In India, the demand for change in personal laws has come from Muslim women, barring a few exceptions. Whether it is Shahnaz Shaikh, Shah Bano or Shayara Bano, victims of discriminatory practices have spoken up time and again. But every single time, these voices have been muted. Shahnaz was forced to withdraw from the very struggle she initiated. Everyone knows the aftermath of the Shah Bano incident, which we are yet to recover from.
But 2016 is not the same as 1985. Today, Shayara Bano is not alone. Neither were Imrana and Gudiya. Muslim women have gained strength with time, and ironically, with continued oppression. The last decade has seen an upsurge in our voices – the more the oppression, the more vociferous our voices grow.
However, religious bodies like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) continue to accept verbal divorce and halala as valid practices, and uphold these without any Quranic sanction. They do this without understanding that these practices cannot be justified under any circumstances and justifying them in the name of Islam is a disservice to women, and to Islam itself.
Leaders of the AIMPLB say the Supreme Court cannot interfere in matters of religious personal laws. In doing so, they are displaying their ignorance of the benefits of a secular democratic system, under which different religions are allowed to practice their personal laws.
Isn’t it wonderful that the judgments given out by our high courts and Supreme Court give reference of the Quran? The fact is that the courts of law of a secular country are sensitive enough to defend a community’s personal law. Instead of being appreciated, the courts of this country are being challenged and charged with interference.
Muslim women’s rights activism
Struggling Muslim women have fearlessly shown the door to regressive bodies like the AIMPLB. National organisations like the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), to which we belong, have cocked a snook at them, and framed our own personal law based on the Quran and the Constitution. We have formed the Aurton ki Shariah Adalat and Darul Uloom Niswan, in order to provide legal support to Muslim women, to enable them to become qazis and to lead change in the religious arena.
The BMMA has openly challenged the validity and credibility of organisations that have no respect for women, and whose leaders don’t consider women a part of the ummah.
The question is this: what is stopping Muslim men from speaking in favour of reform? One obvious reason is that men are not victims of retrograde practices and hence don’t understand the need to change a system that is so tilted in their favour. A system that favours men will not be changed by men. Sadly, men don’t seem to understand that what appears on the surface to be in their favour, is actually detrimental to them. The routine discrimination of women affects everyone.
Religious bodies recognise the kind of power they wield over a fearful and insecure community and use this to propagate retrograde practices and patriarchal notions of male superiority. Many are scared of social ostracisation and the shaming of the family name. That is also the reason that they are scared of mullahs. It doesn’t matter if the mullah spouts rubbish during the Friday sermon, it will not be opposed thanks to the fear of being hooted and booed.
Questioning the validity of triple talaq
Men with access to information must ask if what they are being told is in fact in accordance with their faith. They must recognise the fact that many women who suffer triple talaq are rendered homeless and destitute overnight. They have nowhere to go, and no means to support themselves and their children.
This happens despite the fact that there is no sanction for triple talaq in the Quran, which calls for talaq only if a process of discussion, dialogue and mediation spread over 90 days fails. It lays the burden of carrying out this process on the husband.
And yet, in violation of Quranic tenets, triple talaq happens only in India. It is banned in most Islamic countries, such as Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, and even Pakistan and Bangladesh. Women are being divorced in absentia, unilaterally, on phone, on post card and via text message – all this is in violation of the Quranic injunctions.
Thankfully, some Muslim men are now also talking and speaking up against unjust anti-women practices. They are no longer willing to remain mute spectators and be scared of the conservative forces within the community. In Mumbai and other cities, a few progressive Muslim men are openly supporting Muslim women’s demands, whether to enter the sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah or to abolish triple divorce. But it is time for more to speak up.
Because women’s issues are not just women’s issues but community and national issues, Muslim men now must join Muslim women in large numbers and strengthen the struggle for a humane society. It is time to end the hegemonic control over religion by a few bigoted men. It is time for good, righteous, modern, progressive, believing Muslim men to make themselves heard in no uncertain terms.
Noorjehan Safia Niaz and Zakia Soman are co-founders of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan.