They are called Jamaats. In predominantly Muslim Southern India, these neighborhood old boys’ networks supposedly apply sharia law. However, in practice, they regularly provide cover for abusive and even homicidal husbands. At least, such appears to be the case based on the evidence presented to the upstart women’s Jamaats. Deepa Dhanraj documents the efforts of the women’s Jamaat leaders to redress gender based injustices in Invoking Justice (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Asian American International Film Festival in New York.
As per Indian custom, Islamic law officially supersedes secular law in the provincial south. It is a nice set-up if you are a man, particularly if you and your cronies are on the community Jamaat. If you are a woman though, the system is literally rigged against you. However, a small but growing number of Muslim women have challenged the institutionalized misogyny by forming alternative women’s Jamaats. While their legal standing is rather iffy, especially by the local standards, the civilian police force has to deal with them. This often means the men’s Jamaats must as well, albeit rather grudgingly.
The kinds of cases women’s Jamaat activists investigate are frankly shocking, including several cases of spousal murder and one abused wife and mother desperately trying to divorce her pedophile husband. The women’s Jamaat founder Sharifa Khanam clearly knows the Koran and uses it to shame their male counterparts. Yet, on a fundamental level, they still acknowledge the primacy of Islamic law over civilian authority. Indeed, this begs an obvious question Dhanraj does her level best to ignore: is religious-based law compatible with any meaningful notion of justice? Indeed, viewers might well wonder if non-Muslims living in Tamil Nadu have any recourse for legal redress, whatsoever.
To be fair, Dhanraj largely adopts the observational approach, only sparingly mixing in traditional on-camera interview sequences. We see the Jamaat case-workers do the leg work and build the trust of families seeking their assistance. Tellingly, it is not just women who petition the women’s Jamaats for help, but often the male relatives of women who have been battered and even killed.