Nowhera Shaikh – Women’s rights in Islam, and also Sania

By Jyoti Punwani

She disagreed with the influential Deoband seminary over its fatwa on Imrana.

Sania Mirza was chief guest at the annual day of her girls’ madrasa.

Nowhera Shaikh, the mystery woman whose All India Mahila Empowerment Party (AIMEP) contested all 224 seats in the just concluded assembly elections in Karnataka, is quite a character, apart from her politics.

Nowhera Shaikh

She is an Aalima, or Islamic scholar. The 45-year-old, herself a madrasa product, has been running one of her own in Tirupati for the last 20 years. This reporter met Shaikh when she had come to Mumbai in 2005 to inaugurate a centre for Islamic studies, the Al Tawheed International Dawah Centre for Women.

The Imrana controversy was at its peak then. Imrana, a resident of Muzaffarnagar, was raped by her father-in-law. The panchayat decided that, by virtue of the rape, the 28-year-old was no longer her husband’s wife.  She was forbidden for him, and was now the wife of his father.  When an Urdu journalist asked the Dar Ul Uloom Deoband seminary for its opinion, the Ulema there agreed that Imrana was now haraam (forbidden) for her husband, but said she could not be considered his father’s wife either.  Nowhera Shaikh rejected both fatwas, calling them a travesty of the teachings of the Koran.

Nowhera has always been keen that Muslim women read and understand the Koran by themselves, without any Ulema interpreting it for them. That’s the reason she started her madrasa. The Heera Madrassa (her business empire is known as the Heera Group), or the Jamiathul Niswan As Salafia, offers free education to needy students. It was at the annual day function of this madrasa that tennis star Sania Mirza, over whose tennis shorts the ulema have seen red, was the chief guest.

The Al Tawheed centre was also started for the same reason, in partnership with Dr Shehnaz Shaikh, founder principal of the Al Muminah Islamic Girls school in Mumbai.

Nowhera also runs a helpline for women in Dubai, said Dr Shehnaz Shaikh. A close associate of Nowhera, Shehnaz revealed that the latter had registered the AIMEP as a national party four years ago. She therefore had to fight elections this year. The original plan was to fight the Gujarat elections, but she had not been allotted a symbol by then. That finally came through in December 2017.  As soon as she was allotted the symbol, she decided to fight the first Assembly election that came up – and that happened to be in Karnataka.

Won’t this party, run by a burqa-clad woman, ultimately help the BJP by dividing the Muslim vote? (Of course, this theory presumes that the Muslims would vote en bloc for the Congress.) “I don’t ​think so,” replied Shehnaz. “There’s no way Nowhera will do anything to consciously help the BJP.”



Where are transgender persons in the Karnataka Assembly elections?

By Pushpa Achanta

In April 2014, in the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) versus of Union of India case, the verdict from the Supreme Court of India recognised transgender persons and allowed them to choose their gender. This reporter had accompanied the then Chief Election Commissioner of Namibia and his team to a polling station where transgender women had enthusiastically turned out to exercise their franchise in the general election held the next month. Despite the progressive NALSA case judgement, the voter identity cards of the trans women showed their gender as female, which was not necessarily the preference for some of them. (The same was true of Veena S who became the first trans person in southern India to run for public office when she contested the BBMP elections held in 2010 as an independent candidate). However, there were also many trans persons who said that they could not obtain voter ID cards as they lacked documentary evidence of their changed gender or residential address. And this reporter could not spot any transgender men among the voters on that day – an unfortunate yet unsurprising fact as trans men are much more marginalided and invisible than transgender women.

Sadly, not much has changed four years later. This insightful report states that while the number of voters registered in Karnataka under the “other” gender category is 4552 in 2018, up from 2100 in 2013,  no trans person is contesting the election this time, unlike the previous election when there were two. In this story, Uma, a trans person and founder of Jeeva, a Bangalore based non-profit organisation that champions the rights of sexual and gender minorities and particularly transpersons, says she was uncomfortable when her earlier voter identity card identified her gender as male. But she adds, “I am ready to vote with pride as my voter identity card now identifies my gender as transgender. However, the absence of a valid proof of address is a hurdle for obtaining voter identity cards. This is because trans persons cannot easily rent houses nor are home owners willing to identify them as tenants in lease agreements or other documents.”


Parveen, a transgender candidate, created history by winning the election to Ballari Municipal Corporation on a Congress ticket in 2013

Importantly, the report also highlights that some trans persons wonder why they should vote when the government and political parties have done nothing for them – they still lack housing and are compelled to earn their livelihood from begging and/or sex work. Further, in voters’ queues, others mock them. Uma remarks, “When we raised this issue with the previous Chief Electoral Officer, Karnataka, he suggested that separate polling booths could be set up for trans persons. But we do not want to be isolated from society as it will not let us participate in the political process. Society and state agencies must be adequately sensitised about the realities of trans persons. We need a separate Commission, budgetary allocations and community friendly schemes. There must be monitoring, evaluation and annual reports published on the status of government benefits and schemes that exist for the transgender community.”


