims, despite the fact that it supported her claims.

The Muslim Personal Law Board intervened in the case on behalf of Shahbanu’s husband, and having been unsuccessful in the Supreme Court, carried the battle to the Parliament. A Muslim Member of the Parliament introduced a bill entitled the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights in Divorce) Act, which was passed in May 1986. According to this new Act, divorced Muslim women fall outside the purview of Section 125 of the Criminal Code. Under the Law, the divorced women’s husband is only obligated to return the mehr, and pay alimony during the period of iddat (three months following the divorce). If the divorced woman is unable to maintain herself after the iddat period, her children or parents or those relatives who would be entitled to inherit her property upon her death are responsible for her maintenance. If she has no relatives, or if they have no means to pay her alimony, the magistrate may direct the State Waqf Boards (administrators of Muslim trust funds) to pay whatever alimony determined by the court.

Hindu fundamentalists were outraged by the new Act, as they had endorsed the Supreme Court’s judgment, and considered it a progressive decision in the favor of Muslim women. Progressive Muslims also opposed the new Muslim Women Act, arguing that alimony rights were available to divorced Muslim women beyond the iddat period even according to Islam, and that the bill deprives Muslim women of the rights granted to them by the Koran.

The women’s movement found itself paralyzed by the fact that all discussion concerning the decision was communal. Some groups found it difficult to be enthusiastic about the Court’s judgment because Hindu leaders utilized it to undermine the Muslim minority. Others felt compelled to support the judgment against those Muslim leaders opposed to the rights guaranteed for women. Other groups criticized Section 125 itself, pointing out that while the decision did not arouse great favor among feminists, it should be used as the last option for Muslim women having no alternative.

The experience of Palestinian women in Israel:

Palestinian women in Israel are part of the Palestinian minority that remained on their lands following the war of 1948 and the establishment of the State. Members of this group were eventually granted Israeli citizenship, and currently account for 18.3% of Israel’s total population. Like Muslim women in India, Palestinian women in Israel suffer from two levels of discrimination: as women living in a patriarchal, traditional Arab society, and as a part of national minority suffering from discrimination by the Jewish state.

In Israel, Palestinian Arab religious courts currently maintain almost absolute authority on personal status issues. Similar to Muslims in India, this has presented Palestinian feminists with the challenge of balancing their struggle as women, with their struggle against the state. This dilemma was brought to the forefront when a group of Palestinian women activists proposed a bill, introduced in the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), giving Israeli civil courts the authority to adjudicate the personal status matters of Arab Muslims and Christians. The judges of the Muslim religious courts, religious leaders and some of the national leaders immediately opposed the bill. They saw it as a serious threat to the “Palestinian National Project,” which aims to achieve autonomy, or at least limited autonomy, for the Palestinians in Israel. This group argued that the intervention of the Israeli civil courts in the personal status matters of Palestinians contradicts the aims of this Project, and weakens the identity of the Palestinian minority. They also argued that it is difficult to support such legislation since the state is defined as the Jewish State, and is thus not secular. The religious authorities argued that the intervention of civil courts in the personal status matters of Muslim women is against Islam, since the laws applied in those courts are not Muslim.

Muslim women in India and Palestinian women in Israel face a common dilemma: struggling for their rights as women, while also attempting to retain their minority (national or the religious) identity. Formulating this dilemma in this way, as a dichotomy, forces women to choose between the feminist and the national/religious struggle, and only succeeds in creating borders that separate women’s multiple identities. Furthermore, this dichotomy has the effect of eliminating all feminist perspectives from the national/religious struggle of the minority group, even pitting feminism against this struggle.

That the national/religious-feminist debate was presented as a dichotomy to Muslim women in India ultimately undermined feminist efforts, a fact clearly demonstrated by Shahbanu’s signature on the petition against the court decision in her favor. It was very difficult for Shahbanu to act differently, as she was widely accused of being responsible for the communal riot that caused extensive bloodshed following the decision. It was also very difficult for some feminist groups to enthusiastically support the Shahbanu judgment, when they saw that Hindu groups used it to harm the Muslim minority.

