Sara Aboobacker in Conversation with Ayshath S R
Sara Aboobacker is a Muslim woman writer from South India, who voiced the plight and concerns of South Indian women during the 80’s. Born in 1936 in a progressive Muslim family in Kerala, she was the first Muslim woman to complete matriculation in her village. Aboobacker vividly describes her experiences as a writer and activist in her autobiography Hottu Kanthuva Munna (2011). The book is not a mere account of her struggles but rather reflects the fluctuating lives of Muslim women in South India. Her first novel Chandragiriya Theeradalli, which was published in 1984 and was later translated into various regional languages (Breaking Ties 2001), is the first novel ever written by a South Indian Muslim woman. The novel has been included in the curriculum of some universities in Karnataka. The book was followed by several controversies and received diverse response from readers. Understanding the power of words, she soon became a prolific writer of Kannada, who criticised the immoralities benched in the name of morality. She has published six novels, various short stories and prose. Her prominent works include Sahana (1985), Vajrakalu (1988), Kadana Virama (1991), Suliyalli Sikkavaru (1994), Tala Odeda Doni (1997), and Panjara (2004). She has translated Malayalam works into Kannada, including Kamala Das’ Manomi, P K Balakrishnan’s Ini Njan Urangatte, and B M Suhara’s Mozhi. Aboobacker has won several awards, including the Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award of honour, the Karnataka Rajyotsava award, the Daana Chintamani Attimabbe award from the Karnataka Government and several other organisations.
In the present interview, Aboobacker responds to the questions with much empathy recalling her struggles as a pioneer writer who carved a path for the generations that followed. She argues that the position of women is secondary in all communities regardless of religion and region. Her answers pose questions towards the existing theoretical discourses that conceptualise the identity of Muslim women as static. Her responses also reflect how the concept of gender is entwined with the religio-cultural norms in everyday lives. She deploys her religious identity to critique the anarchies prevalent in the guise of religion. Simultaneously, she declares that the position of women is secondary in India irrespective of their caste and religion, thus generalising the gendered experience as an amalgam of religious, social, and national identities. Thus, Aboobacker envisages a multi-faceted identity for a South Indian Muslim woman who exemplifies this layered existence through all possible intersections of her gender, religious, and ethnic responsibilities. She fortifies that what she writes is not mere fiction but a mirror to the realities around. This very quality of her writing places her among the finest women writers in India who have envisaged their pen for the wellbeing of their fellow humans. Her characters unveil the problems of women in her society, but the issues conferred are of universal significance, thus connecting local and global at once.
Ayshath S R: In his preface to the translation of Suliyalli Sikkavaru (Chuzhi), C Raghavan comments that “the story that should have been boomed in the Malayalam of Northern Kerala got moulded in Kannada Literature”. Tell us about this transition, a lady who was born and brought up in Kerala, becoming a part of Kannada literature?
Sara Aboobacker: In my younger days, Kasaragod was part of South Karnataka. Kerala was not an independent state during my childhood days. Malayalam medium schools were rare at that time. I studied in BEMS, a Kannada medium high school. This was my only option as it was close to my home. The medium of instruction was Kannada, and obviously I became well-versed in that language. I shifted to Karnataka (Mangalore) after my marriage. I was distressed to witness the anarchies prevailed in the Byarii Muslim community at that time. There was no other option but to write. This was the only possible way to register my protest. Though I write particularly about Byari community, the female experience remains the same in every community, like a journey in a broken boat of traumas.
ASR: How did the Kannada readership respond to the stories set in an entirely different cultural milieu?
SA: Kannada readers could accept me well. But a section of the Muslim community protested for mentioning the practices of talaqii and Purdah. The Byari Muslim community in Karnataka was not open to the idea of educating women. But now things are changing. Muslim girls are getting proper education now. Exploitation of Muslim women is prevalent in the forms of easy divorce, polygamy, one-night marriage and the like. My works were relevant in this context. I have recently read an article which identifies women as the ‘saku prani’ (pet/domestic animal) of man from pre-historic times. This presumption is deep rooted in the social psyche.
ASR: When did you turn to writing?
SA: My home provided me with a favourable condition to flourish on my reading. We had a library at home. I read whatever came in my way voraciously. My love for reading gradually led me to writing. Later it became a tool to wet my thoughts.
ASR: The relevance of education is stressed in your partly autobiographical work ‘A Muslim Girl Goes to School’ and in other novels. For instance, Nadeera in Chandragiri Theeradalli (Breaking Ties) laments over her ill-fate for not getting proper education. How far education can promote human lives?
