By M J Akbar
January 10, 2018
The most intrepid of the famous Begums of Bhopal, the only feminine dynasty in princely India, was surely Her Highness Nawab Sikandar Begum, Knight Grand Commander of the British Empire. This title did not come easily; the only other woman to have received it was Queen Victoria. Sikander Begum (1816-1868) was so pro-active that she persuaded the British to reopen Delhi’s Jama Masjid, shut down as punishment for the uprising of 1857. She personally cleaned the mosque and offered the first prayer.
In 1864 she became the first Indian ruler to perform the Haj, at the head of an entourage of about a thousand, mostly women. Her scintillating and candid account of this remarkable pilgrimage created such a stir that in 1870, W.H. Allen of London published an English translation.
A contemporary Begum of Bhopal could not have emulated, till the Haj of 2017, what an ancestor did a century-and-half ago. Indian conservatives, backed by revanchist political allies, insisted on a restriction that even Saudi Arabia had abandoned many decades before: That women could only travel with a male guardian. Indonesia, for instance, has been sending single women on Haj from 1991. Late last year, at the behest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Minorities Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi restored this liberty to Indian women.
Muslim women displayed their support for reform in the most effective manner: Over 1,300 have already applied to travel for Haj without male guardians in 2018. Government will ensure that they do so. This is part of a much larger policy chain on decisions to ensure gender empowerment across caste, creed, sect or class. The passage of the triple Talaq bill through Lok Sabha in the last week of 2017 was a dramatic example, if only because no previous government had dared to enter a no-go zone protected by deeply entrenched vested interests, a coalition of clerics and politicians. It is a historic shift of the legislative compass to restore the rights of Indian Muslim women confined in a corner by inequity and injustice.
The practice of triple Talaq was a clear violation of the Holy Quran. Islam has stressed equality in rights between men and women; divorce is permissible, but only after consideration and counselling, with conditions that include maintenance for the wife. Surah 2 Verse 228 of the Quran is categorical: “And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable”. Verse 241 is equally explicit: “For divorced women maintenance should be provided on a reasonable scale. This is a duty on the righteous.”
Indian Muslim leaders, more self-righteous than righteous, have distorted their own faith to institutionalise male oppression in the name of religion. Previous governments have never dared to challenge this vice-like grip. A watershed moment came in 1986, in what has become famous as the Shah Bano case. She was married in 1932 to Mohammad Ahmed Khan. In 1975 he suddenly and arbitrarily pronounced triple Talaq, and drove her out of home. In 1978, she appealed to the Indore High Court for just Rs 500 as maintenance; Khan was earning around Rs 60,000 a year. He told the court he had given her a total of Rs 3,000 and that was enough. To cut a long story short, the final judgment rested at Rs 179.20 a month. That was all.
For this pittance, Muslim leaders within the ruling Congress formed an alliance with misogynists and fear-mongers to mobilise protests across the country, intimidate a weak-kneed national government with threat and bluster, and nullify, through Parliament, the Supreme Court’s pronouncement.
One further example should suffice to establish the extraordinary lengths to which some Indian clergy go in pursuit of gender oppression. As is common knowledge, alcohol is prohibited in Islam. Every Muslim country, irrespective of other variations in law, invalidates any Talaq uttered under the influence of alcohol. But Indian clerics have even upheld drunken Talaq.
The Muslim population of India is estimated at 180 million; some 90 million are thereby female. Ninety million is not a small number; it is larger than the population of Britain. Women are held under a pall of fear by a draconian system wherein a husband possesses the power to suddenly abandon a wife, of any age, without any reason, leaving most wives destitute and helpless.
No corrective law is a magic wand that eliminates all problems, but this legislation begins the process of healing a deep wound. The only defence of the indefensible is misleading argument. During the Shah Bano case, we saw the massive use of lies and deception to cheat women of their human and legal rights. Today, we are witnessing another attempt by the Congress and some of its allies to delay justice, by now insisting on a law without teeth, in order to deny it. The fact that they do not want change in triple Talaq is evident from a simple fact: Whenever the Congress was in power, it refused to initiate change. The narrative of the forked tongue worked in 1986. It will not work in 2018.
M J Akbar is Union Minister of State for External Affairs