Standing on a pile of rubble in the verdant landscape of Lolab Valley flecked with apple and walnut trees, Shaheena, a 34-year-old social worker with hazel-green eyes, says she’s happy to be finally free—of the fetters of yesterday in Lolab town, the land of sweet water, in northwest Kashmir. Her confident gait and exuberance mark her out in the little village of Lalpora as she descends from a pile of debris wearing a thick black coat on a freezing January morning. “You see, that’s where I live with my son,” she says, pointing to the burnt-orange building that has been her home for the few years since she declared independence.
Later, sipping kahwa in rusty silver cups, Shaheena pours out her story. Married to a distinguished maulvi from her village in 2001, she had hoped for a contented life after a year-long courtship. “I thought he’s well-read and would keep me happy, but within six months of marriage, I realised he’s two-faced,” she says. “Manzoor would abuse me physically and was having an extra-marital affair.” She took matters to the Kupwara district court to help dissolve her marriage and seek custody of her son, who was then six years old. With no support from her family, she held her flag aloft. The marriage was annulled. “He agreed to give me Rs 1,000 per month as maintenance and Rs 2,500 for my son’s requirements. I made no further demands, because I just wanted to be free,” she says. In her Kashmiri-laden Hindi, Shaheena, who brooks no sympathy, tells us this is the way forward for women in the Valley. It seems other women have heard her.
About 125 km from Lolab, tucked away in the mundane neighbourhood of Sohra on the outskirts of Srinagar, the Supreme Court of Islamic Shariat is crammed with women anxiously awaiting the Grand Mufti-designate’s arbitration. The court, set up in 1571 during Akbar’s reign, has a rich history of handling civil cases—property disputes, inheritance, marital discord. Its lofty rooms are stacked with books on Islamic law; the opulently carpeted floors take one back in time. The court is recognised by Kashmiris as a popular platform of arbitration and grievance redress.
Nasir-ul-Islam, a quiet man with an easy disposition who took charge from his father Mufti Mohammad Bashiruddin Farooqi barely two months back, has been instrumental in bringing quick justice to many women. “I’ve disposed of 45 cases so far of women from different parts of Kashmir who have sought divorce. It’s an interesting trend in a conservative society,” he notes. Till 2006, he worked for the government of Abu Dhabi, and then lived in Canada and the US before moving back to the Valley and taking up women’s rights with a missionary zeal. “In regular courts, cases drag on for years. But now, women want speedy dissolution of marriages. They are independent-minded and like to assert themselves,” he says (see interview). Many heated exchanges are witnessed in his courtroom, but one that stands out is that of Nazira, a petite, 31-year-old woman refusing to reconcile differences with her husband. “He messed up my mental peace since we got married three years ago, so divorce is the only way out,” she screams.
Why are women seeking divorce from abusive husbands with such conviction in a conservative society? Officials and ordinary citizens we spoke to give many reasons: women’s education, awareness through social media, women leaving small towns in search of jobs and learning how it is in the cities, rising aspirations.
True, Kashmir teems with the problems posed by terrorism and violent reprisals against ordinary people by militants, the separatist movement and the brutalities of the state and its troops. All the same, there is hope in a changing social milieu in which women are setting new standards by leaving bad marriages behind, unworried about the stigma traditional society attaches to divorce. Nayeema Ahmad Mahjoor, chairperson of the State Women’s Commission, says, “There’s actually an alarming rise in divorces sought by women. Earlier, she would endure the circumstances, but now she’s asking for refuge and escape openly.” She says some five cases are registered daily at the commission by women seeking divorce. While men are willing to go through reconciliation or counselling, most women say they’ve weighed all options and are firm about making a complete break. Even at police stations, it’s easy to find women coming forward to seek help. Gulshan Akhtar, a police officer from Srinagar, says she gets about 20 cases a day of women demanding escape from violent, addicted or even just incompatible husbands.
According to the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, a woman is entitled to divorce if her husband is untraceable for four years, or if he fails to meet conjugal obligations or inflicts mental or physical cruelty. A marriage may be dissolved through talaaq-i-tafweez, in which a husband delegates the power of divorce absolutely or conditionally to his wife; lian, in which a woman may seek divorce on facing character assassination or false charges of adultery; khula and mubarat, where divorce is reached through mutual consent. In such instances, she could petition a qadi or an Islamic community panel to grant her divorce if her husband refuses. She is also entitled to keep her mehr (original gift specified in the marriage contract) and get maintenance for three months and ten days. After that, she’s free to marry again.
But in reality, it’s not so easy: financial and legal hurdles stand in her path. In many cases, she is required to surrender the mehr to her husband’s family; and if the child is older than seven years, she may be asked to forfeit custody. The 1985 Shah Bano case, for instance, wasn’t the first in which the judgement granted a woman maintenance. But a vociferous orthodoxy deemed it an attack on Islam. A national survey released last August by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a rights-based organisation led by Muslim women, found that more than 92 per cent of the 4,710 Muslim women surveyed across 10 states wanted a total ban on verbal talaq by men and felt their former husbands must pay for children’s maintenance. An overwhelming majority also wanted reforms in laws governing alimony and polygamy.
