By Hasan Suroor
Aug 19, 2015
Representational image. AFP
A progressive Mumbai-based Muslim women's group has published a survey whose findings are so stark that they should, finally, put an end to any further debate on the urgent need to reform the Muslim Personal Law in order to protect women from its continued abuse. And, it comes with a warning: if the community doesn’t act, the government should step in and force the necessary changes.
The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), the liberal campaign group behind the survey, intends to ratchet up the pressure both on the Muslim politico-religious establishment and the government, and is sending copies of its study (“Seeking Justice Within Family - A national story on Muslim Women's Views on Reforms in Muslim Personal Law”), to the Prime Minister's Office, the National Commission for Women, the National Human Rights Commission, and eminent jurists among others for them to study and act on it.
For 65 years, mullahs and their political proxies have been pussy-footing around the issue. Neither themselves willing to do the right thing, nor allowing any outside intervention by raising the bogey of uniform civil code and portraying calls for reforms as a threat to Muslims' religious and cultural identity. They should see the survey as a warning that time is running out.
BMMA chose only the lower strata of Muslim women for its research. And for good reason. It's these women -- mostly uneducated, economically dependent on their husbands or parents, and conditioned to be submissive -- who are the worst victims of arbitrary application of personal family laws relating to divorce, alimony and inheritance.
The 1985 Shah Bano case involving an elderly, uneducated, lower middle class divorcee left to fend for itself was just the tip of the iceberg. And, for all the promises made in the wake of that controversy little has changed in the past three decades.
"Not much has changed after the Shah Bano case. Most religious leaders are very resistant to any change," said Zakia Soman, a BMMA activist and a co-author of the report stressing the need to codify the law.
Noorjehan Safia Niaz, her fellow researcher and author, said, “Because of no codification, there is an attitude among Muslim men that they have the right to marry more than once which is not in the case in Hindus. Hindu and Christian laws are codified and there is no reason why Muslim law cannot be codified when most countries have codified them."
To give a flavour of the survey's findings, a whopping 92 percent of the women want a total ban on oral/unilateral triple divorce whereby a husband is able, simply on a whim, to say "Talaq, Talaq, Talaq" three times and dump his wife; 93 percent favour mandatory arbitration before divorce; and 91.7 percent don’t want their husbands to have another wife while still married to someone.
The significance of the survey lies not so much in highlighting the necessity for reform as in revealing the scale of dissatisfaction, indeed anger, with current practices. Forget triple Talaq -- more about which later -- the fact that 86 per cent want changes to the way Mehar (dower) is paid (or rather not paid) is telling. Because it shows how widespread is the practice that allows husbands to cheat their wives of what is their fundamental right under Sharia. Mehr must be paid immediately after the Nikah, and is in fact one of the seven conditions for a Nikah to be valid; and yet a large number of men (44 per cent according to the BMMA poll) get away without paying it.
Perhaps, the most significant feature of the survey -- considering how much the Muslim community is opposed to any Sarkari “interference” -- is that 89 percent of Muslim women want the government to intervene and push for codification. And 86 percent want religious leaders to be held responsible for ensuring that justice is done to women while applying the Sharia law.
It is a sign of how much the so-called Muslim leadership is cut off from those it claims to represent that 95 percent of the women said they were not even aware of the existence of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) which fancies itself as the collective conscience of the community on matters relating to family law.
The survey confirms what Prof Tahir Mahmood, former chairman of the National Minorities Commission, said about the Board that it represented nobody except its own busybodies. In fact, he said a lot more: “Frankly, I want the Board to be abolished. Its members are paranoid and they speak rubbish.”
Yet, this body comprising some of the most regressive elements of self-appointed Muslim representatives is effectively setting the agenda; and in cahoots with other like-minded groups it has been able successfully to block any changes. Typically it has dismissed the demand for a ban on oral Talaq. In a self-evidently disingenuous remark, its co-founder Kamal Farooqi said: "It is hateful, obnoxious for a man to abuse this right and we must discourage it but we cannot ban what is in the Koran, we cannot ban an Islamic law.’’
Triple Talaq is one of the most abused practices with men dumping their hapless wives for the most specious of reasons such as not keeping the house tidy or not looking pretty any more. These days, they don't even bother to say Talaq; they just text or email it. There was a case of Shazia Ansari, a young teacher, whose husband divorced her simply by sending an email from Dubai where he was working with just Talaq written three times.
Experts point out that oral triple Talaq has no sanction in Islamic jurisprudence, and is in fact banned in many Muslim countries. According to Prof Mahmood it is “banned all over the Muslim world. Why should India be sticking to this 7th century law?”
In a strongly-worded article Sultan Shahin, editor-in-chief of New Age Islam website, backed call for government intervention.
“It is for the government of India to take a call in the matter. Why should Indian Muslim women not deserve the protection of Islam provided to their counterparts in Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere, practically in the entire Islamic world, except Saudi Arabia. Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, even Yemen and Sudan have more modern Muslim Personal Laws than India. Why should Indian Muslims suffer the indignities imposed by the British in our land under an Anglo-Mohammedan law."
For far too long, it has been treated only as a woman's issue with even liberal men reluctant to speak up. But the fact is that it potentially affects every Muslim family. And the next woman to be dumped via a text message or cheated out of her mehr or denied maintenance could be our own mother, sister or daughter.