May 18, 2022 Special Dispatch No. 9970

Indian Public Figures, Media Personalities React To Islamic Cleric's Reprimand Of Madrassa Event Organizers For Allowing 10th-Grade Girl On Stage To Receive Award: 'There Are Some Benefits In Not Bringing Older Girls On Stage For The Public Eye'

May 18, 2022
Special Dispatch No. 9970

In May 2022, M.T. Abdulla Musaliyar, the most influential Islamic scholar in the Indian state of Kerala and leader of Samastha Kerala Jem'iyyathul Ulema ("All Kerala Organization of Islamic Scholars," SKJU), reprimanded the organizers of an event at a madrassa for allowing a 10th-grade girl to come on stage to receive an award for scoring the highest marks in her class.

Musaliyar questioned the organizers: "Who invited a tenth standard student here [on stage]? If you do this again, I will show you. Do not call such girls over here. You don't know [SKJU's] rules? Invite the guardian here. Were you the one who called (her)? Don't do unnecessary things making us sit here. Won't this come in photos?"[1] Panakkad Sayed Abbas Ali Shihab Thangal, leader of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a Kerala-based Islamic political party, presented the award to the student at the inauguration of a madrassa in the town of Perinthalmanna in the district of Mallapuram in the state of Kerala.

M.T. Abdulla Musaliyar is the SKJU's top leader

Musaliyar defended his views, stating: "[SKJU] does not have a policy that allows women and men on equal footing. Besides, [SKJU] gives them all kinds of respect and support. No one has the right to say that we need to change."[2] According to a media report, he said: "Certificates have been issued and students were honored in the past as well... there are some benefits in not bringing older girls on stage for the public eye."[3]

Some Indian public figures and media personalities have publicly supported Musaliyar's views, while others have criticized them. This report will review some of those reactions.

Support For Musaliyar's Statements

The SKJU defended Musaliyar's statement that even "young girls should not be invited to public stages."[4] Muhammad Jifri Muthukkoya, the state unit president of the SKJU, said: "[The SKJU] is a religious organization. Therefore, we consider matters within the framework of the religion [of Islam]. The child was not insulted. The remark was made after it was realized that the girl was acting shy in the presence of the eminent scholars on the stage."[5]

Muthukkoya further said: "Musaliyar only raised an objection to the girl coming on stage because she might feel shy. Wouldn't she be nervous to see scholars like us on stage? We believe that generally, all women are shy. For the same reason, ustad [i.e., Musaliyar] conveyed his objection to the responsible person."[6]

The youth organization Sunni Yuvajana Sangham (SYS) supported Musaliyar, saying: "Islam mandates the avoidance of the mingling of men and women who do not know each other. It is the rule of the religion, even if you call it regressive. Fundamentally, there was nothing wrong in what happened in Perinthalmanna."[7] SYS leader Sathar Panthalloor said: "The rule to keep women away from men is to protect the former. So is the hijab. There is no rape reported in countries where hijab is mandatory."[8]

The IUML did not comment on the issue, but P.K. Navas, the state unit president of the IUML campus wing, the Muslim Students Federation (MSF), defended the cleric: "The ongoing cyber lynching of respected M.T. Ustad [i.e., Musaliyar] is not just incidental. Some communal organizations are behind the Islamophobic content being circulated on social media."[9] Navas added: "Liberal streams among us always portray Muslim scholars as regressive and anti-women. We should not follow their guidelines on how to become progressive."[10]

Criticism Of Musaliyar's Statements

Some non-Muslims and reformist Muslim groups criticized Musaliyar. Fathima Thahiliya, the former national vice president of the MSF, slammed Musaliyar, saying "such actions are an insult to the female community and will have far-reaching consequences in the society."[11]

The 10th grade girl receiving the award on stage.

V. T. Abullakutty Thangal, general secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami in Kerala, called Musaliyar's comments "utter foolishness."[12] Thangal, noting that men and women irrespective of color, gender, and nationality are allowed to perform Hajj in Mecca every year, said: "What can be more foolish than to say that such a religion prohibits little girls from getting on stage to collect a prize. If this man calls himself a scholar, then he is woefully ignorant of the basics of Islam."[13] He further expressed concern that Musaliyar's anti-women position would feed extremist Hindu groups.

