By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
11 June 2012
How does one read the recent Delhi High Court judgment that if a Muslim girl reaches puberty at the age of 15, then she is no longer minor in the eyes of law? Would this mean that Muslim girls can be married off much before 18 years of age which is the minimum age of marriage in India? What then happens to the years of feminist struggle which raised the age of marriage for girls?
Does it mean that while progressive legislation is aimed for all others, Muslim girls would continue to be governed by outmoded laws which are an anathema in this age and time? What next? A Sharia court for Indian Muslims? One shudders to think of such a possibility but going by the recent High Court judgment it seems to be a distinct possibility.
One can be an optimist and think that in this case the judge was trying to save a Muslim girl who was trying to exercise her choice in marriage. However, judgments are cited as precedents and there is no guarantee that this judgment will not become one. This however, is not to say that all Muslims girls get married when they attain puberty or that the judgment is going to encourage such a trend. In fact the current trend in the Muslim community is at par with other communities which is that the age of marriage for girls is going up. What is patently contradictory is that this societal trend does not get reflected in the laws that govern the Muslims.
The Delhi High Court judgment did provide the opportunity for the Muslims to do some serious introspection, but as always, the Muslim leadership, both religious and political has sought to legitimize and welcome a judgment which would be anathema in any modern country. In what can be termed nothing but shameful, the AIMPLB has welcomed the judgment, taking refuge in the Muslim personal law and the Constitution of India.
It merits only some common sense to realize that even Muslim countries like Turkey, Tunisia and Syria have changed their laws to suit the emerging norm of modern living. Indonesia and Pakistan, both Muslim countries, perhaps have more gender just laws as compared to Indian Muslims. What stops the AIMPLB to even start thinking along these lines is unfathomable, to say the least. Sticking to fundamentalism, they are potentially jeopardizing the health and life of many Muslim girls whose custodians they claim themselves to be.
Rather than seeking to become apologists, the Muslim leadership would do better to treat this judgment as a cautionary note and engage in serious rethinking of the religious laws on marriage which have become outmoded in this age and time. This is not even a fight for gender just laws, this is simply about saying that Muslim girls cannot and should not be married at such an early age.
Hinduism has a similar practice which was sanctioned by their religion but over the years they have managed to reform their regressive laws and march ahead. If they had given the same argument that the Muslims are giving today, which is that religious laws are sacred and can never be changed, then the progress achieved by Hindu women would have been unthinkable.
Religious laws should be taken as a guiding principle and not as something whose each letter is eternal for all times to come. One should understand the spirit behind these laws. Islamic law was the first to give women inheritance rights and the right to refuse marriage. It was revolutionary and in many contexts is still revolutionary.
The problem is that Muslims lost the meaning of this revolutionary message and ossified their own religion. If hundreds of years ago, Muslim leadership could give women rights which were unthinkable at that time, the message is that one of the prime principles of Muslim society should be gender justice. It is to take this message and fight for a better world for women, not only within Muslim societies but within all religious traditions. Rather than this, what is happening is that Islam becomes the most backward when it comes to treating its women.
It would not be out of place to say that today the image of Islam is that it is anti-women to its core. Needless to say, the silence of Muslim leadership on judgments like this goes a long way in perpetuating and popularizing this regressive image. It is time for Muslims to come together and set the record straight once and for all that this regressive judgment is completely out of tune with the dreams that they have for their daughters.
Arshad Alam is an author and writer, currently with Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi