Muslim women’s rights groups in India are hoping a supreme court hearing to decide the legality of Islamic family laws that allow Muslim men to divorce their wives by saying the word “talaq,” or divorce, three times will correct what they call a “long pending injustice” to Muslim women.
A charged debate has taken place ahead of the hearing scheduled to begin Thursday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has supported calls to end what has come to be known as instant divorce, but conservative Muslim clerics staunchly oppose overturning the practice, calling it a political ploy by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to take away Muslim identity.
It was the lawsuit of 35-year-old Shayara Khan, a quiet, middle class woman living far away from the spotlight in the town of Kashipur in Uttarakhand state, that brought the controversial practice before the top court.The three brief words, “talaq, talaq, talaq” that came in a letter from her husband abruptly ending her marriage have been heard by thousands of Muslim women before her. In India, where each religion has separate laws that govern marriage, succession, adoption and maintenance, the practice that allows a Muslim man to unilaterally end a marriage in a matter of seconds is sanctioned under the community's law.
But Khan’s quest for justice in a life-changing decision that gave no room for her voice to be heard, takes a different track – she is challenging the practice of “triple talaq” as violating the Indian constitution that protects gender equality.
Shayara’s petition highlights how the arbitrary practice leaves them vulnerable and insecure. “Muslim women have their hands tied while the guillotine of divorce dangles, perpetually ready to drop at the whims of their husbands who enjoy undisputed power,” it said, pointing out that women have been divorced through Skype and text messages. Several other petitions have now been joined with hers.
The court will also hear pleas challenging the validity of polygamy and another practice concerning marriage reconciliation.
As the court begins to deliberate on these controversial customs, women activists exude confidence. Zakia Soman of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women’s Movement) is “100 per cent optimistic” that the judgment will correct a “long pending injustice” to Muslim women in India. “We want a Muslim personal law that enables equality in marriage and family matters,” she said.
However, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which is at the forefront of the counter campaign to retain “triple talaq,” is arguing that the practice cannot be banned as it is allowed under Sharia laws. He said the body is educating Muslim men during sermons at Friday prayers that it should only be used as a last resort when all attempts at reconciliation have failed.
Kamal Farooqui, a board member, is emphatic that the religious laws of Islam cannot be rewritten in the name of social reform.
“The whole jurisprudence is a God-gifted one, it is not a man-made constitution and these laws are the laws of divine which cannot be changed,” he told VOA. He questioned the courts standing in the matter. “Those honorable judges who do not know anything about Islam, who do not know the background of Quran, how can they interpret it?”
Women’s groups refute these arguments saying that what is practiced in India is a patriarchal system and a misinterpretation of Islamic law.
They point out that countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan do not allow the pronouncement of triple talaq in one go.
Hasina Khan of Bebaak Collective, another women’s organization, laments that Muslim religious leaders in India have failed to be responsive to women’s concerns. Saying that Muslim personal law is problematic in terms of divorce, property rights and inheritance, she said women have knocked at the door of Muslim bodies several times. But “they have not listened, not given priority for the Muslim women’s struggles, that is why we had to come to the court,” she said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has told the court that the practice denies Muslim women "the full enjoyment of fundamental rights under the constitution," and cannot be regarded as an essential practice in Islam.
Modi himself has supported the cause of ending triple talaq from public platforms on several occasions. In his latest reference to it, he expressed confidence that reformers from within the community will come forward to change the status quo. “I appeal to the Muslim community to not politicize the issue.”
However conservative Muslim bodies remain deeply suspicious of the BJP’s support for ending triple talaq. “It is nothing but a political propaganda against Islam,” said Farooqui.
Underlying their suspicion is the fear that the issue is being used by the Hindu nationalist BJP with an eye to bring in a common family law for all citizens, irrespective of religion. The issue has been long debated in India, but always consigned to the back burner by political parties.