By Rafia Zakaria
July 12, 2017
SHE is one of the very first. This summer Jehanara Begum, a woman from Rajasthan, and 15 other Muslim women will become some of the first female Qazis — or Islamic judges — in India. They will have taken part in a two-year programme at the Darul Uloom Niswan, an institution in Mumbai that has begun to train Muslim women from all around the country. Following graduation, the women will return to various areas and begin to fulfil their duties as Qazis.
It has not, of course, been an easy road. Muslim women in India have been advocating for female Qazis for a while. The issue came into the spotlight in 2008, when a Muslim woman activist named Naish Hasan got a well-known Indian Muslim female scholar named Syeda Hameed to solemnise her marriage.
Expectedly, controversy ensued, splitting India’s already beleaguered Muslim community into two. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board did not approve, declaring that female Qazis were not permitted in Islam and could not be appointed. Not everyone agreed; Tahir Mahmood, a former member of the Law Commission of India, which oversees adjudication over Muslim personal law, disagreed, as did the Darul Uloom Deoband. He, along with many women activists, insisted that there was nothing in the sacred texts that prevented women from becoming Qazis.
And so it was that in 2016 the All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board appointed two women, Hena Zaheer and Maria Fazal, as city Qazis (Shahar Qazis) for Kanpur. There was a catch, however: their roles would, for the time being, be limited to arbitration and counselling, for fear of upsetting the conservative (and male) Qazis already working in the city.
Trained not only to arbitrate and counsel but also to perform marriages, these women are likely to change the landscape of Muslim women’s encounter with personal laws.
That was last year and this year a whole slew of new Qazis, like Jehanara Begum, will return to Indian cities, trained not only to arbitrate and counsel community members but also to perform marriages. It is likely to change the entire landscape of Muslim women’s encounter with Muslim personal laws.
Some of the answers can be found in Jehanara Begum’s own story. Her husband regularly beat her, threatening her mother and asking whether she wanted her daughter back alive or as a corpse. When Jehanara turned to the Qazi in her community, a man, he refused to help her get her rights and told her to “bear it”.
Unable to endure the brutality of her married life, Jehanara left and never went back. Without the support of the Qazi, she was unable to get any of her rights, such as the 15 grams of gold promised to her in her Nikahnama. Even though they live in the same city, Jehanara Begum has been unable to see her children.
The idea that the Nikahnama can be a document that ensures that women get equal rights and just treatment during the marriage, and the right to divorce and to various marital assets if it dissolves, is not a new one. But as Jehanara Begum’s case and scores of others highlight, this is easier said than done.
The new batch of female Qazis insists that they will follow the requirements of Muslim personal law that are often overlooked by male Qazis, demand documents to show the groom’s qualifications, proof of his income, and ask for divorce certificates if they say they are divorced and death certificates if they say their wife has died. Moreover, given that there are women like Jehanara Begum among them, they will make sure that they never tell an abused woman to ‘bear it’ when she comes to them for help.
At the same time, the issue of female Qazis imputes issues that are larger than the internal squabbles of the Indian Muslim community. While the larger rhetoric of training and appointing Muslim women Qazis is being presented by the Indian state and non-Muslim proponents of the move as a testament to its commitment to minority rights, this is not exactly true.
Even as these Muslim women get trained and appointed Qazis in their communities, others are suffering from the scourge of violence against Muslims that has become endemic in Modi’s India. Recently, after a 100-man-strong mob lynched a Muslim man named Alimuddin in Jharkhand, a large group of Muslim women gathered and threatened to take up arms to defend their men. “Mob violence,” one speaker declared into the mic, “should be answered by mob violence”.
The statement points to why a great initiative, the empowerment of Indian Muslim women, could be robbed of some of its positive impact because of the rest of the Indian institutions’ failure to protect Indian Muslims. In a besieged community where all Indian Muslims, men and women, are being lynched and persecuted, treated as lesser Indians and unqualified citizens, a siege mentality is increasingly more likely to prevail. The consequence of this sort of thinking, the recourse of many small persecuted groups, creates more challenges to Muslim women Qazis being accepted and supported by Indian Muslims.
The problems of Indian Muslim women are all too familiar to Pakistani women. It is notable, however, that despite the fact that Islam is the dominant religion of Pakistan, no organised effort to train and appoint female Qazis is in evidence. Without the pressure of being a minority faith, female Qazis in Pakistan could transform the way women see their rights and options within the marital relationship. In not having to turn to male qazis, always eager to tell women to ‘bear it’, Pakistani women — many of them suffering under the same cruelties that plagued Jehanara Begum — could see the gender revolution they have been waiting for.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.