Shayara Bano: The Lady Who Dared

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Muslim countries don’t support it, neither should India, says the petitioner fighting to put an end to triple talaq. Could Shayara Bano be the woman who challenged the misogyny after Shah Bano?

SHE IS THE WOMAN at the centre of a storm. But it is impossible to tell. She sits with her hand grasping the mattress as if steeling herself to remain seated when she’d much rather flee. Her story is making headlines across the country, but she prefers to read Grihshobha to newspapers. She is deemed the next Shah Bano, but has only the faintest idea who that is. (If Shah Bano proved to be historic for the issue of maintenance post-divorce, Shayara Bano might prove to be the same for pre-divorce.) Her case has reached the Supreme Court, but she has never set foot in Delhi.

Meet Shayara Bano, the petitioner in the case that questions the legality of triple talaq. She is the ‘35-year-old from Uttarakhand’ whose writ petition questions oral divorce, after she was summarily issued a talaqnama on 10 October 2015 by her Allahabad- based property agent husband Rizwan Ahmad.

Shayara Bano has urged the court to declare that triple talaq or talaq-e-bidat (unilateral verbal pronouncement of talaq), nikah- halala (where a woman is made to consummate a nikah with another man in order to go back to her former husband) and polygamy are illegal and in violation of Articles 14 (equality before law), 15 (prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, sex, place of birth), 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) and 25 (freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion) of the Constitution. The apex court bench has given the Government and other parties, including the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, till early May to respond.

Shayara Bano’s name has become synonymous with the case, yet she has remained all but invisible. Her younger brother Arshad Ali is leading the battle from the front, with the support of Delhi-based lawyers Balaji Srinivasan, Arunava Mukherjee and Amit Chadha. Shayara Bano, who has remained within the confines of Kashipur (her maika) and Allahabad (her sasural), has never met them. The Open team was the first journalists to meet her in the small Terrai town of Kashipur, 250 km from Delhi.

Shayara Bano, one of three sisters and a brother, was born and brought up in this town bordering the Jim Corbett National Park. Their father Iqbal Ahmad works in the cantonment of Hempur Daya, a wooded area where the animals from the Park often wander out and greet the locals. We meet Shayara Bano and her brother at their friend’s house in Kashipur main town, adjacent to a polytechnic university. They don’t wish to take us to their father’s home, the brother tells us, because it falls under the cantonment jurisdiction and visitors come under scrutiny.

We wait for Shayara Bano at the friend’s newly constructed house, wondering if she will show up at all. When she does after around 30 minutes, she is a picture of sweet smiles, long silences and scant answers. She has a steady gaze but looks to her brother for constant encouragement, as if afraid to slip up. She knows that thanks to her, the issue of triple talaq is being discussed in newsroom studios (she watched the programme on Zee News) but she would rather witness all this from afar. Given her reticence, one is compelled to resort to conjecture: she realises she has instigated all of this, but now that it is an issue of national importance, she doesn’t feel responsible for it.

Shayara Bano is proof of how the personal is political, and how lone individuals can be agents of change. Where does she get her strength from? I ask. She says simply, “Mere mummy, papa ne hamesha mujhe protsahit kiya hai (My parents have always encouraged me)”. Her parents are away in Allahabad meeting another daughter who works at a doctor’s clinic. Over the phone, her father says with discernible fervour that if Shayara Bano’s case will help other daughters of the country, he will support her fully.

Intellectuals and activists, organisations and groups, laymen and laywomen have condemned the practice of triple talaq and nikah- halala for years. But this is the first time the issue has gained such widespread attention. Dr Noorjehan Safia Niaz of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) says on the phone from Mumbai, “As Muslim women, Quranic rights have not reached us, constitutional rights have not reached us. Triple talaq is against the Qur’an. Oral unilateral divorce cannot be allowed. If it is declared illegal with this case, there will be larger ramifications.” For BMMA and those like Shayara Bano, the need of the hour is to remove triple talaq and to provide space for negotiations and reconciliation for couples. The Holy Qur’an, they say, provides for reconsideration before recognising divorce as irrevocable.

SHAYARA BANO’S FATHER ensured his three daughters gained an education; she even has an MA in Sociology. In 2002, she was betrothed to Rizwan Ahmad who worked with Pepsi. He had only completed high school and from the start, the match seemed unequal, but she was determined to make the best of it and initially did. Soon after her nikah, she moved to Allahabad to be with her husband and his family. The problems began almost at once. While Shayara Bano had to first adjust to an alien city after the intimacy of Kashipur, bigger struggles awaited her. For more than a decade she tolerated and even gave in to his demands for the sake of her two children— a son and a daughter, aged 13 and 11 today.

