Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of hue and cry among many Indian Muslims, men in general and clerics in particular, including the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and some socio-religious organisations claiming to represent Muslims, against “politicising the issue of triple-talaq”. People have posted fiery lines on social media advising against “any interference into matters of religion”.
“I reject Uniform Civil Code. I support Muslim Personal Law” is one of the Facebook profiles some people have adopted to register their protest. And some even went to the extent of equating attempts to publicise the matter, calling it a “nefarious design to annihilate Islam”. In fact, some so-called liberals have also jumped in to join the band wagon as advocates of “freedom of religion”.
Well, I do not think Islam as a religion is so weak that its foundations will be shaken by a very welcome decision of adopting a uniform civil code that provides justice, equality and dignity for all – notions that Islam has no conflict with. Abolishing an ages-old tribal practice such as triple-talaq, which finds no authenticity in the religion itself, is indeed a commendable step in this regard.
The practice of triple-talaq is not just regressive and anti-women, it finds no historical basis in Islam. There is no evidence either in the Qur’an or in the hadith (‘tradition’) that supports its validity in the religion (Note that a number of spurious “traditions” have been claimed to be of Islamic origin but these need to be questioned and rejected wherever necessary).
Triple-talaq is a tribal practice inherited and adopted by certain sections of the Islamic world which was packaged in a religious garb just like a number of similar other cultural/tribal practices, such as female genital mutilation, etc. Thankfully the practice has been abolished in much of the Islamic world. Now that the Muslim women of India have finally spoken and spoken so vocally, it is high time the nation comes forward with its full support to reject this outdated practice.
It needs to be highlighted that triple-talaq is among several other lies that were propagated by many clerics over generations in the name of “Shariah” and “Islamic law” to keep Muslim women permanently subjugated and deprive them of a dignified life that would otherwise be guaranteed to them had the very essence of the idea of Ijtehad – continued reform and reinterpretation – been implemented in practice as one of the central tenets of Islam.
It is no surprise that the Islamic world often gets mired in controversies in the context of women’s issues, when their role in the public domain is very restricted. Women find it extremely challenging and near impossible to have a powerful and effective voice on matters related to social and religious practices that primarily affect them. While few steps that could allow their participation in the matters of religion are taken, gender-segregation makes things much worse and often impossible. Thus, their role in the Fiq’h, the Islamic jurisprudence, which is literally and technically based on “deep understanding and broad consensus”, is simply non-existent. Consequently, most of the “Islamic” rules and regulations, often termed as “Shariah Law”, are neatly anti-women – both in structure and in practice.
All male board
Now, take a look at the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which claims to be representing the Muslim voice of India as far as matters related to religion are concerned. Last time I checked, all the 41 members of the Board were men, few with any formal education other than in the religious schools they follow. Furthermore, while all the AIMPLB members are primarily from the majority Sunni community, a great majority of these belong to the Deobandi sect (notorious for its extremist interpretations of Islam), and exclude Ahmadis. I even went to do some research and checked the AIMPLB website – page by page. I read about a number of events, saw scores of pictures, read about the organisers of various events – not a single woman is visible anywhere. This is no coincidence but a deliberate attempt to “keep women where they belong” – behind the four walls of the house, taking care of children, of their men, doing their household work, wrapped in layers of fabric concealed from any outside influence, being good wives, and serving their other needs. And it is also reflected in the shrinking space for women in religious places, mosques, and Sufi shrines where more and more women feel increasingly unwelcome and often give up and stay away.
Here I don’t need a lesson on “emancipated Muslim women” – that is a personal journey and a very difficult one for every single Muslim woman who sets her foot firm and refuses to bend against social and cultural pressures. Many people will try to justify the Muslim Personal Law on flimsy grounds and give some examples of women’s participation and their role in the social and political issues. But, let’s be honest. How strong is the impact? Equal rights for women are not a given but an ongoing struggle. No doubt there are many progressive Muslim men out there but more often than not they have little say on matters that affect a large number of women. Few of them are decision-makers as far as matters pertaining to religion are concerned. In fact, a great majority of Muslim men would literally have nightmares if their women were to be their equals. This is not to imply that men of other religions are any better in their treatment of women, but here we are talking about Muslims.
As far as Fiqh (“Islamic jurisprudence”) is concerned, “deep understanding, expansion and reinterpretation” (foundational goals of Fiqh), can only be achieved through “consensus” – the very basis of the human understanding of Shariah (the divine law). It is because the AIMPLB is inherently pro-men (and, therefore, anti-women), not only in its composition but also in its themes and objectives that an independent body of All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board had to be created but the latter have unfortunately failed to garner any significant support from the government of India or from the Muslims (read “Muslim men”) in general. In fact, few Muslim men are willing to even treat the Board with any seriousness. Women’s voices are often muzzled and at the most ignored as far as religious issues are concerned. There can be no consensus in Fiqh on matters primarily related to women without the complete involvement of women. As an all-male body, AIMPLB loses its validity and credibility in claiming to be the voice of the Indian Muslims in general and of Muslim women in particular.
Finally, the idea of “freedom of religion” cannot supersede nor should it be in conflict with individual freedoms, justice, liberty and equality. Fortunately, there is no conflict between Islamic jurisprudence and the notion of a uniform civil code both of which are in principle based on a board consensus and aim to provide dignity for all, including women.
The very fact that women aren’t given a representative voice in the Muslim Personal Law makes the body of AIMPLB unqualified to speak on behalf of Muslim women. Providing a national platform to such an undemocratic body and entitling it to determine the fate of half of the Muslim population of India is not only unfair but also unconstitutional.
The Board has no moral or constitutional right to represent all the Muslims of India. As an informed Muslim woman and as an Indian national, I support the uniform civil code and reject the Muslim Personal Law in its current form. I also reject any such law which legitimises loopholes that can be used as tools to continue women’s subordination and subjugation. Any attempt to scuttle the much awaited effort of providing justice and dignity to all Indian women amounts to pushing them in a path of continued hardship and heartache, and should be strongly resisted by every responsible citizen of the country. A healthy discussion on this topic will be the way forward.
Dr Sadaf Munshi is an academic, artist and writer based in the United States.