I was reading the newspaper the other day when a headline about triple talaq caught my mother’s eye. She clicked her tongue and said, “What’s wrong with these women!”
I bit my tongue and waited. She went on, “Don’t they know that a simple divorce is an advantage?”
It’s no use arguing about theory versus practice of equality. My mother will inform me for the 100th time that Muslim women have a right to divorce, that flexibility in marital law is a good thing.
No point telling her that not all women have the privilege of education. She will say, “Well, you’ve got to fight for your rights.”
She’s right about that. And women have been fighting too. But these last few weeks, I’ve been listening with great sadness to the sound of Muslim women’s voices. It’s like listening to a song that was near its crescendo when it was abruptly drowned out by a hostile cacophony.
Protests against triple talaq — the unseemly practice of suddenly ending a marriage by saying "Talaq Talaq Talaq" in quick succession — were spearheaded by Muslim women themselves.
Groups like Bebaak Collective, Awaaz-e-Niswaan, Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan and other educationists and lawyers built up pressure.
Male community leaders would have come around. Else, the Supreme Court would have decided the issue.
Become that woman who does not cling to a man just because she has nowhere else to go. Make your daughters that woman.
However, under a new dispensation, a new narrative took shape — one that demonises Muslim men, painting them as lusty ogres who discard sexual partners as often as they can.
This new narrative justifies the murder of Muslim men who fall in love with women from different backgrounds. This new narrative murders old Muslim men if they cannot lay their hands on the young ones.
Muslim women are aware that this narrative is pushed by dangerous men who actually view them as mere objects or worse, as spoils of war. Now what?
With what heart does a daughter seek empowerment if her voice is hijacked by men who oversaw the rape of her sisters and mothers, or the murder of her brothers, the torture of her sons?
How does she point fingers at a badly-behaved husband if she knows that he is being whipped, literally and metaphorically, by men who claim to be concerned about her welfare?
Still, she tries to hold her ground. BMMA did write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding the codification of Muslim Personal Law, and followed it up with a press release specifying that they want reform, but they reject a Uniform Civil Code.
All religious laws and traditions change over time. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board will have to start standing up for women’s rights, or the board will cease to be relevant.
But Muslim women are right to fear a Uniform Civil Code. "Uniform" simply means that the same law applies to all citizens. It does not mean that the most progressive law applies to all, nor does it mean that a progressive law cannot be amended and made regressive again.
Women of all religions should worry. A majority government can change laws so that women no longer inherit land, widows no longer remarry, divorce is no longer permissible.
Already, some states restrict freedom of faith by preventing citizens from converting to other religions. Our freedom to eat and drink what we want has been legally curtailed.
No government has passed laws making inter-caste and inter-community marriage easier. The Constitution has been subverted repeatedly.
As far as Muslim women are concerned, ladies, you need to up your game and start fighting in earnest. Feel free to follow a set of civilian laws if you want, for no force is permitted in your religion. But if you follow religious law, learn to make it work for you.
Fight. But don’t just stop at triple talaq. That is a tiny problem. The big problem is independence.
I know of girls skilled enough to have an income but who cannot read. Yet, a nikahnama has to be signed. Parents don’t get to say aye or nay. The bride must agree to the terms of the wedding. But if she cannot even read her nikahnama, is the document still legitimate? Quibble about that. Insist on education.
Prophet Muhammad urged people to go as far as possible in the pursuit of knowledge. He did not say, men can go to China, but women can stay illiterate. You too can go to China or Antarctica. Fight to study where you need to. Get a job as soon as you can. Do not be cowed by harassment or threats of violence.
If you are grown up enough to want marriage, you should think about what sort of marriage is good for you. Take an interest in the contract instead of leaving it all to the elders. Don’t let false modesty prevent you from laying down conditions.
In our family, we have been taught that Muslim women have a right to demand wages for domestic work in their marital home. Find the guts to say, "A homemaker’s job is undefined and endlessly flexible but assuming I will be doing x-y-z tasks, with or without helpers, I am due x amount of money. Anything more is a graceful gift."
Remember, pocket money is for children, wages are for women.
Get a bank account. It is only your stupid ego and your heart that fears losing a husband’s approval, which prevent you from maintaining separate accounts. If you and your husband pool in money to make investments, you are entitled to a share of profit.
Of course, if you surrender all claims to money, other people will approve of you. Beware of such approval.
Never exchange your rights for clothes, shoes and a party. Do not accept wedding expenses in lieu of an inheritance. If your family feels obliged to spend on food and jewellery, tell them: Only as long as it’s a gift (also remember that you cannot demand a trousseau).
You have a share in land, house(s), businesses, bank shares, animal wealth.
If you can’t move a property, ask for its market value. Then acquire property or assets that appreciate. You can’t spend all your money and then start wailing if your husband dumps you in three seconds flat.
True, being rendered house-less and man-less in less than three seconds is cruel. But even after the abolition of triple talaq, divorce still means having to start over. You may want custody of your children and it may be denied.
Or you need maintenance to raise them. The real battle is to correct labour and wage imbalances. Fight for inheritance and your right to work.
Look beyond divorce. There are millions of shaky (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain) marriages. And millions of women want financial independence even if they’re happily married. Become that woman who does not cling to a man just because she has nowhere else to go. Make your daughters that woman.
Embody your personal reform. Other reforms are inevitable.