The headline, introduction and text of this story has used the word “transgenders” instead of “transgender persons” or “trans persons” – it is important for reporters and editors to be aware that the term is considered dehumanising and disrespectful, besides being linguistically incorrect.

Rural women in Karnataka have a mind of their own. And they plan to use it.

By Nisha Susan
One of the funniest and most prescient images from the last American election were the near identical photos of (then candidate) Donald Trump and son Eric Trump both peeking at their respective wives as they filled out their ballots.
Prescient because attempts to limit the freedoms of women has been a key feature of Trump’s proto-tinpot administration so far. Prescient also because men are right to suspect that left to themselves, women may well vote in their own interests and not follow the diktats of the men in their families.
To read a example of this much closer home read Sowmya Aji’s recent reportage from Karnataka. While men still want to control who their women relatives vote for, women in rural Karnataka seem to have other plans.
In a typically guerrilla quote from the piece, 70-year-old Virupakshamma from Moka village in Ballari confirms “that her son was not within earshot and said, “He wants me to vote for BJP. But I am boting for his (showed her uplifted palm, the symbol of Congress). For more on what women voters are thinking about in Karnataka read Aji’s full report.

Women demand freedom, water and toilets

By Vasanthi Hariprakash
Three women, three regions of the same State; each with a battle of her own to fight everyday.
Pickle Jar, a small but independent-spirited platform that creates and curates programs of social relevance, travelled across 9 districts of Karnataka to check the pulse of the state as it goes to polls, to hear out voices unheard this far.
In central Karnataka, a woman whose daughter has suffered an abusive marriage struggles to have her voice heard by her own community and Jamaat.
In rocky Chitradurga district where water levels get dangerously low, taps press out water rarely and when they do, the quality of water often makes people fall sick . Whose political agenda is it to provide safe water for people?
The Swachch Bharat Abhiyan has swept across the country with an allocation of Rs. 15,343 crore for Rural Sanitation in 2018. But how much of all that has fulfilled the simple wish for a toilet of a farm labourer called Ambika in a village in Gulbarga?

Vasanthi on the Karnataka Poll Express

Hitting below the belt with a blitzkrieg of ads

By Aimee Pandit

Ahead of the Assembly elections in Karnataka on 12 May, the two major rivals, the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been trading punches through an ad blitzkrieg. The print ads, placed strategically – either on Page 1 (usually below the mast head ) or on the City pages of most newspapers – do not mince words in their attacks against each other.  On 5 May the BJP’s political ads took over from the customary commercial ads that now often precede the front page in almost all the newspapers published in Bangalore.

While the first few ads from the Congress and the BJP assailed each other on failure of governance, they changed tack immediately after the rape and murder of a little girl in Kathua made headlines.  Suddenly the safety and security of women and girls became a stick with which to beat the adversary.

The BJP’s ad talked of how the incumbent Congress government in the state had failed to create safe spaces for women: “Women and children gripped by anxiety and fear. Siddha Sarkara is in deep slumber.” The Congress shot back with, “In Jammu, BJP Ministers rallied in favour of the rape accused. Will you still say you are with rape victims when your people do the opposite? BJP Government we want answers.” The BJP’s repartee the next day was this: “Modi Sarkara punishes child rapists with death penalty, Siddha Sarkara still asleep.”

IMG_20180507_175355The safety and security of women theme dominated the ads for a while.

The next day, a teaser ad from the BJP said this: “10% commission Sarkara makes Karnataka No 1 in corruption.” On the inside page the ad went on to quote a survey and list Karnataka as “No 1 in goondaraj, crime, killing lakes, potholes, floods of sewage, garbage mess and crimes against women and children.” Other ads from the BJP made digs at the steel flyover project initiated by the Karnataka government to much opposition from the public, calling it “Siddha Sarkara’s many ways to steal.” On 1 May the BJP’s ad bringing to light farmer suicides had a graphic silhouette of a farmer’s corpse hanging from a tree.


Acting on a complaint by the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), the Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) banned three video advertisements by the BJP against the ruling Congress, on the grounds that they violated the Election Commission’s guidelines. The video ads were titled ‘Jana Virodhi Sarkara’ (anti-people government), ‘Viphala Sarkara’ (failed government) and ‘Mooru Bhagya’ (three fortunes).

The Congress filed another complaint with the EC against the BJP on 4 May for publishing false and misleading advertisements in newspapers, saying it maligned the image of Congress party president Rahul Gandhi and Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah.

