The triple talaq furore in India made its way into the British press, but for a slightly different reason. Athar Ahmed's documentary for BBC Asian Network "Halala: the men who sell divorce", exposes a clandestine service where couples who want to get back together after the third talaq pay up to Rs 4 lakh to have a temporary marriage, to enable return to the former husband.
In the long list of exploitations taking place in the name of Islam, watching this documentary was shocking for many reasons. First, for its blatant, reductionist understanding (or the lack of it) of how divorce in Islam is understood.
Second, the intellectual laziness of blaming Islam as a problematic monolith is not useful and covers up any attempt to understand the nuances of societal problems. As long as 1,400 years ago, what did we blame our shortcomings on?
Among the many things made "permissible" (halal) for Muslims, divorce is considered to be the most disliked. Islamic tenets focus on the importance of family, which is the reason that anything that can corrupt it is deemed impermissible - for example, alcohol and drugs, notions of modesty to avoid temptation outside of marriage and such.
There is nothing spectacularly new about such ideas and we easily find intersections across other religions too. However, the process of divorce in Islam, which stems from protecting the sanctity of marriage, differs from others.
Most Muslims do not fully grasp the idea of punishments - not all are meant to punish, some are meant to act as a deterrent. As an example, the "wife-beater" verse in the Quran is not meant to abuse women in a marriage.
The Islamic view of a marital relationship is one defined by deep trust and respect. The hit-your-wife comment reflects a serious level in a relationship where words aren't enough and to express the severity of the moment, a slap on the wrist, or a light pat on the back - a mild, physical signal that essentially says "hey, this is not cool!" is allowed. The hitting is definitely not a concession.
In a similar vein, there are three levels of divorce in Islam. The third stage is a not a concession but a deterrent, so that couples make an effort to avoid reaching the last level of breaking a relationship. In the first two stages, reconciliation is possible.
However, if the husband reaches the third level of pronouncing divorce, the only way to return to his wife is through her re-marrying someone else after the divorce, consummating the marriage and in case of the failure of this new marriage, she can then return to her ex-husband.
To anyone who hears this, it can be a baffling and bizarre idea to digest. But without understanding the notion of a deterrent in Islamic processes, it becomes a dangerous tool to be exploited.
It is "haram" (strongly disallowed) to perform temporary marriages with the intention to circumvent the third talaq conditionality.
|We must stave off the intellectual laziness of playing to Islamophobic tropes and embrace the problem in feminist concerns.|
In Ahmed's documentary, a woman says she was willing to pay up to Rs 2 lakh to have sex with a stranger, to be able to return to her former husband. On a general scale of lunacy, this deserves a top spot. She ends by saying that people who don't understand her desperation will never be able to validate her actions.
While common sense as a concept is arbitrary, I will entertain it in this context: In our given times, common sense against blind following (of culture and religion) should, surely, be more resilient?
Let us not fool ourselves and turn this into another drop in the ocean of the bad press that Islam gets. It is simplistic to blame Islam because this excuses others from the burden of change.
It is crucial to view it not as a strictly religious issue but one that reveals many challenging layers: toxic masculinity, sexual exploitation of vulnerable people, domestic abuse, the need for marriage counselling, the lack of understanding of marriage and marital rights and, within the Islamic context, the failure of understanding divorce.
For example, the practice of giving instant talaq is banned in many Muslim countries. It is mostly practiced in the South Asian context and it is a tragedy of the feminist Muslim discourse that instead of being a topic to debate a woman's welfare, it is caught up in the nationalist hysteria to tighten the noose on minorities.
Instead of creating a debate towards the welfare of women, it has turned the triple talaq issue into identity politics, where people who would support banning of it are seeing it as the start of encroaching upon religious rights of minorities in the name of societal rights.
Halala marriage as a service raises so many flags that it would be an utter tragedy to play the sensationalist Islam trope instead of addressing it proactively.
The first issue this highlights is the need for marriage counselling - there is an urgent need to educate people on the limits of a marriage and the rights and duties of a husband and wife.
Domestic abuse is often given a religious veneer and it is important to know that there is never any justification for it in any religious text. In Ahmed's documentary, the woman describes her husband as abusive who also took her money, yet she wanted to "desperately" return to him - what intervention is needed for people who find it acceptable for a husband to treat his wife with such humiliation?
This also questions the efficacy of religious workshops on marriage and managing expectations around it.
Halala marriage service is also akin to illegal prostitution and targets vulnerable people to have sex with strangers because of a husband who cannot think of the consequences of his own actions.
When there is recourse to reconciliation, why go through this system that is only extending the abuse for the woman in a marriage?
It is highly important to expose this for what it is: a continuation of the entitlement that men feel towards women and the convincing of women to abandon their rights to return to men; it shows the immaturity in understanding marriages, especially in faith communities where marriage is held in deep regard; it also ties in to the ongoing effort in dealing with domestic abuse and protecting vulnerable people from people who are willing to go to any extent to make a profit.
For people who justify this bizarre practice: is a halala marriage the sign of a healthy relationship? What example are we setting for ourselves and towards the people in the family who are affected by this?
A serious intent towards dealing with this problem, particularly when it is anchored in protecting Muslim women's rights, is needed. In doing so, we must stave off the intellectual laziness of playing to Islamophobic tropes and embrace this in feminist concerns.
The well-being of women in our communities is at risk and we cannot afford to pander to hysteria. Faith leaders and the various communities at large need to expose these practices. There is no valid excuse to covering up these ills - neither through the prism of religion or otherwise.