She is 25 years old and it has been five years since her marriage. At her in-laws, they would beat her regularly, make her work like a slave and keep asking for dowry. A year back, her husband’s father came home, thrashed him and told him that he must divorce her. She says before asking her to leave, her husband said ‘talaq’ to her twice. You suspect that is not true. Three is the number that severs the link. Twice gives her an opening to claim the marriage is technically still on. He has not asked her to return since then. She says they blame her for the divorce. She took her two babies when she was forced to go. Without any means of support, she waited impatiently for a call back that never came. She then filed a police complaint against them for domestic violence. Now that she has filed the case, her husband says there is no room for reconciliation. This is not an unusual story, the only difference being that her father-in-law is a reputed Muslim cleric in Bhopal. “He should know that divorce cannot happen like this,” she says. “There is a procedure that the Qur’an specifies. He knows the Qur’an inside out and still he has gone ahead and done this to me. And if someone with so much knowledge can do it, then why won’t ordinary people?”
Safia Akhtar, who has been working for Muslim women’s rights in Bhopal, remembers another case some years ago in the city where a Muslim man wrote ‘talaq talaq talaq’ on his wife’s Facebook wall. The wife refused to accept it, and, because of the shock of such a divorce, a qazi ruled it illegal. But there was no victory in it. The woman had filed a police complaint about dowry harassment, and at the police station, the husband agreed to take her back. But as soon as they got out, he threatened to kill her, according to Akhtar. The wife left for her parent’s house and Akhtar has not heard from her since.
Akhtar, who is the Madhya Pradesh state convenor for the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), once called a press conference where she got a number of women who had gone through ‘triple talaq’ voicing their stories. They demanded that the process of divorce should be as it is spelt out in the Qur’an, spaced across a period of time with a reconciliation option built into it.
“Then newspapers—Urdu newspapers—said that if we talk like this, then like Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, we would have to live under the shadow of fundamentalists. Even the Muslim establishment said that it is wrong for us to go against qazis and muftis. There were many threats to us.”
Akhtar has just collected and shortlisted 13 cases of triple talaq from all over Madhya Pradesh. This will go to an all- India pool that the BMMA is creating. In November this year, they will hold a conference in Delhi where stories of triple talaq will be put forth to show the continuance of a medieval practice that many Muslims think is illegal under the tenets of their faith.
Last month, the results of a survey that asked Muslim women what they thought of personal laws were published. It was significant because there have been no large-scale studies that take into account the voices of Muslim women in India. “To my knowledge, the survey is the first of its kind,” says Dr Noorjehan Safia Niaz, one of the co-founders of BMMA. A Tata Institute of Social Studies graduate, Niaz has been working on Muslim community issues since the early 1990s in Mumbai. In 2007, she helped form the BMMA in the city and it is now an all-India umbrella organisation for Muslim women’s rights with 65,000 members. “Since then, we have been getting a lot of cases. There are multiple ways in which we have been trying to convey that we need a better law that is gender-just. Then we felt that we need data. We need hard data through a scientifically recognised process of doing a survey. Myself and Zakia [Soman, co- founder], we have done research within academic circles. We felt we were equipped to do a national study to gauge the responses of these women and to find out what is it they want.”
The data collection for the survey was done from July 2013 to December 2013. They got 4,710 Muslim women from 10 states in India to answer a closed-ended questionnaire divided into two parts. The first part sought information on what Muslim women are going through, their experience of prevalent personal laws. It had questions like what the mehr was (the contractual sum a husband must pay his wife either at marriage or upon divorce), whether their consent was taken before the wedding, whether the husband maintained her financially (and if it was sufficient), whether they had faced domestic violence, and, if divorced, how it was done. The second part asked what they wanted of their personal laws. For example, what should the age of marriage be? Should a Muslim man be allowed to marry again while his first marriage was still valid? Should a Muslim woman be allowed to marry, likewise, while her first marriage was valid? Should there be a ban on the practice of unilateral triple divorce?