Noted social critic Hameed Chennamangalur said: "[SKJU]'s stand can create the impression that Muslims are highly primitive and uncivilized."[14] According to Chennamangalur, Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamic groups among the Muslims of Kerala that, ironically, the SKJU considers too extreme "have become modern in their outlook when it comes to the rights of women."[15] He added: "These groups have abandoned their ban on women attending public events some 20 to 30 years before. These groups have loosened up in tune with the times."[16] He further warned that Musaliyar's statements come as the Taliban are forbidding girls from going to school and enforcing the burqa, adding: "[SKJU] will find it hard to enforce their will on Muslims in Kerala the way the Taliban can in Afghanistan. But the perspective is the same. Both here and in Afghanistan, it is the male version of Islam that is being imposed."[17]

Islamic historian Ashraf Kadakkal criticized Musaliyar's views, saying they are "like taking a million steps backward" and "will only help to intensify ways to spread Islamophobia."[18] However, Kadakkal noted that even the SKJU has changed over time, saying it "was once against education for girls and stood for early marriage. But now it runs more than 30 higher education institutions for girls, including engineering and B.Ed. [Bachelor of Education] colleges."[19]

Editorial In Leading Daily: "Critics Of Islam May Find Musaliyar's Remark Handy As It Is [In] Line With Their Assertion That The Religion Is Basically Anti-Women"

The New Indian Express, a leading English-language daily in the southern Indian states, ran an editorial titled "There's A Need To Call Out Kerala Cleric's Misogyny." Following is the text of the editorial.[20]

"The uncharitable utterances of M. T. Abdulla Musaliyar, senior Muslim scholar and a member of the mushawara (consultation body) of the Sunni organization SKJU, against the presence of a girl at an open stage along with male figures seem to be out of sync with what has been happening within the community for the past one decade. Musaliyar chided the organizers of the madrassa event for inviting the Class 10 student for receiving a memento for educational excellence.

"Instead, he wanted her father to be called to receive the prize on her behalf. Such misogynistic outbursts on part of the Muslim clergy in Kerala against women's presence at public platforms are not new. But what makes Musaliyar's remark disheartening is the fact that it eclipses the giant strides the community, especially the Sufi Sunnis, made in the field of education. The Sufi Sunnis were often derided for the orthodox stand they took in denying education for women. The SKJU had even issued diktats against women pursuing education. But the Sunnis have now made significant progress in all spheres and established their own colleges for girls.

"Critics of Islam may find Musaliyar's remark handy as it is [in] line with their assertion that the religion is basically anti-women. The episode will make ultra-orthodox sections also happy, but it is indeed a frustrating development for those who have been fighting for gender rights and modernity within the community. The cleric's action has attracted strong condemnation from [Kerala] Governor Arif Mohammed Khan, who also bemoaned the fact no political leader, either from the ruling front or the opposition, has dared to call out the misogynistic tendencies still prevalent in sections of society.

"However, in a welcome move, the child rights commission has taken up the matter suo motu and sought an explanation from the [SKJU]. Interpretations of scriptures have shown that Islam does provide room for women in all its discourses. Musaliyar's expression of irritation has undermined the efforts Sunni groups have made to shed the anti-women tag. It would take time for the community to recover from the backlash created by an avoidable controversy."


[1] (India), May 10, 2022.

[2] (India), May 14, 2022.

[3] (India), May 14, 2022.

[4] (India), May 14, 2022.

[5] (India), May 14, 2022.

[6] (India), May 16, 2022.

[7] (India), May 13, 2022.

[8] (India), May 13, 2022.

[9] (India), May 12, 2022.

[10] (India), May 12, 2022.

[11] (India), May 10, 2022.

[12] (India), May 16, 2022.

[13] (India), May 16, 2022.

[14] (India), May 16, 2022.

[15] (India), May 16, 2022.

[16] (India), May 16, 2022.

[17] (India), May 16, 2022.

[18] (India), May 16, 2022.

[19] (India), May 16, 2022.

[20] The New Indian Express (India), May 13, 2022.

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