Sylvia Vatuk’s Marriage and its Discontents: Women, Islam and the Law in India comes at an interesting time. Vatuk has done her PhD from Harvard University and is professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The selected works cited on her faculty page are a testimony to decades of work on issues related to family, family law and Muslim women in India. The author has backed the facts with empirical data collected by the first comprehensive study on how Muslim women are negotiating Muslim personal law (MPL) and extrajudicial options to obtain divorce. She has conducted interviews with government appointed qazis, lawyers, counsellors and the women themselves and has presented the facts without being judgemental or critical.
In Marriage and its Discontents, Vatuk argues how ‘paternalistic attitudes’ affect women suffering in abusive and troubled marriages. She states that the issues faced by women are similar across all faiths but since her focus has been on Muslim women, she illustrates these issues using examples of how they navigate the domestic space. In case of divorce proceedings, most Muslim couples first approach the community or religious dispute-settling bodies like qazis and jamaat committees and only after failed efforts do they approach the family courts. Largely, the reasons cited for divorce among Muslim couples are a lack of financial support by the husband, mistreatment by the husband and his family, unreasonable dowry demands and in some cases, a second marriage that results in the neglect of the first family.
In the chapter ‘Divorce at the Wife’s Initiative’, Vatuk has examined the concept of khula – the right of a woman to ask for divorce – in detail. Surprisingly, she discovered that their number far exceeded court awarded divorces in any given year. Khula is seen as a boon to Muslim women but in reality it is misused by Muslim men as a means of not paying mehr. Mehr is the dower paid by or promised by the husband at time of marriage to the wife. It is an essential part of the Muslim marriage.
Vatuk also explains that the khula is not as easy as projected by many.
“As I have noted, under MPL the wife cannot unilaterally declare herself divorced by khula. The procedure requires negotiation between the spouses . The wife is supposed to take the first step, approaching her husband and offering him a ‘consideration’ for releasing her from marriage. If he is willing, he accepts her offer and pronounces an irrevocable divorce, talaq–ul-bain, just as if he were divorcing her at his own initiative. However as I will detail below, the consequences of these two different form of divorces are not identical, whether for the wife or for the husband.”
Quite often the ‘offer’ that the wife has to make to gain her divorce is either forgoing her demand of mehr or losing custody of her children.
Interestingly there is a whole chapter on Islamic feminism which, slowly but surely, is gaining ground in the community. Various Muslim feminist are trying to fight for their rights within the jurisdiction of Islamic laws. Various groups and individual women are trying to spread awareness about the ‘the correct teachings of Islam ‘ with regard to women’s rights (huquq-e-niswan). In addition, the formation of an All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board has drawn the ire of members of All India Muslim Personal Law Board who initially denied its legitimacy.
The last chapter covers in detail the conflict about maintenance that the divorced women are entitled to, the impact of the Shah Bano case and its outcome which resulted in the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act (MWA) being passed. The author, however, states that it is not possible to give a simple yes or no answer to whether MWA has been advantageous to divorced Muslim women.
The endnotes in each chapter provide references to other books and journals written on the topic. It also has references to various court cases, verdicts and explanation of various terms like iddat, mubarat and faksh, which may not be familiar to a lay reader, but are necessary to understand the dynamics of MPL. Vatuk has also referred to a whole range of journals and books, and this in itself is a significant boon, because it opens the reader to the broad areas of research happening on such topics.
Given the intense and vocal debate on Muslim personal law, which shows no sign of ending any time soon, this reasoned and well-researched book is a welcome addition to the discourse. It also gives us hope that a reasoned debate, based on data and research is possible on such a sensitive topic.
Kouser Fathima is an independent writer and blogger who writes mostly on gender related issues.