Life throws up unlikely heroes and I found one yesterday (August 22) in Shayara Bano, one of the petitioner’s in the instant triple talaq case.
As I heard her say, “It’s a historic day in the life of Muslim women and court has given them freedom from a social evil which has been prevailing for ages,” I was struck by her steady gaze and composure. She was visibly tired but her grit was written clearly in her demeanour.
It’s not easy to take on the might of a patriarchal society, especially when one is arbitrarily divorced and left to fend for self. Five women: Shayara Bano, Gulshan Parveen, Afreen and Atia Sabri along with the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan challenged this grip of the religious clerics on their lives in the name of religion.
In a 395-page verdict the Supreme Court declared instant triple talaq or talaq-e-biddat as unconstitutional on August 22. Although they did not base their judgment on principles of gender justice, it was still a victory for gender justice and Islam, as Muslims had been misusing the provisions given in the Quran under guise of traditions. It was a divided verdict, owing to the nature of the petitioners and respondents but in the end talaq-e-biddat or instant, arbitrary triple talaq was declared unconstitutional.
However, this is just the first step. There is a huge fight ahead of the women and the men supporting the to get their rights under personal laws in a democracy. This is not the time to rest on our laurels. We now have to take it beyond.
Islam was one of the first religions to give rights to women yet ironically men overturned those in the name of religion and gave in to the patriarchy, which is the bane of women the world over.
It’s not easy to take on the might of a patriarchal society, especially when one is arbitrarily divorced and left to fend for self.
Let us examine how we can ensure that. In 1941, a committee was formed to examine Hindu personal law and in the 1950s several laws were passed to codify the Hindu personal law. Even as late as 2005, amendments have been made in the Hindu Succession Act.
Yet the Muslims are still bound to the Muslim Personal Law Application Act of 1937. At the time when Hindu personal law was being codified, Muslim personal law was left untouched. Perhaps this was because the Muslims who had stayed behind of their own choice in India after the partition of 1947, were still reeling under the impact of the riots, loss of leadership and it was left for a later date.
Later, thanks to the millstone of being a vote bank, it was difficult to touch their laws as some group of Muslim clerics would always stand up and say that Islam was in danger.
It is important to remember that the Hindu right, which is today championing Muslim personal law reforms, was against the codification of the Hindu personal law.
It is very difficult for the clerics and the right wing of any religion agreeing to change. It is up to the State to do it, but not for cynical reasons of exploiting the community’s votes or for a change of their image. It should be done without underlying motives because it’s a cause they believe in.
Codification though essential should not be unilateral. A committee of Islamic scholars; men and women, constitutional and legal experts, women activists who have been fighting for the change as well as clerics should be constituted to examine the provisions of the 1937 law and how it can be reformed to adjust to today’s reality. Logical steps should be taken after that.
We should not give in to cries of "Islam is in danger". Islam is not so insecure, though some Muslims might be. We must remember to separate Islam from the acts of Muslims.
India is a diverse country with different customs and beliefs and in view of that this was correct, but a codification of the Muslim personal laws to make them in sync with the modern society is essential.
I am sure that members of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) will fight it tooth and nail. While it’s important to include them in deliberating committees as representatives, it’s important to remember that they are an NGO formed in 1973. They don’t represent all Muslims and they certainly don’t represent modern Muslim women who want to go a step further and claim all the rights that they are entitled to as citizens of India and members of a religion, which gave them rights.
We have to take this fight to the grass-roots and make the women aware of their rights. So many social evils like dowry and child marriage, though outlawed, still prevail because of ignorance and blind faith.
To my mind education is the only way forward because only that can empower women. And by education I don't mean literacy but understanding of their rights and the right to claim those rights. The real fight is to educate each and every Indian to understand not just their rights but their duties too.
A template for a model nikahnama must be prepared and circulated, in fact, made compulsory so that no man can exploit a woman. A nikah is a social contract between a man and a woman and nikahnama a pre-nuptial agreement.
Even though instant triple talaq has been abolished, women still don’t have a level-playing field. While men can go through the three month, three proclamation talaq (talaq-e-ihsan and talaq-e-hasan) women can only ask for khula which is not unilateral but with consent of the husband. Women should also be given the same right to divorce known as talaq-e-tafweez. It can be included in the nikahnama.
The Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan has started the Darul Uloom-i-Niswan in Mumbai to train women qazis. This is a welcome step and one which is producing excellent resuts.
Religion is not meant to suppress and oppress, because if it does, then it's just patriarchy not religion.