The results painted a bleak picture of backwardness. About three-fourths of the women lived in families whose annual income was below Rs 50,000, over half of them had married before the age of 18, and as many had suffered domestic violence. Just about 20 per cent worked; the rest were homemakers. It also showed how casually men divorce their wives. Of the 4,710 women who answered the questionnaire, there were 525 divorcees. “Of those divorces, 346 were oral, 40 by letter, 18 by phone, one by SMS and three by email; 78 per cent had been divorced unilaterally,” says Niaz.
The survey also revealed how badly Muslim women wanted change. As many as 92.1 per cent were in favour of unilateral oral triple talaq being done away with, and almost as many wanted arbitration to be made mandatory before a divorce. About 88 per cent wanted any qazi who solemnised such a divorce to be punished, and over 90 per cent wanted polygamy done away with in their community.
Like some schools of Islamic jurisprudence, the BMMA also says that triple talaq uttered at one go has no Quranic sanction. “That is the whole tragedy,” says Niaz, “The Qur’an very clearly says that arbitration is mandatory. Verses say that if there is a dispute, then members from her family and his family will sit and reconcile, and God will help them reconcile. Islamic law also sanctions a process of Talaq-e-Ahsan, which is a process of arbitration spread over three months. So if the intention of divorce is expressed today; the second and final divorce will happen after three months and they are supposed to stay together during the gap without a physical relationship. Again, the idea is to mend your differences if possible. And also to discuss other issues like what will happen to the children. This is the Quranically approved process. And it makes sense because any relationship should not end with the whims and fancies [of one party].”
In the survey, 88.3 per cent of Muslim respondents wanted Talaq-e-Ahsan to be the method of divorce.
On a Monday afternoon in the BMMA’s Mumbai office, a small room in Kherwadi in the suburb of Bandra, some women sit on the floor against a wall with a writing stool before them. On their necks are identity cards which say ‘Auraton Ki Shariah Adalat’ (Shariah Adalat of Women). It is a legal aid centre, but the term ‘Shariah Adalat’ has been used deliberately to challenge the clergy’s control over the interpretation of Muslim law.
One girl in a burkha has been abandoned by her husband and her details are taken down—name, address, landmark, whether she has brought the nikaahnama along, what happened. The next girl who comes has faced domestic violence and her parents and brother are present. They are okay with her going back to her marital home provided there is some assurance that she won’t be treated like that again. These stories continue and the usual response of the Shariah Adalat is to fix a date for when they go visiting the husband’s family.
One woman I meet, probably the only educated person with a white-collar job there, had met a man on a matrimonial website. At the wedding, he brought a woman who he claimed to be his sister- in-law. Later she came to know that she was actually his first wife. By then, she was trapped in their home in Gurgaon and a considerable part of her savings had been taken away from her. She finally escaped and returned to Mumbai. When she complained to the police, they said polygamy is allowed in her religion and they couldn’t do anything about it. After the Shariah Adalat intervened, however, she got back part of her money from him.
For every dispute, the first step of the Shariah Adalat is for a group of its activists to go to the house of the husband against whom the complaint is being made and then summon him. If he comes, they try to arrive at a fair solution.
Khatoon Shaikh, the Maharashtra convenor of the BMMA, was among the first of the group to start working for Muslim women’s rights, over two decades ago. She was at the time a housewife who had studied up to class seven. “In the beginning, we didn’t know anything. I lived in a chawl, had seven children,” she says. The trigger for her transformation was a relative being beaten up badly with a water pipe by her husband. Shaikh went to complain to the police. The battered relative, who came to stay with her, needed work for herself and school admission for her children. That was how they met Niaz, who arranged the admission. The woman also got a sewing machine to earn some money tailoring clothes. “We told Noorjehan we also want to work like her and [asked] whether she would help us,” says Shaikh.
Niaz started assisting them, but when she told them about what the Qur’an says about women’s rights, Shaikh says they would ask her not to bring the Holy Book into it. “I used to be scared. None of us were educated. My thinking about reading the Qur’an changed when we read the suras in which the rights of women are spoken of. The Qur’an says if you want to divorce someone, then there is a right method to it.”