The experience of the Palestinian minority has followed a similar process, but produced different results. Palestinian women have been forced to choose between the nationalist and the feminist as two separate projects. In reality, however, they have not been given any choice, because in the either case Palestinian women will be accused of compromise, at the least, or betrayal at the worst.

It is clear that if the dilemma is perceived in this way, as a dichotomy, women will lose. The question is: who does this dichotomy serve, and on what is it based? Before trying to answer these questions, I would like to deal with some non-feminist attempts to resolve this struggle that have apparently attempted to combine the national/religious with the feminist, but in fact have frequently harmed both.

In the Indian case, the proposed Muslim Women Act was persuasively presented by the government as a means of protecting Muslim minority rights, and Muslim women’s rights by presenting new alternatives rather than forcing women’s dependence on their former husbands. The Shar’ia court judges also advanced this argument, adding that the religious courts, defined by them as Arab national associations, could provide protection for Arab women’s rights from within the community and without any fundamental changes.

The “solutions” offered through such a combination are distorted in both cases, however. In the Palestinian case, the position of the religious courts acts as a camouflage for the true intention of preserving the authority of the Shar’ia courts. Neither the religious project in India nor the Palestinian Project in Israel has been re-formulated in a feminist perspective. In both cases, the elements and the basis on which the national and religious project were built have not been examined in any serious way, and the feminist project has been subordinated to the nationalist/religious project.

In the Indian case, in the name of protecting Muslim women, the government introduced a bill that is very far from achieving this goal. Instead of encouraging women to be independent by providing them with a permanent income, the bill forces their dependence on family members. As Zoia Hassan, a Muslim women’s rights activist, has said, “The bill protects the husbands who would divorce their wives.”

The new bill also failed to resolve what Muslim leaders claimed to be its primary flaw: preventing the majority from interfering in the internal issues of the minority. It does so, in that the bill infringes on the authority of the State Waqf Boards (Muslim charitable trusts) by obligating it to pay alimony. Danial Latifi, Shahbanu’s lawyer said of this issue, “Legislative interference in the objects of trusts is an outrage against constitutional principles.” (Latifi 1998).

In the case of the Palestinian minority in Israel, the Muslim religious courts claim to achieve both goals simultaneously: protecting Palestinian women and protecting the national identity of the Palestinian Arab minority. The courts actions, however, demonstrate that there has been no real attempt to formulate a new interpretation of religious law, or to protect the Palestinian minority’s identity in a progressive way. Any claims concerning the protection of Palestinian women’s rights has been general, without deep analysis of religious law or new interpretations. The possibility of combining the national/religious and feminist struggle of the Palestinian women of Israel has yet to be proposed in way that will benefit them both equally. However, the word “protection” itself is problematic, as it carries with it an implicit hierarchical relationship between the “protector,” who has authority, and the “protected.” In fact, using this terminology only provides a camouflage that hides true intentions and power politics, as well as harming feminist interests.

Presenting the religious courts as an expression of the national and cultural identity of the Palestinian minority is also problematic. While the courts could be a part of this national identity if they constituted an Arab civil, judicial institution working towards a critical discussion of Arab culture, it is difficult to see judicial institutions based on religion as an alternative to necessary, Arab national institutions. This is not to say that Arab culture must be devoid of Islamic influence, but the Islamic presence in Arab secular culture is a cultural presence, not a religious one.

There is a need to dissect the dichotomy between feminism and nationalism in minority groups, and to examine who this tension serves. To do so, there is a need to re-think and revisit several questions: what is group identity, who defines it, and who defines the interests of the group.

In the case of India, fundamentalist Muslims defined the identity and the interests of Muslims as a whole, without considering the opposition voiced from within the group. Arif Mohammed Khan, who resigned as Minister of State when the bill was introduced to Parliament said, “The state is imposing a form of religion as interpreted by a particular group of people, and they are asking every Muslim, if you are Muslim you have to accept this form” (Hensman 1987). An article in the Urdu Times demanded that “if some Muslim women oppose Muslim personal law in the name of the Shahbanu case or want changes in it, or if they desire that a common civil code be imposed on the entire country, then such women, though their names be Muslim, should renounce Islam if they do not agree completely with the Islamic Shariat.” A similar process took place in Israel, where religious judges and nationalists defined Arab national identity on behalf of all Palestinians, directly relating this identity to the use of the religious courts.

