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Championing for Muslim women's rights

By | April 24th 2011

The Asian and Muslim community in Kenya are seen to have a good life, never taking part in the clamour for civil rights. But Farah Manzoor, disagrees. She spoke to Kiundu Waweru

God enjoins you to treat women well, for they are your mothers, daughters, aunts - Prophet Muhammad

An Asian woman bruised and with a black eye walked to the Nairobi Women’s Hospital. As she explained her predicament to the medical staff, she broke down and mumbled incoherently in her language.

Farah Manzoor

It was difficult to assist her since none of the staffers understood what she was saying.

Luckily, one of them remembered Farah Manzoor, who has established an organisation that counsels Asian and Muslim women who have been abused, are on drugs, prostitution or on forced circumcision.

Farah arrived at the hospital shortly after, listened to the woman and was baffled by what she heard.

"The woman is married to a wealthy and respected family. She has been battered by her husband for the last 30 years and her sisters-in-law sometimes join the fray," says Farah.

As the battered woman received medical help, Farah tried to understand why she had stayed in an abusive marriage for such a long time.

Farah, a Kenyan of Asian origin, says the episode acts as a window to the unfortunate lives of most of the Asian women, who have remained silent for fear of stigma.

suffer in silence

"From the colonial times, Asians were seen as privileged. Things have changed. Some of them now live in poverty, abusive marriages and are captives to traditional practices," says Farah.

She adds that the women have suffered in silence for long.

"No woman has dared to stand up against the dominating male Muslim, who misinterprets Islam laws to abuse women’s rights," Farah says.

She has decided to dedicate her life to championing for the rights of Asian and women through the Mother’s Lap Foundation, which was launched last year.

Women come to her house covering their faces for fear of being recognised. She sometimes receives calls late in the night, from a woman in distress and goes to pick them up. Most of them are sex workers and battered wives.

"Others are young Indian girls, who are brought to Kenya as Mujra dancers. Their passports are confiscated and they are lured to prostitution," Farah laments and adds, "Islam is strict on divorce. Most Muslim women don’t know this, but if a man gives you the first divorce, he is supposed to leave the house, not the other way round."

Farah too has been there. Ten years ago, she got married but after one week, her husband died. "For ten years, I have been in court fighting for my inheritance," Farah says.

The discrimination accorded to widows and the court battles caused her untold trauma.

Even more painful is that she can’t bear children.

Her suffering opened her eyes to the suffering of her Asian and Muslim sisters.

Mother’s Lap Foundation is her baby. "I am dedicating the rest of my life to it," she says.

Farah says she realised that organisations advocating for women rights leave out Muslims for they don’t understand their culture.

Big problem

The journey began six years ago when Farah and her friends who had suffered similar fate sought healing by counselling Asian and Muslim women in difficult situations.

"Divorce and inheritance issue were a big problem and Kadhis Courts have no women representatives since Sharia Law does not allow for female Kadhis."

Since the new constitution caters for equity, they are advocating on having a woman representative in the Kadhis Court.

Farah (seated right) with some members of her organisation. [PHOTOS: TABITHA OTWORI/STANDARD]

"Some Asian women do not even vote. We will collaborate with organisations and professionals to provide for civic education. Most Muslims remain ignorant assuming that HIV and Aids is not for us. Some Muslims are dying from HIV related illnesses and we are advocating for compulsory testing before marriage."

Indeed, her courage is bound to cause shock waves and resistance. And she is already feeling it. Asian men have told her off, and her chosen journey is rigged with challenges.

"I will fight to the end," she says.

Farah is a fourth generation Kenyan, whose great-grandfather came to Kenya in 1896 from Hindustan, now partitioned to India and Pakistan.

"Muslim history is full of women who took a public role and performed every bit as successfully as men," she says, citing Indira Gandhi, former Indian prime minister and Benazir Bhutto, first Muslim lady prime minister in Pakistan.

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