Finding Imrana, the woman who has stirred up this year's most heated religious controversy—raking up volatile issues like a uniform civil code, the rule of caste panchayats and the Shariat, launching a steady stream of high-profile visitors and more TV talk shows than this part of western UP has seen in recent times—was not going to be easy. So I enlist the help of Rehana Adib, an intrepid activist on visiting terms with the besieged family, who are now keeping her under close guard, fighting off reporters and lensmen with stones and abuses.
Rehana leads me confidently through the stifling, dung-smelling lanes of Kukramandi, a village clinging abjectly to the outskirts of Muzaffarnagar. Past curtained doorways with staring children behind them, until we turn abruptly into a courtyard where a young woman is sweeping the mud floor, raising a thick carpet of flies that settle sluggishly on the electric wiring overhead. She points us to the only room in the "house"—a tiny, airless, ill-lit cubbyhole. There, on a wooden divan that runs from wall to cramped wall, the youngest of her five children asleep by her side, lies Imrana. Without her burqa, her faded dupatta lying discarded under her, her thin limbs and dark face exposed, her eyes wide open but unseeing, she looks a picture of utter desolation.
She is silent, even the tears have dried up by now, but Rehana is able to reach out to her, embrace her, whisper encouragement, until her story unfolds, slowly, with many pauses, and once even cut short as the exhausted Imrana dozes off.
Until a month ago, Imrana's life was no different from what thousands of Muslim women in the villages of Muzaffarnagar district are condemned to lead. Illiterate, motherless, married by her older brothers at 13 or 14 to a rickshawpuller in Chartawal village, less than 15 km away, she lived life under strict purdah, bearing one child every year or two.
But on the night of June 3, she recalls, things got even worse. Her father-in-law, Mohammed Ali, taking advantage of his son's absence and the dark, crept into her bed with a country revolver, threatening to kill her and the children sleeping by her side if she screamed.
Later, when Imrana went crying to her mother-in-law, she found little comfort. Both her mother-in-law and sister-in-law fell at her feet, begging her not to go public with the rape and bring dishonour to the family. Imrana quietly bathed herself, washed her stained clothes, but poured out her grief to her brother's wife when she visited them the next day. Her enraged kin—four brothers and an older sister's husband—arrived the next day, eliciting a confession from the guilty father-in-law. They would have left with their sister and her husband if only the news of the quarrel hadn't travelled as rapidly as it often does to the rest of the village.
Within minutes, a customary caste panchayat—composed of all the available men in the village of their Ansari community—was called and the sentence passed: she was no longer the lawfully wedded wife of her husband, Noor, having slept with his father, however involuntarily. Such unfair and medieval rulings by caste panchayats are common in western UP. As Rehana, founder of a local women's organisation called Astitva, points out, "Chopping off naak-choti (nose and hair) are almost a weekly occurrence, others are killed or hung upside down. No woman is ever called to either give her side of the picture or to pass judgement on others."
However, neither Imrana, nor her husband and brothers lost hope, setting off for Kukramandi, where they filed a police complaint against Mohammed Ali and had him arrested for rape. "I wanted to put my father-in-law behind bars," says Imrana. She even agreed to go for medical investigation when she found out that her case against her father-in-law would not stand in court sans a medical report. But disaster struck again. The ulema at Deoband formally stated the Shariat position: such a marriage is invalid. As the media and the community went into overdrive, and it became a hot potato, Deoband retracted, saying it had only expressed a 'hypothetical' point of law. But in its effect, it had already assumed the force of a fatwa, taken as religious diktat. One like Imrana could hardly dare flout it.
Gloom descended on the Kukramandi family. Imrana's dilemma became national news, giving the family a notoriety in the village they don't deserve. "The men go off to watch TV and return more depressed," says Shabnam, Imrana's sister-in-law. "No one has slept since then, though we keep popping sleeping pills. And she," pointing to Imrana, "hasn't eaten since then. She keeps crying and asks, 'Who went to the bade maulvi?'." The moral weight of the Darul Uloom at Deoband was wreaking havoc on a blameless woman's life. "I don't want to lose my husband and my only home," Imrana cries.
Other women from the village come to condole, but end up rubbing more salt in the wound. Like neighbour Hashmi, in her 50s, who says with some relish that she has been forbidden by her sons to visit the dishonoured family. "Poor thing, she was married off at 12 so that there was no risk of dishonouring her family's name. And it's her marriage that has brought the dishonour."
Noor, the husband turned by his father's dastardly act and the jati panchayat's ruling into his wife's son, is equally dazed by the turn of events. He is in Kukramandi on this day, possibly to visit his wife, but so far doesn't dare face the prostrate Imrana, hovering uneasily in the courtyard. What are his plans? "I'll wait for the final decision," he says dully, slapping off his four-year-old daughter who has crept close to him, absently, but with surprising vehemence. The child creeps away, expressionless. But who then will support Imrana and the children? He looks upward—"Allah mian dekh lega."
Hearteningly, Imrana's "notoriety" and her family's overpowering shame are not discouraging other women in a similar situation from seeking help wherever they can find it. Says Rehana, "Ever since Imrana's case hit the headlines, I've received calls for help from at least 10 women who have been thrown out of their homes, burnt and beaten up by caste panchayats for no fault of theirs." Rani, 24, is one of them. Married at 14, and now mother of four, she says she was raped two-and-a-half years ago by her father-in-law in her husband's village in Bulandshahr district.
And like Imrana, when she went to her mother-in-law to complain, she was asked to shut up. Her husband put her on a bus to her widowed mother's home in Muzaffarnagar, promising to join her in 10 days. When he didn't turn up or send money to support her and the four children, Rani decided to go to a lawyer. She has changed four lawyers so far and spent all her earnings as a housemaid, but her husband is yet to send her any maintenance. "When I saw all these women leaders supporting Imrana, I decided to appeal to them," says Rani. "I can't go to the panchayat because nobody listens to a woman, nor do the maulvis meet any woman. Why should I abide by the Shariat when it has not done anything for me?"
Other women too are rebelling despite backlash from the community leaders. "It's an uphill task," says Rehana, who too was raped by her uncles when she was 13 and turned out by a jati panchayat. "The only hope for us is to raise awareness and fight against this jungle raj."