The Cleric-Challenging, Solar-Energy-Loving Mosque Mistress of Lucknow

Why you should care

Because she’s helping women gain equality, and a city to breathe easier. 

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Social activist, mosque founder and environmentalist — Shaista Amber’s multiple calling cards appear disparate. But they’re bound by a common thread: a desire to fight discrimination and, now, climate change in a city at the frontier of both those challenges.

Amber is the director of the All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board, which argues for reforms in male-centric Islamic laws. She is based in Lucknow, a city that is a nerve center of Muslim politics in India as well as the capital of Uttar Pradesh — a state with the population of Brazil. Lucknow is also one of six cities in Uttar Pradesh that the World Health Organization recently listed among the 20 most polluted on the planet.

The magnitude of her battles doesn’t scare Amber, and the gains she counts as victories aren’t small. She runs the Amber Mosque, where, for two decades now, women and men, Shiite and Sunni Muslims have all been welcome, unlike at many other mosques. “God doesn’t discriminate,” Amber says. Last year, the Supreme Court of India banned the indiscriminate use of the practice of triple talaq — instant divorce for which a man only needs to utter the word talaaq three times. (Amber had campaigned against the practice.) Now, she has mounted solar panels on the roof of her mosque, to turn the place of worship into a source of clean energy.

In the late 1990s, she was barred from praying at a mosque, while her son was allowed, an experience that led her to open an inclusive house of worship.

To some, her claims of credit for the Supreme Court judgment are overstated. “It was the media, more than any one person, that played the biggest role in building momentum against the practice,” says Zafaryab Jilani, a lawyer and secretary of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board — the body that interprets Islamic law for Indian Muslims. Jilani believes the court verdict, by barring only unjustified cases of triple talaq, actually reinforces the AIMPLB argument that in some cases the practice remains legitimate.

Others question Amber’s claim that she believes in Sharia — Islamic law as laid down in the religion’s holy books. Sharia, they say, mentions triple talaq. “To do what she does and claim to follow Sharia is a double standard,” says Khalid Rashid, a prominent Lucknow cleric. Still, even Rashid supports Amber’s installation of solar panels on the mosque roof. “That’s a very welcome step, given the levels of pollution in Lucknow,” he says.

Amber is no stranger to pushback. In the late 1990s, she was barred from praying at a mosque, while her son was allowed, an experience that led her to open an inclusive house of worship. But her struggle is no longer restricted to the crowded lanes of Lucknow. Her fight for a fairer, greener future is global.

Video by Alice Carfrae; text by Charu Sudan Kasturi.

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