The egregious practice that some Muslim men employ to divorce their wives instantaneously and without their consent, merely by uttering the word talaq (divorce) three times, has finally been declared unconstitutional and illegal by the Indian Supreme Court. The country’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) party claims that the ban is a victory for its administration, which had been advocating its abolition since it came to power in 2014.
But beyond this political claim, the verdict highlights the changing social and political landscape in India, which enabled a group of Muslim women to successfully take on orthodox elements in their community.
Public opinion against this practice could not have gathered critical mass if it weren’t for five Muslim women who stood up to the community’s conservative elements and challenged their patriarchal mindsets.
The five women – Shayara Bano, Gulshan Parveen, Afreen Rehman, Atiya Sabri and Ishrat Jahan – who spearheaded the fight endured threats from orthodox groups and refused to heed requests from the conservative clerics of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) to withdraw their petitions. The symbolism of these women taking on clerics is a powerful one; it shows that women across communities are increasingly assertive about what they want and what their aspirations are.
The long fight
It all started in April 1978 when a 62-year-old woman, Shah Bano, filed a petition demanding maintenance of her marriage after her husband divorced her by using triple talaq. Although she won her case, the Rajiv Gandhi government panicked and overturned the judgement in 1985 to avoid alienation from Muslim orthodox movements.
The events soon became national news, and were followed by a campaign against this reversal. In 1986, the government implemented the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act to nullify the Shah Bano judgement, granting paltry alimony to Muslim women. But it was strongly opposed by progressive women’s groups, and by many Muslim men too.
They rejected the priority accorded to the interests of a religious community over gender and the construction of identity predicated on narrow doctrinal principles that distinguished Muslims from others.
Gender rights for all
The new development in the past decade is the emergence of Muslim women’s activism propelled by the growth of non-party, autonomous women’s groups.
Consequently, Muslim women are willing to speak out against gender injustice, and find ways to challenge structures of power and authority within the community and the state at multiple levels.
These groups seek to promote equal citizenship rights pertaining to all fundamental rights mandated by the Constitution rather than focusing on changing personal laws to enhance their rights; this partly accounts for their success in mobilising women from all religious background to fight for gender equality.
For the first time Muslim women groups have taken the lead and have carried the momentum for change on their shoulders. Two networks are in the forefront of this process: the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) and the Bebaak Collective. Both have questioned the authority of the Muslim Personal Law Board to speak for the Muslim community and women in particular.
Both these networks, in different ways, place the exclusion of Muslim women in the wider context of the discrimination faced by Muslims in India in general, such as the recent issues regarding beef bans for example.
These multifaceted efforts have seen the beginnings of serious debate on social reform and gender justice within the community.
Beyond the religious angle
This broad reflection is crucial, as there’s abundant evidence that Muslim women rank below the national average when it comes to literacy, schooling and the workforce. For example, 48% of all Muslim women are illiterate, higher than the national average of 44%; the enrolment rate of Muslim girls in schools is 40.6% compared to 63.2% for caste Hindus; work participation of Muslim women in 2011 was just 14.8%, well below the already low 27% for all women.
This marginalisation is compounded by the fact that Muslim women’s issues are often only discussed as religious ones. This doesn’t just reinforce the centrality of personal laws, but glosses over the economic, political, and social problems that define the everyday experiences of Muslim women.
It’s clear that their deprivation stems from a shortage of three essentials: knowledge (measured by literacy and average years of schooling), economic power (work and income), and autonomy (measured by decision-making and physical mobility). Gender discrimination coalesces with class inequalities and pervasive social hierarchies to compound the marginalisation of Muslim women.
These issues are conspicuous by their absence from the world of politics, bureaucracy, universities, and the public and private sectors.
Typically, politicians associated with the BJP who have been the most vocal in expressing sympathy for the plight of the Muslim woman in their battle against the Muslim clergy are the ones who 60 years ago were at the forefront of opposing reform of Hindu marriage and inheritance practices depriving Hindu women from equal rights with men. Driven essentially by a hostility towards minorities rather than concern for gender justice, their real objective in supporting the ban on triple talaq is to show the minority community in a poor light.
However, the significance of the abolition of triple talaq shouldn’t be underestimated. And at the same time, there’s an urgent need to speak out not just against unjust personal laws, but also against the growing neglect and indeed discrimination that Muslim women suffer in different spheres. The abolition of triple talaq is not a panacea for the deep and serious problems these women face.
Zoya Hasan is also Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.