While the copy in the ads from both parties is a copy editor’s delight (clunky sentences, random and unnecessary capital letters), what stands out are the large images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP party president Amit Shah on one side of the ads and BS Yeddyurappa, the party’s Chief Ministerial candidate from Karnataka, on the right. The Congress ads generally have Rahul Gandhi and Siddaramaiah in the same frame. The ads were big on accusations against opponents until recently; it was only close to the end of April that they began to highlight each party’s plans for the state.

IMG_20180507_175318Front page teaser ads like this greet readers of most newspapers every morning.

The ads are clearly a progression from the slugfest that has been on between the Congress and the BJP, with Modi calling the incumbent government the Sidda Rupaiya Sarkar (a twist on Siddaramaiah’s name and an implication that his government works only for money). Rahul Gandhi added to the slugfest by saying that Modi has brought the Gabbar gang to the state (a nod to the popular movie, Sholay, which was shot near Bengaluru).

Only when the manifestos were launched did the conversation turn to some affirmative action.  If election campaigns are similar to marketing pitches made to win contracts, why are they so negative? Why do they focus only on the failures of the opponent and not on one’s own game plan? Marketing gurus have always said that bad mouthing competition is one of the lowest tactics that one can be employed. Clearly the strategists for political parties do not seem to think so.

Electoral challenges faced by the transgender community

By Anita Cheria

While voter enrolment is the immediate priority of the government, “housing and government jobs, along with the proper implementation of the Karnataka State Transgender (TG) policy, are the priorities for my people,” says Jarmi, programme manager at Samara, a community-led NGO working on TG people’s rights. Nevertheless Samara has taken part in the enrolment drive initiated by the Government of Karnataka (GoK).

Even if the enrolment effort does not result in a significant increase in the number of TG persons added to the voters’ list, the campaign has provided an opportunity for community-led organisations to engage with the government.  This has brought to light a number of issues that need to be taken into account in future efforts by the state to ensure the inclusion of the TG population.

The enrolment drive

To kick-start the special drive to issue voter identity cards to members of the TG community and sex workers, the Department of Women and Child Development (DCWD) of the GoK held a consultation on 12 March 2018. The meeting was meant to identify stumbling blocks in the enrolment process and to address them so as to find the best way forward. Among the issues raised at the meeting were: lack of voter identity cards (voter IDs), problems with enrolment, as well as embarrassment and discomfort in exercising the right to vote.

Mallu Kumbar at the consultation 12 March 2018Mallu Kumbar at the government consultation on 12 March 2018

The plan was to prioritise the drive and complete the process within 15 days. According to Mallapa of the Karnataka Sexual Minorities Forum (KSMF), one day campaign meetings have been organised by the government in partnership with local organisations in approximately 15 of the state’s 30 districts – most recently in Nelamangala on 26 April 2018. At these meetings, government representatives highlight the importance of voting as well as of inclusion, encourage the public to participate in the upcoming elections, outline the voting procedure and demonstrate the use of electronic voting machines.  At the end of the programme the participants take a pledge to vote in the upcoming elections.

Nelamangala 1Umesh (right) from Jeeva checking names on the approved voter ID cards with local leaders

Nelamangala 2Voters taking the pledge at the Nelamangala campaign meeting

The government has also made efforts to sensitise election officers and have plans for separate booths in some wards with a significant TG population.  While the enrolment process has certainly gathered momentum with the state government taking a firm lead in prioritising it, the entire mobilisation effort was led by community organizations, with very little time or resources in hand.

Challenges and solutions

While filing applications for voter IDs, the biggest difficulty identified by community representatives was in furnishing an acceptable address proof. This is because a significant percentage of TG persons are forced to leave their parental homes early in life. Subsequently they have difficulty in accessing secure housing, let alone finding a permanent address. According to Umesh, director of Jeeva, people are usually not ready to rent houses to TG people. As a result, many of them live in groups of 10 to 12. Individual names are usually not part of the rental agreement or on other bills that are accepted as proof of address. It is a challenge for a person without a home or family support to get an address proof document.

One innovative suggestion that came up during the March meeting was to use as proof of residence a letter or parcel received by post that mentions the name and address of the applicant.  Government representatives also suggested that a letter from a local organisation on an official letterhead, mentioning the address of the applicant, gender of preference and years of residence, could be taken as address proof to support the application. These suggestion are meant to ensure that eligible voters can be enrolled on the basis of reliable alternative documents and that the absence of any of the listed options does not result in exclusion.