This one-dimensional interpretation of identity requires a more general analysis of identity as a concept. For example, if we analyze the actions of Shahbanu, we see that she possesses multiple identities. She is not just a Muslim, she is also a woman from the lower-class of her society. Her identity as a women is what caused her to apply for alimony under Section 125, while being a member of the lower-class allowed her to ignore the comments of her upper-class sisters who accused her of lacking respect. Later, her identity as a Muslim is what made her sign against the court decision when she was told that, “Islam is in danger.” This call, in fact, ignored the other dimensions of her identity.

In addition, both Muslim society in India and Palestinian society in Israel are heterogeneous. Both societies include Palestinian and Muslim women who have secular agendas, a fact demonstrated by the existence of groups such as the “Working Group Coalition,” which works to provide a choice for Palestinian women to appear before the secular courts or the religious courts in personal status matters. This was also the position of several women’s groups in India, many of whom supported introducing a Uniform Civil Code. Other groups in India found this idea problematic, due to the different traditions and customs in India. They suggested working to reform the Muslim Personal Status Law, in addition to working towards the introduction of a Uniform Civil Law.

The combination of nationalism and feminism is acceptable by men of oppressed minority groups only when it discusses the oppression of women by the majority group. It is not acceptable when women demand an evaluation of the values of their own communities from a feminist perspective. In the case of Palestinian and Palestinian Muslim women in Israel, these women were used as a sign of national or religious identity. Nira Davis points out, “Women bear the burden of being those who reproduce the boundaries of ethnic/national groups, who transmit the culture and who are the privileged signifiers of national difference.”

In all the discussions surrounding the Shahbanu case, which was interpreted as a discussion of the religious identity of Muslims in India, Shahbanu the woman- her personal story, suffering, difficulties and interests- were lost inside the discourse of religious identity. The discussions surrounding Shahbanu, and the resulting Muslim Women Act, provide a vivid demonstration of the way in which the discourse of national/religious identity is used to control women and to further personal, political power. In Israel, the attempted defeat of the bill to bring personal status issues to the civil courts provides a similar example.

In this article, I discussed religious/nationalist and feminist identity, and attempted to dismantle the dichotomy that necessitates choosing between the two. Such tension distracts the focus of the feminist struggle. The most important question remains the same: what projects should feminist activists undertake in order to initiate social changes and justice for women?

The reformulation of nationalist/religious identity in such a way as to make it compatible with a feminist perspective is a very important project. Such a project must be built on changing the dominant culture from within. However, such a process is long-term, and until it is achieved, women will continue to suffer. We cannot demand that oppressed women wait until the rebuilding of the dominant culture is completed. In reality, there is the possibility that utilizing secular courts will force national/religious institutions to make positive changes.

This perspective raises another, parallel question: Is it possible to force a religious identity (even if it is an enlightened one) on secular women who do not accept religious authority? Is it possible to find a space for secular identity in the collective one?

All of these questions, and many others, need to be discussed and critically investigated in order to advance feminist interests. As such, there remains a tremendous need for women’s participation in these new attempts to rebuild the dominant discourse.


Ameer, Ali (1992), “The Quest for Cultural Identity and Material Advancement: Parallels and Contrasts in Muslim Minority Experience in Secular India and Buddhist Sri Lanka,” 13 Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs Journal 1, pp. 33-58.

Hensman, Rohini (1987), “Oppression Within Oppression: The Dilemma of Muslim Women in India,” Working Paper No.1, Women Living Under Muslim Laws.

Kandyoti, Deniz (1991), “Identity and Its Discontents: Women and the Nation,” 203 Millenium: Journal of International Studies. Reprinted in 20 Women Living Under Muslim Laws (1998), Grabels, pp. 7-23.

Latifi, Danial (13/3/1986), “The Muslim Women Bill,” The Times of India.

Shahbanu, (13/11/1985) “Open letter to the Muslims,” Inquilab newspaper.

Yuval-Davis, Nira and Anthias, F. (1989), Women-Nation-State, Macmillan: London.