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.”



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