Only a few times in its 73-year history has the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) faced an organisational crisis like the recent inner-party revolt raised by a group of young women.
It also exposed the party leadership's inability to understand and deal with gender issues.
The revolt by the leaders of Haritha – the party's women students' wing – in June spiralled out of leadership’s control by August as the articulate women hogged media headlines with their fair demand for action against their male colleagues for verbal abuse and cyberbullying.
Instead of addressing the core issue, the League – as Muslim League is popularly known – brandished the disciplinary sword and silenced the women. It removed all the 10 complainants from Haritha's leadership and installed a new team which, the leadership believes, will only obey their diktats. The disciplinary action, however, hasn’t lowered the fighting spirit of the women. They used various media platforms to air their grievances and posed tough questions to the leadership. This has further baffled the leadership that has already been struggling to provide a convincing answer to their charges.
The issue had its genesis at a state-level leadership meeting of students' leaders of the party in June this year. Muslim Students' Federation (MSF) is the platform for male students, while Haritha works among female students. The leaders of both the entities have been at loggerheads for sometime with the women complaining of unfair treatment from their male counterparts and senior leaders.
The simmering discontent reached a flashpoint at the meeting after MSF state president P K Navas using abusive language against women leaders, including Haritha general secretary Najma Thabsheera. A fracas erupted with a senior party leader, who steered the proceedings, calling off the meeting. The women leaders demanded action against the abusers and waited for 50 days for a favourable reply from the party. With the party leadership failing to take action, the women filed a complaint with the State Women's Commission in August. This angered the male leaders and they asked Tabsheera and her colleagues to withdraw the complaint. But the women stood firm. 'First take action against the abusers, then we would retract our complaint,' they reportedly told the leaders who stood by the abusers. In response, the League leadership first froze Haritha's activities and later removed all '10 dissidents' from the top post before installing a new set of leaders. On September 10, the police arrested Navas on charges of making sexually coloured remarks (section 354-A (1) (iv) of the Indian Penal Code) and word, gesture and act intended to insult the modesty of women (section 509 of the Indian Penal Code).
Keeping faith in the League
Former Haritha leaders, including Thabsheera, appear to be treading a cautious path despite being removed from the top positions.
They haven't either denounced the League's political ideology or its mission for minority communities and Dalits even while criticising the leadership.
Fathima Tahliya, who was recently removed as national vice-president of the MSF for standing with the victims (she was the first general secretary of Haritha when it was formed in 2012), said in an interview that she will stand with the League and its ideology even if she is expelled from the party. "League has defined my politics. I will not get a better political platform than this," she said.
Thabsheera, who was removed as general secretary of the Haritha, too echoed Tahliya.
"Muslim League is an essential political outfit for Dalits and backward classes. So this (League) is the right political party for us. We raised our voices here and we will continue to stay here and fight," Thabsheera said in another interview.
But how long can these women continue to fight hoping that League will eventually shed its misogynist approach and adopt a gender-inclusive policy?
Such a hope seems to be far-fetched going by the recent reactions of the top leaders of the party.
The party's national general secretary PK Kunhalikkutty, while interacting with the mediapersons in Malappuram on Sunday, hinted that the League would not relook into the decision to remove Haritha leaders. "We took a collective decision to reconstitute Haritha. We would not relook into it," he said.
The aggrieved women did not even get support from Vanitha League, the women's wing of the party.
Noorbina Rasheed, the only woman candidate League fielded in the recent Assembly election, blamed the women for not informing the senior party leaders after they were verbally abused. "They should have approached us first before moving to the Women's Commission," she said while interacting with the media on August 19. Former Haritha leaders rubbished this argument stating that they had waited for 50 days after complaining to the leadership before moving to the women's panel.
Losing women-friendly culture
The aggrieved women say that League had a women-friendly culture that provided enough avenues to nurture women’s talents. "Those who find fault with the women now should not forget the fact that reformers like Haleema Beevi belonged to this party," Tabsheera said.
M Haleema Beevi, who was born in 1918 in Adoor in Pathanamthitta district, was the first Muslim woman editor and woman newspaper owner in Kerala. At 20, she had organised a Muslim women's meet in Tiruvalla which gave birth to the Travancore Muslim Vanitha Samajam. More than 1,000 women became members of the organisation. Beevi became the first Muslim woman editor in Kerala with the launch of Muslim Vanitha magazine in 1938. Later, she became the Tiruvalla taluk secretary of the League. She launched and edited various newspapers and periodicals, such as Bharatha Chandrika (1946) , Bharatha Chandrika newspaper (1947) and Adhunika Vanitha (1970).
Prominent writers Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, Vakkom Abdul Khader and Vettoor Raman Nair worked as sub-editors at Bharatha Chandrika. Indian Union Muslim League was formed in 1948.
However, Haleema Beevi joined the Congress in the twilight of her political career.
This, according to Azeez Tharuvana who teaches Malayalam at Farook College in Kozhikode, points to a shift in League’s approach to women. "A woman who led Muslim League in her younger days had quit the party and joined Congress. I think League’s insensitivity to women issues might have prompted her to take the decision. This shift happened after the party came under the clutches of one family and clerics. It is a highly patriarchal political party now," he said.
What the former Haritha leaders now demand is respect and equal opportunities in the party’s ecosystem.
Tahliya said women should get the opportunity to lead the party and its various feeder organisations. "The political system will change only if women get key positions. It is not just sending women to Assembly or Parliament, they should get their due in the party administration," she said.
She said patriarchy is not affecting the League alone. "It's prevalent in CPM, Congress and BJP. The system should change," she said.
When Thehliya and others raised the issue of gender discrimination, senior League leaders responded that 'they are our children and the issue will be sorted out within the family'.
Thehliya took strong exception to this statement. "Our senior leaders should try to understand the gender issue. They underestimate women as they normally do in their families. That is why the leaders couldn't understand the importance of our complaint. They should realise that women have changed with the times," she said.
Thabsheera said the only agenda before the women is to fight for gender justice. "If not now, when?" She asked.
Social commentator Mujeeb Rahman Kinaloor says the women's fight should not be construed as an internal issue of the League. "It is a fight against patriarchy that is prevalent in all political parties whose leaders fail to understand the importance of gender issues," he said.
Kinaloor said former Haritha leaders have learnt politics the hard way. "No one can silence them because they have a clear understanding about caste, gender and discrimination. It is better for the League to address the serious issues raised by them. Else, no one could prevent it from rotting."