SA: Education helps us to think logically. To fight the superstitions and anarchies around us, people need to think properly. Women are not even allowed to go to school. I narrated the lives and events around me. Nadira was someone I knew in person. I have talked about the same in ‘A Muslim Girl Goes to School’. Even after the completion of Chandragiri Theeradalli, I had met many girls like her. Lack of education seems to be the root cause for all such deterioration in the society. In the novel Suliyalli Sikkavaru, I had written about specific issues related to smuggling and the decaying lives in such degraded societies. Lack of knowledge is the root cause for all such crimes
ASR: You have presented ‘Rashid’ in Chandragiri Theeradalli as a polished gentleman. Is it only because he was educated?
SA: Education is a base which provides polished manners to individuals. Yet there was politics in presenting Rashid as a polished person. My writings are not against men but against a patriarchal social framework that endorses unjust social practices. Rashid plays his role of the husband with much care and love. He even tries to educate his wife. But when it comes to the issue of talaq, he succumbs to the usual social norms. Even though he is educated and polished, it doesn’t pull him out of the hole. His anger burst out only as broken words “all these senseless practices should be set on fire, confounded!” (Breaking Ties, 76). But he never attempts to challenge these practices, because it’s part of the social norms. It is not the men but the society that needs a revival.
ASR: In the novels like Chandragiri, Theerdallia, Sahana, Vajrakalu,, Pravaha and Suliyalli Sikkavaru, you extensively discuss polygamy, talaq, muth-a marriageiii (one day marriage), chadangu kalyanamiv and the like. Are these issues relevant today?
SA: Yes, these exist mainly in poor and orthodox Muslim households even today and society promotes such practices. Unfortunately, the mass public doesn’t get to know about it. Marriage has deteriorated to the status of just another business, a game of money. Religion acts as a veil to cover it up. In no other community is divorce granted with such ease. The Holy Qur’an lays down several laws concerning talaq, which are least observed. I would like to refer to two cases India, filed by Muslim women against triple talaq, and claiming for maintenance after divorce. The controversial Shah Bano case of 1980’s and Muslim Women’s Act (Protection of Rights on Divorce) which was enacted by the Supreme Court in 1986 marked the beginning of the political battle over the Muslim Personal law. Muslim women got the right to maintenance only during iddah (three months waiting period subsequent to divorce). Recently, a similar case became a heated topic of discussion when Shayara Banu from Kashipur, filed a case challenging triple talaq. She doesn’t question the Muslim Personal Law but stands strongly against the discrimination on the basis of gender and religion. Her petition is against instantaneous triple talaq and halalav. Qur’an doesn’t allow such haste in talaq and halala is not at all mentioned in Qur’an. Hope this case will bring some changes in the judicial system.
ASR: The character Khaji Sahab in the novel Chandragiriya Theeradalli details the Qur’anic principles on triple talaq. Above all these laws, he prioritises the unwritten rules of society. Is it the religion or the society that scrutinises women?
SA: Khaji Sahab’s concluding note is a perfect answer to this question. In Qur’an, there is no justification for triple talaq, but a majority of the religious leaders subscribe to it. That is why we are forced to follow it. For me, it’s inherent in our socio-cultural realm, which gets transformed into religiosity.
ASR: How do you comment on the argument “Feminism and Islam cannot go together”?
SA: Where in Islam do you find an element of feminism? It seems oxymoronic to me. The leaders supress all claims of progressiveness with the statement “Islam is progressive”. We fail to recognise that ‘triple talaq’ is the weapon given to the husband to tame his wife according to his will. Talaq thus induces fear in a woman and an unquestionable authority of man over her. The system of one-night marriage is another example for this kind of cruelty being imposed on women; something which is as grave as forced prostitution. The words of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) have been misinterpreted; this is evident particularly in the case of talaq and polygamy. Islamic polygamy as the Prophet intended was based on strict rules, which our mollakkasvi purposely fail to discuss.
ASR: This is a world where people realise such social injustices, but are inert in fighting against it. Do you sense a hidden politics in it?
SA: Religion is being manipulated as a site to exhibit traditional customs which favour the patriarchal interests. This ill fate is imposed on the community only because of our educational backwardness. Also the blind faith in mollakkas leads the community to such follies. The local priests are only bound to madrasa education. How can we expect them to have solutions to the ills of society? They breed on with their fragmented knowledge, which is dangerous at times. In the past, such things weren’t revealed. Now the media is inclined to expose such issues. Works of Khadeeja Mumthaz, B M Suhara and Rajathi Salma from Kerala and Tamil Nadu are worth reading. New writers like Sabihah extensively discuss the different ways that can luminate the lives of women.
ASR: Recently many Muslim women scholars like Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas have come up with refined explanation of Qur’anic verses. How do you look at this emancipation where religion proves to be a spiritual empowerment?
