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In India, Muslim Patriarchy Has Convinced Women to March Against Their Own Freedoms

A new bill invalidating Islam's repressive divorce practice would actually grant women their constitutional rights.

Photo Credit: Gts / Shutterstock

The orthodox and the conservatives among Muslim clerics in India like it best when women are neither seen nor heard in public. Ironically, these very self-appointed custodians of Indian Islam have in the past few weeks issued marching orders to Muslim women, directing them to pour out of their homes and take to the streets. This the women have done, in city after city across the country of India: Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai, Malegaon, Nagpur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Kanpur, Hyderabad and a score of other cities and small towns. Many more road shows are planned for the days ahead.

If the turnout in some places was in hundreds, the headcount elsewhere ran into thousands and even tens of thousands. The city of Lucknow was “immersed in a sea of black burqas as thousands of Muslim women filled up the grounds…”: That’s how the Times of India, the country’s largest circulation English daily, described the protest in Lucknow, a city once ruled by Muslim nawabs.

It’s an amazing spectacle. Having brainwashed women into believing it’s all about Islam, the patriarchs of Indian Islam are parading Muslim women in the cause of perpetuating male dominance and gender injustice. Women are making their presence felt in the public space even as they remain invisible. All one can see of the women, clad in black burkas from head to toe, are eyes in a black sea. In most cases onlookers also hear nothing because these are planned as silent marches. ‘Decent women' should not be seen or heard in public, except when the clerics decide otherwise. As they have for now.

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Though they are silent, the message on the posters the women carry is loud and clear. The immediate objective of the protests: scrapping of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017, which the Narendra Modi-led government steamrolled through the Lower House of the Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) in December last year, but which has been blocked by the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) where the ruling party lacks a majority. The broader object: demand that the secular Indian state desist from “any interference in Sharia laws.”

Until now, the women were directed to stay home while the men did the marching every time the mullahs shouted, “Islam is in danger”! This time it’s different. The protest is against the new law, “Triple Talaq Bill” in common parlance, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims is to “protect our Muslim sisters.” The women’s march is meant to send a message to the prime minister that “Muslim sisters” want nothing to do with the Hindu majoritarian government’s “anti-Muslim,” “anti-Sharia” law.

While some Muslim women’s organizations have welcomed the bill, Muslims in general, women’s groups, secular organizations and political parties are strongly opposed to its “draconian provisions.” The clerics have latched onto this widespread opposition to the bill as if that alone is their concern too. But the real purpose—resisting any change whatsoever in Sharia laws—is all too evident from the public statements of the clerics as also those leading the women’s protests.

The women are being marched in support of the virtually all-male Muslim clergy’s insistence that no one, including the secular Indian state—whether legislature or judiciary—has any business meddling with Sharia laws, which are “Allah-given” and therefore immutable for all time. What the clerics claim to be god-given law is, in fact, a law passed by the colonial British government—Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937—to regulate family relations among Muslims such as marriage, divorce, maintenance, child custody, inheritance rights, etc.

A growing number of Indian Muslim women and men today realize that one, there is nothing God-given in this man-made Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, and two, that the law is grossly unjust to women. As a result, Muslim women are increasingly petitioning the higher courts of secular India praying that Section 2 of the Shariat Act be struck down as unconstitutional since it violates several provisions of the “fundamental rights” that the Indian Constitution guarantees to all citizens: Article 14 (right to equality), Article 15 (right to non-discrimination) and Article 21 (right to life with dignity).

The backdrop of the current cleric-dictated women’s parade is the majority verdict of a five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court in August last year “setting aside” (invalidating) the hitherto legal right of a Muslim man to unilaterally and instantly divorce his wife by simply uttering a magic word, “talaq,” three times: “talaq, talaq, talaq” (literally divorce, divorce, divorce). The practice is commonly referred to as “triple talaq” (instant divorce). The ruling of the apex court came after hearing a petition filed by Shayara Bano, a victim of triple talaq. Her petition prayed that the practice of triple talaq, nikahhalala (see below) and polygamy be declared as un-Quranic and unconstitutional. Shayara Bano was joined by three other divorced Muslim women who also made the same pleas. Quick on their heels, three Muslim women’s organizations had impleaded themselves in the case in Shayara Bano’s support. Outside the court, the call for a ban on the blatantly anti-women and inhuman practices was backed by progressive Muslim men and women across the country.

