In Kerala's Kozhikode, a play about a girl who dreams about giving azaan call has Muslim conservatives up in arms
A play depicting a girl, who dreams of calling out the azaan (vaang), the ritual Islamic call to worship, has stirred a hornet’s nest in Kerala.
A number of works inspired by the Supreme Court verdict allowing entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 years in the Sabarimala temple were presented at the districts level of this year’s Kerala Schools Art Festival, tipped as Asia’s largest youth art fete.
Gender equality which was upheld by the verdict was the main theme in the drama category. The Kozhikode district had four plays advocating the women’s right to worship in temples and one on Muslim women’s right to participate in religious rituals.
While the plays on the entry of women at the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala were tolerated, one depicting a girl, who dreams of calling out the azaan (vaang), the ritual Islamic call to worship recited normally by a muezzin or mukri, has stirred a hornet’s nest.
The play called Kithab, presented by students of Memunda Higher Secondary School, Kozhikode, won prizes at the sub-district level, but it received the wrath of many Muslim organisations when it was presented at the district level at Vatakara on 24 November.
Kithab, an adaptation of writer R Unni’s short story "Vaang", is a humorous portrayal of the daughter of a mukri who questions the subjugation of women in her community. The girl rebels against the norms by dancing with her friends, stealing food denied to her, and even demanding an opportunity to call the vaang.
She challenges the norms over food by stealing the fish fry her mother cooked for the men in the house. When her father argues that women should get only half of everything that men get, she retorts that women then should be allowed to wear half the clothing that men wear. She further puts her father in a tight spot by seeking his permission to call the vaang.
He tries to dissuade her by referring to a big book prescribing hell for those defying norms. When she says she is ready to forsake heaven for her right, the man relents and permits her to call the vaang. Kithab ends with the girl calling out the vaang and the rest praying.
The Muslim organisations viewed the play as an insult to their way of life and came out against it. The protests sparked by Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political arm of radical Popular Front of India (PFI), have snowballed after moderate outfits such as Muslim Students Federation (MSF) jumped on to the bandwagon.
While the MSF, the student wing of the Indian Union Muslim League, a constituent of the Opposition United Democratic Front, has petitioned the district education officer against the play, the SDPI, which has been involved in several violent protests in the past, has taken its agitation to the streets.
While the SDPI is continuing its protests demanding withdrawal of the play and an apology from its producers, its cultural wing — Athijeevana Kala Sangham — is gearing up to stage a "counter drama" to set the facts right. The play called "Kithabile Koora", will be staged at Vadakara on 27 November where Kithab was presented.
Sajid MS, coordinator of the play, alleged that the people behind Kithab were trying to gain publicity by invoking gender equality based on the Supreme Court verdict on the Sabarimala temple. He said that the Muslim community was not interested in such issues, and there were other burning topics to be discussed now.
“Our play is intended to tell the people that what is shown in Kithab is far from reality and there are many factual errors in it. The play is trash paraded as a creative work. We will expose this,” Sajid said, adding that the author of the short story himself had come out against the play.
The writer of his story has alleged distortion of his story by the producers of the play. “It has portrayed Islam as a primitive religion and has drained the spirituality and politics I presented in my story. Attacking Islam at a time when Islamophobia is growing, while using my name and story, is wrong,” he said.
SDPI leader Salim P Azhiyur has alleged a political conspiracy behind the play. He said that the school managed by the ruling CPM was trying to implement the party’s agenda of interfering with faith. “The party’s agenda is clear in the play. It is a dangerous game that will send a wrong message about the Muslim community,” he added.
Rafeeq Mangalasseri, the director of the play, said he had no intention to insult Islam or the Muslim way of life. He said that he had only tried to express the growing demand for gender justice within the community. The Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala has strengthened the demand.
Even before the apex court verdict, there was a demand for appointing women as imams at mosques. It was articulated by a 35-year-old Muslim woman by defying the age-old custom of only men leading the Friday prayers. Jamida, a school teacher at Wandoor in Malappuram district, challenged the custom by leading the jumu'ah or the Friday prayers in a place of worship attended by both men and women.
The woman, who had planned to take the movement across the state, beat a retreat following threats and protests from the conservative sections. The priority of most women in the community, however, is the opportunity to worship in the mosques.
Women are at present barred from worshiping in the mosques run by the Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of Kerala’s Muslims. A progressive women’s organisation has already come forward to challenge this in the Supreme Court.
The Nisa Progressive Muslim Women’s Forum, popularly known as Nisa, meaning women in Arabic, is awaiting the outcome of the review petitions filed against the constitution bench verdict on the entry of women in Sabarimala to file the petition.
VP Suhra, who heads the organisation, said the conservative sections in the Muslim community have been opposing the demand citing traditions. “The Islamic law does not bar women from praying in mosques. We are confident that the apex court would uphold this right as in the case of Sabarimala,” she said.
“The orthodox sections have been denying the women their right as they want to keep the women enslaved. They are opposing plays like Kithab because they fear that they will create awareness among the women about their rights,” says Suhra.
Suhra, who is now fighting two cases in the Supreme Court, for Muslim women’s equal right to property and the revision of marriage laws, said that she has full faith in the judiciary and would continue the fight for ending all types of discrimination against the women.
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