August 22 was the red letter day for women of India; Supreme Court had recognized their fundamental rights as being above the religious and social practices dictated by men and held that the growing practice of Muslim men going for an easy way to end their marriage by pronouncing talaq (divorce) three times in one go violated their right to equality.
As women in the country cutting across religious barriers celebrated this, it must be kept in mind that the fight was launched by five courageous Muslim women on behalf of the lakhs of others who had been abandoned and humiliated through instant triple talaq and without alimony. There are lakhs of Muslim women who continue to live in absolute awe of their husbands' authority; each fearing he could divorce her summarily even on the smallest of pretexts. There have been instances of women being divorced on the trivial issues like she not cooking tasty food, walking ahead of her husband and serious issues like insufficient dowry, sexual incompatibility, man’s extramarital affair and at times even in the heat of the moment like when husband is upset or in an inebriated condition.
With technology just a button click away, men have used SMSs, whatsapp or web calls to summarily and unilaterally end their marriages without liability of maintenance or compensation to the women.
According to Bharathiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), one of the petitioners seeking end of the triple talaq before the Supreme Court, most of the abandoned women are young and from economically weaker backgrounds. The divorce rate in this section was as high as 11.14% out of which those divorced through triple talaq or talaq-e-biddat (sinful divorce, in Arabic) were as high as 77.7%. The men-dominated All India Muslim Personal Law Board would always contradict these figures and claim these are unrealistic, much to their convenience.
The fight on behalf of Muslim women was taken up by five gutsy women, all but one highly educated ones. The first one was 35-year old Shayara Bano, a resident of Uttrakhand. She is a post- graduate in sociology and mother of two. Her marriage to a property dealer, Rizwaan of Allahabad, was not a rosy one. She was forced to go through six abortions by her husband’s family. One day, while she was on a visit to her parents to meet a doctor, she received a letter from her husband. The letter carried three dreaded words “talaq, talaq, talaq”; her world came crashing down; her two children were not allowed to meet her and she had been left in the lurch not knowing what to make of her life now.
Another victim of triple talaq who petitioned the court is Ishrat Jahan. 30-year-old Jahan, who hails from Bengal, had been married for 15 years. Mother of four – three daughters and a son –Ishrat was divorced by her husband Mutaza through a telephone call. It seems he just called her up; uttered three words talaq,talaq,talaq and hung up. He had taken another wife and also took away his children from Ishrat.
Afreen Rehman from Jaipur held an MBA degree; her parents got her married after finding a match through a matrimonial portal in 2014. Her marriage wasn’t happy mainly because of her in-laws’ attitude towards her. One day she was beaten up and she left for her parent’s home. Her marriage was less than a year old when her husband sent a letter through speed post to announce a unilateral end of the marriage.
Gulshan Parveen, a postgraduate in English literature, hails from Rampur. Mother of a son, Gulshan had received her three-lettered divorce on a Rs 10 stamp paper while she was at her parents’ home.
These women were joined by Farah Faiz, a lawyer fighting for Muslim women’s rights.
The judgment is a boon for women of all faiths which are yet to spell equality and justice for women. The new age Indian women had begun their struggle by questioning the centuries old ban on entry of women in Maharashtra’s Shani Shingnapur temple and later at the shrine of Sufi Saint Haji Ali. Such bans imposed by male clergy and religious heads reflected the discriminatory thoughts of those times.
Feeling emboldened by the court supporting them, women have since got together to challenge other religious and social customs that show them down, not as a full human being. Though Islam is more dogmatic as regards to women’s rights, the other religions too have not been kind to women. Though subtly, the Church diktats the dress code for brides during her wedding and to women worshippers during the mass. In fact Christian women in Kerala had to struggle for their right to property for long. Women clergy among clergy still work harder and enjoy lesser facilities and authority as compared to men. Hindu religion also discriminates against women; forbidding her from performing puja or entering sanctum sanctorum during menstruation period. The ritual of kanyadaan during a Hindu wedding, for example, is demeaning to women as it reduced her to a commodity that can be donated. The customary inheritance laws of many Hindu communities still discriminate against women, notwithstanding their legal right to equal share in parental property.
No society can grow with half its population feeling unhappy, disgruntled and wronged. In this era of technology that can get even the home bound women connected and exposed to the bigger world outside their homes, the aspirations for freedom would only grow and if religious patriarch don’t keep pace with the changing times, the social systems would collapse.
We have to keep in mind that winning the instant triple talaq battle is just the beginning of the struggle. Going by the blatant misogyny displayed by the Muslim clerics and leaders on television on the talaq verdict, it’s clear that men are not going to relent easily. Since the Supreme Court has asked the parliament to enact a legislation to ban talaq-e-biddat, the battle has turned political. Will the political parties play to the galleries to secure their vote banks while making a law to restore dignity of Muslim women or will they keep the debate sober focusing at undoing the injustices of the past?(Published on 28th August 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 35)