By Shehnaaz Sheikh
November 16, 2016
In 1983, I filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging Muslim Personal Law as being discriminatory to Muslim women. I was divorced by the utterance of triple Talaq and thrown out at midnight by my ex-husband. Life was difficult. I worked as an office assistant on a salary of Rs 600 per month and lived as a paying guest. My husband found me out and threatened me. I said, “You have divorced me. I can live and work wherever I want to.’’ He said, “You are my wife. I will file a case for restitution of conjugal rights.’’ It was his word against mine. I consulted five Qazis, each of whom gave me a different version of my divorce.
I did not know what my legal marital status was. Was I married or divorced? That was when I decided to hire a lawyer and challenge this form of divorce and Muslim Personal Law in the SC on grounds of equality guaranteed by the Constitution. This was the first case of its kind in the Court. My petition provoked harsh criticism not only from the conservatives in the community but also from those I had expected to support me — the liberal sections. Some were disgusted at the way internal affairs of the community were being made public. Others felt I lacked the knowledge of Islam necessary to challenge its laws. Yet others felt that I was just frustrated in my personal life.
The Mumbai-based feminist organisation, Forum Against Oppression of Women, and Indira Jaising’s Lawyers’ Collective came to my rescue and decided to fight my case free of cost. The forum and others who supported me were not Muslims. Muslim intellectuals felt that the change should come from within the community. Muslim men associated Muslim Personal Law with their religious identity and did not want it to be changed.
I began to think of organising Muslim women. It wasn’t as easy as I had thought. Most progressive Muslims, I realised, didn’t want to take a stand against the Ulema publicly, though they believed in my cause in private. Shabana Azmi, Kamila Tayabji, Asia Siddique and Anis Sayyed supported me publicly.
I studied Islamic law, wrote articles and gave talks on it. I completed my graduation and started studying law, joining Lawyers’ Collective as an intern. We started handling Muslim women’s cases. I kept in touch with these women and helped in rehabilitating them. Sometime in 1987, we called all these women to the house of Anwari, whose case we were handling, and showed them Jiddo-Jehad (struggle), a documentary in which I and other Muslim divorcees had been interviewed. This documentary helped the women to open up and we started discussing issues such as triple Talaq. When I asked them, “Shall we meet again?’’, the answer was a unanimous “Yes”. So we continued to meet at Anwari’s place. We decided to call ourselves Aawaz-e-Niswaan (voice of women).
Aawaz-e- Niswaan had to contend with unusual teething problems: Intimidation by Goondas in the Muslim areas of Dongri and Nagpada, and the perception the area’s women had of me — that I was an outcast. However, in time, I integrated with the local population so successfully that women began to turn to me for help and men actually discussed issues across the table.
All this seems like it happened yesterday but it’s actually been 33 years. The big difference is that we were a handful then and today it is heartening to see so many Muslim women approaching the SC and amazing that so many Muslim men — ordinary citizens, artists, and intellectuals — support them. However, since the issue of triple Talaq has been deliberately mixed up with the Uniform Civil Code, I must state that I reject a Uniform Civil Code, as it is being used as a stick to beat the Muslim community. Does anyone have a blueprint of this so-called code? We need a code that is based on the principles of equality and justice.
As for my learned brothers of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, I would like to tell them: Most Islamic countries have abolished triple Talaq and modified the Sharia to suit the present. They should agree that the same be done in India.
Sheikh is a freelance writer and language instructor. She won the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Bravery Award, 1993, for her work with women.