TA Ameerudheen - Journalist who exposed sexual abuse at madrassa hits back at trolls

VP Rajeena says religious leaders are frightened that Muslim women in Kerala are showing their strength in politics, education and administration.

It has been more than two weeks since VP Rajeena, a subeditor with Madhyamam, a leading Malayalam daily, wrote a Facebook post describing instances of child abuse at a madrassa where she studied nearly 20 years ago. Hundreds of abusive and hate messages have come her way since. Yet the steely woman has endured one of the most “difficult times in her life” with true grit.

On 22 November, Rajeena, a winner of the Ramnath Goenka Award for rural reporting, recounted on Facebook how an ustad (teacher) at a Kozhikode madrassa would feel up her male classmates’ genitalia. Another ustad, she alleged, sexually abuse minor girls during power cuts. While the backlash to the post was immediate, the support also didn’t take long to emerge. A Malayalam filmmaker said that he was sexually exploited by an ustad during his time in madrassa. And recently, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board promised to look into the issue.

“We are shocked at rising incidents of sexual exploitation in madrassas,” Kamal Farooqui, member of AIMPLB’s working committee, was quoted as saying by the Indian Express. “We admit that people in madrassas are not farishta (angels) but human beings. They are also prone to social evils. We have to take corrective action immediately. We cannot permit anything which is against our religion and the law of the land. Proper dos and don’ts will be circulated to madrassas.” 

The promise to cleanse the system has given Rajeena a feeling of vindication. “I am happy to know about AIMPLB’s decision,” Rajeena said in an interview. “I wrote about the abuses we faced at the madrassa in our childhood, but I also criticised the uninformed religious leaders who denounce gender equality and exhort their followers that equal status for both sexes will usher in anarchism in society. I hope the religious body will look into the bigger issue of gender equality soon.”

Gender equality: Madrassas in Kerala, run mainly by two prominent factions of Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama – Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen and Jam’at-e-Islami Hind – initiate children into the world of religious studies. They attend classes early in the morning (before regular schools hours), in the evening (after school hours) or on the weekend. Students begin at Class I and they can continue, if they so wish, till Class XII without affecting school education.

“There was a time when madrassas in Kerala taught varied subjects like mathematics and astronomy,” Rajeena said. “But those institutions later became hubs for churning out blind followers of religious leaders who suppressed women’s rights.” The trigger for Rajeena’s revelations was the gender equality debate sparked by the students’ agitation at Farook College, a prominent educational institution in Kozhikode where female and male students were not allowed to freely intermingle.

“Muslim women in Kerala have begun to show their strength in politics, education and administration,” she said. “The new-found energy among the long-oppressed section of the society is frightening the clerics. They believe empowering women will undermine their stranglehold over the community. Uninformed religious leaders are the biggest impediment to achieving gender equality in Muslim society. My view on Islamic feminism is influenced by the likes of Fatema Mernissi, who passed away last week.”

A prominent Muslim scholar in Kerala, Panakkad Haidarali Shihab Thangal, who is also the vice-president of the religious group Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama, explicitly supported the idea of women empowerment during a recent public function in Kochi. But just days later, his organisation distanced itself from his comments and clarified that gender equality is an “un-Islamic concept”.

Intolerance debate: “I don’t understand why clerics feel nervous while addressing the issue,” Rajeena said. “I believe Islam exhorts equal status for men and women. But the clerics distort the facts and use it for keeping their hegemony.” What astonished Rajeena was the flood of abuses sparked by her Facebook post. Many accused her of tarnishing the reputation of Islam and its religious leaders. Some said she is playing into the hands of the Sangh Parivar as the nation debates the issue of intolerance. Still others questioned the timing of her reminiscences, coming as they did years after her madrassa education.

“The incident brought to the fore the level of intolerance among the followers of religious leaders. I haven’t tarnished the image of Islam. Everyone gets agitated when a woman raises voices against inequality at a public forum. The reactions also reveal the way they treat women. My friends and I had tried to address the issue within the community many a time. But no one listened to us. The clerics didn’t address the issues. So I resorted to social media.”

The controversy also helped her realise the flaws in social media. “I was the victim of a hate campaign, but Facebook blocked my account for mass reporting. Online communities, especially For a Better FB, took up the issue and helped secure my account.” Rajeena believes that political parties stayed away from the controversy because of vote bank politics. “Political organisations never want to annoy religious leaders.” The reality annoys her, but she vows to continue her campaign. “The Facebook trolls in fact made me stronger, and I am determined to raise my voice for gender equality.”

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