The Quranic verses are as melodious as poems. Qur’an originated in the classical Arabic language, with richness in vocabulary, artistic, and poetic value, which is far different in form and style from modern Arabic language. Only a limited number of original verses are interpreted in the right sense. The rest is uncertain. When I was a student, we had to study Halegannada (Old Kannada 9-14th C). But today if I read a passage in that language, no one will understand it. Language evolves as humans’ progress. The Holy Scripture is the same, but the interpreters should be conscious of the shifting world and changing times. I am glad that the Muslim women are now venturing into the field of Quranic interpretation. But South India is yet to embrace the thoughts on Feminism in Islam. Issues begin with a Muslim woman speaking out her mind. When Amina Wadud visited South India in 2013, even before her talk controversies sprouted and riots broke out. One rumour is enough for crazy people to act without a second thought. They act as if only they are the true believers, but in reality they are only blind followers. This is not a typical Indian phenomenon but rather a universal one, which justifies the police protection given to some of the Islamic feminist scholars across the world.
ASR: There is not even one single study that comprehends the scattered women writers of South Indian Muslim community. What could be the reason?
SA: The concept sounds interesting. I personally know some of the Muslim women writers from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I have translated some of their works into Kannada. But we don’t have an association or any writers’ wing. We voice the plight of a muted society. Individual voices get scattered at some point. If we build a strong base together, we can mould a better path for the future generation. Studies in this area will bring forth many more writers into the limelight.
ASR: Why is there no such association for the scattered Muslim writers?
SA: There are limitations with us writers, mainly because Muslim writers are small in number, especially Muslim women writers. Writers are uncertain about the possible impact they can make. It’s difficult for Muslim women writers to get wide social acceptance. I came to know of an unfortunate event where a Muslim woman spoke in favour of one-night marriage in a public function conducted by Mahilasamajam (Women’s wing) in Karnataka. She justified it with an outrageous reason that “it is a punishment for the husband”. What reply should be given to such ridiculous opinions? After all they claim themselves to be progressive.
ASR: The concept of Islamic feminism houses many conflicts. Even those who are ready to advocate justice for women are afraid of religion. How do you see this?
SA: Islam is the religion of peace. An in-depth understanding of the Holy text relieves you from all fears attached to it. The accountability of Hadith, the labelled Prophetic words, must be open for research. Historically Hadith came to our tradition centuries after Prophet’s death. The same Hadith are twisted according to the concern and satisfaction of the interpreter.
ASR: In the novel Chandragiri Theeradalli (Breaking Ties) the female protagonists, Nadira and Fatimmavii, lead different lives but share the same destiny of suffering. Why is it so?
SA: The distinction is obvious since both of them face different issues. Fatimma is a victim of male chauvinism which she passively accepts but Nadira is constricted within the ritualistic religiosity which she strongly denies. For Fatimma the submission is part of her identity, she never questions it. But for Nadira, she confronts each of rituals with her own thoughts and dooms herself in the act of protest. Even though both characters seem to be the victims of domestic violence, only the former stoops to the follies around her. The later struggles within and finally unravels her anger in a vigourous manner. In the novel Vajragalu, the protagonist Nadira takes hold of the bhutha (being haunted), as a resistance against her yelling husband. Obviously it’s a psychological act. They search for a possible way out. She is bold enough to set a hut for herself and adopt a girl child against everyone’s opposition. All these characters are from my own surroundings. They can be postulated as the evolving faces of Muslim women especially in South India from the 80’s onwards.
ASR: Purdah being portrayed as the veil of capitalism is evident in your novel Chuzi. The protagonist Mammotty describes purdah as “a ‘thing,’ that has got the power to wrap everything” (Chuzi 81). Is it a tool to wrap the poverty and hence to affirm homogeneity?
SA: Purdah for me is a personal choice. No one should be forced to wear it. But now even small kids are wearing it. Some educational institutions have promoted purdah as their uniform. In the past, wearing purdah was never compulsory. Gradually people started to mark it as an image of pride. In Suliyalli Sikkavaru (Chuzi) purdah is the dress for the wealthy class. The poverty stricken family of Mammootty embraces it, dreaming of a better acceptance in society. But now it has become a fashion icon, everyone is competing to get wrapped to look pretty.
ASR: Nadira’s affinity to the river Chandragiri is well portrayed in your novel. She shares her sorrows and tears with the river. In contrast to this affinity she selects the Pallikulamviii to commit suicide. Is it an open revolt from her conscious mind or an unconscious resistance? Does this harsh response reflect your personal views? Was it a response pointed at the religion or the society?
