Triple talaq bill: Why AIMPLB is to blame for letting Modi government make a mess of gender equality

By refusing to take up the concerns of its own community seriously, it has ceded both moral and legal ground.

 |  6-minute read |   30-12-2017
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Let me do away with the niceties and say this upfront: This isn't about gender equality. This is one set of men trying to bully another.

The Lok Sabha has passed the “triple talaq bill" [officially known as the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017] as a voice vote. If passed in its current form, the law empowers the state to put Muslim men in jail for three years and slap them with a fine for trying to divorce their wives in a single moment. Arrests need not require the divorced woman's consent. So wide open to misuse is such a law that fuddles the imagination as to why any democratic government with the tiniest modicum of justice at its heart chose to present such a bill.

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But first, let me pause to shake a fist at the fine gents who have been running the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB). They are responsible for creating this mess. It should have been easy to open the question of disallowing instant triple talaq to debate within the community, or put it to the vote. It should have been easy to ask women what sort of reforms they have in mind. It should have been easy to say, “Let's not abandon the spirit of Islam.” By refusing to take the concerns and complaints of their own community seriously, they have ceded both moral and legal ground. Even now, when we are staring at a law rich with the possibilities of misuse, they have not made a single statement that hints at their commitment to Muslim women's rights.

Meanwhile, the law minister has declared lofty goals like upholding the “dignity” of Muslim women. What he probably means is that the best Muslim women can hope for are laws similar to the ones governing Hindu women. This isn't much of a goal to aspire for, really. Muslim women can determine the terms of their marriage, in writing, and can also seek the right to initiate divorce. This is more than what women in other communities have.

Muslim wives are legally not the property of a husband or father. This is amply evident from the simple fact of a nikaah ceremony - it requires verbal and written consent from the woman herself. Besides, Islam has a realisitic approach; it acknowledges that not all relationships last a lifetime. Not having custody rights is an unhappy situation for mothers, but at any rate, it is obvious that a Muslim father must bear primary responsibility for his children, whether or not he wants to. So there is no question of not paying for their upbringing.

It is ridiculous that, having a more flexible religious framework for their lives, Indian Muslim women have had to seek a more primitive legislative framework - one that criminalises bad spousal behaviour. After all, a man who does not want to support his wife and children financially is just that - a man who does not want to support his wife and children. His crime lies not so much in his abandonment; his real crime is his theft of woman's labour.

Each time the question of women's wages smacks us on the collective nose, we squirm uncomfortably in our seats and change the subject. Many women's groups are appallingly silent on the subject, given that their faith enables them to demand wages for the work they do at home, on farms or the maintenance of animals.

Why, after all, is a wife shocked or rendered destitute if a man divorces her? Quite simply because she has not been paid for her years of service. Most Muslim women do not inherit land or houses. Most are also not welcomed back with open arms into the homes of their brothers. Most are married before they can get the sort of education that will enable them to land good jobs. It is a travesty that parents and community leaders hobble young women instead of strengthening their hands.

This is the crux of the matter. Money.

Women's lives could be eased if men paid a reasonable meher (a sum that would ensure at least six months' rent and food). If the honorable law minister is so concerned about his hapless Muslim sisters, he would do well to introduce a bill that requires men to pay such a meher at the time of the wedding rather than at the time of divorce. And why stop at Muslims? Hindu and Christian sisters would also benefit from such legislation.

In fact, financial hardships could be utterly resolved if Parliament would pass a bill that requires women to be paid for household and farm labour. I wish they would do it and then Mother India could be a shining beacon of empowerment.

Women are deluded if they think that the government is interested in serving up gender equality on a platter. What's more, they themselves are unwilling to look the question of authentic equality in the eye. They are so unused to freedom and self-reliance, they confuse the act of standing up for themselves with the act of getting men to stand by them.

What will they achieve now that instant triple talaq has been declared “unconstitutional”? A wife can buy a few weeks' notice. She cannot buy commitment. A husband may have to think a little harder before uttering the three [talaq] words, which is what he was supposed to do anyway. But if he wants out, he'll go.

It is time Muslim women decided whether they want “maintenance” - that is, to be beholden to men who don't want them around - or an earned income. It is also time they decided whether they want autonomy or a system of perpetual control that keeps them dependent on one man or the other.

I would like to believe that Muslim women have not chosen to be controlled. Surely, they can refuse to accept instant triple talaq, reject the verdict of clerics who endorse it, refuse to get married until the man signs a contract that assures them a decent meher, a reasonable wage, and equal rights of divorce? This is not as hard as it sounds. It's a lot easier than going to court.

The triple talaq ban is a cosmetic band-aid on the deep, festering wound of our impoverishment. Worse, it prevents us from reaching for the medicine that can actually heal. This medicine is called freedom, and Muslim women will have to create it, using their own muscle and bone and words.

Also read: Triple Talaq Bill is scary. It will deter Muslim men like me from marrying

Writer

Annie Zaidi Annie Zaidi @anniezaidi

Annie Zaidi is known for her collection of essays, Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, which was short-listed for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2010.

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