The second challenge highlighted during the meeting was name correction. It was suggested that the applicant should follow the legal procedure for name change that works for everyone: prepare and publish an affidavit. The KSMF, which took a lead in this, found that election officers in many districts are not sensitive, nor sensitised to, the issue of gender. As a result, these officials insist on a letter from the local organisation as additional documentation. Many officers refuse to follow the directives of the Government of Karnataka even though they have been communicated to them, arbitrarily insisting on additional documentation. This adds to delay and expense for applicants. Sometimes it also leads to loss of confidence. The supporting nodal agency often has to devote scarce resources to deal with such problems.

Sensitising officials and privacy concerns

At the district level, most officials are not aware of problems faced by the community; nor do they seem to have the training, sensitisation or inclination to provide support. Many of them refuse to follow the alternate options approved at the state consultation. Except for a few sensitive officials, the others in the revenue department demand more proof to complete the documentation, authentication and verification for the allotment of voter IDs.

Case workers at the taluk and panchayat levels, while uploading applicant details, generally send the files to local Anganwadi teachers for address checking. Since these teachers are usually not close to the TG community they are often not able to get the information and tend not to approve the address proof provided. When they go to houses for verification, they are often insensitive and use derogatory words to ask about the applicant’s gender – e.g., ‘chakka’ and ‘ombattu’ (derogatory Kannada words for those assigned the male gender at birth who identify as female). When such questions and words come from an official the experience can lead to a lot of pain for the individual concerned and disturbance in the lives of the immediate family.

If a person is rendered homeless in the process of enrolling as a voter or becomes depressed or even commits suicide as a result of negative attention in the neighbourhood, who will be responsible? In extreme cases the local organisation trying to support TG persons to assert their democratic rights and apply for voter IDs may also lose face with the community. Such process issues can be easily predicted with a little design research. The administration needs to be better equipped to listen to those who can highlight genuine problems and devise suitable strategies to ensure that the necessary verification process is not compromised and, at the same time, that it is sensitive to the reality of an already stigmatised population.

What is clear about the role of the government during the current enrolment drive is that while some officials go out of their way to enable inclusion, they don’t necessarily represent the system. Best practices will need to be institutionalised incrementally but systematically so that the system works for everyone always.  For this the government needs to develop a more robust approach to actively listening and responding to the stakeholders, particularly community representatives. What we need along with sensitisation is a clearly defined and enforceable system.

Gender stereotypes and media preferences

There tends to be an oversimplification of the ‘transgender’ identity while showcasing inclusion.  The sari-clad transwoman generally represents the community in advertisements issued by both the government and the Election Commission – there is an overt insistence and preference for this particular category of TGs.  About 30 minutes before the scheduled start of the campaign meeting in Nelamangala in March, a number of cis-gender women from local Self  Help Groups (SHGs) filed into the hall. When asked if they were part of the campaign, one of the officials replied, “This programme is for ‘your people’ only, but how can we predict how many will come?” As the programme progressed, as more of ‘my people’ came in, the SHG women were told to move back, while the hijra (‘satla’) women were given the front rows. The stage unfortunately was out of bounds for them.

Pointing this out is not to reduce or belittle the effort towards inclusion made by the government. There is value in creating spaces for excluded sections of the community to interact with others, as increased awareness and familiarity as well as conversations can help build a more inclusive society. Also, it is not fair to single out the government and official bodies for assuming that sari-clad hijras represent the TG community as a whole. The media, too, often prefer to highlight trans women in their reports. It is easier to use a quote from and photograph of a sari-clad trans woman, than to look for and showcase a pant-shirt wearing trans woman or man who may not look very different from anyone else in such regular, routine clothes.

Narrating one of her many experiences with the media, Umesh says, “I often get calls from media persons – referred to me by others – who want to write about our community issues. Recently I received a call regarding the elections and I answered the first set of questions. As the conversation progressed, I was asked if I had a voter identity card and if so what gender is mentioned on the card. When I replied that I did have a card and that my gender is male on the card, there was silence from the other side. I could sense an immediate loss of interest. Since my voice is soft and slightly feminine, it does not give away my appearance in a telephonic conversation. Once I mentioned that I identify as male, it was clear that the interviewer was looking for an excuse to end the conversation, though only after asking me for the contact of another community member – someone who identifies as a woman and is sari-clad.”

Reporting from the ground up

By Kalpana Sharma

Elections are often the best time for us journalists to get a sense of what ordinary people, women and men think; how developmental programmes work or do not work; why even relatively prosperous states still have pockets where children starve; and many other aspects of life as it is for millions.  Often such stories are overlooked by the media.  The bulk of elections coverage, especially these days, remains speeches by politicians endlessly attacking their opponents.

This report in Indian Express was a refreshing change from the norm.  It illustrates well how election reporting can consist of not just providing a ground’s eye view of what is happening, but also bringing out, through women’s voices, the factors that dictate voting preferences.