On April 23, 1985, the Supreme Court gave a historic judgement on the Shah Bano case, enraging the clerics and the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and triggering hectic political activity. As the campaign against the verdict ordering monthly alimony to the mother of five from central India gained momentum, the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi came under pressure to appease the clergy.
Thirty-two years later, triple talaq has, yet again, gained focus. The apex court is to hear from May 11 a litigation filed by a woman against a clause under the Muslim personal law that allows a man to divorce his wife by just uttering the T-word thrice. Questions crop up. Are Muslim women against triple talaq or are they against divorce in one sitting? What about maintenance? What is the AIMPLB’s stand on the sensitive issue?
Recently, a comment on the vexed matter came from none less than Salma Ansari, the wife of the country’s Vice President Hamid Ansari. “There can be no divorce just because someone utters talaq, talaq, talaq.… There is no such rule in the Quran. They (clerics) have just made it up,” she told the media on the sidelines of a function.
Hardly a week later, on April 16, the AIMPLB censured triple talaq in by far its strongest possible measure. In Lucknow, the 1973-founded body announced social boycott against anyone resorting to it. “We should as a society step in and try to regulate it,” the AIMPLB’s Kamal Faruqui tells Outlook. “It is bringing a bad name to the religion. So now every Friday, all imams give sermons to stop triple talaq.”
Majority Muslims within and outside the AIMPLB believe that triple talaq is against the spirit of Islam and is “undesirable”. According to AIMPLB working committee member S.Q.R. Ilyas, there is a rider to simultaneous talaqs. “Actually, after its first or second pronouncement, there should be a 90-day waiting period in case the couple wants to reconcile.” Ilyas seeks to play down the case before the highest court as it is “related to triple talaq and not talaq one at a time”.
The debate, anyway, is gaining momentum as the government has signalled many times that it is in favour of a Uniform Civil Code cutting across religions. Muslims view it as an infringement on their personal laws. The Allahabad high court’s observations last December that triple talaq is ‘unconstitutional’ has only added to their worries. In fact, the stand of the AIMPLB, as an organisation tasked with the applicability of the Shariat Act of 1937 in the country, is clear and loud: outside interference is unacceptable.
If the Congress played Muslim appeasement all along, the BJP is flashing a ‘progressive politics’ card on Muslims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi told party workers at the just-ended national executive in Orissa to stand by Muslim women in their struggle against triple talaq since the Constitution guarantees dignity to all.
BJP ex-MP Shahnawaz Hussain says the Modi government and the BJP share their stand on the issue. “The party is standing by the side of those Muslim women who are against triple talaq,” he tells Outlook. In other words, those who are not against triple talaq also get exposed in the process as anti-woman. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath also joined the debate when he said the other day that the politicians keeping silent on the issue were equally responsible for the continuation of the practice. There have been many instances where a woman has been summarily divorced, even in her absence.
As per the 2011 Census, 68 per cent of female divorcees in India’s urban areas are Hindu, while the percentage for Muslims is 23 and 4.1 for Christians. In rural areas, the figures are 70 per cent, 21 per cent and 3.4 per cent. The maximum divorce among Hindus is in the age group 25-44 years, Muslims 20-44 and Christians 25-49 years. These figures have changed in the past six years.
That said, there is no fix on the number of women who have been abandoned by their husbands and relatives and have no means to support themselves. Faruqui says Muslim society has “minimal” percentage of divorced or widowed marriageable age women because re-marriage is common and not a taboo.
A recent survey says 100 out of 13,000 Muslim women are divorced. The study held in UP, West Bengal, Delhi, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala by the Muslim Mahila Research Kendra (MMRK) in coordination with the Shariah Committee for Women, says 40 of the 100 divorce cases were initiated by the women, 18 divorces were through Darul Qaza, 10 through judicial court and 12 triple talaq cases. A total of 116 were domestic violence cases, 89 dowry cases and 62 on payment of maintenance. The majority of the harassment cases were from the lower middle class, says Dr Asma Zohra, head of the women’s wing of the AIMPLB. The survey also brought on surface that a lot of Muslim women were living with their husbands for the sake of financial dependency. RTI replies of family courts of Karimnagar, Nashik, Secunderabad and Guntur, filed by the MMRK, clearly show that divorce and maintenance cases of Muslims were much less than Hindus or Christians between 2011 and 2016.
For progressive women like Asma, (name changed), who fought for her post-divorce rights through the court, the debate about divorce cases being lower among Muslims compared to Hindus or Christians is misplaced. “Don’t blame the system, but hold responsible the way men practise talaq,” says the 30-year-old. “There can never be real reconciliation if a man has decided not to live with his wife. Ours is an impatient generation. It’s better to accept reality, fight for our rights and move on in life.”
A large section of Muslim women favours abolition of triple talaq, halala ritual and polygamy. They condemn triple talaq as unilateral. “It is not validated by the Quran; so it cannot be validated by the Constitution of India,” says Zakia Soman of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. Her organisation is firm that Parliament has to abolish triple talaq. “Halala, too, should become a punishable offence. Also, polygamy should be banished and custody and guardianship of children must be entitled to both, father as well as mother; currently mother is not entitled,” Soman says. Ilyas agrees with Soman on triple talaq, but asks, “Who will pronounce the judgement?”
Faruqui urges the government to restore the institution of the Qazi, which used to be there before Independence. He also demands a survey across faiths of abandoned divorced women. “We will whole-heartedly cooperate with the government on the survey for Muslim women. We will create a corpus for them; funds will not be an issue.”
While many Muslim women are willing to fight against triple talaq, a parallel door-to-door campaign was going on at least till sometime ago in support of it. Many, however, feel that the issue should be left to the community to sort out. Dr Zafrul Islam Khan, a former president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat that is a federation of the country’s Muslim organisations, is completely against triple talaq, but says “non-Muslims—the government, the judiciary and Parliament—shouldn’t interfere in it since Islamic jurists accepted this centuries ago.”
A Jamiat Law Institute is being set up to teach Islamic law. “The Muslims are trying to do their bit at their level, but they need to do much more as a progressive society,” says Shakil Ahmad Syed, the director of the institute in Delhi.