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Allah's Forgotten Daughters

Headed by a firebrand leader, 25 women's organisations network to fight for Muslim women's rights

Allah's Forgotten Daughters
Allah's Forgotten Daughters
There is this woman in Darbhanga whose husband spat out talaq at her because she hadn't cooked liver for him one meal. The Centre for Women's Development Studies came across her while surveying the Bihar district for divorced Muslim women. Kolhapur's Zubeida Khan was divorced because she couldn't add numbers. Her husband discovered this "flaw" in her after she had produced three children for him. Eighteen-year-old Shabana Sheikh of Mumbra near Mumbai found herself at the receiving end of talaq as a mob of male relatives cheered lustily, egging on her husband to do away with her in the middle of a busy street...

The tales of divorce, desertion and indignity tumble over each other. Breaking silences, an increasing number of Muslim women have taken to narrating them. To other women, around streetcorners, at mohalla gatherings, during protest marches, before ulemas and maulvis, to intellectuals at seminars and activists in conferences, over interviews with the media. With 'Allah on their side' and justice on their mind, they have formed the Muslim Women's Rights Network, a coalition of 25 women's organisations, challenging Muslim orthodoxy as never before.

"Our men can't be allowed to take on four wives, divorce at a whim by uttering 'talaq', refuse maintenance, enjoy favourable custody rights of children... and then say divine law sanctions it all," fulminates Hasina Khan, the firebrand head of the Network. Thirty-one years of being a Muslim woman, of living in the conservative cloister of Mumbai's Bhendi Bazaar, and her experiences as in-charge of Awaaz-e-Niswan—an organisation working for the rights of Muslim women—have taught Hasina that women in her community must join hands and mobilise themselves to wrest their rights off chauvinist clerics.

Significantly, the nearly two-year-old Muslim women's alliance has already begun exerting pressure upon the community. Last October saw the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (aimplb) meet in Bangalore to standardise nikahnamas (marriage contracts) to safeguard rights of women. Though nothing came of the meet, it was a significant pro-woman gesture by the conservative body. Then, last month—for the first time ever—the board invited 52 women's organisations—including the Network—for a discussion, again not to the satisfaction of activists. Unperturbed, however, last week, women's outfits organised a seminar on 'Maintenance Rights of Muslim Women' in Delhi. And not surprisingly, the meet had aimplb member Hasina Hashia upset with "the open hostility of some women against the Personal Law Board".

It's an antagonism building up in times rife with anticipation of a pending Supreme Court judgement on maintenance rights of divorced Muslim women. The '85 Shah Bano judgement—which upheld the divorced Muslim woman's right to maintenance under Sec 125 of the CrPC—had seen an irate Muslim orthodoxy protesting against the ruling; it seemed to them a step towards the much-touted Uniform Civil Code. This outcry, in turn, had the government rushing into enacting the Muslim Women's Protection Act in '86 guided by the Personal Law Board. It took away the divorced Muslim woman's right to invoke a secular provision for maintenance under the CrPC, enjoined the husband to pay maintenance just for three months after divorce, and shifted the onus of the woman's upkeep on to her family. The legislation generated further protests, this time from women's organisations and the intelligentsia who lamented the loss of secular values in public policies.

Fourteen years since the '86 Act, in August last year, a constitutional bench of the apex court clubbed all the Muslim women's maintenance cases across the country's courts and heard them. And currently, both sides—those who argue on behalf of Muslim women and the constitutional invalidity of the Act, as well as the ardent supporter of the Act, the aimplb—are eagerly awaiting a ruling.

And fervently lobbying for public support meanwhile. Says Mumbai-based feminist lawyer Flavia Agnes: "Blindly opposing the Act won't do. However ill-framed, the last 14 years have shown that it can be invoked to secure the rights of divorced Muslim women." In her report, 'Judgement Call', released last week, Agnes has compiled various judgements on the basis of the '86 Act where courts across the country have interpreted its clauses to the women's benefit.

Countering this argument for the Act, Seema Kazi, researcher in Muslim women's and human rights, says: "Yes, there have been some good judgements under the Act, but what about the bad ones? Even more importantly, the '86 Act cannot be supported without qualification because it abrogates Muslim women's rights as Indian citizens to take recourse in secular laws."

The battlelines are much better defined at the grassroots, where Hasina Khan fights. It's Muslim men vs Muslim women: "The patriarchs will keep interpreting the Holy Quran to subjugate us." Jamila Nishat of the Hyderabad-based women's organisation Asmita, which is also part of the Network, says that the law board's recently-declared intent of setting up charitable funds and Darul Qazas (family courts) to help the cause of divorced women is frightening. "That means further ghettoisation, more chauvinism. These patronising measures won't do; the feminist struggle isn't for charity but rights through reforms."

Muslim marriages are considered contracts between men and women, where men can make this contract with up to four women. But while the husband has the right to unilateral talaq without judicial intervention or registration of divorce; the wife has a right to khulla or divorce only with her husband's consent and after paying compensation. Different schools of Muslim law prescribe how talaq should be pronounced: in the wife's presence, addressed to her, in her absence, thrice in a single sitting, in between menstrual cycles, with or without sexual abstinence, and in degrees of revocability. Once the contract's over, there is an 'idat' period (roughly three months), in which the wife is 'maintained' by her husband and remarriage is restricted. After which, according to the aimplb, divorced man and wife are strangers to each other, with no obligation to maintenance.

The struggle then is for banning unilateral triple talaq and polygamy, registration of marriage and divorce, right for Muslim women to divorce without paying compensation, right to maintenance, custody and guardianship along with a progressive, gender-just nikahnama.

aimplb chairman Qazi Mujahidul Islam Qasimi is aggrieved by the unreasonableness of these demands. He feels only a few women at some seminars are shouting themselves hoarse against Muslim injustices, "the rest don't think like them". The Quran, for instance, he says, provides for triple talaq, which can't be 'banned' by mortals. Avers he: "Divine laws can't be changed, the solution is in changing mindsets. The board will work at Muslims becoming god-fearing Muslims, who are responsible husbands and fathers."

An ambitious task considering Islamisation hasn't been able to remove evils within the Muslim society for the past 700 years, quips jnu sociologist Imitiaz Ahmad. The law board's no more than an ngo without judicial powers, he points out. "Women are granting it more legitimacy than it has by looking to it for solutions. When the chairman said he wouldn't discuss triple talaq with them at last month's meeting, the women should have walked out." But they stuck on. "We won't budge," says Hasina Khan. "Muslim patriarchy shouldn't underestimate us. We're Allah's daughters."
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