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A Muslim woman has taken on the orthodoxy, yet again. This time, the battleground is a community school, the 13-year-old The Scholar in Jamia Nagar, a Muslim enclave in Delhi. The once-bustling 750-student-strong school is closed now, casualty of an unsavoury feud between school principal Safia Iqbal and the Jamaat-e-Islami, which owns the school land.
"The Jamaat is trying to make this out to be a property dispute," says a distraught Iqbal, "when the fight is actually about the Jamaat, one of our major Muslim religious organisations, not being able to stomach a woman efficiently running a school on modern lines. They would rather have madrassas. They have destroyed a flourishing school. Using the mullah network's might, they've spread lies and spiteful rumours about me, resorted to hooliganism to see me cave in. They're breaking constitutional, even religious laws." Allegations that Shafi Moonis, vice-president of Jamaat-e-Islami, dismisses as hysteria: "Iqbal's intentions are dishonest, she wants to grab our land, but the courts will see us through." He is also not frazzled by the fact that the Deoband's Dar-ul-Uloom, one of the highest schools of Islamic jurisprudence in India, has issued a fatwa against him in the matter.
Built in 1989 by Iqbal on land belonging to the Ishaat-e-Islam Trust, a Jamaat-e-Islami body, The Scholar has been managed by her since then. But when the five-year land lease expired in '95, the Jamaat agreed to a new contract only if the school, on paper, was handed over to it. Iqbal, however, was to continue running the school for five more years along with a newly constituted panel. But fearing Jamaat interference, Iqbal went to court over the matter in '99, and got a stay in her favour for two years. This was vacated by a Delhi High Court order on February 15 this year; but with a qualification that the Jamaat should not dispossess Iqbal, and must observe due process of the law.
On February 18, however, Moonis along with other Jamaat-e-Islami members, arrived at the school, and set up camp in Iqbal's office, refusing to leave it. They stayed for the next two months, eating and sleeping in the office area. So did Iqbal, who claims "the trespassers" threatened her that "they would lock me out of the gate and not allow me back inside if I left the school". She says mobs were also stoning and disrupting classes. Charges which, barring the fact that they did occupy Iqbal's office for two months, the Jamaat denies: "Accusing us of trespassing is ridiculous. It's our school, we can stay on in it for as long as we wish."
But not with a woman co-habiting under the same roof, says the Deoband fatwa. It states categorically: "In the particular situation, the entry of the concerned person (Moonis) into the school along with his companions, to stay with a na-mahram (stranger woman)...is against the Shariah (Islamic law), haraam (prohibited) and kabeera (major sin)."
The issue is now weighing heavily on the community. Talat Khan, a teacher who's sided with Iqbal against the "open hooliganism in the name of religion", says the pressure to stop making a mockery of the community is immense. Iqbal, a Muslim Personal Law Board member herself, is disappointed at the lack of response from other Board members, despite her pleas (she had sent them all letters individually). The National Human Rights Commission is also investigating the matter.
The Jamaat says it wasn't too happy with the way the school was being run anyway. "Melas every other day, overnight camps— it was interfering with school curriculum. Morally and legally, Iqbal has no rights over the school. It's because we respect the law that she's still sitting there. But if she's raring for a fight, she'll get one," says a livid Moonis.Iqbal counters: "They have transgressed all moral, religious laws by forcibly staying under one roof with me for 60 days. Legally, they've broken all rules in a case that's sub-judice. I'll fight till the end to expose this mullah mechanism that begins work wherever progressives try to break new ground." Sadly, now it doesn't matter who wins, the school and its students have lost.