Interestingly, it is a largely conservative society like Kashmir that has led the way over the last decade, with many Muslim women—from all social strata, dentists to homemakers, and age groups 18 to late 50s—going to court or Islamic panels for annulment of marriage. Ishtiyaq Khan, a Srinagar-based lawyer, says, “A lot of Kashmiris are travelling to other parts of the country and becoming conscious of their rights. The media has a big role to play in women’s emancipation by making them aware of the goings-on in the world.” He says, earlier, women opted for reconciliation or out-of-court settlement, but now, “the moment they feel discriminated against, they voice their grievance”. Massarat Shaheen, a chief judicial magistrate in Srinagar, identifies independence of women and incompatibility with their husbands as two big reasons why divorces are on the rise. Herself a divorcee, she says she faced verbal abuse and mental cruelty. “I decided not to live with him in 1995, and filed for divorce in 2007,” she says. “For eight years, he paid a meagre Rs 3,000 per month as maintenance, but I was independent and didn’t need it.” She asserts that more women should stand up for their rights. Even PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti gave khula to her husband Javed Iqbal and returned to her parents as a single mother of two toddlers, Iltija and Irtiqa.
But for women from poor sections, breaking out of marriage is a formidable challenge. Shabnam, a demure girl from Sopore, was forced into nikah by her father at the age of 18. A couple of months later, she learnt that her husband was a drug addict and interested only in pilfering her finances. “So I went alone to lodge a divorce petition at a Sharia court in Srinagar and fight for maintenance,” she says.
Mufti Nasir says that now progressive families are standing by their daughters—even daughters-in-law—who seek divorce. What is most refreshing, even reformist, is that religious heads have nodded in agreement with aggrieved women. Abdul Khaliq Haneef, an executive member of the Muslim Personal Board, Jammu and Kashmir, says Islam has guaranteed women certain rights and they are rightly asserting themselves. “Quite a few women have sought my intervention to annul their marriages. There’s a rapidly growing awareness and exposure, and women are ready to take the leap.”
Among the many divorced girls we spoke to, one of the major causes was addiction in husbands. Rubaiya, a 28-year old woman from Chanpora, on the outskirts of Srinagar, says her marriage was arranged because the families knew each other. “I could never guess he’s an addict. Mushtaq sold all my ornaments and spent hours doing drugs by locking himself up in the bathroom,” she says. It was hard to convince her parents, owing to the prejudices attaching to divorced women, but finally she told them she could no longer take the physical and mental trauma. Her father Abdi, who’s still recovering from the shock, says the family was at first not in favour of Rubaiya’s decision to split but later gave her full support.
Along with the rising divorces, the need for counselling has risen too: women need help in handling the emotional and psychological stress of enduring (or having endured) abusive, addicted or incompatible husbands and also for coping after the split. Dr Mushtaq Ahmad Margoob, a clinical researcher in Srinagar, says lots of women find they could do with some medical help (with prescribed medicines) to handle the stress of bad marriages and divorce. “So now,” he says, “many are seeking professional, familial or organisational support to move out of abusive matrimony.”
Not all are happy with the turn of events, of this trend of women asserting themselves and demanding justice. Prominent Kashmiri writer Zareef Ahmad Zareef believes independence to this degree doesn’t bode well in a traditional society, and that women should learn to adjust, be patient and not run to court for trivial reasons. “A lot of them are victims of depression because of the political turmoil, lack of jobs and drug addiction issues in the state. Those in legal circles should make women understand the importance of reconciling differences and not take an extreme step,” he says. Indeed addiction—to narcotic substances and painkillers or other medication—is a problem. Prof Hameedah Nayeem, chairperson of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies, says women have become assertive no doubt, but generally don’t want to see their marriages disintegrate because the stigma is still there. Advocate Bashir Sidiq, general secretary of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association, says divorce laws are sometimes misused by women to fulfil their own agenda. “Earlier, fights would be settled within homes and mohallas, but now with the changing social fabric, women are frequenting courts, citing lack of compatibility or temperament.”
Yes, things are changing, and it is perhaps time everyone took notice. In a survey last year in Uttar Pradesh’s Rohilkhand region, eliciting the views of 100 Muslim women on personal laws governing them, 60 per cent said they wanted to have the same right to divorce as Muslim men, 50 per cent felt that the mere payment of a token amount at the time of divorce was grossly insufficient, and a whopping 80 per cent said they wanted equal property rights. Divorces so far dealt with by qazis, muftis and maulvis are now being taken up by women Shariat courts across many states. Despite opposition from some quarters, women are certainly speaking up against unhappy marriages all over the country. For Shaheena and many other women we met in Kashmir, leaving their husbands wasn’t an easy decision. “It’s still a big leap of faith,” says Massarat Shaheen. But these bold women are taking the leap, determined to handle the struggles ahead.
(Some names have been changed.)
By Priyadarshini Sen in Srinagar and Lolab; Photographs: Narendra Bisht