‘Here, No Man Decides’: Meet India’s First Female Sharia Court Judges
“I had a lot of questions, growing up,” Suriya Sheikh, 46, says. “Why did God make such a difference [between men and women]—why are men allowed to do everything, but not women?”
As a young girl in a conservative Muslim family in India, Sheikh grew up seeing women being given fewer opportunities and rights than men.
Male elders in her family and community set the rules early on: She wasn’t supposed to go outside even though her brothers could, she wasn’t supposed to speak loudly, and she wasn’t supposed to wear perfume or fragrance, even though the men did.
“What could I do?” Sheikh used to wonder. “It’s not like I chose to be born a woman.” Her younger sister used to say, “In another life, I’ll be born a boy.”
Now, Sheikh is a pioneer in the fight rights for Muslim women and girls in India. She is one of the 15 women in the first class of trained qazis—judges or arbitrators in Islamic family courts—in India.
I meet three of these women on a Monday afternoon in late December at the Mumbai offices of the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a Muslim women’s rights group where they all work, and which trained these women as qazis. The organization runs empowerment training sessions for women and girls, holds support groups for boys and men, and leads arbitration sessions where family disputes are settled.