Till recently, some of the theological debates among Kerala’s Muslim community were centred on whether women were eligible to enter mosques and offer prayers. But with an increasing number of mosques permitting women to enter their premises, the debate has now shifted to the participation of women in mosque administration, which is considered to be a male bastion.

A few mosques in Kozhikode and Malappuram districts of the coastal state have taken the lead by electing women representatives in their decision-making bodies, prompting many others to follow suit.

The change started from Sivapuram village in Kozhikode, when three women members were inducted into the mosque’s mahal committee in 2011.

The word mahal refers to the geographical area under the jurisdiction of a prominent mosque. The mahal committee deals with issues affecting the local Muslim community. It governs the functioning of the mosques under its jurisdiction, keeps a registry of the marriages solemnised in those mosques, ensures the dignified burial of the dead, finds amicable solutions to disputes and offers interest-free financial assistance to the needy, among many other things. The geographical area, population and number of mosques in a mahal vary from place to place.

In 2012, Shanthapuram in Malappuram district became the second mahal to elect women to its committee. Chennamangaloor in Kozhikode district was the latest to join the list when it elected three women to its committee in May. But with 16 women members, Shanthapuram has the maximum number of women representation among the three mahals in Kerala that have elected women to their committees.

Mahal committee member Shakeela visits an elderly woman in Shanthapuram on Saturday. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Change descends

Located around 30 km southwest of Malappuram, Shanthapuram mahal is spread over 5 km in Keezhattoor and Vettathoor gram panchayats. Its headquarters are at Shanthapuram Juma Masjid. Of the 1,200 families in the area that falls under the mahal’s jurisdiction, 950 are Muslim and the rest belong to the Hindu community. According to the latest enumeration by the mahal committee, the mahal has 5,400 Muslims above 18 years in its jurisdiction.

East Pallikkuthu Juma Masjid, Chungam Juma Masjid, Mullyakurissi Juma Masjid are the other three prominent mosques in this mahal. It is also home to Al Jamia Al Islamiya, a well-known Islamic education institution run by the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, an Islamic organisation that enjoys considerable clout in Kerala.

“The Prophet exhorted women’s participation in mosque-related activities. We are just following the teachings of the Prophet,” said mahal committee member P Fathima, who works as an Arabic teacher at the Government Vocational Higher Secondary School in nearby Palakkad district. “It is time to move past the debate on the entry of women in mosques. In fact, it was a non-issue for us as we have been offering prayers at the mosque for many years.”

Election process

The election to pick mahal representatives in Shanthapuram is a long long-drawn-out process that is held once in two years. It begins with the imam of the Shanthapuram mosque announcing the polling date three weeks in advance.

“It has many differences from the traditional elections,” said mahal committee member Ishaq Ali, who is headmaster of the Panakkad Thangal Memorial Upper Primary School.

For instance, no one has to enter the fray or enter their nominations. All members of the community who live in the jurisdiction of the mosques in the Shanthapuram mahal are eligible to vote and become members.

The preliminary election is held in all the four mosques in the mahal on a specified day after Friday prayers.

“On election day, a sheet of paper with 20 rows is handed over to male and female devotees who attended Friday prayers,” said Ali. “They have to write the names of 20 people, both men and women, whom they think will work hard for the development of the mosques. A total of 66 councillors, including 16 women, will be elected from this poll.”

The election results are announced within few hours, after the votes are counted.

The second phase of the election is held after a few days with the councillors assembling at Shanthapuram mosque to elect the 26-member mahal committee, of which at least eight members must be women. “The committee will be elected by consensus,” said Ali.

The women representatives hail from different walks of lives – there are school teachers, madrasa teachers and home makers. The majority of them came to Shanthapuram after they got married.

Women mahal committee members clean waste dumped in Shanthapuram. (Photo credit: Special arrangement).

‘Pleasant surprise’

In April, Basheera, a resident of Shanthapuram, was elected as councillor. “My joy knew no bounds when I was picked to the mahal committee in the second phase a few weeks later,” she said.

Basheera said that her election gave her the opportunity to serve the people in her locality.

The elected councillors regularly visit homes, interact with families, understand their problems and report it at the mahal committee meetings. “The committee then decides the remedial measures and I will implement it,” she said.

‘Democratic arguments’

On Saturday, seven of Shanthapuram mahal’s women councillors assembled in a madrasa close to the Shanthapuram Juma Masjid. They discussed many topics, including gifts to be distributed among Hindu families in the local community during Onam, the biggest festival in Kerala, which will be celebrated on September 4, and preparations for the sacrifice of animals during the upcoming Eid al-Adha, on September 1.

“Though we focus on serving Muslim households, we never ignore our Hindu sisters,” said Shakeela, one of the mahal committee members. “We distribute gifts to Hindu families during Onam. We also provide a monthly financial assistance of Rs 700 from the mahal fund to Hindu women who are living in distress.”

Another mahal committee member, Muneera, dons many hats and almost works round the clock every day. She represents Mulliakurissi ward in the Keezhattor gram panchayat in Malappuram district. She is also the member of the panchayat’s welfare standing committee.

“Men and women sit together and discuss the mahal issues at least once in a month,” she said. “We engage in heated but democratic arguments with our male counterparts. We strongly argue for our cases to convince the committee.”

Muneera described how she argued for the case of Kaliyamma, a Hindu widow in her locality, who is being given a monthly allowance of Rs 700 by the mahal committee after her husband died in 1998.

Muneera said that Kaliyamma’s son lived elsewhere and never looked after her. However, after he returned home recently, a few committee members suggested that Kaliyamma’s monthly allowance be stopped.

“No one knew Kaliyamma’s condition better than me,” said Muneera. “Though her son stayed with her, he never took care of her needs. So I argued to retain the allowance, and the committee obliged.”

She added: “The committee wouldn’t know her fate if it comprised of only male members.”

Mahal committee general secretary MT Kunhalavi agreed. “Women members help us understand the ground realities better,” he said.

On the other hand, many women members say that their election to mosque committees has helped in their personal development. “I was a bit shy to interact with others before being elected to the committee,” said Shakeela. “But this position helped me shed my inhibitions. It has boosted my confidence levels.”

As she walked to visit the home of a woman who is suffering from age-related ailments, Shakeela said that Muslim women in Shanthapuram have showed others how to utilise the services of men and women in religious affairs. “I hope others will take a cue from it,” she said.

A view of the Shanthapuram Juma Masjid. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).