With 59 per cent of divorced Indian Muslim women having gone through triple talaq, a practice outlawed in many Muslim majority nations, Muslim women’s rights cannot be ignored, writes Anusha Azees. In a paradox, photographer Dipnendu Chodhury captures the resistance against the movement.
Saleema* was married off at the age of 18 to a man who worked abroad. He left a week after their wedding and she didn’t hear from him. She suffered physical and emotional abuse from her in-laws, from taunts of her family’s poor financial situation to outright denying her medical attention when she fell sick, she still continued to put up with all of this until her husband divorced her. “Talaq. Talaq.Talaq” read the cold sms on her phone. She was immediately thrown out of her in-laws home and sent back to her parents. There was no way for her to get in touch with her now ex-husband, to know why he did this, to get closure, to move on.
Fathima* was a teacher in a small village in Northern Kerala. She was married when she turned 20, to a man who turned out to be abusive and a womanizer. He would constantly beat her and threaten her with divorce if she told anyone about it. A day eventually came, when he used the triple talaq to divorce her. She is now fending for herself and her two children without any support from her ex-husband.
More recently, the 18-year-old Arshiya Bagwan from Pune is planning to move the family court against Triple Talaq.
These are just some of the many stories of Muslim women who are struggling to live a life of dignity and are victims of triple talaq. To the uninitiated triple talaq refers to the age old practice in which a man can divorce his wife by simply uttering the words three times. Many Muslim scholars believe that there is a waiting period involved between the three talaqs as stated in the Quran and various hadiths. But the law is often misused.
The Muslim community in India is amongst the most backward in terms of education and socio-economic development. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (2014-2015) Muslims comprise 14 per cent of India’s population but account for 4.4 per cent of students enrolled in higher education. According to the Sacchar Committee, appointed to examine the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community, the situation has worsened over the last fifty years. Although the committee found double the proportion of graduates among younger Muslims compared to older Muslims, they noted “a widening gap between Muslim men and women compared with ‘All Others’, and an almost certain possibility that Muslims will fall far behind, if the trend is not reversed”.
This report was filed by Justice Rajindar Sachar almost a decade ago and the gross enrolment rate of the Muslim population might have doubled from 6.84 per cent to 13.8 per cent, but they continue to trail behind the national average and their women, even more so.
It’s a complex world for Indian Muslim women. Muslim girls are married off at a young age and before they know it, they are divorced and without any means to take care of themselves while being shunned by society. The social and economic backwardness, and limited access to education has only added to their woes. While on one-hand, they are trying to become independent and educated, on the other, they battle deep-rooted patriarchal notions that are often internalised.
The easiest pop-culture reference would be Sania Mirza and the numerous conversations around her and her religious beliefs. In navigating this, there are certain challenges which are very unique to Indian Muslim women. Like the fact that they are largely governed by the laws of the Muslim Law Board and hence fail to get some of the rights guaranteed under the Indian constitution.
To make matters worse, things are no better when it comes to getting the rights that their own religion guarantees them. This leaves a large number of Muslim women ignorant of their rights, limits their options for support and mostly puts them in a very helpless situation.
But, why is the Triple Talaq considered such a step backward for the rights of Muslim women? Doesn’t Islam as a religion allow for divorce? This is where some myths need to be dispelled.
The Quran details out divorce and it is a right that is granted to Muslims with a strong added disclaimer that marriage is a relationship to be safeguarded at all costs. There is a strong mention of the need for arbitration before the husband and wife, decide to part ways.
“And if you fear a breach between the two, appoint an arbiter from his people and an arbiter from her people. If they both desire agreement, Allah will effect harmony between them. (4:35)”
The triple talaq, which is talaq pronounced thrice in one sitting does not provide any room for arbitration as stated in the Quran. This is a strong reason and justification for Indian Muslim women who are fighting to overturn the Triple Talaq.
Just as there are norms in the Quran to formalize a marriage, there are norms to execute divorce as well. Some of the verses below lay great importance on patience and efforts to reconcile before taking the steps to end a marriage.
“Those who intend to divorce their wives shall wait four months; if they change their minds and reconcile, then God is forgiver, merciful. If they go through with the divorce, then God is hearer, knower.” (2:226-227)
“And the divorced women must wait for three menstrual courses… and their husbands are fully entitled to take them back (as their wives) during this waiting period, if they desire reconciliation.” (2:228)
“Divorce may be pronounced twice; then the wife may either be kept back in fairness or be allowed to separate in fairness. Then, if the husband divorces his wife (for the third time), she shall not remain lawful for him after this divorce, unless she marries another husband…” (2:229-230)
The verses stem from the understanding that like any relationship, marriage between two people is bound to have compatibility issues arising out of both individual personalities or upbringing or cultural or familial values.
In fact, in the Quran, a complete chapter devoted to divorce explains:
“O Prophet, when you divorce women, divorce them for their prescribed waiting-periods, and count the waiting-period accurately, and fear Allah, you Lord. And do not turn them out of their houses [during the waiting-period], nor should they themselves leave them, except in case they commit an open indecency…You do not know: Allah may after this bring about a situation [of reconciliation]. Then when they have reached the end of their [waiting] periods either retain them [in wedlock] in a fair manner or part with them in a fair manner, and call to witness two just witnesses from among yourselves, and [O witnesses] bear witness equitably for the sake of Allah.”(65:1-2)
And yet, women end up having to leave their husband’s house at a day’s notice without any waiting period. There is rarely any arbitration that happens involving the families or even the clerics. Many a times, it’s a case of fraudulent documents with signatures of hearsay witnesses.
There are many more examples of verses advising restraint in divorce yet there does not exist a single verse that validates the notion of triple talaq in one sitting. In fact, other Muslim majority countries have all moved away from the triple talaq and in some cases have established additional laws pushing for arbitration. For example, Egypt has a law which terms triple talaq pronounced in one sitting as a single pronouncement open to being revocable. Iraq, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have fashioned their own interpretations as well. Algeria has an additional judicial process that makes a further provision for completing the reconciliation process within 90 days. So does our neighbour Pakistan. And yet, in India we continue to uphold them.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) is not for any reform to the laws.
With the issue being painted in political contexts as ‘interference’ in practicing the religion which shall not be tolerated, the Board is forgetting about the needs of the very community it talks of safeguarding. Add the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) discussion into the mix, and the result is antiquated laws, with little religious backing, being defended in the name of ‘personal laws’. Personal laws have become subject to interpretation and convenience of board members, interested more in power and politics than actual welfare.
Indian Muslim women are fighting the practice of impulsively uttering talaq thrice in a go, or writing talaq thrice on a postcard, or sms or emails or hiring a qazi to affix his signature on a scrap of paper, which is un-Islamic. No cleric in his right minds can ever condone this practice.
But, unfortunately we live in different times where Muslim women are being denied the very rights that their religion has guaranteed them. Muslim women are not just fighting for abolishing the triple talaq. They are trying to fight for their right to read and interpret the scriptures for themselves. That is an important step for the empowerment of Indian Muslim women.
To defend a practice which has become a social evil, resulted in systematic abuse and is being used as a means of denying woman a graceful divorce does not make sense – neither religiously nor constitutionally. It goes against the very principle of safeguarding a women and her right to a happy and healthy marriage that Islam guarantees. For now, the voices of Indian Muslim women need to be heard and saved from getting diluted in the face of larger political and patriarchal agendas being pushed in the UCC debate.
*Names have been changed to protect identity of the case-studies.