SA: Pallikulam, the deathbed of Nadira, is a symbol. This symbol is relevant as her death poses several batons against the social injustices and illicit practices within the community which forced Nadira to end her life. When my novel was first translated from Kannada to Malayalam, the word ‘Pallikulam’ was translated by puzha (a river). Obviously, this shows the politics of the translator. He was scared to translate the exact word. So he opted for mistranslation without mirroring my concerns. People are prepossessed with this fear to write openly and even if someone writes, they are afraid of publishing such writings. I had to get my works re-translated by K K Nayar to retain the climax I intended in the novel. People have to realise that I’m not writing against religion but against the injustices in society.
ASR: Can you tell us the reason for selecting the genre of novel? As a social activist, does this genre help you in narrating social issues easily?
SA: There are many prolific writers and great works in Kannada. As I said earlier, my interest in writing, bloomed from reading. My initial attempts at writing short stories were not appreciated. It was at this time Lankesh’s Daily came out with the idea of a secular writing. I was fascinated by this idea of secularism as I couldn’t enjoy it in my living space. I happened to read articles written by Mumthaz. She discussed the innate issues particular to the Byari community, which were similar to my own concerns. This prompted me to write articles for Lankesh. The issue of Nasima Banki, a lecturer from Vijagpur who was terminated from service for watching a movie in the theatre came to my attention. The Islamic canon is standard for both men and women and this awareness gave me strength to write the article on that issue. Soon Lankesh, the editor of the Daily come up with the idea of me writing a novel. As my first attempt fetched such a positive response, I stepped into the world of active literature. Since then the novel form has become central for registering my protest against the anarchies prevailing in the society. Now, I co-ordinate The Readers and Writers’ Association. There was some social resistance against this wing. Some religious fundamentalists threaten me in the name of fatwa (ban). I even had to take the help of the court, but the support from my family made me bold. After four years I won the case.
ASR: Bandaya Protest Movement prevalent during 80s supported writers from minority communities as a revolt against the politics in the mainstream literary canon. How was your experience working with them?
SA: Bandaya Protest Movement was against the discriminations prevailing in society in the guise of religion and gender. They promoted minority writers and also women writers. Muslims and Dalits were neglected from the mainstream society and literature at that time. The movement carved a path for them to unleash all the distress within which they were reframed, dwelling on possible inter-ethnic connections. The protagonist in Tala Odeda Doniyali questions the political exploitation which constantly nags the minority communities. Nafisa in Vajragalu adopts a Dalit girl, against the wishes of her family, and gives her all the possible comforts which was once denied to her by the family. Writers like Boluvaru Mohammed Kunhi, Fakir Muhammad Katpadi, Abdul Rashid, and many more came forward with enlightening thoughts and concepts. Their works cast a positive note towards social equality.
ASR: As a social reformer don’t you think that novels can contribute a lot to such causes?
SA: Novel is a prototype of society itself. It is a good medium to convey the concerns of society. If you want to study the culture of a society, don’t stick only to the historical references. Read the literatures around and experience the true colours of life.
ASR: Feministic writing is often marginalised and criticised. Do you think being a women writer has imposed a demarcation on you?
SA: My identity as woman never hindered my pursuit, but rather the identity of ‘Muslim woman’ caused thousands of barriers. It was not from the part of readers that I faced such hazards but from some politico-religious groups.
ASR: Characters like Fatimma and Nadira, do they really exist in contemporary society?
SA: In Urban Sectors, Muslim girls are aware of their needs to some extent. They have the nerve to stretch out their necessities. But the scope for their success is debatable. The situation is much worse in rural areas.
ASR: How will you evaluate the divisions booming in the society in the name of religion?
SA: We couldn’t trace any warmth in the relations of today. People are changing, so are relationships. Even if there exists any bond among the youngsters, the society strives to break it off. We are destroying the harmony of our own lives.
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i Byari or Beary is the Muslim community in the coastal Karnataka region.
ii Talaq in Islamic law is equivalent to the term divorce.
iii Temporary marriage
iv One-night marriage
v A practice which requires a woman to undergo a temporary marriage or one-night marriage before she can return to her first husband after talaq.
vi Local religious priest
vii In the novel Chandragirya Theeradalli (1984) (Breaking Ties, 2001), Sara Aboobacker narrates the story of Nadira, a Muslim woman from a middle-class family placed in the socio-cultural background of Kerala- Karnataka border (South Indian states) during 90’s. Due to some personal disputes with Nadira’s father, Rashid (her husband) gives talaq to Nadira without her consent. Later he realises his mistake and wants to marry her again. But it was not possible until she marries another man and gets a talaq from him. The issue of ‘one-day marriage’ (temporary or Mu’ata marriage) comes in here. Nadira is forced to go through the ritual of one-day marriage as a remedy to all her problems. But Nadira firmly believes in monogamy and sticks to her believes until she decides to end her life.
viii A pond that belongs to mosque