//High Priestess

High Priestess

Sudeshna Chakravarty meets the country’s first woman qazi, the gritty Shabnam Ara Begum.

As we reach Nandigram, a village 170 miles from Kolkata, we become the village’s mehmaan (guest). After all, we are going to visit the village’s new qazi, who the entire village is immensely proud of. Yes, we are talking about the 26-year-old Shabnam Ara Begum who overcame all odds to become India’s first woman qazi.

BRAVING THE ODDS

Shabnam’s appointment as Nandigram’s qazi though was no bed of roses. After the death of the existing qazi (Shabnam’s father), Shabnam applied for the post of the village qazi. Mozammel Hossain, a resident of Nandigram, challenged her appointment at the Kolkata High Court alleging that there was no provision in the shariat for appointing a woman as a qazi. He said that Islam did not allow women to carry out tasks performed by men.

But that did not deter Shabnam’s spirit. “I knew that my path to becoming a qazi would not be easy,” says Shabnam. Adds her lawyer, Kazi Saifuddin Ahamed, “The fact that she is the first woman qazi is an eyesore to some men. But I feel this is a big leap for the Muslim community where women need to be encouraged to come forward and educate themselves. Besides, if women like Benazir Bhutto and Khaleda Zia can lead an entire Islamic state, why can’t Shabnam become a qazi?” he questions, emphasizing that Muslim law does not debar the appointment of a woman as a qazi.

Mozammel Hossain also accused Shabnam of not possessing the requisite qualifications for a qazi. The High Court, however, refusing to interfere in the matter, referred the same to the Inspector General (Registration). And after a hearing, it was found that Shabnam was indeed well versed in the Quran and the hadis and a judgment was passed in her favour.
However, as the news of her appointment as the qazi started spreading, many moulavis and clerics raised a protest. Shabnam also received threatening phone calls from some fanatics but the local moulavis, clerics and villagers reassured her. “With my village behind me, I had the confidence of doing my job diligently,” she reveals.

IT ALL STARTED WITH… READING NIKAAHS

The youngest of seven sisters, Shabnam lost her mother at birth. “But we were a well-knit family and my father did his best to be both mother and father to all of us,” says Shabnam, adding, “Besides, my elder sisters and brothers-in-law were like my guardians.”
Shabnam’s interest in becoming a qazi was triggered when she used to help her father Rehman read nikaahs when he fell ill. “He was paralysed and I used to do much of his work,” recalls Shabnam, who was then appointed a naib qazi by her father. It was this association that further fuelled her interest in the field. She was encouraged by her family, especially her brother-in-law Mozzamel Haque, a social activist and a school teacher, to pursue her dreams.

According to Mozzamel, he had seen that spark in Shabnam to be a qazi, and tried to encourage her as much as possible. “Shabnam does not come from an affluent family. My father-in-law was just a school teacher, but with his limited resources, he educated all his seven daughters,” says Mozzamel. Though five of Shabnam’s sisters are married and were ready to support her, Shabnam wished to be independent and take on her father’s mantle.

Savvy Online, Jan 2006