By Hasan Suroor
Aug 19, 2015
Representational image. AFP
A progressive Mumbai-based Muslim women's
group has published a survey whose findings are so stark that they should,
finally, put an end to any further debate on the urgent need to reform the
Muslim Personal Law in order to protect women from its continued abuse. And, it
comes with a warning: if the community doesn’t act, the government should step
in and force the necessary changes.
The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA),
the liberal campaign group behind the survey, intends to ratchet up the
pressure both on the Muslim politico-religious establishment and the
government, and is sending copies of its study (“Seeking Justice Within Family
- A national story on Muslim Women's Views on Reforms in Muslim Personal Law”),
to the Prime Minister's Office, the National Commission for Women, the National
Human Rights Commission, and eminent jurists among others for them to study and
act on it.
For 65 years, mullahs and their political
proxies have been pussy-footing around the issue. Neither themselves willing to
do the right thing, nor allowing any outside intervention by raising the bogey
of uniform civil code and portraying calls for reforms as a threat to Muslims'
religious and cultural identity. They should see the survey as a warning that
time is running out.
BMMA chose only the lower strata of
Muslim women for its research. And for
good reason. It's these women -- mostly uneducated, economically dependent on
their husbands or parents, and conditioned to be submissive -- who are the
worst victims of arbitrary application of personal family laws relating to
divorce, alimony and inheritance.
The 1985 Shah Bano case involving an
elderly, uneducated, lower middle class divorcee left to fend for itself was
just the tip of the iceberg. And, for all the promises made in the wake of that
controversy little has changed in the past three decades.
"Not much has changed after the Shah
Bano case. Most religious leaders are very resistant to any change," said
Zakia Soman, a BMMA activist and a co-author of the report stressing the need
to codify the law.
Noorjehan Safia Niaz, her fellow researcher
and author, said, “Because of no codification, there is an attitude among
Muslim men that they have the right to marry more than once which is not in the
case in Hindus. Hindu and Christian laws are codified and there is no reason
why Muslim law cannot be codified when most countries have codified them."
To give a flavour of the survey's findings,
a whopping 92 percent of the women want a total ban on oral/unilateral triple
divorce whereby a husband is able, simply on a whim, to say "Talaq, Talaq,
Talaq" three times and dump his wife; 93 percent favour mandatory
arbitration before divorce; and 91.7 percent don’t want their husbands to have
another wife while still married to someone.
The significance of the survey lies not so
much in highlighting the necessity for reform as in revealing the scale of
dissatisfaction, indeed anger, with current practices. Forget triple Talaq --
more about which later -- the fact that 86 per cent want changes to the way Mehar
(dower) is paid (or rather not paid) is telling. Because it shows how
widespread is the practice that allows husbands to cheat their wives of what is
their fundamental right under Sharia. Mehr must be paid immediately after the Nikah,
and is in fact one of the seven conditions for a Nikah to be valid; and yet a
large number of men (44 per cent according to the BMMA poll) get away without
Perhaps, the most significant feature of
the survey -- considering how much the Muslim community is opposed to any Sarkari
“interference” -- is that 89 percent of Muslim women want the government to
intervene and push for codification. And 86 percent want religious leaders to
be held responsible for ensuring that justice is done to women while applying
the Sharia law.
It is a sign of how much the so-called
Muslim leadership is cut off from those it claims to represent that 95 percent
of the women said they were not even aware of the existence of the All India
Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) which fancies itself as the collective
conscience of the community on matters relating to family law.
The survey confirms what Prof Tahir
Mahmood, former chairman of the National Minorities Commission, said about the
Board that it represented nobody except its own busybodies. In fact, he said a
lot more: “Frankly, I want the Board to be abolished. Its members are paranoid
and they speak rubbish.”
Yet, this body comprising some of the most
regressive elements of self-appointed Muslim representatives is effectively
setting the agenda; and in cahoots with other like-minded groups it has been
able successfully to block any changes. Typically it has dismissed the demand
for a ban on oral Talaq. In a self-evidently disingenuous remark, its co-founder
Kamal Farooqi said: "It is hateful, obnoxious for a man to abuse this
right and we must discourage it but we cannot ban what is in the Koran, we
cannot ban an Islamic law.’’
Triple Talaq is one of the most abused
practices with men dumping their hapless wives for the most specious of reasons
such as not keeping the house tidy or not looking pretty any more. These days,
they don't even bother to say Talaq; they just text or email it. There was a
case of Shazia Ansari, a young teacher, whose husband divorced her simply by
sending an email from Dubai where he was working with just Talaq written three
Experts point out that oral triple Talaq
has no sanction in Islamic jurisprudence, and is in fact banned in many Muslim
countries. According to Prof Mahmood it is “banned all over the Muslim world.
Why should India be sticking to this 7th century law?”
In a strongly-worded article Sultan
Shahin, editor-in-chief of New Age Islam website, backed call for
“It is for the government of India to take
a call in the matter. Why should Indian Muslim women not deserve the protection
of Islam provided to their counterparts in Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere,
practically in the entire Islamic world, except Saudi Arabia. Egypt, Iran,
Jordan, Morocco, even Yemen and Sudan have more modern Muslim Personal Laws
than India. Why should Indian Muslims suffer the indignities imposed by the
British in our land under an Anglo-Mohammedan law."
For far too long, it has been treated only
as a woman's issue with even liberal men reluctant to speak up. But the fact is
that it potentially affects every Muslim family. And the next woman to be
dumped via a text message or cheated out of her mehr or denied maintenance
could be our own mother, sister or daughter.
Reform India's Muslim Personal Law,
Breach the Stagnation in Muslim Religious Thought, Use the Opportunity to Work
out A New Islamic Theology of Peace, Pluralism and Gender Equality