Under Muslim Personal Law, until August 2017, a Muslim male had the dubious privilege of unilaterally divorcing his wife instantly by simply uttering the words, “Talaq! Talaq! Talaq!” (Divorce! Divorce! Divorce!) Delivered by letter, telegram, fax, text/Whatsapp/Instagram message, the fatal words communicated any which way were sufficient to instantly snap the marital bond. Even the male interpreters of Sharia law admit that of the many valid forms for divorce in Islam, the triple talaq method is “theologically repugnant,” a “sin.” But it is “legally valid” and comes into force the moment the damning word is uttered thrice, they maintain.

What if a husband utters the words in a reckless moment, in a fit of anger, or merely as a threat, but then regrets it and wants the marriage to stay intact? Too bad, the mullahs say: “It’s like a bullet; once it leaves the barrel, there’s no bringing it back.” Such supposedly is Allah’s immutable law, which no human individual or institution may change for all time to come.

Is there absolutely no way for a repentant husband to reunite with his wife? There is, and that too is allegedly god-given: nikah halala. It’s a practice that’s as shocking as it is simple: a divorced woman must marry another man, have sex with him and get him to divorce her—and only then is it lawful for her to remarry her former husband. A one-night stand is sufficient condition for her to remarry her former husband. Often, the cleric who delivers the fatwa offers his personal “sexual services” to the hapless woman. It’s nothing short of a cash-for-sex racket in reverse, where the poor woman is made to pay for her own humiliation and degradation.

The constitution bench limited the May 2017 hearings of the petitions to the triple talaq issue alone, putting aside the questions of nikah halala and polygamy to another day. Following the August 22, 2017, ruling of the Supreme Court invalidating triple talaq, the Narendra Modi-led government had introduced the bill in the Lok Sabha criminalizing triple talaq even as it deems the practice “illegal” and “void.” The offense has been made cognizable and non-bailable, punishable with imprisonment for a period of up to three years. While protest against the bill is legitimate, the clerics have a wider agenda of blocking the long-overdue reform of Muslim Personal Law.

The Muslim women protesters don’t know it, but they are marching against the tide of history. They are marching on the orders of the male clerics in the hope of convincing the secular state not to “interfere” in the personal law for Muslims. Someone should perhaps explain to them that on constitutional values, headcounts on the streets do not—should not—matter. On March 26, the Supreme Court admitted for hearing fresh petitions filed by a Muslim woman victim of polygamy from Delhi, Sameena Begum, and three others seeking the declaration of nikah halala and polygamy as unconstitutional. A Muslim divorcee from Mumbai has filed an identical petition in the Bombay High Court two months ago, praying for the declaration of Section 2 of the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, as unconstitutional.

In the early 1970s, a group of Muslim clerics got together to form an organization named All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB). This self-constituted body with no legal leg to stand on has given to itself the mandate of protecting Muslim Personal Law from any “interference” in the Shariat Act, 1937. In practice, they have proved to be the biggest hurdle against any kind of reform among Indian Muslims. Any attempt at reform is greeted with the Islam-in-danger war-cry. As a result, paradoxical as it might seem, Muslim women in secular India do not have the rights that their counterparts enjoy in even many countries that describe themselves as Islamic states.

Triple talaq, for example, has been banned in 22 Muslim-majority countries. Polygamy has long been banned in Muslim-majority countries like Turkey and Tunisia, while in many others a Muslim man must fulfill stringent conditions to the satisfaction of a court of law before he can take a second wife. In secular India, however, it is perfectly lawful even today for a Muslim man to have four wives. In 2017, Tunisia, the trailblazer for reforms in Islam, introduced two fresh radical reforms: One, there is no prohibition any longer on Muslim women marrying non-Muslims; two, women now have equal inheritance rights.

India remains predominantly a country of believers. It’s true of Muslims, as it’s true of Hindus and followers of other religions too. Significantly more and more Muslim believers, women and men, are discovering that the Islam of the Quran is one thing, while the Islam of the mullahs is quite another. The Islam of the latter is nothing but patriarchy dressed up as Islam. That’s why the believing Muslims are knocking on the doors of the secular courts challenging the un-Quranic, anti-women practices that the mullahs seek to perpetuate. Meanwhile, there is a growing section among Muslims that argues that the courts must simply stay away from the religious terrain and limit themselves to ensuring that the constitutional rights of a woman to equality, non-discrimination and a life with dignity are not violated in the name of any religion.

The custodians of Indian Islam can no longer run away from the need to scrutinize Sharia laws and reinterpret them to the extent needed to bring them in harmony with the inalienable rights and freedoms that both the Indian Constitution and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, speak of.

 

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Teesta Setalvad is a writer, activist, and journalist living in India. She is also the secretary of Citizens for Justice & Peace and a writing fellow for the Independent Media Institute