With triple talaq, Indian men exploit women. They say it whenever they want, in a fit of anger. Life ends for the woman

But in April 2015 matters took a decidedly ugly turn. Physically and mentally abused by her husband and his family for so long, her health started to fail. Her family brought her home to recover. Her petition, which is available online, states: ‘Her husband and his family not only subjected her to cruelty (including physical abuse and administration of drugs that caused her memory to fade, kept her unconscious, and eventually made her critically ill), but also demanded additional dowry in the form of a car and cash which her family was unable to provide.’

Within a few months she received a talaqnama from her husband. That is when the battle catapulted itself from within the house and into the public arena. Sitting at the edge of the divan, Shayara Bano says, “Mere poore khaandan mein kissi ka talaq nahin hua hai. Triple talaq ke dwaara yahaan ke purush auraton ka bahut shoshan karte hain. Kahin bhi keh dena, gusse mein. Isse auraton ki life ek dum khatam ho jaati hai. Yeh India mein hi hai. Aur Muslim samaaj mein khatam ho gaya. Bharat mein bhi khatam ho jaana chaahiye (In my whole family no one is divorced. With triple talaq, Indian men exploit women. They say it whenever they want, in a fit of anger. Life suddenly ends for the woman. This does not happen even in Muslim countries. It should end in India too.”)

The petition states that in many Islamic nations, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iraq, triple talaq has been restricted or banned. It states, ‘The social, economic, humanitarian and moral significance of making attempts over a period of time to reconcile marital disputes is widely prevalent… It is submitted that religious officers and priests who propagate, support and authorise practices like talaq-e-bidat, nikah-halala, and polygamy are grossly misusing their position, influence and power.’

Chennai-based Faizur Rahman, secretary general of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought, who has written deeply on the issue of triple talaq, says, “The truth is, the concept of instant triple talaq is alien to Islam as it goes against the very spirit of the procedure of divorce laid down in the Qur’an.”

While activist groups across the country voice their support for Shayara Bano, she has to deal with dissenters closer at hand. Arshad Ali takes out a newspaper clipping from a large stack of carefully filed legal documents and hands it to us. A highlighted two-column article at the bottom of the front page of a Hindi newspaper reads, ‘Talaq ka haqq sirf aur sirf mard ko (Only men have the right of talaq’). For Arshad Ali and his family, this article hits home as the mufti quoted in the article is from Kashipur. Mufti Munajir Husain says in print, “Nowhere in the Holy Qur’an are women assigned the right of talaq. Only men have that right. Those who do not believe that are not Muslims... Shayara Bano is wrong to go to the Supreme Court.” Ali gestures to his other friends in the room and asks, “Aren’t we all Muslims?” In light of what the local mufti has decreed, the statement from Shayara Bano’s petition rings even more true: at times ‘maulvis have thwarted reforms in the Muslim community in India and it is imperative for the judiciary to step in’.

For Arshad Ali and organisations such as BMMA that have raged against triple talaq, the issue goes back to the socioeconomic status of Muslim women in the country. He says, “If you are not educated, you will believe in anything. Those who have studied can follow the path they believe in and can argue with those who try to spread wrong information.”

Late last year, BMMA published a paper titled ‘No More Talaq, Talaq, Talaq: Muslim Women Call for a Ban on an UnIslamic Practice’, which provides hundreds of case studies of women who have received the triple talaq. The paper clearly highlights the arbitrariness and injustice of the practice.

The travails of Shayara Bano’s own story will get muffled in the noise that surrounds this case. She will be held up as an exemplar of an individual who took on patriarchy and the establishment, but few will ask what happens to her next. She has not seen her children, Irfan and Muskaan, for over a year. Her husband has denied her all contact. She hasn’t even spoken to them on the phone, and their absence torments her. The cloud that hangs over is not that of a wife separated from her husband but of a mother denied her children.

What future does she see for herself? “Is baare mein kuchh keh nahin sakte (I can’t say anything about that),” she says. She and her brother want to win the case. Her brother would like to see a reconciliation between husband and wife, but feels that it is increasingly impossible. In her heart of hearts, it would seem Shayara Bano wants to return to her children and also her husband.