By Jyoti Punwani
31st January 2018
As Parliament gets ready for another showdown on the triple Talaq bill, will the voices of those directly affected by it be heard? Or will the discussions remain a political game between the ruling party and the Opposition?
There’s been much outrage that the community was not heard before the Bill was drafted. None of the parties who appeared in the triple Talaq matter before the Supreme Court were called for talks, though two women’s groups had approached the concerned ministries soon after the Supreme Court struck down triple Talaq. The Centre’s refusal to take on board these groups, which have worked with Muslim women at the grass-roots level, exposes its claim of wanting to “empower Muslim women” through the Bill.
What’s new, though? The same lack of consultation was seen when the Rajiv Gandhi government passed the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act in 1986. The only persons consulted then were the Ulema from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board that had spearheaded the street-level campaign against the 1985 Shah Bano judgment. The voices of those targeted by the Act, i.e. Muslim women, remained unheard, with only a few brave Muslims speaking up for them. Today, because men’s rights are being curtailed, there’s a hue and cry about “minority rights”.
Is the unilateral right to divorce your wife in an instant, a fundamental right? One reason the Supreme Court struck down triple Talaq was that it was not an essential part of Islam. The judges were echoing what a large number of Muslims have said.
Yet, today, many of these Muslims are up in arms about it being criminalised. Dire predictions have been made that this will lead to increased violence against wives, increased abandonment by husbands instead of divorce, and finally, that “our brothers will all be in jail”.
These arguments lead to two conclusions. First, that the right to unilaterally and instantly cast off your wife is seen as such an intrinsic part of being Muslim that when it’s taken away from you by law, you find other ways to ill-treat her. How different is this from the Board’s affidavit in the Supreme Court threatening that if triple Talaq was abolished, husbands might kill their wives?
The second conclusion is that triple Talaq must be rather commonplace, because only then would all jails be full of triple Talaq offenders.
The Bill makes it clear that only instant triple Talaq is being criminalised, not other forms of Talaq. You can still divorce your wife through lengthier procedures which were, in fact, held up as ideal by all petitioners, even the Board. Now no one’s talking about them. So does everyone finally agree that instant triple Talaq is indeed the most popular form of divorce among Sunnis? (Shias do not recognise it) So far, the Board and those who oppose “outside” interference in Personal Law, have been claiming that hardly any women were affected by it.
The Board’s deviousness comes through in its main argument against the Bill: ‘How can you criminalise what’s been declared void?’ After the Supreme Court judgment, did the Board, which claims to represent the community, do anything to spread the word that triple Talaq is no longer allowed? On the contrary, within a week of the judgment, Maulana Mahmood Madani, general secretary of the Jamiat-e-Ulema, and a member of the Board’s executive committee, declared that the Jamiat did not accept the judgment, and a wife divorced through triple Talaq would be deemed divorced.
When the country’s most influential Muslim religious organisation declares that triple Talaq remains valid, what is a wife thus divorced to do? Tell her husband that the practice no longer exists? Will he and the Maulana/Qazi who will ratify the Talaq, listen to her?
Interestingly, conversations with victims of triple Talaq reveal no anxiety in them about the prospect of jails being full of Muslim men. The victims wish their husbands were in jail, and for 10 years, not three. They have real-life counters to all arguments about the dangers of criminalisation. Husbands anyway have to be chased through courts for years before they even return their wives’ jewellery, forget coughing up maintenance, they point out. Chances for reconciliation are almost nil because triple Talaq is usually followed by the wife being thrown out and the husband marrying again. Jail for such husbands seems a great idea to these victims.
However, the clause that allows a third party to report an offender may well result in jails in Uttar Pradesh at least, getting filled with Muslim men, say journalists from there. This clause must go. To prevent misuse by the police, the offence must also be made non-cognisable.
There is enough in the Bill that necessitates reference to a Parliamentary Committee. If that happens, victory will be claimed by AIMIM president Asaduddin Owaisi and the Board. Many who disapproved of Owaisi’s brand of identity politics, now reluctantly hail him as the only Muslim leader who spoke up in the Lok Sabha. This of course, suits the BJP’s polarising politics.
Meanwhile, two developments cannot be ignored: triple Talaq petitioner Ishrat Jahan, who faced a social boycott after the judgment, has joined the BJP, casting a shadow on all the petitioners. And, an unnamed Social Democratic Party of India office-bearer who has campaigned against triple Talaq is reported to have described the Bill as a “blessing in disguise”’. Interesting times ahead.