Understanding the ‘Haritha moment’: The gendered turn in Kerala’s Muslim politics

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What has now become a sensational public conversation on gender in the state and the community politics, started as an intra-party fight.

Kerala Muslims, arguably the most powerful Muslim community of the country and one of the most vivacious and dominant communities of the state, are noted in different ways: they are part of the globalised middle class in a way no other Muslim community in the country is, aided both by gulf migration and communitarian social development. While the arrival of pan-national, antagonistic Hindu majoritarianism did throw the community off its rhythm, causing cynical right wing tendencies, the mainstream Muslim political and religious organisations from conservatives to reformists as well as the centrist mass Muslim party, the Indian Union Muslim League, very confidently denounced and gave no space to Islamist majoritarianism, opposing it both theoretically and in its violent manifestations starting from the bloody violence of Marad (2003) to the chopping of the hand of professor in Kottayam’s New Man College (2010).

But the rise of Hindutva from 2014 through 2019 have taken the fear in the mind of the Muslim community to deeper levels. Muslim communitarian politics of the IUML-kind looked like it reached a dead end, lacking any solid theoretically clear foundation or committed leaders who were able to push the agenda of social development and inter community harmony in the new givens. Like most other parties in Kerala, the current leaders were happy consolidating their base and reaping the benefits of the work done by earlier leaders and this meant adjustments of convenience for the electorate without ideological integrity.

Though quite effective in opposing the idea of a theocratic state within the community, due to the absence of a unifying and rigorously ethical frame like constitutional nationalism, mainstream Muslim organisations seemed to become repetitive, if not outright anachronistic, in addressing the new social, political and ethical challenges. Conservatism and lack of imagination also made it impossible for them to integrate newer social energies that women brought in. Political Islamists, demographically a micro-minority and electorally insignificant, became a visible presence in the social media but they were genetically incapable of inclusivist, egalitarian politics.

Student power that seemed to shake India, starting from 2016, found no organic expression in Kerala, as its higher education was completely hollowed out by a corrupt nexus of leadership of dominant communities, wealthy businessmen and political party machinery. The youngsters in the community, active in literary, cultural, educational, technological and social spheres, found no conversation possible with the discourses in the intra-community political or religious spheres.  For any observer, the community, rather than spreading its historical gains and extending leadership outside the state, seemed to be shrinking in confidence so much that it was becoming a dead end from where debates became endlessly recycled. In places the community is powerful, this could even manifest as traits of majoritarianism. Verbal conflicts between Islamophobes and Islamists were continuously rendering the majority of Muslims invisible and helpless.

It is against this backdrop that one could start reading the developments in the Indian Union Muslim League and its female student wing, “Haritha” (Haritha, in Malayalam, is the adjectival form of the colour green, a dominant colour of IUML, which could also be a proper noun for girls, most likely among Hindus).

What has now become a sensational public conversation on gender in the state and the community politics, started as an intra-party fight.

Haritha was formed in 2012 to provide a space of collectivisation to the female students in campuses of Kerala, but its participation in electoral politics was through the Muslim Student Front (MSF) limiting it to a tributary of sorts. The tensions started when the parent body IUML and the electoral face MSF, both governed almost entirely by men, decided to interfere in the affairs of Haritha.

Some men in the MSF bypassed established procedures and formed one of the district committees for Haritha, without consulting Haritha’s state body. The state leadership of Haritha was quite unhappy about it. In a meeting of the MSF state committee held on July 5, 2021, Haritha State General Secretary and a member of the MSF state committee, Najma Thabsheera, wanted to present their version of the issue. PK Navas, the State President of the MSF passed a comment in the meeting that “every prostitute will have her version; let them voice it”. This, and later alleged character assassination by MSF Malappuram District General Secretary V Abdul Vahab, understandably outraged the Haritha state committee and they rose up in arms for strict action against these office bearers.

The MSF leadership and their senior leadership in the IUML, appallingly, decided to freeze the Haritha state committee, rather than giving exemplary punishment to those who slut-shamed and character assassinated colleagues. When denied justice from the senior leadership, the young women in the Haritha state leadership approached the constitutional body, the Women’s Commission of the state. This led to the dismissal of the state body of Haritha. The national Vice President of IUML’s student wing, MSF, Fathima Thahliya, the founder President of Haritha and a vocal social media spokesperson on the IUML side, was expelled for supporting the dismissed Haritha state committee. The controversy raged when the dismissed committee, all ten of them together, took to the media by organizing a press meet and by giving interviews to the press, making it a major conversation on “malestream” politics and the space of women.

Making sense of Haritha

The young women of Haritha belong to Gen Z, the generation born after 1992 with an average age of 25-26 and most of the names are new and unfamiliar in the old Kerala tradition: Mufeeda Tasni, Naja Tabsheera, Shamna VK, Juvairiya, Mina Farzana, Farha, Bareera Thaha, Anagha (the Hindu presence in the state committee), Faseela VP and Ashida.  Mufeeda Tasni, the ex-President, is a researcher in Women’s Studies; Najma Thabsheera is a practising advocate and others are either advocates, or researchers in social sciences and humanities from colleges and universities across Kerala. Mina Farzana was in the news some years ago as the first female student union president of Feroke College, a 1948-established institution, famed as the Aligarh of south India. These female students bring in the generation’s post-globalisation set of values, a disciplinarian terminology and sensibility into campus politics.

