As we celebrate yet another Women’s Day, I have mixed feelings about the condition of women in our country. On the one hand, the grip of patriarchy is getting tighter as is visible in all spheres of life. Equally there are an increasing number of women who are standing up to injustice, violence and subjugation. And Muslim women too have joined the fight against patriarchy in the last decade or so.
Collective emotions, collective experiences
The legal victories in the Haji Ali women’s entry case and the triple talaq case have become important milestones in Muslim women’s struggle for gender justice. These legal battles were won because of sustained efforts and engagement by thousands of women who wanted to be heard and to be treated as equal human beings. Women have been unequivocal – I am an equal Muslim and equal citizen of India. Personally, I look at this journey with excitement and a degree of exhaustion. There have been many factors that contributed to the excitement and equally to a sense of exhaustion. For me, it began as a personal journey to freedom and self-worth in 2002 in Gujarat.
Triple talaq, polygamy, halala have been prevalent amongst Indian Muslims despite the Quranic injunctions 1400 years ago. The legal discrimination of Muslim women in family matters is singular. It is clear that abolition of triple talaq should be the first step in the reform of Muslim personal law.
The collective thinking, collective experiences, collective emotions – the ehsaas, the collective energies and bonding of Muslim women for gender justice made it a fulfilling and enriching mission. We have come a long way from 1986 when a lone voice of Shah Bano was crushed by all – family, community, society, government. The Muslim women’s movement today is about making all of these forces accountable to gender justice injunctions of the Quran as well as the Constitution.
Triple Talaq: The first step to reform
Muslims have been living with poverty, educational and economic backwardness, social backwardness and political exclusion and manipulation. Despite constitutional safeguards, India’s largest minority is marginalized on all human development indices and suffered in communal violence. Not surprisingly, nobody wants to talk about Muslim women. But that changed with Muslim women themselves deciding to take up their own issues democratically through education, dialogue, campaign, legal battles and pressuring the rulers. Our initial years were devoted fully to activism around education, livelihoods, relief for riot-affected families, various Sachar Committee recommendations, draft family law preparation.
We have come a long way from 1986 when the lone voice of Shah Bano was crushed by all – family, community, society, government. The Muslim women’s movement today is about making all of these forces accountable to gender justice injunctions of the Quran as well as the Constitution.
It was around 2009 and 2010 when a few thousand women had enrolled as members and we had made some ground level impact when women started coming to us with the complaints about being thrown out of homes after unilateral instant divorce or triple talaq. We could not continue to work on obtaining educational scholarships or filling widow pension forms while shutting our eyes to this social malaise. It became clear that abolition of triple talaq should be the first step in the reform of Muslim personal law. The triple talaq petition reached the Supreme Court much later in 2016. The ground was prepared by ordinary women who were active towards social reform and education. Post cards by thousands of women were mailed to the President of India in 2010. Over 500 women survivors from different states participated in our national conference calling for the abolition of triple talaq in 2012. In a national study conducted by us in 2015, an overwhelming number of women called for the abolition of triple talaq.
Women want change
The excitement was about women coming together and demanding change. The excitement was about women challenging patriarchal male authority over religion. They were rejecting the misinterpretations and distortions that had led to triple talaq becoming the most common method of divorce in the community. Women questioning triple talaq were aware that it is not sanctioned by the Quran. They were educated about the Quranic stress on dialogue, mediation and arbitration between husband and wife. They were educated about the Quranic injunctions of justice and fairness in divorce. They knew that they were entitled to justice as Muslims and as citizens and therefore the petition to the SC. The support of the Indian public to the triple talaq campaign was truly heartening. We were flooded with phone calls, emails, speaking invites, donation offers by several unknown Indians. Not only did more and more Muslim women and men join the struggle, an overwhelming support came from those from different faith backgrounds. Several women in the media made it their personal cause as did so many men!
Muslim women have themselves decided to take up their own issues democratically through education, dialogue, campaign, legal battles and pressuring the rulers.
This excitement was not shared by all; this included some secularist friends. They kept saying, where is the need to enter religion when the Constitution offers equality to all! It was hard labour to explain to them that the same Constitution also allows for right to religious freedom. They failed to appreciate the social and cultural milieu in which ordinary women live. Indeed the patriarchal forces such as the personal law board would have been the happiest if we were to cede the religious realm to them like before.
And then there were the cynics
There were personal attacks. They did not spare my husband and my son whom they dragged in whatsapp messages that were circulated widely. My husband being a Hindu and my son a self-declared atheist on Facebook proved to them that I am was a puppet of the RSS. The Congress and other so-called secular political parties maintained silence or ambiguity on the triple talaq issue. The BJP’s desire to take credit for the abolition of triple talaq is not surprising given the fact that none of the political parties cared to come out openly against triple talaq!
Women, questioning triple talaq were aware that it is not sanctioned by the Quran. They were rejecting the misinterpretations and distortions that had led to triple talaq becoming the most common method of divorce in the community.
There were two legal scholars who went out of their way to prove us wrong and to trivialise our struggle. They made long-winding convoluted arguments to prove that triple talaq was a non-issue and women in polygamous Muslim marriages were much better placed as “wives” than just being a mistress. One of them kept on harping on the injustice to Hindu women in the Hindu marriage law. Pray, why don’t you work to build a movement of Hindu women against injustice in Hindu marriage law? It is easy when the adversary is known such as members of the personal law board with their patriarchal worldview. But when so-called scholars labour hard to preserve the male status quo and to undermine the efforts of women, their bluff must be called. Needless to say, they could not deter the women who were speaking out based on their lived experiences and were keen to change their reality.
No time is the right time for gender justice
Lastly but importantly, a huge brouhaha was made over the fact of the BJP government being at the Centre. But the question of gender justice for Muslim women within the family predates 2014. Besides no time is the right time for gender justice! Triple talaq, polygamy, halala have been prevalent amongst Indian Muslims despite the Quranic injunctions 1400 years ago. Muslim women have been demanding justice much before 2014. The legal discrimination of Muslim women in family matters is singular.
When so-called scholars labour hard to preserve the male status quo and to undermine the efforts of women, their bluff must be called.
Parliament passed multiple laws, beginning in 1955 to protect Hindu women in marriage and the family. The Parliament also enabled amendments in marriage and divorce laws to benefit Christian women. India’s elected representatives have failed Muslim women and indeed all women by the non-enactment of a Muslim family law. Politicians, religious leaders and legal scholars who jumped into the fray post 2014 were nowhere in the picture when Muslim women were struggling for justice all these years.