1985 During one of her court hearings against unilateral talaq, Shehnaaz Sheikh, founder-member of Aawaaz-e-Niswaan, filed a petition in the Supreme Court with a prayer to have unilateral triple talaq declared as being violative of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. She associated herself with the Bombay-based feminist collective Forum Against Oppression of Women, and later started working with Adv Indira Jaising, who was representing her in the Supreme Court. During the period that she was working with the lawyer’s office, she her met several other women who, like her, had been unilaterally divorced or were in other ways affected by the patriarchal Muslim Personal Law.
These women began meeting every Wednesday at each other’s houses to guide other women in similar circumstances, and named their collective Aawaaz-e-Niswaan. During this period, issues related to Muslim women’s rights were gradually gaining visibility within the larger women’s movements.
In 1985, at the national-level meeting of the Autonomous Women’s Movements, there was much heated discussion on reforms within Personal Laws, as well as on the need for gender-just personal laws. Aawaaz-e-Niswaan continuing working with various women’s collectives and organisations at the state and national levels, continuing to be an essential part of all the autonomous organising of various national conferences. It remained a self-sustaining collective collaborating with various feminist activists and organisations such as NFIW (National Federation of Indian Women) and Stree Kruti.
1988 This marks a cultural period for the organisation, when a number of songs and skits were written, most notably the song ‘Mein achchhi hoon ghabraao nako‘ is written by Geeta Mahajan from NFIW and Shehnaaz Sheikh. The song captured the essence of the daily lives of Muslim women in the ghettos of Bhendi Bazaar whose husbands worked in the Gulf and controlled them through a network of relatives and friends.
1990 Ruhi Nasreen and Wahida Kondkari were killed by their in-laws for dowry and, for the first time, thousands of Muslim women came out in public against dowry murders. The rally passed through Muslim-dominated areas such as Nagpada and Bhendi Bazaar and ended at Churchgate. Aawaaz-e-Niswaan also participated in the National Conference of Autonomous Women’s Movements in Calicut,raising issues of increasing communalisation and the steady erosion of women’s rights.
1992 The efforts of our activism on the rights of Muslim women received a setback due to the riots following the demolition of Babri Masjid, as women were seen as the primary bearers of the community identity. Almost immediately, women were pushed back into homes, and the purdah became a common sight on the streets of Bhendi Bazaar, Mohammadali Road, and other predominantly Muslim areas. In this volatile and dangerous situation, members of AeN worked in relief camps and continued to try and bring some relief to women and men. Aawaaz-e-Niswan also worked with various Bombay-based organisations, who were documenting and challenging police atrocities and communal attacks on Muslim localities. The Bombay violence of 1992-93 left a deep impact on Aawaaz-e-Niswan’s work. While combating communal violence within larger society, women also had to continue to deal with violence and discrimination within their communities. After regular life had been somewhat restored, it was a tremendous task for the collective to resume its regular functioning. Initial meetings took place in a small office room at Raj Bhavan, the working place of CPI (Communist Party of India). Slowly, Aawaaz-e-Niswaan rebuilt its strength. Various women’s collective also extended solidarity during this period.
1997 With our work expansion, a need to have a stable office space was felt. Friends and members donated generously towards renting a space for Aawaaz-e-Niswaan in the Dongri area of Mumbai. Our increasing work also made us realise the need for formal funding and after 12 years of its existence, Aawaaz-e-Niswaan was registered as an NGO under the Societies Registration Act 1860.
1999 A conference on Muslim Personal Law and Women was organised in Bombay, to discuss Muslim women’s rights with a feminist perspective. The conference was attended by nearly 250 women from all over India. Various issues – the increasing communalisation of society in different states in India, and the simultaneous struggle for gender justice within the community, were debated. There were conversations about demanding gender justice as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, the status of Muslim Personal Law and the hold over it by various religious bodies controlled by male patriarchs from the community. This conference gave birth to the Muslim Women’s Rights Network which went on to draft the progressive Nikahnama and a petition on Gender Just Laws for women.
2002 This was a dark period in the history of the country, where the Gujarat State machinery was involved in mass violence against Muslims. Unlike our earlier intervention in the communal violence post the Babri Masjid demolition, we focused our energies not just on channelising relief but also worked with other feminist organisations towards an International Initiative for Justice. The IIJ brought together feminists from nine countries who had experience working on issues of mass crimes and genocide. The aim of this initiative was to visibilise and speak about the sexual assaults on women during the massacres in Gujarat. Aawaaz-e-Niswaan worked with various women’s groups within Gujarat to reach different cities and rural areas of the state in order to build solidarity and support for survivors of the communal violence.
2003 Aawaaz-e-Niswaan started a resource centre for women and girls in Mumbra, a ghetto inhabited by Muslims displaced by the ’84 Bhiwandi and ’92-’93 post-Babri Masjid demolition riots. At any given time, the Centre boasts a membership of approximately 100 girls who otherwise have no access to progressive spaces. The Centre has a library with nearly 5000 books, mostly Urdu literature, and conducts a number of innovative courses for the girls to help build their confidence and personality. The Centre also offers scholarships to girls who would otherwise be unable to complete their education. The literacy course it runs has enabled a number of girls and women to re-enter mainstream education.
2009 Inauguration of Kurla office. After having used 27 locations over the years, on 4 April 2009, the final and permanent office of Aawaaz-e-Niswaan was inaugurated . Around 200 people attended the celebratory event, including activists, intellectuals, journalists, writers. On this occasion, Aawaaz-e-Niswaan released a book that was the product of a writing workshop for members, with their writings compiled in an anthology called ‘Ink se Bhare Mere ye Haath‘ (My Hands are Covered in Ink).