Haritha was only a female student wing without electoral presence, and it is likely that the men weren’t particularly attentive to what was happening in their female wing, as it was, in the end, going to contribute to the MSF which men were in charge of. They must have found such an entity necessary for widening the student base, given the burgeoning female population in liberal arts and science colleges, outnumbering male students by miles and within that the abundance of Muslim female students. These young women used the definitive female space, but one that is away from regular campus confrontations, to cultivate a collective spirit of sorority. In a place like Kerala, where student politics is exhausted as miniatures of the mainstream political parties, this marginal space could well have been a possibility.

The watershed moment for Haritha, remembers Najma Thabsheera, was Shaheen Bagh and the campus protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019. The women of Shaheen Bagh, who performed Indian Constitutional nationalism on the street, in an attempt to reclaim the republic’s foundational values, demonstrated how imaginatively women could intervene in public. The CAA protests, Najma believes, changed the largely male nature of student protests of Kerala, where loud sloganeering and police violence including lathi charge usually make women take a side seat. These protests were about songs and poems, with young men and women coming together against what they perceived was a grave injustice to the commitment Indian people made to themselves. Najma who got married in February 2020, demanded, as her right is, that her mehr, the obligation to the women during a wedding, be two things, she says she in a recent interview with The Cue: a copy of the constitution of India and a copy of the Holy Quran, a unifying step that she says was inspired by Shaheen Bagh. This outlook also undoes the fake contradiction both Hindutva majoritarians and Muslim patriarchy have tried to create between India and Islam. This constitutional nationalism would work within a party like IUML, where there is no ideological baggage against female emancipation or communal harmony, an aspect female outfits of theoretically patriarchal and majoritarian Islamist organizations could never have.

The 2009 VS Achuthanandan-led government decision to reserve 50% of the seats in the local body elections to women was another game changer. In the initial years, men brought in their wives or women they could control as candidates and some of the posters, especially from the Muslim community, had the photo of the husband while the name and emblem were of the wife, the actual candidate! When young women from campus politics got the opportunity to work in the electioneering in their neighbourhoods, with some of them going onto become candidates, this new space allowed them to engage with the world outside the secluded space of campuses.

Haritha claims and reclaims

One of the campaigns that Haritha ran in its initial years was “All Spaces are Ours Too”, a definitive feminist claim. They took up the IUML notion of “honourable existence” and refilled it with the social content of gender and in that they liberated the women who were made visible in the communitarian debate, not just in the Muslim community but across communities of Kerala. Instead of settling a gender-based verbal violence within the organisation, as the male logic would often have women do in the case of domestic violence, they took the matter to the Women’s Commission, claiming constitutional options. Fathima Thahliya, in an interview with True Copy Think, argued that the point is not how many pieces of bread women get; but to see that women are part of the process of how to distribute the bread will be defined. The Haritha team states they understand minority politics in a broad and inclusive sense: minorities should not be limited to religious minorities alone but also include subaltern groups such as Dalits and all other minorities, be that linguistic, sexual or ethnic.

These young women are reclaiming certain traditions: they are constantly taking the name of Gauri Amma, the most powerful female politician in the state’s history and asking why there was no continuation for female politicians, implying the proverbial glass ceiling. They are also referring to Haleema Beevi, the first Muslim woman editor of a magazine in 1938, organiser of a women’s collective known as Travancore Muslim Vanitha Samajam with 1000 members and the Tiruvalla Taluk Secretary of Muslim League. They are placing themselves in affiliation with the remarkable women from their own party and other parties. The team, blamed by men of the party for “peddling a particular case of feminism in the party”, is unapologetic about being warriors of gender justice.

The one legacy the parent organization, IUML, has recently begun to forget is the legacy of CH Muhammad Koya, whose pioneered excellent efforts in quality education as a means of social development. CH Muhammad Koya introduced scholarships for Muslim women decades ago and kept talking about the vision of Muslim women getting educated and evolving as community leaders. This social development agenda has been abandoned by the IUML for all practical reasons and other than as a customary icon, they don’t even educate their cadre on the legacy of Koya. Fathima Thahliya and the dismissed committee of Haritha are constantly talking about CH Muhammad Koya. Thahliya even says that they are the “daughters of CH”. This reclaiming helps them to establish their ideological positions unequivocally.

Kerala women have been up to some things remarkable, be it the nun’s against the tainted Christian priest, Women in Cinema Collective, struggles by saleswomen, women’s movements against sexual predators and so on. But this is the first time, in any party, the female youth wing has come out in the open against their senior male leadership in such a categorical manner. Given the generation, outlook, approaches and the legacy, this is unlikely to end up just as another visiting place but one that will chemically change the way politics of Kerala in general and of Muslim community in particular will be perceived and presented.

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