They started working with women who had been unilaterally divorced, but with the Qur’an as the framework. In one case, a qazi sent a woman a letter saying that she had been divorced by her husband. Khatoon Shaikh and a few other women went to meet him. “We said, ‘We want to marry.’ He said, ‘Where is the man?’ We asked, ‘Why do you need a man to marry us, when you can give a divorce without the wife?’” she recounts. In another case, a woman got a letter in a bank envelope. She thought it was a cheque, but when she opened it, she found a notice of divorce. “She started crying that ‘My divorce has happened.’ We told her we won’t agree to it. We called the maulana who had written the letter and asked how could he do the divorce?” she says. They got the husband to pay his wife Rs 75,000. Every week, says Shaikh, they get one or two cases like this. Recently, a man sent his divorce notice to his wife through WhatsApp and they forced the husband to take his wife back.
Jaibunisha Reyazbabu, state convenor of the BMMA for Tamil Nadu, oversaw the survey in the state. She finds many a talaq coming through SMS these days, mainly sent by migrant labourers. She relates one case from Trichy of a 29-year- old woman, married to a husband who worked in Saudi Arabia as a driver. They had two children. She claims to have been treated like a servant by the in-laws. Their differences heightened when she had to undergo a heart surgery and found them unwilling to offer any support. She had to go to her parents and took her jewellery along with her. When she returned, her mother-in-law started getting even more abusive. One day, she got an SMS from her husband divorcing her. She was thrown out rightaway without her children. When she went to the Jamaat, a local arbitration council, they said food and clothes were all she needed to maintain herself and that she had no other rights. She then approached the Shariah Adalat in Tamil Nadu and they mediated her return to her husband’s house. But she lives under the threat of being divorced at any moment even now.
“At the beginning, [triple talaq] only used to be done among poor people,” says Reyazbabu, “Now it is also being seen among educated people.”
Soon after the survey came out, news reports said the All India Muslim Personal Law Board was going to discuss reforming the practice of triple talaq at a national meeting of clerics. And then, just a few days later, a spokesperson of the Board said that there would be no rethink on it.
The Board’s stance on the issue remains unclear. Kamal Faruqui, a member of AIMPLB, says that the Board is indeed taking the issue seriously. “There has been a discussion going on. It is at a preliminary stage, and I don’t know what will be the outcome of it, but definitely there is a sense of urgency,” he says.
Meanwhile, another AIMPLB member, Dr SQR Ilyas says that it is not the domain of the Board to decide on this issue. “The Board is a conglomeration of different schools of thought. It is an apex body of Indian Muslims where each and every school of thought, where people from different organisations—religious and social—are present. It cannot make a uniform concept. Dialogue between these schools of thought have been going on for centuries.”
Neither Faruqui nor Ilyas is in favour of triple talaq issued at one time. They say the Qur’an does not recommend it. Faruqui makes the paradoxical case that such a divorce by a husband is valid but also punishable according to the Qur’an. “It has been misused and is bringing a bad name to Islam. [The menfolk] have not understood the whole thing properly,” he says.
Ilyas says a number of things like arbitration have been specified in the Qur’an before the third and final talaq. But should a man issue all three talaqs at one go, there are different viewpoints on its legality. One school of thought thinks it is valid if consciously given. “That is the Hanafi opinion, and it is predominantly the Hanafi school of thought that’s there in India,” he says. The opinion of some other schools is that no matter how many times a man says ‘talaq’ in one sitting, it is counted only as a single utterance.
Ilyas and Faruqui do not accept the BMMA survey results as representative of Muslim women’s sentiments in general. The BMMA, on the other hand, does not think of the Board as representative of Muslims in India. “It is an NGO like any other,” says Niaz. While almost everyone seems agreed on the necessity of this practice being done away with, no one seems to think it will happen anytime in the immediate future.