PICS: BIKRAM RAI
It's 12 noon on Friday. A steady stream of men in white caps emerges from Jamal, Durbar Marg and Kamaladi and converges at the Nepali Jame Masjid and Kashmiri Takia Masjid to offer Friday prayers known as Jumma.
The two mosques are 500 m apart, and on a regular Friday are fairly crowded. But on five Fridays during the holy month of Ramzan in August, they are teeming with devotees. The women, far less in number, have a smaller, separate prayer hall (pic, right). Once Jumma is over, most return to their daily chores while some take time-off to shop at the Jame Market.
For four weeks every year, Nepali Muslims who form up to seven per cent of the population, observe Ramzan by fasting from dawn until sunset. This year's Ramzan falls between 20 July and 19-20 August (depending on the sighting of the new moon). Families start their day at three in the morning to have sehri, a heavy pre-fast meal to last the day.
At about 7PM they break their roja (fast) with dates, lime juice, fruits, sewai, samosa, pakoda, beaten rice, and chickpeas. After maghrib (the evening prayer) families usually sit down for more elaborate meals with pulao, kheer and sweets. For those who cannot make it home on time to break their fast, the mosques serve iftar meals every evening.
The festival also helps break down class barriers. For 30 days the privileged understand what it means to be hungry, and the better off are required to give a certain amount of their income and wealth as zakat (charity) to madrasas, underprivileged relatives or to the poor and homeless.
"Rich, poor, young, old, everyone sits together and is served the same meal," adds high-school teacher Sominda Thebe.
Ramzan, however, is not only a Muslim celebration. Like Dasain it brings the larger community together and in districts with substantial Muslim populations like Kapilbastu, Parsa, Bara and Sunsari the holiday mood is palpable. Stores are decked up, office hours are made more flexible, and Hindu neighbours and friends are invited to join iftar and eid celebrations.
"Non-Muslim Nepalis have always taken interest in the festival, they ask about our customs and are generally very respectful even in the days before we became a secular state," explains Nabila Banu, a 23-year-old student. "When I was in college, my friends insisted on having dinner only after I broke my roja and changed their dinner timings and at the place where I currently intern, my co-workers make it a point not to eat in front of me."
Despite this, Nepal's Muslims are among the most marginalised groups in Nepal. Adult literacy among Muslims is only 30 per cent, compared to 57 per cent overall. Few Muslims in the Tarai own land, and most work as farm hands. The group is under-represented at the national level and lacks a strong political presence.
"Our condition is worse than the Dalits," says Muhammad Zakir, general secretary of the National Muslim Struggle Alliance which is a coalition of 30 Muslim organisations. "The state refuses to accept our religious laws. There are maybe about five Muslim civil servants in positions of power. In other parties, Muslims are just token members."
Despite progress in inclusion, Muslim leaders are disappointed that their voice has been drowned out by the demands of the Madhesi and Janajati movement. "Yes many of us are Madhesis, but our language is different, our culture is different and our needs are different too so we want to be recognised as a separate identity. We are not only asking for religious rights, we also want our political and economic rights to be addressed," Zakir told Nepali Times.
Muslim leaders say Nepal's secular republic status is just a fašade, and Nepali law still forbids people from preaching their faith. "The leaders make revolutionary speeches, but in reality they are narrow-minded and too greedy to share power," says the chairman of the National Muslim Federation, Taj Mohammad Miya.
While the demands and concerns of the community are real, there is no single 'Muslim voice' or 'Muslim movement' in Nepal. The community is heterogeneous, and divided along regional, and linguistic lines, sects, places of origin, and economic background. Nepali Muslim women find themselves doubly marginalised within the community (see below).
Let us pray
Over the centuries, Muslims from different parts of the subcontinent and Tibet have made Nepal their home. More than 95 per cent of Nepali Muslims live in the Tarai. Some communities in the Tarai settled there even before unification in 1770. The Ranas brought in tillers to clear forests in the 19th century, and in the 20th century landowners were invited to oversee the administration and finances of the newly-cultivable land.
The Muslims in the Valley can be divided into three broad categories. Kashmiri Muslims got here in the 1500s during the time of King Ratna Malla. They worked as scribes and interpreters, manufacturers, musicians and even courtesans in the Malla court. Today, the Kashmiris are the most educated, well-off and dominant Muslims in the Valley who own businesses and are even in politics. The second migration to Kathmandu took place during the mid-1600s when Muslims from northern India came to Nepal during Pratap Malla's rule. The 'Hindustani' Muslims are adherents of the Deobandi school and follow the Quran more strictly than the Kashmiris. They own the Nepali Jame Masjid. Muslim migrants from Tibet came mainly after the Chinese annexation in 1950.
In the central and western hills, Muslims came in as early as the 1600s, brought in by the kings to make weapons. They are now known as Churautes, or bangle sellers. A smaller group of Muslims from Bangladesh of Bihari origin who fled to Nepal during the 1970-71 war are settled in the eastern Tarai. Most eventually migrated to Pakistan, but many stayed behind.
Beneath it all
The 2006 Jana Andolan propelled Nepal's marginalised communities into the national mainstream. Muslim men became visible, and there has been a trickledown effect on women as well. We had five Muslim women CA members and the National Women's Commission is currently headed by a Muslim woman. Muslim women, however, are still at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
Only nine per cent of Muslim women are literate. Many parents, especially in the rural areas, don't send their daughters to schools because they don't want them to wear skirts or be in co-ed classrooms. Women shouldn't be made to sacrifice education for religious reasons.
There is a lot of double standards within our community, too. The men want the state to recognise Muslim Family Law, but when we ask them why women are prohibited from inheriting property, they point to the National Code even when Islamic law clearly allows women to inherit property from parents and husbands. Also those who advocate that women dress modestly, and maintain decorum are usually the ones who are indecent.
NGOs and political parties have played a big role in making Muslim women more visible and bringing their struggles into the public sphere. However, there is still a tendency among NGOs to include Muslim women for tokenism to please their donors. Community organisations are the most effective in improving the capabilities of the women.
Opening a women's department in a political party, or making women members of central committees are not enough. Women have to be part of the decision-making process and need to be groomed for future leadership, only then will there be real progress.
Seema Khan is founder and chairperson of Nepal Muslim Women Welfare Society